How Much Did Jim Morrison Know about William Blake?

Everyone knows the Doors are named for the doors of perception – but that phrase comes from Aldous Huxley’s book on hallucinogens as well as from Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Morrison quotes ‘Auguries of Innocence’ in ‘End of the Night’ on the first Doors album: ‘Some are Born to sweet delight / Some are Born to sweet delight / Some are Born to Endless Night’. But that is the only direct Blake reference in Morrison’s recorded lyrics. Is that it? Did Morrison only do a little vague and random dipping into Blake? Or was Ray Manzarek right to think of him as an authority on the visionary poet? ‘I wonder what Blake said… Too bad Morrison‘s not here. Morrison would know’ (Manzarek, as recorded by Joan Didion in The White Album, passage reprinted in Rocco’s Doors Companion, p. 13).

In interviews, Blake seems to come readily to Morrison’s lips. He demonstrates a basic acquaintance with famous lines from Songs of Innocence and of Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In a 1968 interview with John Carpenter for the Los Angeles Free Press, he remarks (without attribution), ‘Opposition is true friendship, ha!’ (in Hopkins, Lizard King, p. 205). Speaking with Lizze James in 1969, Morrison’s thoughts go to Blake when asked about the ‘apocalyptic vision’ of his work on the first Doors album (1966-7): ‘It used to seem possible to generate a movement… they’d all put their strength together to break what Blake calls “the mind-forged manacles” … The love-street times are dead’ (Lizard King p. 279). They also turn to Blake when the topic is erotic mysticism: ‘Blake said that the body was the soul’s prison unless the five senses are fully developed and open. He considered the senses the “windows of the soul”. When sex involves all the senses intensely, it can be like a mystical experience’ (p. 281). Though initially this seems not the most subtle reading of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell‘s cleansing of the doors of perception, it picks up on the implications of ‘sensual enjoyment’ (MHH 14) carried forward into Visions of the Daughters of Albion, and detects Blake’s odd slide from windows to doors as transparent inlets of perception. A fuller knowledge might underlie these fairly obvious quotations: Blake actually does call the senses ‘This Lifes dim Windows of the Soul’ in The Everlasting Gospel, just before the more widely known lines, ‘And leads you to Believe a Lie / When you see with not thro the Eye’.

Manzarek, in his autobiography Light My Fire: My Life with the Doors, recounts his memories of Jim Morrison’s book collection: ‘very eclectic, but also standard… we were all reading the same thing… Except Jim had more! A wall of books’ (p. 78-9). Though he doesn’t list Blake specifically, his omission from such an impressively full, typically bohemian bookshelf would be remarkable. Beyond his own collection, Morrison could also find Blake in the libraries of the colleges he attended. When Howard Smith asked him his opinion of the value of university, Morrison says, ‘If they have a good library, that’s about it… the main key to education is reading, basically. You could do the same thing on your own’ (in Lizard King p. 296). At UCLA, as well as having access as a student, he would have spent steady time in the stacks when he worked in the Powell Library from early 1964 until he was fired in August of the same year for lack of punctuality (as Davis narrates in his biography, p. 55). Unfortunately the library no longer has shelf lists to recreate the holdings from that time, but a look at the current collections shows that there may have been a good deal of Blake available: of pre-1964 editions, not only the Complete Writings edited by Geoffrey Keynes (1957), but also Poems of William Blake edited by W. B. Yeats (1938), Prophetic Writings of William Blake edited by Sloss and Wallis (1926), and further selections by Amelia H. Munson (1964), John Sampson (1960), Alfred Kazin (The Portable Blake, 1946), and Frederick E. Pierce (1915), plus in the way of criticism, The Divine Vision and Ruthven Todd’s Tracks in the Snow. The reference department at UCLA’s College Library were very kind in response to my queries, and shared the information that the Powell building housed the undergraduate College Library collection as well as the research collection while a new library was built for the latter (completed in 1964). My assumption, without being able to check acquisition dates, is that pre-1964 items in the College Library collection would have most likely been found in the Powell Library stacks where Morrison shelved books. (If the search is opened beyond the undergraduate to the research collection, there are of course many further possibilities; for instance, that is where Frye’s Fearful Symmetry is.)

