I FIRST read Milton Klonsky on Blake better than 35 years ago. In the spring of 1974 I picked up issue # 20 of American Review, a mass-market paperback literary magazine that appeared from 1967 to 1977. The key attraction was the cover—a collage that much resembled Cal Schenkel’s strangely charming illustrations for some of Frank Zappa’s early albums.
As I skimmed the pages, what next caught my eye was an insert of illustrations that reproduced one of Robert Hooke’s original drawings of a flea as seen through the first microscope, as well as an engraving of a more fanciful flea by William Blake, made during one of those long evenings when he stayed up to all hours waiting for a “visitation” from any spirit who might feel the need to come to him. There was also a page from a Classic Comics adaption of Crime and Punishment. This insert accompanied a very long essay called “Art & Life: A Mennipean Paean to the Flea; or, Did Dostoevsky Kill Trotsky?” by Klonsky, someone I had never heard of. To even begin reading it, I had to look up “Mennipean,” which, as I learned, means a combination of styles and genres—including mixing verse and prose—often with a satiric intent.
In this essay, and a handful of others written in the same period, Klonsky indeed mixes prose and poetry—of Blake and Christopher Smart and others—but also centuries, genres, depths of relative seriousness, politics, science, art and, just as his title promises, life. Klonsky was a classic “Village Intellectual” who set out to know everything interesting there was to know—about drugs, drink, poetry, politics, and most memorably, the great poet artist William Blake. And, further, to combine all this in unexpected ways, give it some topspin, and serve it back with style.
Consequently, “Art & Life” isn’t a traditional essay; its progress has little to do with logical argument, clear development, or any other English 101 parameters for “expository writing.” Klonsky begins at the beginning, with Robert Hooke’s invention of the first microscope, the first close-up view of a flea; from there, via a satire on science he goes to Rabelais, from there to Swift, then to Samuel Butler, to Leeuwenhoek, who used his improved microscope to discover that the flea had tiny pests of its own, from there to Newton fleeing the plague of 1665, from Smart via Bedlam to Blake, to (disappointingly) Carlos Castaneda, to Trotsky’s killer and Dostoevsky, stopping along the way for scenes from his own early life and that of his friend Itchky, all the while locating the often purely tangential flea (and at times not even that, but substituting other tiny insects) somewhere in the field of wider vision if not exactly within the argument. This technique makes it seem as if Klonsky could connect anything with anything. His progression is equal parts arbitrary and magical. At one point in Art & Life, Klonsky even compares the development of the comic book form to the physical development of the flea:
At the time, coincidentally, I had been struck by the eureka that the enclosed form of the heroic couplet, after a morphogenesis as astonishing as the metamorphosis of a flea in its life cycle, had evolved into the boxes of comic strips.
All this flea-pivoted development by purely subjective associations moves by way of Klonsky’s mental flight, itself as erratic as any insect’s, and the flea-caliber leaps he makes, and winding up with this starry-eyed orthographic oddity:
MAN like a Flea shall
Jump from star to *
BY THE time I read through all these intellectual twists and turns, one of the few things that had become absolutely clear was that Klonsky was at his best on Blake. To make this clarity clearer: by “Klonsky on Blake” I mean two things: first, the obvious fact that Klonsky was writing about Blake; secondly, in the sense that “Klonsky on Blake” parallels “Kerouac on Benzedrine,” or “William James on nitrous oxide.” That is, Blake intoxicates Klonsky, helps him look at the world with sustained energy, and from new perspectives—with the added benefit of avoiding the damaging effects of less literary and artistic drugs.
In “W. B.4: or, the Seer Seen by His Own Vision,” Klonsky, in effect, compares the experiences of Blake and drugs, with drugs coming in a distant second. Klonsky begins by quoting these famous lines from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would
appear to man as it is, infinite.
Such perception, Klonsky points out, “must be personal. . . . [Has] to be seen by himself alone. There can be no other eyewitness.” Klonsky then offers a personal eyewitness account of an experience on a beach in the mid-Sixties, one which involved Blake from its beginning:
For better or worse, Blake’s words . . . were deeply etched on my mind one day about ten years ago . . . when for the first (and also the last) time I was turned on to LSD.
Klonsky’s experience wasn’t a true “bad trip,” but he didn’t enjoy it, suffering alternately from heat, cold and loneliness. Blake’s words, as he tells the tale, were with him all the while. As each revelation, each fresh-minted perception arose, Blake’s words arose as well, as if a rising airship were spontaneously generating banners out of the atmosphere to stream along behind it. Klonsky, as would be expected on a beach, saw “a world in a grain of sand,” saw things in their “minute particularity.” The drug eventually wore off, and Klonsky remembered nothing of his visions—except Blake, “whom I invoked to preside over the scene.”
