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Blakefest 2018

With Bognor Regis gearing up for its annual Blake-inspired arts festival tomorrow, Blakefest director Rachel Searle shares just a few of the highlights. Blakefest has become a unique cultural experience by the sea, featuring international art, poetry, political discussion panels. As Rachel says, "in all honesty, it's very pleasingly different and eclectic in its approach, and perfectly mirrors the creative magpie approach, showcasing the whole spectrum of art forms."

The presence of William Blake as a resident in my hometown of Felpham has always been a catalyst for me wanting to create a cultural legacy in Bognor, that both honours him but also celebrates new art and contemporary visionary artists, as well as bringing in artists that embrace his rebel spirit and political resistance. We are really excited by the acts we’ve managed to secure this year and the breadth of the programming.

BlakeFest, part of the Big Blake Project, has its roots in Blake’s vision of Beulah, perhaps best understood as a window on earth into heaven itself: In Felpham, Blake penned “Heaven opens here on all sides her golden gates” and the words to Jerusalem. In the “spirit of Blake’s poetic genius”, BlakeFest is a synthesis of original music, poetry and audio-visual art and includes talks on issues of ‘the imagination’ and social justice. Our over-riding aim for BlakeFest is to be an agent of regeneration in Bognor Regis through the exploration and celebration of William Blake.

Before the main programme

While the main programme starts tomorrow, there is a question-time style panel debate tonight. Building Jerusalem is a public meeting, being held as part of BlakeFest 2018 at Chichester University, involving talks and a panel discussion exploring the relevance of William Blake’s poem/hymn Jerusalem, and wider philosophy, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Britain’s potential role in finding a solution to it. The event is an inter-faith and truth-seeking initiative and there will be no promotion of ideological or religious views that favour one faction of humanity over others. 

Building Jerusalem was inspired by the community poem – ‘We’ll Do It’ – crafted by Stella Bahin during her time as BlakeFest’s Poet-in-Residence. For me,’We’ll Do It’ reveals the heartbeat of Blake’s Jerusalem in the people of Bognor Regis today. With Blake’s own visions of both Beulah and Jerusalem, the idea of an inclusive inter-faith panel discussion emerged. This was followed by a sobering trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank. The highlight of the trip was meeting Dareen Tatour who used her precious last hours of freedom to give us a tour of her beloved Nazereth.”

Blakefest: music, poetry and talks

Our daytime programme starts at midday on Saturday with local and national talent. And the South Downs Poetry Festival has converged with Blakefest this year, curated by local bard Barry Smith — placing jazz and poetry alongside each other, weaving in and out of the musical acts throughout the day.

In keeping with Blake’s anti-establishment spirit of personal freedom, the acclaimed 1970s pop icon Lene Lovich headlines in the evening, with second headliner the All Things Must Pass Orchestra; led by Alex Eberhart, this is a celebration of the music of visionary Beatle, George Harrison. 

Mikey B Georgeson has been a major mover and shaker with BlakeFest, in capacities ranging from musician, exhibition curator, speaker and generally inspiring those around him. This year, he brings his Silent Disco, an art installation called An Actual Occasion and then performing as Mr Solo: an eclectic range of original, very individual, material taking inspiration from Bowie, the Beatles and Blake. A riveting and highly eloquent performer, this promises to be another highlight of BlakeFest 2018.

Vincent Gray will be unveiling and available to discuss an exciting possible sculpture for Bognor Regis, Albion Rose. Vincent recently completed a Keats sculpture now permanently installed in Eastgate Square, in Chichester.

The evening event at the Alexandra Theatre is being opened by a talk on Blake and the 60s by the accessible and scholarly Tobias Churton. The internationally-recognised and respected Churton, a very erudite orator, will be shedding light on Blake’s enduring contribution to our culture, focusing on the resurgence of his popular influence through the 1960s which still resonates across the arts, philosophically and spiritually.

