Finding Blake – Our First Year

We start the New Year with a timely update from Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White. As well as looking back at our first year, a highly eventful journey and the successes for Finding Blake, James also shares a couple of sneak previews of what’s coming up next. 


Blimey, as Blake might have said. It’s January 2019 already — a year on from having raised the funding through our crowdfunding campaign and cracking into the Finding Blake Project.

Albion Rose by William Blake (1793-6)
Albion Rose
William Blake (1793-6)
Source: the William Blake Archive
http://www.blakearchive.org

And what a year it’s been on the Blakean trail! From that first interview with poet David Whyte in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford — where Blake was right there with us — all the way through to the ceremony to set Blake’s new ledger stone in Bunhill Fields, London, on the 12th August. And, in-between: journeys down into the underground quarry where that piece of Portland stone came from; coming face to face with Blake’s paintings and words, and with Blakean scholars and creatives of all hues; and a deep encounter with the stone itself, which now bears his name, dates, a quote, and the words ‘Poet – Artist – Prophet’.

The ledger stone is a huge focus of the film I am making: Blake, his stone and its creation by a master-craftsperson of this age and, I hope, the themes of his vision — infinity, eternity, time, and hope.

No simple answers

Have I found Blake? That’s the question that is spinning around me now, and has been for the last few weeks as I’ve been focusing intensely on editing the material. Well, thinking hard on that, I don’t think I have — not in a rounded shape that I can put in my pocket and say, yes, here’s Blake. But of course poetry, mysticism, articulating a vision — these aren’t and shouldn’t ever be that simple or clear-cut.

Life itself isn’t clear-cut (if it is, you’re doing it wrong), and the journey is never about the destination. For me definitely, it’s about the meanderings on the road and the twists and turns. So alongside the cutting and splicing, and the giant jigsaw of the filmed story of the last year that I have in front of me, I’m reflecting upon a year in search of William Blake: his extraordinary words, images and overall vision; the physical life he lived over 70 years; what the impact of all this is, what folk say and feel about him and that vision now; and ultimately, the impact of Blake for today’s world, for today’s Britain.

Folk have asked me recently, ‘Tell me about Blake’, and I can’t articulate his life and work into a sentence or paragraph. Maybe I can with poets like Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, WB Yeats, or John Clare — all of whom I’ve had a longer engagement with over many years and a physical affinity to the places they inhabited: Hull, Yorkshire, Ireland, and the Northamptonshire / North Cambridge territory that John Clare tramped around. Maybe my antipathy towards the city of London has hampered me on the Blake trail (sorry Londoners! I always will be a village lad).

A simple resonance

Walking on concrete constantly creates that physical disconnection. I deeply resonate with Blake’s three nearly harmonious years in Felpham, where he was surrounded by the elements, able to see and sense the sea, and grow things in his garden. I’ve never been interested in trying to ‘explain’ Blake. But filming Carol Leader’s rich lecture on how she uses Blake’s work in psychoanalysis, and the presentations by Reverend Malcolm Guite and Reverend Christopher Rowland on Blake as a Christian icon, have both been wonderful experiences for me, a witness to inspiring efforts to explain or understand him in specific, focused ways.

I would recommend Will Franken’s deep and visceral film Red, White & Blake for his efforts to engage with some of the specifics. And, on the subject of connection to land, friend of Finding Blake Matt Wilmshurst is in the thick of producing Blake in Sussex, a feature drama about William and Catherine’s three years in Felpham. We’re greatly looking forward to seeing that and wish Matt and the team great success.

My film and this project are not about ‘me’ finding Blake. It’s about a shared journey, for all of us: exploring. I’m steering and mediating it, and my voice is there asking questions, commenting and reflecting. I ask a lot of questions of everyone I’ve met along this road; I’m good at asking questions, though in interviews we’ve stuck rigidly to three simple ones:

  • How has William Blake influenced you, personally and professionally?
  • What examples of his work — poems, engravings, images — or his life resonate with and inspire you?
  • How do you feel William Blake is most relevant to the current day: as artist, spiritual visionary, political inspiration?

