This is the first blog post in my poetry series.
Here is how (in theory) I imagine this series working: each entry will deal with a longer work (chapbook or long poem) by a single poet. In it, I will engage in both general description of everything I’ve read and close reading of some part (a single poem, often) that is particularly important either to me or to the work. I will bring out such a post either weekly or every other week—if the latter, I will probably fill in the middle week with a less substantive blog post.
Regarding choice of work—if the goal of a poet is to marry the muse, I figure I should wear the traditional things to the wedding: something old (something by a dead poet), something new (something by a contemporary published poet), something borrowed (something by a poet I know, if possible with some commentary of theirs added), and something blue (something I wrote that for whatever reason is unlikely to find a home elsewhere and so might as well go on this blog).
As much as I love these plans, they often prove too rigid and rigorous. What’s more, the poets in my life may be too few and too shy to contribute even to every fourth entry; so the fallback goal is this: write something structured and thoughtful about a poet and/or a poem every other week.
This week, I’ll start with William Blake and, in particular, his unpublished, unfinished, unilluminated narrative poem The Four Zoas, and (since it is long) in particular particular, the first book of the poem, “Night the First” (there are nine nights).
I love William Blake. Parts of the poet’s imagination set mine on fire; his artwork is often stunning and always enticing; he exerts on me the pull of outsider art (he self-published his most important work, it sold poorly, and both the stories of him and his work have a taste, sometimes much more than a taste, of madness about them), the pull of great art (he is a recognized genius, and, though when I first met him in high school I doubted it, I think he deserves the recognition), and the pull of art that speaks to me personally. He lived from 1757-1827, was trained and worked as an engraver, and printed and hand-colored his own books with his wife’s help. I’ve studied him in several survey courses and in one course devoted to him alone. In fact, the featured image is something my William Blake professor (perhaps the professor who was kindest of all to me out of a very generous bunch) allowed me to create as a final project for his class, and it depicts the beginning of Night the First, which I will spend time on.
I remember first starting to read The Four Zoas in the dismal basement coffee shop of the majestic college library, in a sort of hungry trance. I was bewitched—everything was original, strange, dense, meaningful, and spoke to my imagination. Later, when (excellent and helpful) explanations were added, I was…disappointed. My first private experience of Night the First, especially the first part of night the first, was diminished by all the explanation.
So I think I’ll start by offering a minimal (perhaps still over-explanatory, but I’ll try to stick to what seems necessary to understand the writing) outline which I will proceed to fill out by quoting a lot of William Blake at you, in hopes of offering you something of the same experience. Then I will describe aspects of my personal response to it.
Warning: this will be long. It will be so long I will make multiple posts with it over the next few days.
Final note: You can find a ton of transcriptions of Blake’s writing free on the internet. An especially good place to go is The William Blake Archive, here, which offers excellent digital images of multiple versions of his illustrated books and manuscripts alongside transcriptions. Finally, as I mentioned in my first William Blake post, you’ll find Allen Ginsberg’s musical performances of the Songs of Innocence and Experience here. I recommend all of this highly.