A Japanese Joke – Peter Porter and William Blake

As with a number of people, I was saddened to hear about the death of Peter Porter on Friday, although gladdened that he had reached the marvellous age of 81. Born in Brisbane, Australia, Porter had moved to Britain in 1951 where, aside from a short return to Australia, he was to remain until his death.

There were some tragedies throughout his life but many more successes, including notable awards (the Whitbread Poetry Prize in 1988, the Queen’s Gold Medal in 2002, and many more) and nomination for the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry in 2004 and election to the Royal Society of Literature in 2009.

Porter’s interest in Blake was sometimes oblique and not necessarily an obvious one, although it was probably as a satiric poet that he responded more to the earlier Romantic. The only poetic allusion I know is that in one of the series of “Japanese Jokes” published in The Last of England (1970):

William Blake, William
Blake, William Blake, William Blake,
say it and feel new!

The series of haiku of which this is part forms a mocking response to writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Michael Horovitz’s collection, Children of Albion, published the previous year. Porter’s membership of The Group was hardly likely to make him amenable to the hippie re-appropriation of Blake taking place in the late sixties and early seventies and, among other things, The Last of England offered a different type of anger at the old country of England compared to the giddiness of Horovitz’s Blakean “Afterwords”.

However, while Porter could cite Blake mockingly, this was as much because of what he considered to be a misappropriation of the poet. In 1986 he wrote an introduction to a selection of Blake’s verse that was published by Oxford, with illustrations from Blake’s art. As one of the Illustrated Poets series, I remember owning a copy of this in my early twenties (now sadly lost as a search of book shelves revealed last night). It was a very compact book, which I would sometimes carry around and read. As such, Porter’s death is doubly sad for me: he wasn’t the writer who introduced me to Blake, but he did ensure that the Romantic was a companion for me in a very literal sense.

Peter Porter: February 16, 1929 – April 23, 2010.

Of the devil’s party – Swinburne and Blake

Today is the anniversary of the birth of the poet and critic, Algernon Charles Swinburne. Born in 1837, he was a close friend of the Rossettis who, with Alexander Gilchrist, did so much to renovate the reputation of William Blake in the nineteenth century.

Having become involved in the biography of Blake written by Gilchrist, eventually published as the Life of William Blake, Pictor Ignotus in 1863, Swinburne became so annoyed with the final results that he began work on his own version of Blake’s life and art that appeared in 1868 as William Blake: A Critical Essay.

The Essay was first intended as a commentary on the prophetic books that would serve as a supplement to Gilchrist’s Life, but it was extended between 1863 and 1868 to become an important document of Swinburne’s own aesthetic theory. It begins with a declaration that Blake was “born and baptized into the church of rebels” (8), a recurring theme throughout the essay which is divided into three parts: Blake’s life and designs, and two sections dealing with the lyrical poems and prophetic books. For Swinburne, Blake was knowingly of the devil’s party, combining aestheticism with rebellion:

In a time of critical reason and definite division, he was possessed by a fervour and fury of believe; among sane men who had disproved most things and proved the rest, here was an evident madman who believed a thing, one may say, only insomuch as it was incapable of proof. He lived and worked out of all rule, and yet by law. He had a devil, and its name was Faith. No materialist has such belief in bread and meat as Blake had in the substance underlying appearance which he christened god or spectre, devil or angel as the fit took him: or rather as he saw it one or the other side. His faith was absolute and like a pure fanatic’s: there was no speculation in him. (4)

Swinburne responded positively to Blake’s lyrical talents, being also important as one of the first critics to seriously consider the illuminated prophecies, largely passed over until that point. Thus, for example, of “The Tyger” he writes: “No possible effect of verse can be finer in a brief way than that given in the first and second stanzas of the first part of the poem. It recals [sic] within one’s ear the long relapse of recoiling water and wash of the refluent wave[.]” (119) For Swinburne, then, Blake is a devil motivated by faith to employ the weapon of art in an attack on social, moral and political corruption. As such, Swinburne was an important critic in the nineteenth century for preserving and drawing attention to the acerbic, satirical and intransigent elements of Blake’s verse.

Innocent Augur – Patti Smith’s Blake

If there is one thing that is incredibly heartwarming for me, it is the flowering successes of Patti Smith. Her passions for Blake (as well as so many other things – from the French Symbolists to the Beats via Robert Mapplethorpe) is well known, enduring and, on a personal level, extremely touching.

