IN 1962 OR thereabouts, when I was a young boy intoxicated by the sounds that poetry makes, I came across Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." I read it with astonishment and with an almost sensual delight. Having become drunk on "Howl," I moved on to other poems by Ginsberg, notably "Sunflower Sutra," in which, praising the beauty of the dusty old plant he sees in the wasteland of a San Francisco dock, with its corolla of bleary spikes pushed down and broken like a battered crown, seeds fallen out of its face, soon-to-be-toothless mouth of sunny air, sun-rays obliterated on its hairy head like a dried wire spider web, he evokes an earlier poet who had celebrated the same flower:
I rushed up enchanted -- it was my first
sunflower, memories of Blake -- my visions
I remain grateful to Ginsberg for several things, not least for having pointed the way to a greater poet. In my search for the sort of visionary intensity I'd found in "Howl," I followed his lead toward William Blake, and bought the only edition I could afford, a little paperback selection edited by Ruthven Todd. I carried it everywhere; I have it still. It's on the desk beside me now, its paper yellowing and fragile, its cover as battered and grimy as that sunflower of Ginsberg's, and I'd let many other and more costly books perish before failing to save that one. I read every word over and over and learned many of the poems by heart, and some of my first attempts to write were imitations of the great lyrics.
I am not a Blake scholar, and there are large stretches of the prophetic books that I've never read and probably never shall. But it wasn't scholarship that lured me on: It was intoxication. Blake's world is large and complex enough to provide endless matter for the delusions of the floridly paranoid as well as for academic study, but he had the precious gift of expressing that complexity of thought in lines of unequaled force and limpid clarity:
O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
It works as poetry always does, on the ear and in the mouth, before it lets itself be disentangled by the mind. There is some great poetry that works like that, but which when disentangled leaves little but a delicate fragrance: Alfred Tennyson's "The Splendor Falls on Castle Walls" is an example, and so is Edward Lear's "The Owl and the Pussycat." The best of Blake's lyrics, when examined for their intellectual content, disclose tough, dense and sinewy argument, always surprising, always original, always disturbing:
Tiger! Tiger! Burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
But the reason they work so well, the reason they are unforgettable, is that they have an incantatory power unlike anything else in English.
However, what I've come to cherish most of all in Blake, as I've grown older, is a quality that (to use his own term) I have to call prophetic. It's prophetic in two senses: It foretells, and like the words of the Old Testament prophets, it warns, it carries a moral force.
Furthermore, without being a Blakeian (except in the sense that I follow his own proclamation, "I must Create a System, or be enslav'd by another Man's") I confess that the propositions I set out here, with confirmation from his poems and from "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," are the most important things I believe. If I didn't believe them, I couldn't work.
To begin with, then, this world, this extraordinary universe in which we live and of which we are made, is material; and it is amorous by nature. Matter rejoices in matter, and each atom of it falls in love with other atoms and delights to join up with them to form complex and even more delightful structures: " ... and shew you all alive. The world, where every particle of dust breathes forth its joy."
Second, things arise from matter-in-love-with-matter that are not themselves matter. Thoughts emerge from the unimaginable, the non-disentangle-able complexity of the body and the brain, thoughts that are not material, though they have analogues in material processes, and you can't say where one ends and the other begins, because each is an aspect of the other: "Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call'd Body is a portion of Soul discern'd by the five senses."
Third, the consciousness that emerges from matter demonstrates that consciousness, like mass, is a normal property of the physical world and much more widely present than human beings think: "How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way, Is an immense World of delight, clos'd by your senses five?"
Fourth, bodily experience underlies, sustains, inspires and cherishes mental experience. The mental templates on which are formed such things as metaphor, the very ways we understand and interpret our experience, are based on the ways our bodies move around in the world and interact with other physical entities: "Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy. Energy is Eternal Delight."
Fifth, the visionary and the imaginative are not different realms from the political, but the very ground on which politics stands, the nourishing soil from which political awareness and action grow: "A dog starv'd at his Master's Gate Predicts the ruin of the State."
Sixth, the fullest and most important subject of our study and our work is human nature and its relationship to the universe: "God Appears & God is Light To those poor Souls who dwell in Night, But does a Human Form Display to those who Dwell in Realms of day."
Last, we should never forget that the work we do is infinitely worth doing: "Eternity is in love with the productions of time."
I know that this credo of mine is highly selective, and that it would be possible to put together passages from Blake to support a quite different set of propositions. What do I care about that? I've never doubted that Blake was larger than my understanding of him.
But I also know that he was a poet and artist before he was anything else, and that he worked as all writers and artists do, feeling his way through the medium (the words, the forms, the colors) to the truth. There's an astonishing example of that in the draft of "The Sick Rose" in Blake's notebook, now in the British Library. In the next-to-last line, he originally wrote "his dark secret love" -- and then crossed out "his" and wrote "her." Later he changed it back -- but there was a stage in the composition of that poem, which is so simple and so rich in implication, when he might have turned it quite another way.
The dense and disturbing lyrics in the "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" were not just pretty ways of dressing up ideas that had already been fully worked out in the medium of prose: They were the very hammer and anvil of thinking itself.
I find it hard to write about Blake because I can't be objective about him. I can't be judicious and measured, weighing his merits against his deficiencies and coming to a balanced and thoughtful conclusion. The fact is, I love him. I am as intoxicated at 60 as I was at 16. As I've grown older, in fact, my wonder has only increased.
Next year, we reach the 250th anniversary of his birth. If we cannot mark this year with proper celebration and tribute to one of our very greatest sons, then we should be ashamed of ourselves.