Morrison may have done some purposeful Blake research in the library, since he wrote an essay on Blake for an English class in Romanticism. This was English 154, Spring Semester 1965. I am very grateful to the instructor, Fredrick Burwick, for sharing his memories of teaching Morrison. (And I want to credit and thank David Fallon for pointing out the connection.) Burwick recounts, ‘He showed me a paper on Hieronymus Bosch that he had written for a community college in Florida and wanted to know whether he might submit a similar paper on Blake. His Bosch paper focused on the visionary/hallucinatory experience of The Garden of Earthly Delights. I agreed that a similar approach to Blake’s illuminated works was possible. I remember that he wrote on MHH and referred to other Blake plates, but I can’t recall any details of the work he submitted’. One of Morrison’s main interests in Blake, then, was vision and intoxication: ‘Jim asked me if Blake did drugs. I told him that I didn’t think so’. (Burwick later wrote about Blake’s imagery of ergot poisoning from rotting grain – there is lysergic acid (LSD) in ergot fungus – in his book, Poetic Madness and the Romantic Imagination (1996), a fascinating and thoroughly researched account of Blake’s insight into the significance of this illness, and its dual potential of vision and suffering.)

It was in the previous summer, 1964, while Morrison was working in the library, that he began to write in his ‘Notes on Vision’ notebook that became The Lords, half of The Lords and The New Creatures, the one book of his poetry to be commercially published in his lifetime (by Simon & Schuster in 1969). Though it owes much to Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty and Rimbaud’s principle of the derangement of the senses, there are specific Blakean echoes. It owes much to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. There are formal parallels: The Lords is a hybrid collection of verse and prose, veering among literary composition, philosophical musing, sensory exploration, and cultural commentary. Morrison’s ‘Cure blindness with a whore’s spittle’ (p. 37) sounds like it could be a Proverb of Hell. A description of a ‘happening… in which ether is introduced into a roomful of people through air vents’ breaks down the borders between audience and performer, while ‘the gas acts out poems of its own through the medium of the human body’ (p. 39), tempting comparison with Blake’s Illuminated Books as multimedia experiments in composite art, dominated by the expressive Human Form Divine (which sometimes inhabits the words themselves, especially in titles), and demanding active participation from their readers.

As the passage goes on, it becomes evident that not only form, but also concepts and vocabulary are shared with The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Morrison writes,

The aim of the happening is to cure boredom, wash the eyes, make childlike reconnections with the stream of life. Its lowest, widest aim is for purgation of perception. The happening attempts to engage all the senses, the total organism, and achieve total response in the face of traditional arts which focus on narrower inlets of sensation. (p. 39)

In The Marriage (5), ‘that calld Body is a portion of Soul discernd by the five Senses. the chief inlets of Soul in this age’. The aims of Blake’s artistic project are also described in terms of washing, purging, and bringing about ‘an improvement of sensual enjoyment’:

This I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite. (MHH 14).

Morrison’s lines,

When men conceived buildings,
and closed themselves in chambers,
first trees and caves (p. 36)

are comparable to Blake’s lines following the cleansing of the doors of perception: ‘For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern’ (MHH 14).

As well as the resemblances to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a passage on shamanism in The Lords makes use of the phrase ‘mental travels’, suggesting Blake’s poem ‘The Mental Traveller’. There is also a distinctly Blakean physical and metamorphic version of expanded perception in The Lords.

The eye looks vulgar
Inside its ugly shell.
Come out in the open
In all of your Brilliance (p. 24)

recalls the ‘two little orbs… fixed in two little caves / Hiding carefully from the wind’ in Blake’s Book of Urizen (11:13-15; also see Milton 3:15-16, and Four Zoas Night IV 54:21-2), and the apocalyptic ‘Expanding Eyes of Man’ that ‘behold the depths of wondrous worlds’ in The Four Zoas (Night IX 138:25; also the ‘eyelids expansive as morning’, Four Zoas Night VI 73:36).

In the summer after working in the library and taking the Romanticism course, Morrison threw away all of his notebooks except for his recent work toward The Lords. The summer of 1965 was also the time when he lived on a roof in Venice, California, hardly ate but took plenty of acid, and began writing the songs that would be the spark of the Doors’ creation when he sang them to Ray Manzarek in their legendary encounter on the beach.

secondary sources:

Davis, Stephen. Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend. New York: Gotham, 2005.

Hopkins, Jerry. The Lizard King: The Essential Jim Morrison. Revised and Updated. London: Plexus, 2006.

Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009. First published 1954, 1956.

Manzarek, Ray. Light My Fire: My Life with The Doors. New York: Berkley Boulevard, 1999.

Rocco, John M. The Doors Companion: Four Decades of Commentary. London: Omnibus, 1997.

