Thinking About William Blake

William Blake (1757 - 1827)

William Blake (1757 - 1827)

More to the point, I am thinking about what the modern world would make of a William Blake. As a premise, I should say that my thinking is colored by an understanding of modern life (at least in the developed world) as more thoroughly circumscribed, less given to chaos and uncertainty, than the world in which Blake lived. Don’t we put our young visionaries on Prozac, and hound them with well-meaning social workers into becoming model citizens?

Blake apparently had visions from a very young age, telling his parents at age four that he could see God pressing His face against the window and, at nine, that he could see a troupe of angels sitting in the branches of a tree during a walk in the country. In adulthood, he claimed to have seen the soul of his brother, as he lay dying, rise out of his body and ascend skyward, clapping for joy the whole time. He claimed for the rest of his life that his brother’s spirit regularly visited him in dreams (and sometimes while awake), and even that his brother’s spirit had instructed him on how to set the type face for the first edition of Songs of Innocence.

What would we do with such a child in modern America? Heavily medicate him, certainly, but would collective society stamp the genius out of him entirely? Could it? Apparently Blake left school in his teens because he felt that the pressures of a formal, rational education were suffocating the blossoming artist in him. He died a pauper, true. But he was allowed to make that decision IN HIS TEENS, and go on to pursue an unstructured, thoroughly unconventional life. If he had submitted (or rather, been made to submit) to the daily grind, would he have ever produced such volumes of singularly beautiful, if enigmatic, poetry that have been such a treasure to successive generations?

Indeed, he seems to have formed an entire ethic against the idea of submitting to the dominance of rationality, and preferred instead to indulge in a life led by imagination, in which all things have a deeper, more profound significance than the casual meanings that we give them. One of my favorite of his little maxims, and the first one I was ever conscious of hearing (in the 1991 movie The Doors) is –

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” – from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

What a huge force in the shaping of the Western intellectual tradition has the pursuit of, and the dedication to, the unconventional life always been! And who can bring to society such brilliant new inspirations but those who live truly outside the box? Do we hobble the dynamic growth of our finer culture in the West with our zealous attachment to ideals of middle-class success, and has it always been this way?

Here is a nice poem of his that I would like to have in an illustrated manuscript, as a poster to put by the front door.

To The Evening Star
Thou fair-hair’d angel of the evening,

Now, whilst the sun rests on the mountains, light

Thy bright torch of love; thy radiant crown

Put on, and smile upon our evening bed!

Smile on our loves, and while thou drawest the

Blue curtains of the sky, scatter thy silver dew

On every flower that shuts its sweet eyes

In timely sleep. Let thy west wind sleep on

The lake; speak silence with thy glimmering eyes,

And wash the dusk with silver. Soon, full soon,

Dost thou withdraw; then the wolf rages wide,

And the lion glares thro’ the dun forest:

The fleeces of our flocks are cover’d with

Thy sacred dew: protect them with thine influence.

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Eureka

Here is the last first draft of my video. I plan to revise the ending.

Bob Holman

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This man deserves a post of his own. More than that, he deserves a medal for everything he has done over the years to keep poetry alive. If the art of the word makes it through this lowbrow American era, Bob will be to thank in large part.

I’m not going to detail his whole resume. That would be laborious and insincere. You can check out his site for that. I wanted this post to be more like a tribute. Bob’s wife and the mother of his children died this year, yet he still organizes shows, teaches classes, and gives readings every week as well as scouring the world for poetic talent. It shows how deeply he cares about this. He is an iron horse, a juggernaut. Maybe losing himself in this keeps him going. I’ve gotten to know him somewhat and only have more respect for him the more that I learn. What’s more, he always returns phone calls and emails and is always willing, even eager, to talk at length about all things poetry. This is an immeasurable boon for a journalist and an act of generosity for which I will long be in his debt.

The Poetry Foundation

The Poetry Foundation, based in Chicago, is perhaps the best online resource for poetry enthusiasts in the English speaking world. With a vast, encyclopedic scope, they seek to cover everything of significance in poetry on an international level. It was founded in 2003 with a grant from the philanthropist Ruth Lilly and is an evolution of the Modern Poetry Association, founded in 1941. They currently produce Poetry magazine, which began in 1912 and is the oldest publication devoted to verse in the English language.

Since my blogsite aims to cover modern poetry, it would seem a major omission to fail to mention the Poetry Foundation.

The founder of Poetry magazine, Harriet Monroe, stated the publication’s purpose in its first issue as:

to print the best poetry written today, in whatever style, genre, or approach.

In its earliest editions, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams – all of whom were close friends of Harriet Monroe – graced the pages.

Currently, more than a third of the poets published in Poetry magazine are appearing in print for the first time. Now more than ever, the magazine is embracing, and hoping to define the future of the art form.

More to come….

American Life in Poetry

One of the biggest obstacles facing the dissemination of poetry in our culture is the absence of it in the mainstream media. In the early twentieth century, contemporary poetry was published and reviewed every week in the majority of newspapers and general-interest magazines in America. In the fifties, mainstream publications began curtailing this practice and today only highbrow journals like the Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker still publish new poetry. Former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser began addressing this problem during his tenure in 2004-2006. He started the American Life in Poetry project, which is a free weekly column for newspapers and online journals featuring a poem by a contemporary American poet and a forward to the poem by Ted Kooser.