Jamie Leeming will headline an afternoon set of live music sessions. He’ll also be accompanying the Southdown Festival Poets, culminating in Sasha Dugdale’s vocalising of Catherine Blake. Joy: Poetry & Jazz features Sasha Dugdale, Niall McDevitt, Naomi Foyle, Barry Smith and Jamie. The genre-crossing compositions of Jamie Leeming — with strong roots in the jazz tradition, but with folk-influenced imagery and textures  — meet the Blake-inspired words of South Downs poets!

Ciaran O’Driscoll and Margaret Farrelly with John Davies (aka Shedman) can be trusted to bring their lyrical Celtic music and humour to the afternoon. Probably the biggest contemporary name in Irish literature, Ciaran has won several awards and formally recognised by the Irish Arts Council as making an outstanding contribution to art and literature.

Alongside the wonderful musical lineup, free Silent Disco and performance poetry, there will be a graffiti art exhibition and bitesize talks on: Graffiti, Ginsberg and Blake; Blake and the Divided Brain; Female Revolutionary Figures

There is also an event in William and Catherine Blakes’ Cottage on Sunday and a guided walk.

Bognor Regis is a town poised at the brink of regeneration following similar projects in Margate, Hastings and Liverpool, with proposals including a major ‘William Blake Theatre’ — channelling local culture and arts to enrich their current heritage and touristic allure.


Notes

BlakeFest 2018 is taking place over the weekend 14th-16th September with the main focus being the all-day Live Music Festival on Saturday 15th at The Regis Centre/Alexandra Theatre from noon onwards. The Fringe Events on Friday and Sunday have limited numbers and payable separately.

The event is sponsored by Chichester University & Chichester Observer

You can find more information and booking details at the Blakefest website. This video shows events from last year’s festival.

 

Imagination, Experience and the Limitations of Reason

Finding Blake is a project that explores the relevance of the work and life of William Blake to us, here and now. And what could be of greater relevance than the question of the balance between reason, experience and imagination in how we see ourselves, our world and its problems and promises? In this post, Kevin Fischer -- author of the book Converse in the Spirit: William Blake, Jacob Boehme & the Creative Spirit -- takes us to the heart of the matter.

Blake saw how reason can be limiting when it is too prominent, and too disconnected from our other vital faculties and capacities. As he wrote in Jerusalem, when “the Reasoning Power in Man [is] separated / From Imagination,” it encloses “itself as in steel, in a Ratio / Of the Things of Memory.”

In his recent and very important book on the workings of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist casts light on this. Imagination is primarily at work in the right hemisphere, while rationalism has a tendency to dominate in the left. McGilchrist writes, “in almost every case, what is new must first be present in the right hemisphere, before it can come into focus to the left.” It “is only … the right hemisphere that is in direct contact with the embodied living world: the left hemisphere is by comparison a virtual, bloodless affair.”

The left hemisphere, McGilchrist goes on, “deals with what it [already] knows … This process eventually becomes so automatic that we do not so much experience the world as experience our representation of the world … a virtual world, a copy.” Ultimately, the mind can become “disconnected from everything that is outside it.”

Breaking out of the already known

As Blake saw, the ‘Reasoning Power’ is an “Abstract objecting power, that Negatives every thing”. He wrote of those who are isolated and alienated by it: “Beyond the bounds of their own self their senses cannot penetrate” and “He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only, sees himself only.” For all its claims to be our primary means of gaining access to reality, this ‘Reasoning Power’ can therefore distance us from full, living knowledge and understanding; and the more it functions in isolation, in an enclosed ‘virtual’ world, the more it can slip into solipsism and fantasy.

Blake saw imagination as something profoundly different from fantasy. Contrary to common conception, this imagination is not about make-believe, the creation of the fantastical, nor is it wish-fulfilment. Blake regarded it as an essential part of life, a means of breaking out of the ‘dull round’ of the ‘ratio’ of abstract reason, of the already known, and through to that which is other than and beyond ourselves. It is a means of putting us more in touch with — and more into — the world, acting as a bridge between the experiencing individual and that which is experienced. It helps root us in living experience.

While imagination helps place us more fully in the world as it is, its relationship with that world is at the same time creative. Blake understood that true Art is a spiritual activity, a creative life that every individual should pursue: “The whole Business of Man Is The Arts & All Things Common” and “Christianity is Art.”