L. A. Woman, A City Yet a Woman: Blake, Jim Morrison, and Prophecy

Morrison, ‘An American Poet’, and ‘English Blake’ are popularly espoused as voices of their nations. Both saw themselves as prophets, claiming at least to comment on and at most to influence the political and cultural events surrounding them. As part of their prophetic personae, they both invented new lineages for themselves, mystically adopting chosen ancestors that would tie them tightly to the kind of historical and creative inheritance they wanted for themselves and their countries.

Morrison tells a powerful memory of childhood trauma in ‘Dawn’s Highway’, one of the poems he recorded on his last birthday (it was put to music by the surviving Doors on An American Prayer):

Me and my – ah – mother and father – and a grandmother and a grandfather – were driving through the desert, at dawn, and a truckload of Indian workers had either hit another car, or just – I don’t know what happened – but there were Indians scattered all over the highway, bleeding to death.
So the car pulls up and stops. That was the first time I tasted fear. I musta been about four – like a child is like a flower, his head is just floating in the breeze, man.
The reaction I get now thinking about it, looking back – is that the souls of the ghosts of those dead Indians… maybe one or two of ’em… were just running around freaking out, and just leaped into my soul. And they’re still in there.

Morrison’s personal mythology here is an attempt to attach himself to the shamanic traditions of native Americans, and also to opt for a more ‘authentic’ American identity than the one of oppressive white power that his biological lineage dictates (considering his father was an admiral in the US Navy, and very much involved in Vietnam).

In Milton, Blake describes becoming one with John Milton, Britain’s most imposing national poet:

The first I saw him in the Zenith as a falling star,
Descending perpendicular, swift as the swallow or swift;
And on my left foot falling on the tarsus enterd there;
But from my left foot a black cloud redounding spread over Europe
(Milton 15[17]:47-50)

Milton had used his writing talents to support the English Revolution (including defending the regicide), and suffered for holding to his beliefs in the Restoration. Blake is asserting radical political authority as well as literary prowess by identifying with Milton.

Blake’s possession by Milton apparently has wide repercussions (‘spread over Europe’ – like Morrison, Blake is writing in wartime). The most conspicuous appearance of Morrison’s recurring lines, ‘Indians scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding / Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind’, is in ‘Peace Frog’ on Morrison Hotel, a prophetic, apocalyptic song with its own specific geography: ‘Blood on the streets / in the town of New Haven’, where Morrison had become the first rock star to be arrested on stage (as Fong-Torres notes, p. 112). Like Blake, he takes elements from his own biography and mythologizes them on a global and cosmic scale. And like Blake he creates catalogues of places to illustrate the national reach of his prophecy: ‘Blood in the streets / of the town of Chicago’, ‘Blood stains the roofs / and the palm trees of Venice’, ‘The Bloody red sun / of phantastic L.A.’. In such a visionary city, he combines literal and figurative geography: ‘blood on the streets / runs a river of sadness’, and most remarkably, ‘The river runs red down / the legs of the city’, recalling Blake’s imagery of birth trauma and miscarriage (in Morrison’s notebook these verses were titled ‘Abortion Stories’, according to Jerry Hopkins in The Lizard King, p. 129). Compare also the ‘unborn living living dead’ of ‘The Unknown Soldier’, and

Catacombs
Nursery bones
Winter women
growing stones
Carrying babies
to the river

in ‘The Soft Parade’. However, the lines could also suggest loss of virginity (which has revolutionary force in the case of Orc and the Nameless Shadowy Female in the Preludium to America); or menstruation as the simultaneous potential of fertility and infertility, life and death; or indeed human sacrifice as practiced by women in Jerusalem. ‘Blood hath staind her fair side beneath her bosom’ (Jerusalem 67:43) in the extended narrative of the Daughters of Albion ‘drunk with blood’ (Jerusalem 68:12), while for Morrison the blood is also the woman’s as victim:

Blood! screams her brain
as they chop off her fingers
Blood will be born
in the birth of a Nation

These lyrics are juxtaposed with a parallel set dominated by the repeated line ‘She came’: female orgasm is apocalyptic and violent for Morrison as it is for Blake at the end of The Song of Los, where

The Grave shrieks with delight, & shakes
Her hollow womb, & clasps the solid stem:
Her bosom swells with wild desire:
And milk & blood & glandous wine
In rivers rush & shout & dance,
On mountain, dale and plain (7:35-40)

