Inspired by Blake Festival

Events associated with the William Blake exhibition at the Ashmolean (4 Dec 2014 - 1 Mar 2015)

January 21, 2015

Ruth Rosen 'William Blake- Man Without a Mask'

A poetry reading requires poise and concentration. But to recite a writer’s whole oeuvre is a tour de force. This is the task Ruth Rosen has set – to read an extract from every one of Blake’s published works. The feat is all the more remarkable given the man she is voicing; he is not comfortable, conformist or easy to categorise. He is Blake.

This event forms part of the two-week Blake festival hosted by Blackwell’s bookshop and the Ashmolean. The latter’s stellar exhibition is the fortnight’s centrepiece, but by no means the only event worth exploring. The programme includes everything from beatboxing to printmaking.

Tonight’s reading reveals the range and eclecticism of Blake. Rosen progresses more or less chronologically, beginning with Blake’s more gloriously rebellious verse. These early works have received much attention in recent years, name-dropped and feted by countercultural figures. Patti Smith edited a collection of Blake’s young verse. But Rosen also includes lesser-known letters sent to patrons and friends; a perplexed Blake asks why the London art world did not want his work. And as Rosen progresses onto the final folios, the pieces penned after illness, some of Blake’s anger tempers. His visions, however, remain strong.

Ruth Rosen has got ‘behind the mask’ of other literary figures in the past. She has reanimated Keats and Woolf. Her range and timing for the complex Blake grab the audience’s attention. The atmosphere is marred only by the lighting. Blackwell’s Norrington basement is a fine venue, but the harsh shop lights are not conducive to dreams of heaven – and hell. With such a modification, this would be a captivating event. Here’s hoping the Ashmolean and Blackwell’s combine forces for future festivals. Blake would admire their ambition.

Inspired by the the bard himself, William Blake, a cheerful, noisy crowd of events have sprung up around the extraordinary exhibition at the Ashmolean, and grown into a two-week William Blake Festival: Inspired by Blake.

Tonight a workshop called – what else? – Hear the Voice of the Bard has occupied the café at Blackwells, where Dr Debbie Pullinger (visiting from the Other Place, as she wryly terms Cambridge) will be helping us use our own voices to breathe life into one of the songs of experience – and it’s a very famous one. We are to tackle The Tyger.

The poems we know well fascinate Pullinger, who is mapping our best-known verses via the Poetry and Memory project (you can fill in your cherished remembered poems on her website) and taking on The Tyger is like looking up an old friend. We compare our memories with the words on the paper, explore the shape and rhythm of the words, whisper the verses to each other lyrically, conversationally, as if we were talking to a real tiger.

There are poetry regulars at the workshop, but I'm paired with another stranger to the game, a sciences student who imagines Blake’s vision as a dizzying arc spinning up into space and then rushing back into the flesh of the tiger to examine it at the microscopic level. The process of the close reading, the repetition and the exploration is all here to sink us into the embodied experience of poetry; and force us to explore how our breath gives words life, how the printed word makes them a safe home to live in.

Finally – a lovely bonus – a double recitation of The Tyger by two workshop participants; one a simple, almost hymnal recitation, the other a fevered, dramatic re-imagining delivered in a thrillingly tortured whisper.

Blake was a revolutionary prophetic poet and artist, who put together sublime poetry and pictures in the service of his profound visionary illumination of human life. He invites us all to find within us our poetic soul, which will lead us into wise understandings. More than that, Blake challenges us to transcend the opposites, heaven and hell, love and hate. He anticipates Jung's archetypal psychology by a hundred years and more. But while Jung suggests that if we are looking for God we should start by looking in the mud at our feet, Blake advocates a marriage between heaven and hell. Heaven may have reason, he says, but hell has the energy we all need to live creative lives.

He writes:

“The Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel dined with me, and I asked them how they dared so roundly to assert, that God spoke to them; and whether they did not think at the time, that they would be misunderstood, & so be the cause of imposition.

Isaiah answer'd, I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover'd the infinite in every thing, and as I was then persuaded, & remain confirm'd; that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences but wrote.”

― William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

To study Blake is to explore theology, philosophy, art, religion, history and culture change in addition to his core achievement as one of England's greatest poets. You can find something of all these things in the Blake Festival which starts in Oxford on 18th January.