From the website:

Kooser observed that “Poetry has remained a perennial expression of our emotional, spiritual and intellectual lives, as witnessed by the tens of thousands of poems written about the tragedy of September 11 that circulated on the Internet. Now I’m hoping to convince editors that there could be a small place in their papers for poetry, that it could add a spot of value in the eyes of readers. Best of all, it won’t cost a penny.”

American Life in Poetry is supported by The Poetry Foundation and the Library of Congress. You can sign up to receive the column each week in your email. I did, and this is what I got this week:

American Life in Poetry: Column 140

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Here's a holiday poem by Steven Schneider that I like very much for its light
spirit and evocative sensory detail. Isn't this a party to which you'd like to
be invited?

Chanukah Lights Tonight

Our annual prairie Chanukah party--
latkes, kugel, cherry blintzes.
Friends arrive from nearby towns
and dance the twist to "Chanukah Lights Tonight,"
spin like a dreidel to a klezmer hit.

The candles flicker in the window.
Outside, ponderosa pines are tied in red bows.
If you squint,
the neighbors' Christmas lights
look like the Omaha skyline.

The smell of oil is in the air.
We drift off to childhood
where we spent our gelt
on baseball cards and matinees,
cream sodas and potato knishes.

No delis in our neighborhood,
only the wind howling over the crushed corn stalks.
Inside, we try to sweep the darkness out,
waiting for the Messiah to knock,
wanting to know if he can join the party.

City Lore

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On November 4th, I attended the 4th annual brevitas Festival of the Short Poem at the Bowery Poetry Club. The gathering of about 40 published poets, including former poet laureate Billy Collins, drew a large crowd.

The last to read (as the poets performed in alphabetical order) was Steve Zeitlin, proprietor of City Lore.

Steve Zeitlin

Steve Zeitlin

City Lore is an npo that produces various programs and publications intended to inform the public of the artistic life and cultural heritage of New York City. Check out the website (linked above) for a listing of City Lore activities.

Here are some images from events that City Lore has been part of in the last few years (click on the links under the thumbnails for full-size image galleries):

Streetscapes of a City in Mourning (post 9/11)

Missing: Streetscapes of a City if Mourning (post 9-11)

Puerto Rican Day Parade

Puerto Rican Day Parade

West Indian Parade

West Indian Day Parade

As a practicing poet, Steve Zeitlin is concerned with the poetic life of the City, and with making City Lore an advocate for poetry in mainstream American culture. Before I met him, or indeed had any idea who he was, I was captivated by his reading at the brevitas show on the Bowery. Maybe only because his was the last reading (though I suspect otherwise), his words, recitation, and general demeanor, had a profound impact on me.

Steve began his segment by saying a few words about Woody Guthrie, the great middle-American folk-poetry hero and forefather of Bob Dylan.

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Woody Guthrie

I got me a sort of a one-man religion – but it takes in everybody. My religion is so big, no matter who you are, you’re in it, and no matter what you do, you can’t get out of it.

– Woody Guthrie

Steve read that quote and then went into his own poetry. I’d advise anyone to pick up a copy of his work, but I will only reproduce here the last short poem he read.

Animated Stardust

Sentient being,

Are we on a quest to understand the universe

Or are we some figment of Creation’s quest

To understand itself?

Frail and human creatures of the cosmos

Can we sense the presence

of our own Creator

In this animated stardust?

This dust that renders visible

A stream of light –

Particles dancing in a beam of light!

“Strangling Culture with a Copyright Law” – NY Times Op-Ed article by Steve Zeitlin
“Rock and Word” – article by Steve Zeitlin
“The Life Cycle: Folk Customs of Passage” – article by Steve Zeitlin

Honesty not Optimism (written with mild despair)

Over the weekend I wrote a long draft of a magazine feature article highlighting the efforts of Dave Levine to stimulate the poetry scene in New York. I wrote it with a tone of optimism, because this is what I would like to have. But I knew something was fundamentally wrong with it from the moment I put the first word down. I’m not talking about style or readability; it was just flat wrong. I don’t think there is much to be optimistic about in the New York poetry scene. You want an answer to why there isn’t a big movement like the Beat generation happening today: Nobody gives a shit about poetry. It isn’t a major cultural force in New York. Was it ever? I imagine a golden era of men like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg holding court in the Village, inspiring large crowds, waking up millions of sleeping Americans with their bright new American vision, REALLY making a difference.
Jack Kerouac reading his poetry

Today it seems that the people who do care about poetry could all fit into a room. Their group is small enough to be called a cult, or a tiny subculture. They probably all know each other. There are no poems that are breaking down doors in our society, nothing on the order of a Howl. God bless those few, those islands in the stream, for holding on to something precious. But contemporary American society is far from entering a period of renewed interest in artful verse, in my humble opinion. From now on, I am going to approach this subject honestly, as I see it, not exaggerate reality because I still hold on to a fairytale of New York.