In ‘Peace Frog’, and more clearly in ‘L. A. Woman’, Morrison also creates ‘a City yet a Woman’ (Four Zoas, Night IX:223) as Blake does in the figure of Jerusalem, with a kind personification which perceives both simultaneously – ‘I see your hair is burning / Hills are filled with fire’ – and mixes both, blurring external and internal – ‘Drive through your suburbs / Into your blues’. (Note how personification is used toward social commentary: the suburbs are a direct route to depression.) They draw on a collective origin in Biblical prophecy, and partake of its depiction of Israel as a combination of innocent wife and abandoned harlot: ‘Are you a lucky little lady in the city of light? / Or just another lost angel’. Like Blake’s persecuted Jerusalem, ‘Never saw a woman so alone’. (Oothoon also, as rejected but righteous harlot / wife, and as ‘the soft soul of America’ (Visions of the Daughters of Albion 1:3), is a precursor of ‘L. A. Woman’.)

Both Blake and Morrison proceed from this kind of imagery to imagery of male power: as in Blake the call, ‘Awake! Awake Jerusalem! O lovely Emanation of Albion / Awake and overspread all Nations as in Ancient Time’ (Jerusalem 97:1) leads to the predominantly phallic imagery of Albion’s awakening and reuniting with the Zoas, Morrison also moves from the L. A. Woman to the combination of resurrection and erection in his anagram, ‘Mr. Mojo Risin / Got to keep on risin’ / Risin’, risin”. Morrison sings, ‘L. A. Woman, you’re my woman’, while for Blake Albion’s rising also is catalyzed by union with the feminine personification of nation: ‘England who is Brittannia’, who is also Jerusalem, ‘enterd Albions bosom rejoicing’ (Jerusalem 95:22, 32:28). Morrison once said, ‘Los Angeles is a city looking for a ritual to join its fragments, and the Doors are looking for a ritual also. A kind of electric wedding’ (quoted by Federica Pudva, p. 133), like the ones evoked by Blake at the end of Jerusalem, and in the title of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

In her essay on Morrison and Blake, Federica Pudva points out that ‘London was for Blake a real city and at the same time a spiritual and symbolic reality, part of a broad divine vision’ while in Morrison’s vision, Los Angeles was ‘the umbilicus of the world’ and a microcosm of fragmented modern society (p. 132-3, my translation). Morrison called Los Angeles a ‘”genetic blue-print” for the United States’ (Lizard King p. 301). In a poem, ‘The Guided Tour’, he writes,

“I am a guide to the labyrinth”
city is inside of body made manifest
meat organs & electrical
power plants (American Night p. 143)

reminiscent, in reverse, of Los searching ‘the interiors of Albions / Bosom’, which involves coming ‘down from Highgate thro Hackney & Holloway towards London’ (Jerusalem 45[31]:3-4,14). Though the alienated modern city in Morrison owes much to Baudelaire and, as William Cook examines in detail, T. S. Eliot, Pudva finds that Morrison’s flâneur-like observation of prostitution in the city in his poem The Lords – ‘a ring of death with sex at its centre’ – is rooted in Blake’s ‘midnight streets’ and ‘Harlot’s curse’ in ‘London’ (p. 127-8).

We might see Morrison grasping more than content in the Songs if we take ‘People are Strange’ as commenting on the contingent voice of Songs of Experience and playing with the use of persona it offers.

People are strange
When you’re a stranger
Faces look ugly
When you’re alone

emphasizes the kind of interior realities which may contribute to the compulsion of the speaker in ‘London’ to ‘mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe’. ‘Women seem wicked / When you’re unwanted’ distils the combination of blame and pity in the ‘Harlot’s curse’ seen as infecting the city and blighting both birth and marriage with death. ‘Faces come out of the rain / When you’re strange’ is like the fragmentation of faces and voices without bodies in ‘London’, and ‘Streets are uneven / When you’re down’ is a direct statement on psychogeography. If the song was inspired by an enlightening Laurel Canyon sunrise, as Robby Krieger narrates (in Fong-Torres 95-6), then it is located (or projected) on Morrison’s home territory as ‘London’ is on Blake’s.

secondary sources:

Cook, William. ‘Jim Morrison: A “Serious Poet”?’ Literary Kicks: Opinions, Observations and Research. 12 July 2003. http://www.litkicks.com/JamesDouglasMorrison

Fong-Torres, Ben, and the Doors. The Doors. New York: Hyperion, 2006.