However, the main exhibition of Blake's work is at the Ashmolean which started in December and runs to the end of February has decided to be much constrained, focusing on his development as a print maker. The preamble describes him as “still one of the least understood” English artists. The exhibition certainly helps us understand his technical innovations in the development of print making, but if that is not what inspires you about Blake then you may find it disappointing. Given the incredible complexity of Blake, it must have seemed very sensible to ground the exhibition in the relative simplicity of cutting marks into copper plates. The amount of research and scholarship which has gone into the exhibition is immense. Yet I find the presentation frustrating. On the walls there are some of the key words Blake wrote, but they are even harder to see than the small dark prints he made that have faded over the years. Why can't they employ a better lighting engineer?

I will help;

“But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged. This I shall do by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid. If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”

Amazing words. What a fine central focus for an exhibition on Blake they would have made. They are there, written on the wall in gold printed letters, but tucked away in a very dark corner where they cannot easily be deciphered. You must move about and stretch to be able to read all the words.

Instead of exploring these depths we learn about the sociology of Blake's life and about the commercial aspects of his work. We see evidence of his apprenticeship, and the economics of his trade. If the curators are to be believed, art then was as much about social position and money making as it is today.

We do learn about Blake's sources, which enable us to put him in a long tradition of illuminated script. We can observe a journey from medieval “illuminated manuscripts” to what Blake himself calls “illuminated printing.” We also see work by some of his contemporary followers. But you need to go to the wider Blake Festival to see how Blake is alive in graphic novels and other forms today.

The Tutmania exhibition last summer showed how the world of a hundred years ago was stimulated by the discoveries in Egypt. But here we have no references to the modern world of YouTube, where video-poetry inspired by Blake is still vividly alive.

The editor of a TV company I approached about Blake and modern poetry felt that he was not sufficiently in the public mind to make a film on him a goer at the moment, without a specific anniversary. But Blake is so relevant to the world we live in now. Blake was a prophet in a revolutionary age. America and Europe were bursting the shackles of the old Gods and Kings and creating new liberty, equality and fraternity. He evaded the English censors of his time only because he could print his works himself in a room in his own house (recreated in the exhibition).

Today we are barely waking from an adman's media dream world to the reality of revolutions that threaten to destroy our political, financial and ecological systems. The old religions of the near east are profoundly challenged by modern secularism and neo-capitalism. Their fundamental adherence to ancient revelation cannot endure much longer. In their death throes they start new crusades and Jihads to fight for their old dying “truths” and threaten us all with their jealous controlling monotheistic Gods of destructive rage. We secular Westerners still worship Gods. We do so without even knowing it. We build vast towers that dwarf the old cathedrals to the glorification of that Old Devil Pluto, God of the underworld, of wealth and of Death. We no longer serve God, we serve Mammon. Those vast financial institutions came very close to tumbling down recently, and according to some analysts are due to fall down permanently quite soon.

The wisest among us are trying to tell us that the unbridled greed of our neo-capitalist system can do nothing to preserve the biosphere we inhabit, but will only cause its destruction. Yet the wonders of modern digital technology enable us all to create visionary art and poetry in the spirit of Blake. But where are the new prophets? Who is making the journey to the inner self, the Higher Self, and bringing us their visions and poetic insights? The internet is filling with visions of Jihad recruitment films and apocalyptic nightmare wars or terrorism. Blake could print his own work. Today anyone can publish to the world instantly. Our creative young people seem to be choosing instead to advise their followers on the use of make-up. Vast corporations seek to employ them to promote their goods. Where are the creative poem-picture and video-poetry makers inspired by Blake, who can show us a better way forward, showing us a new Jerusalem? Is art in the hands of the formaldehyde fish brigade or the young Jihadis who want to take us back to the dark ages?

The inspired by Blake Festival looks at modern work in rap and graphic novel writing. The panel on Blake and his visions looks worryingly like an attempt to turn him into a psychiatric problem. (Forgive me if this is wrong.)

It is possible that the LiveFriday session on Heaven and Hell will give us modern art, poetry and music. But I have no details to share.

If you want to see what modern poets make of Blake you will have to go to the poetry events I am leading at the Ashmolean. They are not shown on the Ashmolean's own festival programme online nor on the Blackwell's festival website. However, you can find information about them on the written leaflet available in both places.

Poems by Nick Owen, Tina Negus, Jalina Myana, Mary Stableford, Diana Moore, Julie Forth and others can be heard in readings at the museum exhibition at 12.30 and 2.30pm on January 24th and February 21st. My illustrated presentation, “In the footsteps of Blake,” can be seen on 28th February at 11am -12.30pm in the lecture theatre at the museum.

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