His vision is dynamic and imaginative, because reality is not fixed, finished, and unchanging, and thus capable of being fully and finally understood and explained. Rather, it is ongoing, evolving, ever-expanding. Blake thus stresses the need for each individual to encounter and interpret anew the truths that ‘reside in the human breast’. From the liberating possibilities of this understanding, Blake’s character Los asserts:

I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Mans
I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create

Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion, Plate 100
William Blake
Source: The Blake Archive

Accordingly, his work is created with a view to opening … 

the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought: into Eternity Ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination.

The eye of imagination not only looks outward, as it were, and so places us more firmly in the world around us, but also within. In many respects, Blake’s writings provide a profound insight into the workings of the human mind. That which is other than ourselves, beyond the ‘ratio’ of our reason, is also within us, and imagination is an important means of putting us in touch with it.

Reason and the exile

Vitally, Blake understood that there are profound capacities latent in each individual that for the most part remain unexplored and unrealised: immense possibilities that are naturally inherent within us, our birthright. He wrote that “Man is Born like a Garden ready Planted & Sown”, and “I always thought that the Human Mind was the most Prolific of All Things & Inexhaustible.”

The sublime riches of the inner life are

Shadowy to those who dwell not in them, meer possibilities:
But to those who enter into them they seem the only substances.

A great deal of Blake’s work is addressed to the ways in which human beings are shut off from awareness of all the potential that lies within them: “man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

In The Book of Urizen, he writes of those who cannot “rise at will / In the infinite void,” but are “bound down / To earth by their narrowing perceptions.” In Europe, the faculties of such persons are “Turn’d outward, barr’d and petrify’d against the infinite.” Blake equates this exile with the Fall of Man. Disembodied rationalism is a major source of this loss: “the Reasoning Spectre / Stands between the Vegetable Man & his Immortal Imagination.” The Spectre is “a false Body: an Incrustation over my Immortal/Spirit; a Selfhood.”

The Book of Urizen, copy G
William Blake
Source: The William Blake Archive

Ultimate authority resides in the infinite potential within the individual, for 

in your own Bosom you bear your Heaven And Earth, & all you behold, tho it appears Without it is Within In your Imagination of which this World of Mortality is but a Shadow.

Blake sought to awaken the mind from its usual, often habitual modes of understanding and perception, to a real and living awareness of the limited terms in which life can too often be lived. One such limitation is the assumption that we simply see things as they are, that our eye faithfully and fully sees what is there in the world, when in fact reality as we understand it is filtered through us. Again, Blake believed that life is not given and fixed. Man is not merely a tabula rasa on which reality writes itself. As he stated, “As a man is So he Sees.” When cut off too much from our imagination and the profound possibilities within us, the world that is seen and experienced shrinks:

If Perceptive Organs vary: Objects of Perception seem to vary:
If the Perceptive Organs close: their Objects seems to close also.

With this, reductionism is born, “comprehending great, as very small.” Exiled from the best part of his inner nature, man shrinks accordingly. Blake repeatedly writes of his characters, “they became what they beheld.”

Cleansing the imagination

Conversely, when the imagination is properly at work in the outer and inner worlds, both come more to life. To put this in another way, through imagination we experience more; and what we experience — and so understand — grows, expands. This true, imaginative life looks out at the end of A Vision of the Last Judgment:

I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight … I look thro it & not with it.

The inner, spiritual self looks out and sees through the outer. When this imaginative eye is engaged with the world, that which has been drained of life by habit and over-familiarity, by the ‘ratio’, the ‘dull round’ of what we already know, is seen and experienced anew, as if for the very first time:

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear as it is: infinite.

Through imagination we experience a far greater sense of the full reality of existence — that is, we truly see, feel and know how astonishing, how utterly extraordinary it is to be alive in the world. And as the outward world is not shut off from the imaginative and creative life of the inward, the reality of the world comes more to life. As “every thing that lives is Holy”, the outward world reflects back the life of the spirit.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Copy H, Plate 14
William Blake

In Blake’s poem Europe, a Fairy evokes this living interplay. The narrator asks, “What is the material world, and is it dead?” Having sung of “the eternal world that ever groweth”, the Fairy promises “I’ll … shew you all alive / The world, when every particle of dust breathes forth its joy.”