And I have been delighted when interviewees go wildly off with their answers: there is no right Blakean answer!

Finding Blake  — the film

But back to the product: the intangible tangible thing that this project has been created around is and is nudging toward in this chunk of Blakean time. I have a file full of sections and rough cuts, and an overall structure that I’m slotting sections into. I’m thinking about where interview clips go, and which sections resonate with others and with which words, and how much to mess around with linear time.

I’ve done a big chunk of this initial editing and structuring up in a quiet cottage in Cumbria, thanks to a great friend of and contributor to the project, Clare Crossman. While there, I discovered that Kathleen Raine — probably the single person who did the most to promote Blake into our era — had a house nearby. So in seeking the quiet places for inspiration and focus, Blake comes with me and crops up again, not just in written word and image (I had a big box of books to keep me going), but in the most wonderful ways.

The plan is that I’ll do some test screenings here in Cambridge in a week or so, mainly to invited critical eyes and those closely involved in the project, and then there will be the first public screening with the Blake Society in London on Wednesday 16th January. Anyone is welcome to this event, but please check with the Blake Society, of course.

Following this, we’ll take in some of the comments and feedback, think about further ideas we have in mind to film, and then take it forward. Any ideas you have for screening opportunities, please shout!

Blake's new gravestone unveiled - a key moment in our first year
Blake’s new gravestone unveiled
Photograph: Lida Cardozo Kindersley © 2018
www.kindersleyworkshop.co.uk/

So a huge shout to all who chipped in a year ago: your sterling efforts have helped get the project to this point! Thank you! Your funds have been spent on travel, paying for filming and a tiny bit of my editing time, hard drives, memory cards, the odd Blake book or four, and hosting the website.

Without your support, ‘Finding Blake’ could never have started out on this Blakean journey …

We made that start without attracting all the funds we needed, because it was important to begin the journey and to share the benefits of our exploration through our film and website. We are actively seeking further funds to complete all the activities we set out to do. If you would like to make a donation, please use the button on the site or get in touch. And if you have suggestions for other funding ideas, we’d love to have them!

Our first year — and beyond

I just want to end this post with some further thank yous for Finding Blake’s first year: two specifics and a general one. To Mark, for astonishing perseverance and clarity in progressing with this website, dealing with words, images, layout, and fielding questions and responding. To Linda, who has been a marvel: digesting, processing Blake, driving us, interviewing, providing emergency sausage rolls, liaising, and more. And to so many in my technical and feedback crew, who respond to my questions and calls for help, and give the critical feedback that keeps me semi-sane and on the creative meander in this crazy world. And finally, to Mr William Blake: poet — artist — prophet …

A happy New Year to all. May it bring us clarity, deep visioning, and the energy to live richly.

The Sun at His Eastern Gate
William Blake
Watercolor, over traces of black chalk
Source: The Morgan Library & Museum www.themorgan.org

A few extra things to look out for soon:

  • In a few weeks, we’ll start posting a regular series of extra footage and material that is additional to the film, a kind of ‘DVD extras’ bundle if you like.
  • I’ve really resonated with one or two of Blake’s images when I’ve met them in the flesh this year (see The Unfolding and Unveiling, about the exhibition at Petworth and in particular Blake’s image, The sea of time and space), and of course there have been some I haven’t connected to. This year, Finding Blake wants to start a mini-series of posts from you telling us about the images you love, or hate, and why.
  • The wonderful Tyger painting by Linda, from her residency at a Cambridgeshire school, will shortly go on sale online by auction to raise further funds for this project. More details will be announced here soon.

 


Notes

You can find a 2018 review by Jason Whittaker of Will Franken’s film Red, White and Blake at Zoamorphosis | The Blake Blog 2.0

There is more information about Blake in Sussex, the forthcoming film from Matt Wilmshurst at the Blake in Sussex site.

James will be discussing the Finding Blake project and film, and presenting material from his film at a screening after the AGM of the Blake Society at Waterstones Bookshop (82 Gower Street, London WC1E 6EQ) on 16th January (6.30pm). See the Blake Society events page for info (scroll down to January and mention of ‘Finding Blake’).

