William Blake, British Rockers, and a Chariot of Fire

blake
Students tend to think of poetry as an English teacher problem. “Oh, man,” their attitude seems to be. “Only an English teacher could love something like poetry. Me, I can’t understand any of it, except maybe the poems I read in elementary school.”


Ironic, given how much students love music, because music means lyrics and lyrics are first cousin not-at-all-removed from poetry. If you don’t believe me, you only need go as far as a Swedish Academy near you, where some fellow name Bob Dylan, songwriter, just stole off with the Nobel Prize for Literature.


One particular “grown-up” poem that shows how poetry can meld with music and film is William Blake’s lovely nugget from the larger poem Milton. Embraced by the British, the poem segment is more often known by its first quoted line, “And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time.”


My first exposure to Blake’s poem came not via the classroom, but by way of an album cut in 1973 by the British rockers Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Brain Salad Surgery (what a poetically-lovely title!) opens with, of all things, Blake’s poem, only I didn’t know it at the time. I thought it was the fantastic brainchild of the group itself. Only years later would I learn that the mesmerizing words came from a fascinating mystic who lived in England from 1757 to 1827.


Nowadays, when I offer the poem in my classroom, I always play the old Emerson, Lake, and Palmer version after we’ve read and discussed it. Then I reinforce the word “allusion” by talking about the 1981 movie that took its name from Blake’s poem. That movie was about British runners who competed in the 1924 Paris Olympics.


As for the poem itself, I simply ask students to point out the “cool lines.” It is amazing how simple that request can be in the classroom. Students, even those who know nothing about poetry and profess to hate it, are naturally drawn to poetic devices and good writing.


They are intrigued by metaphors in lines like “these dark Satanic mills,” “my Bow of burning gold,”  “my arrows of desire,” and “my Chariot of fire.” They love the personification of “Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand.” And they are fascinated by the concept of Jerusalem being built in, of all places, “England’s green & pleasant Land.”


And who wouldn’t be? In Blake’s hands, even an ordinary and clichéd word like “pleasant” becomes le mot juste. There can be no better evocation for the natural beauty of England under the threat of industrialization and those “dark Satanic Mills.”


Here, then, is the poem that inspired the music and the film. If you teach, it will inspire your students, too.


“And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time”
by William Blake


And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.


Milosz on Merwin’s “Utterance”

merwin

I’ve been reading a book of poems edited by Czeslaw Milosz and enjoying his commentary before each poem as much as the poems themselves. Called A Book of Luminous Things, the volume will forever enjoy a special place in my heart because I bought it in a distant town that  I was visiting and had never visited before and, as we all know, books purchased on our travels gain pedigree by the memory running through their veins alone. In this case I was in New York’s Hudson Valley in a town called Rhinebeck. The store? Oblong Books & Music, thank you.

Anyway, the poem. It’s brief but memorable, written by W. S. Merwin. In his commentary, Milosz writes, “At any moment in our life we are entangled in all the past of humanity, and that past is primarily language, so we live as if upon a background of incessant chorus, and of course it is possible to imagine the presence of everything which has ever been spoken.”

To see what Milosz means, you need only read Merwin’s eight-line meditation:

Utterance

Sitting over words
very late I have heard a kind of whispered sighing
not far
like a night wind in pines or like the sea in the dark
the echo of everything that has ever
been spoken
still spinning its one syllable
between the earth and silence

Between the earth and silence. I think that’s where I want to be–today, at least. And I hope, as an important piece of time and humanity, you find a place there, too.

Why You Should Memorize a Poem

canis-major

One of the profoundest things I learned in college came from an English professor who was once a prisoner of war during WWII. He said he kept his sanity thanks to memorized poetry. Each day, throughout the drudgery and misery of his captivity, he would recite poems in his mind – words he had captured himself during schooldays. These poems became his company. His friends and succor. Without that, he said, he would almost surely have gone mad.

This morning, venturing into the crisp, 30-something degree dark with the dog, I was greeted as usual by the cheerful stars. It’s in those darkest-before-dawn hours that they seem sharpest, brightest, as if they save their diamond best as a treat for early risers.

And the friendliest October constellations to greet me? Orion, of course, with Canis Major, his faithful hunting dog, at his heels. I greet both dog and hunter by reciting aloud a Robert Frost poem I memorized long ago. Owning that poem makes me feel good, and the celestial dog seems to appreciate the attention to. Here’s what I say to the dark (“Canis Major” by Robert Frost):

The great Overdog,
That heavenly beast
With a star in one eye,
Gives a leap in the east.

He dances upright
All the way to the west
And never once drops
On his forefeet to rest.

I’m a poor underdog,
But tonight I will bark
With the great Overdog
That romps through the dark.

Each cloud-free morning, when I recite the poem, I watch the words rise as white steam in the beam of my headlight. Together they rise in the sky to join Canis Major, and Orion doesn’t seem to mind a bit. (I’m Sirius!)

On days starting like today, I often think of my professor and how right he was. And you don’t have to be a prisoner of war to benefit, either. You might be a prisoner of sadness. Or circumstances. Or boredom. Memorizing a poem will take care of your blues, I promise. Try it!

Free, free, free!

ind-wrldNothing sets people off more than the word “free.” You can place furniture, toys, tools, a jar of ketchup, or whatever on your curb, crown it with the four-letter placard “FREE,” and watch it go because, as Solomon once said, “One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure–and we all treasure free stuff, especially when that ‘stuff’ means books.” (Perhaps Solomon said it more poetically than this. Please see the King James Version for further details.)

All this month, my publisher, Future Cycle Press, is offering up a copy of my rare-to-find (in readers’ hands because it’s poetry) book, The Indifferent World, as part of a Goodreads Giveaway promotion so, if you want one for free (free, free!), get thee to Goodreads some time between now and Halloween.

On that day, at midnight, with a few owls, black cats, and witches’  cauldrons added for effect, some lucky entrant will be in for a treat (treat, treat!). Just be sure, if it’s you, to read the book. In small doses, even.

Oh. And a review would be nice, too. Amazon. Goodreads. Reviews R Us. Wherever your opinions congregate.

Good luck!