Hopkins, Jerry. The Lizard King: The Essential Jim Morrison. Revised and Updated. London: Plexus, 2006.

Pudva, Federica. ‘The Devil’s Party: Jim Morrison e William Blake’ Anglistica Pisana 2:1 (2005) 119-37.

On Klonsky on Blake

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.

David Dabydeen’s Slave Song

Today is the birthday of the poet, novelist, and critic, David Dabydeen, who was born and raised in Guyana before coming to Britain to study, reading English at Selwyn College, Cambridge. Dabydeen, who is a professor at the University of Warwick, has published several novels and collections of verse, as well as studies of eighteenth-century art and literature including Hogarth’s Blacks (1985) Black Writers in Britain 1760-1890 (1991).

Dabydeen’s strongest connection with William Blake lies in his 1984 collection, Slave Song, written in Creole and using Blake’s famous illustrations to John Gabriel Stedman’s The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796). Two of the four illustrations from the Narrative included in Dabydeen’s book are engraved by Blake, the other two by Francesco Bartolozzi who was also sometimes employed by Joseph Johnson, the radical publisher who hired Blake to complete some commissions for him in the 1790s.

Dabydeen describes Creole as a “naturally tragic language”, one formed by slavery, indentured labour and brutality, which is littered with obscenities like “fresh faeces” (Slave Songs, p.14). Unsurprisingly, the songs and poems in the collection depict a world where pain and labour are the norm, as in “Song of the Creole Gang Women” and “The Servant’s Song”, or where rape, murder and violence are commonplace (“For Mala”, “Slave Song”). Dabydeen does not wallow in dejection, however, and there are also moments of tenderness and beauty in the collection, as in “Guyana Pastoral” or “The Canecutter’s Song”.

The four illustrations from the Narrative are of a slave being broken on the rack, a rebel Negro, a female slave with a weight chained to her ankle, and a Surinam planter in his morning dress. The first, engraved by Blake, is the most shocking, depicting a slave bound to a wooden frame, one hand hacked off and his body covered with welts as another slave is forced to beat him to death. This is placed against the title poem, but the slave of that song also fantasises what his “gold flooding” cock could do – “Me still gat life!” – and that as long as such life continues there will be an Orcish, diabolic desire that refuses to submit to oppression for ever.

Although Dabydeen does not offer an analysis of the images he includes, among the most powerful of anti-slavery image (although Anne Mellor sees such illustrations as part of a pornographic obsession with slaves’ bodies), that Blake’s vision had a significant hold on Dabydeen’s accounts also becomes evident in another of his books, The Counting House (1996), set on the Albion Plantation in Guyana in the late nineteenth century. The sugar cane factories become the dark satanic mills of Victorian industry, a dark mirror of the British empire which maintains such economic slavery long after the ostensible slave trade had been abolished. While Mellor and some others often see in Blake an erasure of difference, the sublimation of black and white into a higher white empire of Jerusalem, the fact remains that few other poets have so celebrated opposition to slavery and consistently offered a voice to those who suffer its effects – and wish for the joy of release. As he wrote in a short lyric, “Merlin’s Prophecy”:

Tho born on the cheating banks of Thames
Tho his waters bathed my infant limbs
The Ohio shall wash his stains from me
I was born a slave but I go to be free

The Song of Deeds: David Jones and William Blake

Today is the anniversary of the birth of David Jones (1895-1974), a poet and artist born in London to a father from a Welsh-speaking family, whose Welsh heritage and Catholicism – as well as the work of William Blake – did a great deal to shape his art.

Jones entered Camberwell Art School in 1909, but his experiences during the First World War, where he served on the Western Front as one of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, led him to explore the catastrophic events leading up to this collapse of a civilisation. As he wrote in his long poem, The Anathemata, the growth of industrialisation and a global imperium that divided communities from their social, cultural and mythological histories – what Jones referred to as ‘The Break’ – had brought material benefits but dislocated those communities from their essential spiritual and moral compass.

Jones’s interest in Catholicism brought him into contact with Eric Gill, and he joined Gill’s Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic and later the artistic community at Capel-y-ffin. He worked as an illustrator on numerous books, including Gulliver’s Travels and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and produced two notable literary works, In Parenthesis (1937) and The Anathemata (published by Faber and Faber in 1952, although Jones continued to work on it for the rest of his life).

As with In Parenthesis, The Anathemata was an attempt to recuperate what he saw as a humanity sacrificed by science, technology and politics in pursuit of military victory, the effects of which had been to create a historically- and culturally-impoverished society. The Anathemata (meaning precious or sacred gifts) was Jones’s attempt to regenerate a republic of art and help create a British counter-culture.