William Blake & the Doleful City of God: 1 – McAllen, Texas

Adriana Díaz Enciso. Photographer: Teresa Espinasa
Photo: Teresa Espinasa

Finding Blake welcomes another powerful voice to our explorations. Adriana Díaz-Enciso is an author of poetry and fiction and a translator. She was born in Mexico, and has been living in London since 1999. In a compelling series of posts for Finding Blake — marking the publication of her Blakean novel, Ciudad doliente de Dios, in Mexico today — Adriana shares with us her remarkable journey from discovering Blake on a family trip to Texas, immersing herself in his work and her own in Mexico, the USA and London. 


When I think of where I first found Blake, the words come to me: “I found William Blake in Hell”. I like the idea.

Hell in this case was a shopping mall in McAllen, Texas, during the last holiday I spent with my family before leaving home. I must have been eighteen. I had heard of Blake before in terms so vague I can’t remember where or how, though I know I was curious.

Now, what was I doing in a shopping mall in McAllen, Texas? And, even more perplexing, what was Blake doing there?

I was born in Guadalajara, in Western Mexico, around the area where the country starts longing to become the north. There are some striking differences between north and south over there, with the north generally looking even more northwards — the ultimate goal being the USA. I’m not sure to what extent this is the case still now, but in my time certain kinds of families had this bizarre idea that going shopping in Texas could be called a holiday. The dogma was that things were so badly made in Mexico (all things: clothing, shoes, make-up, stationery, sweets, LPs, you name it… even people!) that it was necessary to cross to el otro lado (‘the other side’) to get quality stuff that was indispensable for living without sorrow. We made the expedition every year.

Hell - the shopping mall Image by Adriana Díaz-Enciso 2018
Hell – the shopping mall
Image: Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018

Outgrowing the dogma

For years I believed in the dogma, but by the time I made that last trip I had outgrown it. At 16, after having read Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas and A Room of One’s Own, I had decided that I didn’t only ‘like’ writing, but that I would become the real thing.

The discovery of vocation came with the side-effect of coming to thoroughly hate those shopping orgies, and on that last one — with all the drama that a teenager worth the name is capable of — I was thinking in despair of ways of saving my soul and intellect in the midst of that temple to vacuity at which my family, and many others, worshipped every day during those trips. “I don’t want clothes!”, I cried to myself in fury (though deep, deep inside I knew I did want some). “I want the things of the spirit! Where can I go in this godforsaken place to avoid contamination?”

The shopping mall had, believe it or not, a bookshop. And it was browsing its shelves in desperation that I came across the Penguin Classics edition of Blake’s Complete Poems. Maybe it was its thick spine that first called my attention, as I was yearning for pages to literally submerge myself in and swim away. I pulled it out and saw the cover.

I had never seen a Blake illustration before, and now I was suddenly confronted by Death on a Pale Horse: some irate deity, face hard as stone, riding on a white steed, seemingly torn between the powers of darkness and light… and darkness winning. It was powerful. Strange and slightly threatening, so utterly other from anything I had ever seen before. Then I read the back cover, which summarised the trajectory of an artist and poet who had been colossal: a visionary, rebellious, and misunderstood. “This is it,” I thought, and bought it.

Death on a Pale Horse Artist: William Blake c 1800
Death on a Pale Horse
Artist: William Blake c 1800
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Soon Blake would be crossing the border to Mexico with me.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Some years would pass without my seeing any more of Blake’s illustrations. Meanwhile, I endeavoured to read his complete poems. The journey started easily enough, but got more and more complicated as I moved forward. To start with, my Penguin edition displayed poetry in a way I found unnerving: with lines from alternative versions of the poems in brackets, the poems themselves divided according to a ‘plate’ number. I hadn’t understood the way Blake worked, nor in what an extraordinary manner his poems had been originally printed, and I resented the interrupted flow of words.

