Saturday, January 18, 2014

By William Blake

I taught the kid poetry. My kid. I taught her a few poems, to recite them.

I recite poetry. To myself. It's a hobby. Sort of. I like to recite poetry to myself when bored. When doing dishes. And then one night I was...I don't know, I was doing something with my kid near or in the bathroom...and it was something mindless like helping her with her hair or helping her dry off after a bath or whatever, and I taught her the first few lines of one of the shortest poems I knew:

Oh rose
Thou art sick
The invisible worm 
That flies in the night 
On the howling storm
Has found out 
thy bed of crimson joy 
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

William Blake

It amazed me how quickly she learned it. This girl seems to reject literature in most forms. Rote memorization though... She's fine with that. So now it's this game: I say the first line, she recites the rest of the poem and completes it with an attribute to the author at the end. William Blake.

I picked it because it was short, but It's a hell of a poem to teach to a pre teen. I think, really, it's about (invisible worm) venereal disease. I have mentally dissected this poem and I see a stupid, innocent girl (rose), candle flames and red wine (dark secret love), silk sheets (crimson joy), fever, ruination (howling storm), early death. 

Probably there are subtler, more elegant interpretations. Mine is vulgar and obvious. 

Maybe it's not about vd, maybe it's about another kind of ruination. An affair and a scandal and a ruined girl. Societal ostracism. Rumors and whispers and nasty, bored housewives. Or maybe it's about a sick child. Cancer. Viral infection. Who knows.

But it's William Blake. That means at its core it is about loss of innocence. Even the "sick child" interpretation involves its own loss of innocence; realizing that life is cruel and horribly unfair, a dying child must lose innocence. 

I went to the garden of love 
And saw what I never had seen
A chapel built there in the midst
Where I used to play on the green
And the gates to this chapel were shut
And "thou shalt not" writ over the door
So I turned to the garden of love 
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw that it was filled with graves
And flowers where headstones should be
And priests in black gowns 
Were making their rounds
And binding with briars
My joys and desires.

Another Blake. Another poem to recite with sudsy hands.

We were taught Blake in high school. From what I remember, we got the "crappy" Blake. The boring Blake. Tyger Tyger burning bright. (If I remember correctly this is a poem about child labor, but no high school student could ever find the tyger metaphor compelling... Had I been taught the garden of love poem, that would have caught my attention)

I recited the garden of love poem to my daughter while painting the driveway gate and she said, disgusted, "are all poems about death?" (This is why the second poem I taught her was Dancing Pants by shel Silverstein)

I went to a William Blake show in London in 2001. I made the mistake of going on the last day it was in town. It was hot and crowded and his drawings are small and detailed. I caught glimpses of his sketches over the shoulders of strangers. 

If William Blake were alive today he would be drawing comics in his basement. And according to this posting by Mallory ortberg on "the" website, he would send seriously weird text messages to his friends. Read it here:

It's 11:40 at night and I have written this entire entry from my iPhone, so I can't make a hyper link to this website. You'll have to do the hard work yourself if you want to read it. And if you've made it this far in my rambling entry about William Blake, you really should read it. It's hilarious and weirdly poetic. Here's a little sample...William's texts are in italics. 

"I drew you something
oh wow
is it horrifying?
do you promise?
do you promise me that it’s not horrifying?
i drew you something
you know what I mean
what do you mean by horrifying
is anyone being
flayed alive in it
or committing suicide
or does something have eyes that shouldn’t have eyes
you know what I mean
never mind
sorry i bothered you"

I like to think about this version of William Blake, as he might exist in the 20th century. Socially awkward. Brilliant. Disturbed. In need of a friend who understands (or at least humors) his weird impulses.

God. If only I had a friend this strange. Someone who might show up on my lawn in the middle of the night wearing aviator goggles and carrying a test tube full of India ink. Ready to draw my portrait and talk about the end of the world. 

Not that I would be prepared to handle such a friend. My family would not approve.

It's midnight now. I will stop writing this, after I mention one more thing... There's a William Blake book covering his illustrations of the divine comedy. Here's a nice article on brain pickings, talking about the book and providing several beautiful pictures.

See what I mean? He'd be in a basement drawing comics.

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