The same vision is expressed in Auguries of Innocence:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.

Imagination creates the bridge between — and makes possible awareness of the inter-relationship between — the human and the divine. Blake wrote that “God only Acts & Is, in existing beings or Men.” As the figure of the Saviour says at the beginning of Jerusalem:

I am in you and you in me, mutual in love divine … I am not a God afar off, I am a brother and friend; Within your bosoms I reside, and you reside in me: Lo! We are One.

In particular, imagination is vital because it helps put us in touch with that which is other than ourselves, in the outside world, not least other people. Empathic, it connects us with other human beings. It is that in which, as Blake perceived, ‘All/Human Forms’ are ‘identified’:

He who would see the Divinity must see him in his Children One first, in friendship & love; then a Divine Family, & in the midst Jesus will appear.

When reason is too shut off from all of the other human faculties and capacities, it can abstract us from our humanity. As Blake puts it, in “Attempting to be more than Man We become less.” Compassion, for instance, has to be experienced, felt, lived, with an imaginative connection with others. Without it, morality becomes theoretical, legalistic, oppressive and, too often, hypocritical. Embodied imagination humanises us, and places us very much in the world as human beings. And when this happens, true Reason can function.

Exploring our potential through imagination, Blake both encourages and urges us to make new discoveries and to create new forms for the life of the spirit. Reality is inexhaustible, and, when imaginatively engaged with, continually reveals new possibilities: there is “no Limit of Expansion … no Limit of Translucence.”


Notes

Kevin Fischer is the author of Converse in the Spirit: William Blake, Jacob Boehme, and the Creative Spirit (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2004). He is working on a novel about a visionary artist, which takes as its theme spiritual exile and homecoming. This post is based on the lecture William Blake & Jacob Boehme: Imagination, Experience & the Limitations of Reason, which was given at the Temenos Academy, and is published in the Temenos Academy Review 20 (2017). The full paper can be found here.

Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary was published by Yale University Press in 2009. You can download the introduction to the book, and discover much more, at Iain McGilchrist’s website. And you can read a 2015 interview Iain McGilchrist gave at Interalia Magazine. 

Iain McGilchrist gave the 2016 Blake Society Lecture, The Infinite Brain and the Narrow Circle.

 

Strange Mystery Flower

Finding Blake welcomes songwriter and musician Roger Arias, whose Strange Mystery Flower adaptation of four of William Blake's poems featured in the Other Blakean Artefacts section of our Blakean Archive. Here, Roger describes how this musical project arose from his personal encounter with Blake's poems and from the journey these accompanied him on.

This is the story of the birth of a musical project, Strange Mystery Flower.

It all begins in Ferrol, a port city located in Galicia, on the northwest of Spain, some time in early 2014. One of the many musicians who live in this run-down and quaint city comes home after a night of partying and, after a small discussion with his girlfriend, he takes the first book he finds in his humble library and goes to his room. Needless to say, he was so wasted that his eyes closed before opening a miserable page. The next day, with the foreseeable hangover, he opens one eye and finds a small cover in front of his face that reads like this: William Blake: Songs of Innocence and Experience. He begins to flip through it and immediately perceives and senses something that connects him with those verses. Some melodies begin to play around in his head. Curiously, he does not remember having acquired that book and it does not belong to his girlfriend either; the explanation of how it got home, which for sure exists, is still a mystery today. The name of this musician is Roger Arias.

Travelling with a Blakean spirit

Returning to the subject in question, from that first encounter the book accompanies him everywhere and Roger becomes more and more familiar with the Blakean spirit. On those days, the first two songs arise, inspired by the poems Spring and Night. Already fully aware of the powerful connection he is feeling at a deep, almost spiritual level, he decides to shelve the book for another, more timely, occasion.

Strange Mystery Flower Cover design: Mario Feal © 2018

That time would be September 2014. Roger acquires a complete anthology of Blake’s poetry entitled See a world in a grain of sand and prepares a small suitcase with clothes. These two things, as well as a guitar, a sleeping bag, some other books and some records (among which were some compilations of acid folk that a good friend had recommended), are his only companions on a trip that he decides to make to the north of Italy.