Then there were the words themselves. I was first drawn by the mirroring drama of the Songs of Innocence and Experience as much as by The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The latter’s prestige as an emblem of seditious poetry had reached even Guadalajara — which perhaps wasn’t that strange, it being in those times such a conservative city that poets there had truly no other choice than burning.

I was a big fan of Jim Morrison, and knowing that The Doors had taken their name from a Blakean verse (or from Aldous Huxley’s book, The Doors of Perception, but he had taken it from Blake in any case) put Blake among my favourites way before I could claim I understood him. I was into Rimbaud and Les Chants de Maldoror. Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell seemed to me to be in that league: untamed, daring all conventional notions of good and evil to stand unshaken in the light of fierce lucidity. I was provoked too by the mystery I sensed in even what appeared to be Blake’s most straightforward poems. However, when I got to what we now call his Prophetic Poems, I was utterly baffled.

Changer of worlds 

For years too, I don’t think I understood them at all. But I wanted to. One thing I knew: that there was an energy contained in there which, though its core eluded me, had the power to change a world. I was intrigued and irritated by them in equal measure, upset at not being able to crack them open. Not even at that tender age was I so naïve as to believe that poetry could change the world — mainly because you’d first need for ‘the world’ to want to change, which is unusual — but I knew that it could certainly change worlds, and I wanted mine to be among them.

Gradually I got to see some reproductions of Blake’s illustrated poems, which brought one of the various quakes which have forced me to reformulate my appreciation of Blake throughout the decades: here was a man who, not contented with being able to change worlds, had created a whole universe himself. Through the union of word and image, that universe lacked nothing.

His pages formed so much more than a conventional poem, a conventional pictorial image or a conventional book. They were unrefutably alive, their elements woven with threads of most exquisite beauty, ignoring all common wisdom about formal rules. He was fierce like a wild beast, playful like a child. It was then that the text on the back cover of my Penguin edition took its fair dimension — William Blake was a free spirit. Freer than anyone I could think of. Maybe even freer than Rimbaud!

However, even in that discovery there was puzzlement. There were a couple of illustrations I didn’t like at all, particularly if seen against the stunning beauty of his other images, both the most ferocious and the most delicate ones. My general sense was that Blake had been a poet and artist in constant overflow, indomitable, for better or for worse. In this I was close to the truth, though I still didn’t know that much about his life, and it enticed me because I had an instinctive leaning to the force of excess in art (Blake would call it exuberance).

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell William Blake (1790)
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
William Blake (1790)
Library of Congress

He overwhelmed me, fascinated and provoked me. I wanted Blake. But I didn’t have him. 


Notes

Adriana Díaz-Enciso is an author of poetry and fiction, as well as a translator. She was born in Mexico, and has been living in London since 1999. She has been a Trustee and Secretary of the Blake Society. Work she has written on William Blake can be found on her website: diazenciso.wordpress.com.

Cover Ciudad doliente de Dios, crop, Adriana Díaz-EncisoAdriana’s novel, Ciudad doliente de Dios (Doleful City of God), is published today in Mexico by Alfaguara, a Penguin Random House imprint, in co-edition with the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

 

In her next post for Finding Blake, Adriana recalls her adventures in breaking into Blake’s world, translating his poems into Spanish, creating a Blakean ‘sound collage’ for a Mexican rock band, and embarking on her third novel. But the real world also breaks in, in the form of a horrific massacre in Chiapas state, and the meaning of Blake’s prophetic poems takes on a new clarity for her. 

A Pocketful of Riches: Adapting Blake to Song

Joseph A. ThompsonWe welcome Joseph Andrew Thompson as our latest author for Finding Blake. Joseph is a composer, musician, writer and the creative mind behind the duo Astralingua. Their forthcoming album, Safe Passage, features their adaptation of William Blake’s poem A Poison Tree. This song is released today and Finding Blake is delighted to publish this account of its development to mark its release. 


William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience immediately enthralled me upon first read. A high school friend had lent me his worn copy, and I read, amazed by its elegant simplicity. It presented itself like a children’s storybook, complete with illustrations, perfect rhyme, and steady meter. Yet, beneath this playful facade was a masterwork, rife with meaning, craft, metaphor, and vision.

