In 2005, Patti Smith released a well-received book of poetry, Auguries of Innocence, that clearly indicated her affections for the work of William Blake. Some thirteen years later, the influence of Blake is once more evident in her latest collection, a series of seven prose-poems entitled The New Jerusalem, a handsome volume that has been released by the Nexus Institute in a bilingual, English and Dutch edition.
As well as the poems themselves, the book includes a series of illustrations, some of them reproductions of Smith’s own work such as her silkscreen print of South Tower Copper. The Nexus Library series (of which this is a part) has been an eclectic mix, including works by Mario Vargas Llosa and Garry Kasparov as well as Smith’s latest offering, and the images and texts are preceded by an essay written by Rob Riemen, founder of the Nexus Institute and a longtime admirer of Smith’s. It is his introduction that offers the clearest link to Blake as he recounts a meeting the two of them had in New York:
“I’ve just started on a poem that’ll be called The New Jerusalem.”
“The new Jerusalem! Like the prophesy at the end of The Revelation of St. John in the New Testament? Or like the visionary poem Jerusalem by William Blake?” I knew what a passion she had for that eighteenth-century poet and painter.
The immediate cause of the poem is actually the Trump administration’s move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem and thus the political act of recognising the “universal” city as the capital of Israel. Regarding literary influences, Smith herself goes on to list a long line, including Shelley, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Rimbaud, Andrei Tarkovsky, Allen Ginsberg – and the one that surprises Riemen the most – Jesus Christ. Indeed, the most interesting aspect of the introduction is Smith’s insistence of the interlinking of art and religion. She cites Wilde’s De Profundis to argue that Christ was an artist, and though it is a little more oblique she certainly knows of Blake’s repeated references to Christianity as art. This becomes part of Rieman’s argument, that we have replaced concepts such as soul, forgiveness, God and creation with innovation, popularity and consumption, and that all art – not merely that of the sixties and seventies – is an art of counter-culture. He cites the line from Blake’s Laocoön, “Art Degraded, Imagination Denied, War Governed the Nations”, but with regard to Patti Smith’s ideas he could also have quoted: “A Poet a Painter a Musician an Architect: the Man Or Woman who is not one of these is not a Christian”.
Riemens links this very Blakean conception of the Christian art of imagination to a counter-culture, operating both against the religious right of contemporary America but also current political trends of Trump’s America, which he mournfully compares to the tribulations of Lincoln, a party linked by name only across the centuries. Despite this somewhat melancholy end to the introductory essay, however, begin with a much more powerful tone: “Matter of Time”, the opening piece, is redolent of Ginsberg and, to my eyes, Yeats as well as Blake, as in the following passage:
The new time slouched then accelerated, visceral, chaotic, yet soon governed with a terrible lucidity. God usurped by Goal. Chemical commerce the prime directive. Cultivators initiated an unremittent engineering of nature. Controllers enforced a neo-naturalization, devoid of charity or human quality. Mercenary priests devised the moral center. Iron and steel rose from the face of the holy city, the earth shuddered, and it was holy no more.
The accompanying image, South Tower Copper, indicates that there is something about this passage that is explicitly imagist, of a tower rising in the literal city of Jerusalem to form the new embassy. At the same time, it is also clearly visionary, and while some of this verse literally sticks in the mouth as I read it (“enforced a neo-naturalization devoid of charity”) this is, perhaps, appropriate to the language of Ulro. Although not quite the howl of Ginsberg’s poem, there is something about this opening passage that is very reminiscent of his accusations against Moloch:
Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!
The first poem is also a retelling of Blake’s account, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, as to the origins of religion. Originally the preserve of ancient poets, who “animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged & numerous senses could perceive”, this inspired form of worship was soon abstracted into a system and “thus began Priesthood”. For Smith, modern priests are consumer culture, automation and mechanisation which drives us along as part of alienated modernity.
It is against such mechanisation, the Moloch of Ginsberg or Blake’s Ulro, that she is clearly writing her new Christian art, inspired very much by those two poets as well as the other artists and writers identified by Rieman. Thus in the second piece, “What manner of herald flies over”, offers a visionary account of a Caravaggio, not explicitly identified but probably his “Decapitation of St John the Baptist”, the marking of an end of an epoch of art that is followed by a scene of literal sacrifice of cattle: it is the institution of priesthood, but also – via it’s title, “Triumph and Deceit” – a mocking reference to the politics of the 45th President of the United States, who sacrifices truth in the service of power.
The style of all these and the remaining pieces – “The Alchemical Sovereign”, “Prophecy’s Lullaby”, “The Cup” and “A Time of Gifts” – is highly allusive. That it has its roots in a specific political event is not immediately evident without Rieman’s introduction, and these could be read as a series of narrative images that are frequently hauntingly beautiful in their simplicity:
In a dream, a woman gave me a small object, wrapped in brown tissue. It was a cup, delicate, near transparent, created long ago by one who had aspired to transform mute material into gold… He saw carnage and famine and the bleached arms of power. He saw himself shackled to futile ambition. None shall enlighten, he cried, save a nature I shall never know.
Throughout all the poems, allusions to Blake are frequently as delicate as the porcelain cup that Smith holds, but they are very much in evidence. As “Prophecy’s Lullaby”, drawing both on Blake’s famous declarations of prophecy and his Songs of Innocence, is especially redolent of his aphoristic style in works such as The Marriage and Auguries of Innocence. It is also a key to The New Jerusalem, a series of songs that are intended to revive that lost idea of a soul through the act of prophecy. The collection ends with Smith collecting up her writing tools as a voice inside her tells her that she is (re)born, a voice of “inexhaustible good”.
Patti Smith, The New Jerusalem, Amsterdam: Nexus Library, 2018. Bilingual edition, 76pp. €20, available from nexus-instituut.nl/en/publication/the-new-jerusalem.