Part of his project, and one reason why the text was never satisfactorily completed for Jones, was not simply to illustrate the past but literally illuminate his text and history. In this task Jones was greatly influenced by Blake, not merely to bring together the heterogeneous elements of his Anglo-Welsh cultural heritage (with roots in Latin and biblical culture), but also formally through imitation of Blake’s acts of repetition. Jones had been an early admirer of Blake, and his return to the mythographical accounts of the origins of Britain out of Geoffrey and Monmouth shared great similarities with the Romantic poet’s desire to locate the beginning and end of all things “in Albions Ancient Druid Rocky Shore”.

Blake, particularly in his prophetic works Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion and Milton a Poem, is not the only influence on Jones’s poem, for he also drew upon a long line of English poetry from The Dream of the Rood to Hopkins via Shakespeare, Milton and many others. In addition, he privileged the position of classical civilisation and chthonic mother religions in a way that marks out his ethos as very distinct to that of Blake’s. Nonetheless, his mythic map-making and delineation of space is often closer to that of Blake’s than any other poet, as when he writes:

Did Albion put down his screen of brume at:
forty-nine fifty-seven thirty-four north five twelve four west
to white-out the sea-margin east of northwards to confluent
Fal, and west over Mark’s main towards where Trystan’s
sands run out to land’s last end? (Jones 98)

This shares considerable similarities to Blake’s idiosyncratic description of Albion in his later books, for example in Milton:

There are Two Gates thro which all Souls descend. One Southward
From Dover Cliff to Lizard Point. The other toward the North
Caithness & rocky Durness, Pentland & John Groats House. (E123)

Yet while British (specifically Celtic) history is essential to Jones’s salvation history as it was, with a more particular English twist, to Blake’s, both poets emphasise the importance of the story of the gospels to that national story. If Blake’s radical Protestantism may have caused him to baulk at what he would have seen as Jones’s priestcraft, at the same time the profound similarities between their prophetic visions lay in their self-conscious sense of being Christian poets in Albion.

The nation’s favourite poem? Blake’s “The Tyger”

Yesterday (October 7) was the UK National Poetry Day. Among a few of the more pleasant surprises was the choice of Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, the short song “Eternity”:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise

One that also came high on various lists was Blake’s “The Tyger”. In particular, the radio channel BBC 7 repeated a programme first broadcast in 1996 to find the nation’s favourite poem. The selection of fifty poems was published as a book and CD at the time, and you can hear part of that selection at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007jrcf (only available to UK listeners, I’m afraid, and only for the next six days – so hurry if you want to listen again).

Of particular interest to me is that while it is an intense pleasure to listen to readers such as John Nettles and Emma Fielding read aloud such treasures as Andrew Marvel’s “To his Coy Mistress” and The Lady of Shalott, it is Blake’s “The Tyger” that is used to advertise the programme (it starts about 5:27 minutes into the broadcast for those short of time). While it was not necessarily the nation’s favourite, Blake’s powerful lyric from Songs of Experience has, I feel, a special place in readers’ appreciation that goes far beyond many other poems.

Some work that I have been doing recently indicates just how prevalent “The Tyger” goes into our consciousness. Roger Whitson has written on this site about the influence of Blake’s poem on the artist Korshi Dosoo, while the phrases “fearful symmetry” and “burning bright” alone are the titles of more than a dozen books, films, television episodes and comic books, while “Tyger, Tyger”, or “Tiger, Tiger”, is the name of anything from coffee bars and restaurants to karaoke booths and retailers of Buddhist charms and pendants.

The following is a by-no-means-comprehensive list of some of the works influenced by this poem, to indicate the range of its impact over the past few decades: in terms of the written word it provides the title to Tracy Chevalier’s Burning Bright (2007), as well as a section in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953 – see also Bradbury’s 1951 short story, “Here be Tygers”, which also echoes the chapter “Tiger! Tiger!” Kipling’s The Jungle Book), and Adrian Mitchell’s plays Tyger (1971) and Tyger Two (1994). The poem is referenced in Ed Bemand’s Beheld (2006), is alluded to in the tiger scene in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon (1986), lies behind the tigers that appear in Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972), is cited by Mina in David Almond’s Skellig (1998), is one of the creatures in Nancy Willard’s A Visit to William Blake’s Inn (1982) and is also the inspiration for Roger Zelazny’s short story “The Burning” in the Blakean anthology, Sparks of Fire (1982).