When I learned of the existence of other editions, I ventured to the bookstore to pore through any I might find. I would have been very delighted at purchasing my own illustrated copy, but with only a pittance to spare that day, settled instead on a text-only pocket version by Penguin that I found amidst the larger hardcovers.

Astralingua - Blake & Guitar
Astralingua – Blake & Guitar. Photo: Astralingua © 2018

Discovering A Poison Tree

The little songbook easily fit in my coat pocket and for the first six months of possessing it, I carried it around with me, reading it in quiet moments. It was still with me in college, when on many an evening, a fellow songwriter and I stood in my humble apartment, passing it back and forth, reading aloud the poems in different voices. Always a favorite, A Poison Tree was memorized, and often read in a voice not unlike Montresor’s, from Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado. In time, the book eventually made its way to a pocket of my carry bag, where still to this day it stays, like a most trusted talisman.

One evening a few years ago, while working on my band Astralingua’s coming album Safe Passage, my music partner Anne R. Thompson and I were at once struck by the idea of adapting one of Blake’s songs to music. Needing no deliberation, the obvious choice was A Poison Tree, as few among my friends had not at one time or another heard me slyly recite it. Excited by the idea, I retrieved my shoulder bag and found my little copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience.

As I flipped through the pages, I thought back to my college days with the book, and suddenly recalled an old song on which I had worked then. Absorbed in Romanticism, I had been writing in a Blakean mood of sorts, but dissatisfied with my lyrics, had since left the song unfinished. Now, I wondered if it might in some way fit A Poison Tree. Almost magically, with but a few changes to the original melody, it did so seamlessly, leaving me to wonder if this marriage of the two had not always been my true intent.

Cover Art for A Poison Tree, by Astralingua.
Cover Art for A Poison Tree, by Astralingua. Design: Astralingua © 2018

In the midst of Safe Passage

And thus our version was born and grew. That night, Anne and I giddily sang it together, myself on guitar, and her reading from my pocketbook, harmonizing the melody. In production, we tried to give it an Old World minstrel sound, to place it closer to Blake’s era. With the voice and melody, I sought to convey the revelling dark glee with which, in my imagination, I always hear it read. During the sequencing, the song was placed in the middle of the album, at a darker part of its narrative.

Safe Passage is a discussion on mortality, isolation, struggle, and the movement between worlds. A Poison Tree, with its dual realities — that of the narrator and that of his unsuspecting foe — fits right in with the other tracks. Rich in possible interpretations, it helps press further the album’s central questions: How, if at all, can safe passage be attained? Who or what provides it? Who denies it?

Astralingua: Composer Joseph Andrew Thompson and backup vocalist Anne Rose Thompson
Astralingua: Composer Joseph Andrew Thompson and backup vocalist Anne Rose Thompson. Photo: Lisa Siciliano © 2018

I hope our adaptation brings the listener just as much joy in hearing it as I got from creating it, and more so, brings a smile to the face of a great poet in the sky.

You can hear A Poison Tree from today via our bandcamp link here: 

Additional:

And you can now also enjoy this video presentation of Astralingua’s A Poison Tree — words and images by William Blake. 


Notes

Astralingua are composer Joseph Andrew Thompson and backup vocalist Anne Rose Thompson. The nomadic space-folk duo explores life’s unknowns, blending haunting vocal harmonies, radiant strings, and otherworldly soundscapes into crafted songs that fall somewhere between classical, folk and psychedelia. You can discover more of their work at astralingua.com and at bandcamp.  

Their album Safe Passage is available for pre-order now, and will be released in early March 2019:

You can find Blake’s poem A Poison Tree at Poetry Foundation and there is a short analysis of “one of English literature’s most striking explorations of the corrupting effects of anger … one of William Blake’s miniature masterpieces” at interestingliterature.com. And don’t forget that there’s more to explore in the Blakean Articles and Other Blakean Artefacts pages in A Blakean Archive!