Yesterday, a sturdy and wild old friend came back to me.
I was scrolling through Twitter when I saw something strange, though not the typical kind of Twitter-strange. It was, simply, a quotation from William Blake.
I studied Blake in college and again in graduate school, and this quotation reminded me of why I liked his work so much, why I fell into it with an abandon that dragged me from Boston to Virginia and almost to Hollywood (I’ll explain that last part later).
For me, Blake served up precisely the right kind of difficult. His syntax was a bit off. His grammar and word choices skewed and scattered. He capitalized words haphazardly. He invited cognitive struggle, cognitive dissonance, muddy waters, daniel johnstons . . .
Also, when I was young and intellectually carnivorous, he inspired me. There’s no other word for it.
When I read his poems or looked at his art, he made me want to create my own poems and art. Understanding him meant making something of my own, and in fact, saved me from becoming a literary scholar. I was on that path, but Blake kept shoving me onto other, more creative paths. My final graduate thesis was a screenplay adaptation of his most challenging work, The Four Zoas, and that was the end of graduate work for me. (That screenplay and I almost made it to Hollywood; instead, we landed in a classroom, teaching English, which most days feels like pure luck.)
But back to the story at hand.
When I saw Kleon’s Tweet, I composed a Tweetstorm in response. A joyful Tweetstorm. It made perfect sense that Kleon would be looking into Blake, even if just for a moment. Kleon works daily at the crossroads of the Word and the Image; he loves seriously playful and playfully serious comic books and graphic novels; he’s a poet who sometimes works by subtraction rather than addition. All of those attributes are Blakean attributes.
And none of what follows is Blakean scholarship; instead, it is the work of enthusiasm, a.k.a., my version of laughing out loud at a movie theater or pumping a fist at a Bill Callahan show. It’s a gesture that fell out of me . . . my own way of encouraging a fellow writer who, in his own way, has carried Blake’s spirit into the (currently) modern age.
With all of that said, my Tweetstorm-Roadmap to the work of William Blake is cut & pasted (& linked) below:
The Four Zoas is pure energy — a savage comic book for the ages, filled with dead ends, needless complexity, and necessary obfuscation. It was later reincarnated as Can’s Tago Mago. Just let it wash over you.
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is the last artist’s statement you will ever need to read. It beats all others.
Songs of Innocence and Experience is best absorbed in the way [Blake] intended it — find a good illustrated version and read the “plates” themselves. Oxford Paperback edition is nice.
“Auguries of Innocence” is a poem about Seeing by seeing. Also, I believe it helps us understand what very young children might be up to.
Blake’s letters are also very instructive. In them, he hashes out the struggle between art and commerce. He never fully learned how to channel his art-damaged weirdness into something that society deemed productive. Good for us. Maybe not so good for him when he was alive.
Find, too, his aphorisms [okay, this should have said “marginalia” or “annotations“]. They contain multitudes.
Blake and Twitter are odd bedfellows, but they felt just right to me this week . . . and now I’ve returned to a well that, once, was all I needed.
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