Graphic novels have drawn upon it, notably Chapter V of Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986-1987), which ends with a quotation of the first chapter, and in a 2006 edition of Garth Ennis and John Severin’s The Punisher the young Frank Castle hears the poem as describing the type of creature he will become. Of these (and many more) versions, perhaps my personal favourite remains John Cotton’s 1969 poem, “Tiger Caged”:

The tiger treads his cage.
400 lbs of muscle, bone
And thwarted purpose rage.

The sun shines through cage bars
On his barred coat the sun,
His tiger sun,
Shines through.

He does not look
At those who look at him.
They are without
The cage he treads within.

From what the bars divide
The side you are depends.
Each has his bars,
His limits and his ends.

The tiger treads his cage.
400 lbs of muscle, bone
And thwarted purpose rage.

There are many musical settings and adaptations of “The Tyger”, both classical and popular, and it is probably only second to “Jerusalem” in terms of the number of versions that have been released in the last century. The first arrangement was (I believe) composed by Sir Graville Ransome Bantock in 1908, followed in 1909 by a piece for voice and piano by Alan Gray. In 1913, Clarence S. Hill set Blake’s words to music as part of his cycle Three Songs by
Blake
, and other arrangements where “The Tyger” forms part of a more extensive treatment of Blake’s verse include Solomon Pimsleur’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1922), Benjamin Britten’s Songs and Proverbs of William Blake (1965), Theodor Hoffman’s The Lamb and the Tyger (1965), John Mitchell’s Visions from the Flame (1977), Hayg Boyadjian’s Song Cycle on Poems of William Blake (1978), William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1984), and Dmitry Smirnov’s Fearful Symmetry (1981, revised 2003), as well as many more occasional pieces by various composers including Sir John Tavener, Trevor Jones, and Giles Swayne.

In popular music, “The Tyger” has been at least, if not more, prevalent, with variants covering genres as diverse as country/folk (Greg Brown, Songs of Innocence and of Experience [1992], Nick Harper, Smithereens [1998]), progressive/experimental rock (Tangerine Dream, Tyger [1987], Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, Sonic Geology [1988]), Goth (Mephisto Waltz, Immersion [1998]), techno/electronica (Dead Nine, I Believe in Magic [2008]), and black/death metal (Thelema, Fearful Symmetry [2008]). Several bands have also taken their name from Blake’s poem, such as the Adelaide-based indie group Tyger, Tyger, and The Lamb and The Tyger from Gettysburg.

As such, while Blake’s lyric may not – in the end – be the nation’s favourite poem (at least not yet), I would argue that it is perhaps the most influential, certainly in the diversity of responses that it has inspired over the past century.

Print as Social Media: The William Blake Birthday Book

I was recently sent a copy of this delightful book by Felicity Bowers. Rather than provide a straightforward review I have decided to write about it in a slightly different format – partly because of the date of publication (2007) but also because, while reading it, several other thoughts on a broader theme became apparent to me.

The Birthday Book was published to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Blake’s birth and launched with an exhibition, “All that we See is Vision”, in November of that year at the House of William Blake in South Molton Street, where Blake lived in the early nineteenth century. The book also grew out of a long-established group, the William Blake Congregation, which was set up in 1986 by Simon Miles and which meets every year at Tate Britain to celebrate Blake’s birth. As such, the editors sent out invitations to artists and poets influenced by Blake who in turn spread the word to others, submissions then being brought together to produce the final book.

The result is a collection of 61 poems and illustrations printed in colour and taking Blake, directly or obliquely, as a source of inspiration. By and large images and poems alternate throughout the book, with plenty of pages combining both in a manner befitting Blake’s own method of production (and demonstrating just how much easier his task would have been had he lived and worked in the age of digital reproduction). Contributors include several famous figures, such as Adrian Mitchell, Michael Horovitz and Chris Orr, as well as plenty of others who may or may not be enthusiastic amateurs (or, at least, unknown to me). This is by no means a criticism of the project, as opening up Blake to the widest possible audience is of especial interest to me.

