O why was I born with a different face
Why was I not born like the rest of my race
When I look each one starts! when I speak I offend
Then I’m silent & passive & lose every Friend
Then my verse I dishonor. My pictures despise
My person degrade and my temper chastise
And the pen is my terror. The pencil is my shame
All my Talents I bury, and dead is my Fame
I am either too low or too highly prizd
When Elate I am Envy’d, When Meek I’m despis’d
I identify with this poem. When I first heard it, I was embarrassed about that. I thought I was teetering on the edge of cliche–and grandiosity–and focusing on my own neuroses instead of broader perspectives. I was probably right..
But of course awkwardness, shyness, alienation, individuality, and intense reactions to others’ praise and scorn are familiar to many, many people.
For such a personal poem, and a poem specifically about being different, these lines have very broad application–most people would be able to identify with this poem in some way at some point in their lives. I don’t think that takes away from its authenticity. We were all born with a different face–different from family, different from each other, different from the roles society pushes us into.
It’s important to remember this. Part of me believes that there’s only one kind but grumpy older lady who brings in reams of used romances to trade at our bookstore–she merely wears different bodies–and one ambitious college classmate complaining to her parents on the phone about the people in the groups she’s working in. There’s amusement to be had in thinking this way, but it’s reductive and wrong and probably lies very close to the root of prejudice.
More painfully and gloriously different than most of us, I grant, is the author of this poem, William Blake, the mad eighteenth- to early nineteenth-century genius whose hand-colored illuminated books of visionary poetry have fired up people as diverse as T.S. Eliot, Harold Bloom, Alan Moore, and Allen Ginsberg. (Check out Ginsberg’s musical renderings of the Songs of Innocence and Experience–I love them, and they seem very fitting, since Blake evidently sung these poems himself. Sadly, Blake’s tunes have been lost.) I will be posting more about Blake here, I hope, both art and writing.
In other news, an agent is reading the manuscript of my verse novel Pet. I am, at the moment, a very happy and lucky person.