One thing that is particularly marvellous about her career is that it seems to have enjoyed a millennial resurgence. Smith, in my opinion, joins those ranks of women such as Louise Bourgeouis and Georgia O’Keefe who just get better as they get older, and it’s a damn fine sign that she is not being brushed out of sight in her sixties – if anything, is becoming more prolific and more admired. In 1999, a bitchy and thoroughly mean-spirited biography by Victor Bockris and Roberta Bayley was published which largely wrote her off as another has-been: the next decade proved them both completely wrong.

Very briefly, her list of accomplishments in the new decade has included various collections of her lyrics (such as Patti Smith Complete, which came out a year after the Bockris/Bayley hatchet job, followed up in 2006 by Complete: Lyrics, Reflections and Notes for the Future), some fine editions of her favourite poets, including a selection of Blake’s published by Vintage in 2007, a book of her 2008 exhibition of photography, Land 250, a much-awaited autobiography of her time with Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, recently published by Bloomsbury and which I haven’t had chance to read yet, and – last but by no means least for this blog – the 2006 collection of original poetry, Auguries of Innocence.

In some ways, though the Bockris/Bayley biography annoyed me immensely, it came at a time when Smith probably was something of a fading shadow. I’m sure I’m not the only young man to have half-fallen in love with the Mapplethorpe portrait of her on Horses – one of the very icons of cool itself, beautiful in all its androgynous perfection – but by the end of the 1990s I must be honest that she had drifted far away from the centres of my perception. In the past ten years, however, something of her true value has been appreciated by writers and film-makers, such as Stephen Sebring, whose 2008 film Dream of Life has attracted critical acclaim recently.

Smith’s influences cannot, and should not, be reduced to Blake – but her tousles and invocations of the Romantic should also never be forgotten. Her recent performance at Union Chapel, London, included a rendition of “My Blakean Year”, from the 2004 album Trampin’:

Brace yourself for bitter flack
For a life sublime
A labyrinth of riches
Never shall unwind
The threads that bind the pilgrim’s sack
Are stitched into the Blakean back
So throw off your stupid cloak
Embrace all that you fear
For joy will conquer all despair
In my Blakean year

You can read the lyrics in their entirety on her site, pattismith.net, but I shall end here with one of my favourite quotations from her, taken from a 2000 interview for Tate Magazine:

William Burroughs and I used to talk about this [the influence of Blake]. Burroughs was fond of Blake, and it was just so simple to him. He said that Blake just saw what others did not – and that it seemed like a good answer. I mean, Blake was so generous with his angels that even we can look at them now.

Zoapod 9: Blake’s Poems – Holy Thursday (Transcript)

Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast. To listen to the full podcast click here.

1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis Podcast 9, which follows from the last one in taking two more of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, in this case the two “Holy Thursday” poems. The parallel, contrary visions that Blake offered on many themes and motifs in each of these two books, Innocence and Experience is, of course, well known, and this podcast will explore that contrast in two of his best known lyrics.

2. In the early eighteenth century, a tradition began in which charity school children would attend a special service, this event being held at St Paul’s Cathedral between 1782 and 1871. As [Stanley] Gardner points out, these children were not destitute, nor rescued from “the lowest order of poverty”, but rather came from families of the “deserving poor”, and during the century as many of six thousand of them would attend a thanksgiving service which although it did take place on a Thursday, was never on Holy Thursday during Easter week or Ascension Thursday as is often asserted. The services provided an opportunity to educate these children under the auspices of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, but the event was, according to Gardner, more of a festival than a strictly disciplined procession.

3. Having witnessed one of these earliest festivals at St Paul’s, Blake was inspired to write one of his most famous lyrics:

Twas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean
The children walking two & two in red & blue & green

Grey headed beadles walkd before with wands as white as snow
Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow

O what a multitude they seemd these flowers of London town
Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own
The hum of multitudes was there but multitudes of lambs
Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands

Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among
Beneath them sit the aged men wise guardians of the poor
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door

4. While the couplets of this poem are familiar from a great deal of eighteenth century verse, Blake’s long, fourteener lines are unusual for the period, being more typical of Elizabethan poetry. They add to a stately rhythm, slowing and making the pace of the poem gentler and, as Gardner observes, Blake avoids any satirical intent in this poem. Although David Fairer has written, in relation to this particular poem, that “Blake’s texts lose their innocence more easily than most”, and [Andrew] Lincoln feels that “the exuberant tone of the poem is to some extent modified by a sense of anticlimax”, it is a mistake to assume that Blake is here being sarcastic about the “wise guardians” watching over the “flowers of London town”. That the final moral appears somewhat self-evident, even sentimental, to modern, experienced eyes does not mean that it was not heartfelt on the part of Blake who appears to have responded to this event with great devotion and humility, lavishing considerable care and attention on the more than usually elaborate border to the poem.