With regard to the images and poems themselves, the quality of such a collection is variable – as one would expect of a medley such as this – and the same is true of style, media and presentation. Some particularly attracted my attention: Jan Martin’s elegant, minimalist linocut, “Heaven in a Wild Flower”, is graceful and delicate, inviting the viewer to consider Blake’s imaginative infinity in the spaces bounded by a firm line; Roger Wagner’s untitled woodcut is reminiscent of Blake’s designs for Thornton’s Virgil and his watercolour “Albion Rose”, as well as alluding to elements of the fourfold vision in The Four Zoas and Jerusalem; Partou Zia’s painting, also untitled, depicting a woman painting in a book beneath a tree, was especially poignant for me, as I had met Partou – an Iranian born artist who had lived in Newlyn since 1993 – several times before her early death in 2008.

The contributions tend to be divided between those that reinterpret a particular text or motif from Blake – such as Brian Catling’s “Blake – The Flea”, Karen Camp’s “from Songs of Innocence – Night”, and Michael Chaitow’s “Energy is Eternal Delight” – and those that use Blake as a starting point for original compositions that echo Blakean themes and styles, or aspects of his biography, rather than specific minute particulars, such as Horovitz’s “Footnotes to Blake” or interFerence’s “To Whom It May Concern.”

The thoughts roused in me when reading through The William Blake Birthday Book were most intriguing in dealing with the social feeling that runs throughout the book. Social media may be a buzzword when dealing with online and digital platforms, but everything about this printed book – from its conception to the delicious jumble decoherent responses – points to how other formats may be social media. In particular, considering the conversations inspired throughout the pages of this little book, the editor’s acknowledgement of thanks to “all the artists and poets who responded with enthusiasm at short notice and accommodated our strange request to use handwriting in the age of email and to work at the same size as the printed image in the age of photography and digital scanning” is a tribute to the aspirations of this (itself delightfully strange) work inspired by one who described himself as “very much delighted with being in good Company.”

The William Blake Birthday Book is available from www.williamblakecongregation.co.uk. For more information on the Blake Congregation, including its next meeting at Tate Britain, visit williamblakecongregation.wordpress.com.

Editing and Reading Blake

Romantic Circles has just published another volume in its Praxis series, Editing and Reading Blake. Co-edited by Wayne C. Ripley and Justin Van Kleeck, this collection of essays looks at the profound challenges William Blake poses to both editors and readers.

Ripley’s introduction provides an overview of how editors have represented Blake over the past century and a half, including how the editors of the Blake Archive transform the possibilities of accessing Blake’s work.

Subsequent essays include those by editors of Blake, such as David Fuller, W. H. Stevenson, and Mary Lynn Johnson, that explore particular contexts and issues that emerge when engaging with Blake’s idiosyncratic texts. In addition, a series of essays by authors such as Rachel Lee and Justin Van Kleeck explore the special considerations that come into play when dealing with the requirements of new technologies.

As all editorial work requires mediation (and thus misrepresentation), so the notion that we can in any way read Blake’s works as he intended them is increasingly being recognised as “an editorial fantasy”. The collection also looks to future ways in which Blake’s works will address audiences.

Editing and Reading Blake can be read at http://www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/editing_blake/.

this work im doin i dont kno what it is

Philip Davenport, who guest-edited the recent issue of Ekleksographia dedicated to the inspiration of William Blake and entitled the Naked Tea Party, has been in touch to draw attention to another event with which he is currently involved.

“this work im doin i dont kno what it is” is a series of poems for the eye, combining visual objects with text and exhibited and hidden at the Henry Moore Institute Library. It will run from April 27 to June 7 and, in addition, Philip will be reader in residence on May 5.

“Heart-shape pornography” uses pornography as a found object to create a poem from a cross-section in fruit, while “Spreadsheets of Light” poems are written into spreadsheets which present moral dilemmas such as war crimes, celebrity or simple shopping as a tangled series of accountancy questions. These poems in turn are accompanied by eggshells in which fragments of the poems are written, emphasising the dual visual/literal nature of such objects.

Philip offers the following explanation of his work: “For the last decade I’ve made poems by collecting the words surrounding me and cutting them up to create poems. Journalism, porn, missing person notices, advertising, misheard conversations… I like being freed from using my own vocabulary to describe the world. I often work off the page, putting poems onto objects to complement ideas held in language. More recently, I find my own words, thoughts, self reappearing in the work. Many of these new pieces are about moral dilemmas, written as spreadsheets balancing up violence/love, fame/anonymity, and so on. I am struck by how often we try to explain the world using numbers, so that statistics have an authority they don’t really own. Here, I am totting up words as if they are numbers, trying to use the form of the spreadsheet to shape a poem.”

You can find more details of “this work im doin i dont kno what it is” at the Henry Moore Library web site.