In “W. B.4” Klonsky at times translates Blake’s beliefs into modern equivalents, as when he writes that Blake’s visitations with spirits are like “leptons and muons, quarks and anti-quarks, ‘strange’ or ‘charmed,’ of nuclear physics . . . mind-stuff, the stuff that dreams and concepts are made of, close to the margins of nonentity, and crossing over from time to time.” But these passages have the becalmed surface of considered intellectual parallels. Klonsky immerses himself in the deeps with more delight (for us and, it seems clear by his tone, for him as well), when he thinks his way through fields of thought closer to the provinces from which Blake draws his own inspiration. Here Klonsky takes Blake’s visionary countdown,
Now I a fourfold vision see,
And a fourfold vision is given to me;
’Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And threefold in soft Beulah’s night
And twofold Always. May God us keep
From Single vision & Newton’s sleep.
and observes that, “Blake’s fourfold method of envisioning reality seems to reflect, mirrored within his ‘inner eye,’ the fourfold hermeneutics devised by cabbalists as well as scholastic commentators upon the Bible, whereby the literal-historical, the allegorical, the tropological (or moral), and, finally, the anagogical (or spiritual) levels of meaning in Scripture are successively revealed.” Klonsky also goes on from here to point out how he feels Blake was influenced by the cabbalistic text the Zohar, and much more. . . .
BUT THESE are only some of the minute particulars of Klonsky on Blake. Klonsky worked him into all of his major essays for the last dozen years of his life, including an otherwise lackluster piece on McLuhan, “Mc2Luhan’s Message” (1968), which was the first of his essays that visibly reaches up toward his mature style. Minor pieces stretching back to the 1950s also allude to Blake’s work, but Klonsky isn’t really “on” Blake at this point; his intellectual sobriety lacks that inspirational *.
Klonsky died in 1982, but he hasn’t been entirely forgotten. He even appears as a character in Klonsky and Schwartz, a two-person play by Romulus Linney that debuted in 2005. “Schwartz” is Delmore Schwartz, the briefly brilliant, long-dimming poet who was Klonsky’s friend for years. In the play the Klonsky character suffers both from feeling that he is a lesser writer than his friend and from trying to keep Schwartz’s madness from killing him. But there is nothing of the particular Klonsky in the play; the characters could have been given any two writers’ names with even roughly the same relationship and nothing would be lost. Is it romanticizing, I wonder, to believe that Klonsky, a contrary and fiercely individual mind, would have preferred complete oblivion to a bland survival in name only?
BUT THIS will not be Klonsky’s fate as long as we continue to read Klonsky on Blake. Klonsky’s books can be found easily enough, some through out-of-print dealers, at least one through print-on-demand, and any Blake fan should seek out the two big Blake editions from the late 1970s, as well as the unfortunately titled A Discourse on Hip.
Reading these works, noting how Klonsky’s thoughts are ignited by Blake, the seemingly-simple question “Why?” discretely arises. Even those of us who return to Blake again and again—always finding our efforts rewarded, always finding more than we found the previous time—understand that not everyone appreciates Blake. It isn’t a question of “taste,” but of some affinity, some point where the tumblers in our aesthetic register are turned by some key or keys in Blake’s work. If we can’t say why this might be, we can perhaps understand some of the how. Critic George Steiner has written about the effect of encountering “classics,” defining a classic
in literature, in music, in the arts, in philosophic argument, as a signifying form which “reads” us. It reads us more than we read (listen to, perceive) it. There is nothing paradoxical, let alone mystical, in this definition. [A classic] will challenge our resources . . . ask of us: “have you understood?”; “have you re-imagined responsibly?”; “are you prepared to act upon the questions, upon the potentialities of transformed, enriched being which I have posed?”
All this may see perfectly obvious, still Steiner errs: he believes that there are certain works that at least should have this kind of reading effect on any of us who encounter them. This is because the recognized classics of the canon have this effect on him.
But Steiner’s list— Aeschylus, Joyce, Schoenberg, other names in the canon—leaves many of us cold. The truth is we each have to find our own artistic experiences that “read us.” Klonsky, for all his ranging across work from Classic Comics to T. S. Eliot to Christopher Smart, in the end is read best by Blake. Blake is “a classic” for Klonsky—as Klonsky is one for me. For my part I usually (with the occasional profound exception) am only skimmed by Blake. But among those many writers, authors, and artists perpetually awake on the shelves and walls around me, who perpetually stay up to all hours waiting for me to choose to be their visitation, Klonsky reads me better than almost anyone. And if he waits with Blake and his visiting flea at his side, I could never be read better.