5. In the poem “Holy Thursday” included in Songs of Experience, Blake moves from a particular occasion in a specific setting to a general accusation against his contemporary society:

Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!

And their sun does never shine.
And their fields are bleak & bare.
And their ways are fill’d with thorns.
It is eternal winter there.

For where-e’er the sun does shine,
And where-e’er the rain does fall:
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.

6. The condemnation of the extremes of wealth and poverty is powerfully made, and it is clear that Blake’s remonstrance against the hypocrisy of his day is as deeply felt as his joy at seeing the children’s service at St Paul’s. Yet in some ways the moral of the final stanza is as bland as that in the final line of the poem from Innocence, and in some ways may even be false and superficial – sunshine and rainfall are, by themselves, no guarantee of protection for poverty. Lincoln, it seems to me, is correct in drawing attention to the suspicion with which we should view the narrator of the poem: while the insistent rhythm of the song may emphasise its moral outrage, the speaker is unwilling to recognise any vitality or joy in his subjects, instead retreating “into generalization, and an emotional hardening, that offers little prospect of escape from the human coldness it condemns.”

Zoapod 8: Blake’s Poems – London

Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast. To listen to the full podcast click here.

1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis Podcast 8. Continuing the irregular series looking at William Blake’s poetry, this podcast will focus on one of his most popular lyrics, “London”, from Songs of Experience.

2. Published in 1794, “London” has become one of Blake’s best-known and most widely-anthologised poems. The simplicity of the ballad form, an extremely popular type of poetic format, is used by Blake to deliver an intensely powerful critique of his contemporary society, one in which sophisticated condemnation of political, religious and sexual mores is presented with remarkable brevity and compression. My own reading of Blake’s Song, is very conventional in terms of following critics such as E. P. Thompson (Witness Against the Beast, 1993) and Edward Larrissy (William Blake, 1988), seeing the poem as one of social critique. Harold Bloom’s comment in David Erdman’s edition of Blake’s Complete Poetry & Prose, which sees the poem as operating as a response to the tradition of biblical prophecy, seems rather obscure to me – something rather typical of Bloom’s criticism.

3. I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

4. A heavily corrected copy of this poem exists in Blake’s Notebook, offering considerable insight into the gestation that “London” underwent. Probably the most famous line from the poem, its reference to the “mind-forg’d manacles”, was originally written by Blake as “german forged links”. The original scans more regularly as iambic verse than his more famous amendment (with “forged” being pronounced on the second syllable), and drew attention, as Thompson observed, to the billeting of Hessian troops in London in the early 1790s in response to fear at social unrest in the capital, as well as the German origins of the Hanoverian dynasty and George III. The modification to “mind-forg’d manacles” forces the reader to slow down slightly with the spondee “mind-forg’d”, and the abstraction of oppression away from a particular incident and situation has led various critics to see in Blake’s phrase a powerful and effective illumination of the effects of ideology.

5. Another change that the poem underwent from Notebook to publication was the modification of “dirty Thames” in the second line to “charter’d”, repeating the word from the first line. Paine, writing in the first part of The Rights of Man (1792), denounced charters as a post-Norman trick to bribe the populace into submission: “William the Conqueror and his descendants parcelled out the country in this manner, and bribed some parts of it by what they call charters to hold the other parts of it the better subjected to their will. This is the reason why so many of those charters abound in Cornwall; the people were averse to the Government established at the Conquest, and the towns were garrisoned and bribed to enslave the country. All the old charters are the badges of this conquest, and it is from this source that the capriciousness of election arises.” The use of the word charter in “London” is literal in the first line, but metaphorical in the second, placing even the free movement of the natural world under the restriction of government.

6. After a period of enthusiasm in Paris following the fall of the Bastille, tensions increased throughout the 1790s, especially following the execution of Louis XVI and the Terror of 1793. Fear of revolution in Britain led the government of William Pitt to a loyalist reaction, first felt in Scotland as a series of sensational trials for seditious libel which took place in 1793, the results of which were draconian sentences against Thomas Muir and Thomas Palmer. In 1794, as members of the London Corresponding Society called for an English Convention, Pitt suspended Habeus Corpus and ordered the arrest of its leading members, as well as those of the Society for Constitutional Information. Thomas Paine had already fled the country at the end of 1793, and although the three men finally brought to trial were acquitted, there could be no doubt that Britain was a dangerous place for anyone with radical sympathies.

7. These are the events alluded to in the third stanza of “London”, in which soldiers’ blood stains the walls of palaces (almost certainly a direct reference to the events of August 1792 when a mob stormed the Tuileries and massacred the Swiss Guard defending the royal family). Amid this political storm, the hypocrisy and degradation of the poor is also dealt with by invoking the conditions of children chimney sweepers, the subject of two other poems in Blake’s Songs, as well as child prostitution in the final stanza. Stanley Gardner (The Tyger, The Lamb and the Terrible Desart, 1998) observes that in Lambeth a group of “noblemen and gentlemen” had converted the old Hercules Inn into the Female Orphan Asylum “to save girls between the age of nine and twelve from ‘the guilt of prostitution’.” The lives of these so-called “chicken prostitutes” was brutal and fatal, with many not surviving into their twenties as they suffered from violence and those sexual diseases such as syphilis that blasted substantial sections of the metropolitan population.

8. Within four, short quatrains, Blake delivers one of the most savage visions of the city ever written, and for this reason alone it is unsurprising that the poem has become so well-known. To read it is to experience the shock of an explosion among the familiar platitudes and hypocrisies of church, priest and king. Yet there may be something even more subtle going on here. Larrissy is correct to point out that it is a misconception – even if a common one – to assume that the voice of the narrator is that of Blake’s. The speaker in “London” marks those all around him: the word “mark” here functions in different ways – as a unit of currency (an old term used to refer to 8 ounces of gold or silver), as a blemish or sign, and as the verb “to mark”, as in to identify or characterise something or someone. The narrator, then, sees these marks and he sees them everywhere: “And mark in every face I meet \ Marks of weakness, marks of woe.”

9. These spots and stains of weakness and woe are inscribed on these faces by the weight of capitalism and power that emphasise the poverty of those who live in London, but Larrissy draws attention to the fact that it is also the speaker who is marking these faces – observing and characterising them as weak, woeful. That this voice of experience is potent should not blind us to the fact that it is also a single vision: there is no alternative, no innocence, in “London”, and in a scene of such potential violence and depravity it is not hard to see why. And yet, as with Terry Eagleton’s criticisms of Theodore Adorno’s concept of ideology, this is to give the powerful too much power, to assume rather defeatedly that there is no alternative. Sometimes such single, purposeful vision is necessary, to clarify and explain the social conditions in which we find ourselves, but for the possibility of something better, the voice of experience must also be matched by that of innocence, the belief that things can be changed.

The Naked Tea Party

The latest edition of the poetry and writing journal Ekleksographia (ekleksographia.ahadadabooks.com) is a guest issue edited by Philip Davenport and entitled “William Blake and the Naked Tea Party”. The special edition, which went online with a live writing event by Sarah Sanders on 15 March, concentrates on the haptic nature of writing (especially handwriting), and the handmade nature of certain modes of communicating. As such, in the words of the editor, it owes a debt to outsider art and alternative traditions of poetics with “an IOU all the way back to Will Blake, he and the Mrs sitting on the lawn in London afternoons, naked, drinking tea”.

Contributions include essays by Kirstie Gregory, Holly Pester, Maggie O’Sullivan and Bob Cobbing, as well as examples of such handmade poetics by Sean Bonney, Tony Lopez, Geraldine Monk and David Tibet.

Philip Davenport also runs Applepie Editions, a “lab” for art objects, music, prints and books, and Davenport specialises in poems made from daily situations such as journalism, porn, txt messages and overheard voices. You can visit William Blake and the Naked Tea Party at http://ekleksographia.ahadadabooks.com/davenport/index.html.

William Burroughs on Allen Ginsberg and Blake

William Burroughs discussing the effect of Allen Ginsberg’s visionary experience of Blake in 1948 from http://allenginsbergmovie.com/.

Go to the next video from the William Blake Jukebox:

William Blake Jukebox is a collection of videos available on YouTube related to William Blake. View them all at http://www.youtube.com/user/WilliamBlakeJukebox.