From poetical to musical sketches

Once this trip starts, and after making several stops in the north of Spain (specifically in Asturias and the Basque Country, where he meets old friends and plays a few gigs that help him defray the cost of the trip), he arrives in a small village located in the Odesa National Park in the Pyrenees, a natural border between Spain and France. There he opens for the first time the recently acquired book by Blake. He finds, at the very beginning, Blake’s Poetical Sketches, which include a short poem entitled Song first by a shepherd, whose first and timely verse is “Welcome, stranger, to this place … “, and immediately a melody emerges as a ray of light to accompany these verses in the most appropriate environment, the high Pyrenean mountains. There also arose Miss Gittipin’s second song.

Song first by a shepherd

It is only the beginning. After several weeks, the protagonist of this story has musicalized twenty-four poems! As well as his first song in Italian, although this is another story… Most of the songs that emerge over the next few days do so in situations analogous to the content of the poem, as in the aforementioned Song first by a shepherd. For example, at a certain moment that Roger needs to rest from driving all day, he leaves the highway and arrives at a charming little town called Colle di Val d’Elsa. In a small park located on a hill in front of the village and the bell tower of its church, the musician sits on a bench to regain strength and watches how a lady takes care of a boy and a girl playing in the field and the swings. After a while, Roger opens the book and finds a poem titled Nurse’s song. The melody appears immediately.

On another occasion, wandering around inner Tuscany, he arrives at a town called Tarquinia, in the heart of Etruria. After having dinner in a tavern of the village, where he is talking for a while with the innkeeper (a nice man who even showed him the Etruscan tombs located in the basement of his bar) he goes to sleep in his car, as usual. After an hour of rest, loud noises awaken him; it seemed like the sky was falling on Tarquinia. It is one of the typical end-of-summer storms in Tuscany. At that moment he decides to spend the night in a tunnel near the town that he had glimpsed in his walk before dinner. In that tunnel, that night, Roger opens the book and a new song is born, The Little Vagabond.

Strange mystery flowering

In the same way, many more songs emerge from the inspired mind of this “little vagabond” throughout his journey through the transalpine country. Genoa, Modena, Siena, Florence, the Mediterranean coast, the Adriatic side, Foligno, Assisi and a few other places are some of the ones Roger visit and where many of these songs are created. It is a magical journey, in all senses, which emerges from a strong intuition and in which certain energies that surpass reason and understanding accompany and shield the musician along this adventure; or so he feels. At the end of it, he realises that he has a treasure worthy of being shared with his family, so when he gets home he locks himself up for a few days to register and record these songs with his guitar and voice. It would be nice enjoying them with his family and friends.

Roger Arias
Photograph: Oscar Millarengo © 2018

Shortly after, he decides to record four of them in a more complete and professional way with the help of his sister, Amparo Arias, as second voice of the project and the musician / arranger Raúl Diz, as well as other punctual collaborations, such as the cellist Macarena Montesinos or the bassist Íñigo Uzarmendi.

And that’s the way this EP of four songs was born, accompanied by the desire to be shared with the world thanks to this project, once dreamed by Roger, and in which Blake and other great poets of humanity will be sung. I do hope it has a long and intense journey ahead: Strange Mystery Flower


Notes

Roger Arias is a musician, singer, songwriter and independent producer from Galicia. But above all he is a lover of the nature and the sea, a researcher of the weaknesses of the heart, a portrayer of the society we live in, a passionate reader, an inveterate cinephile, an intrepid traveler, a unique bohemian… activities that have had a strong influence in his music and art through all his albums, videoclips and concerts. Recently he has published a joint album with the Madrid musician Charlie Mysterio, with the name of Os Peregrinos and published by Elefant Records. 

You can find four of Roger’s Blake-inspired songs for Strange Mystery Flower on YouTube and on Bandcamp

NB: This post originally contained a link to an article which we suggested was about Strange Flower Mystery, but as Roger himself quickly pointed out was referring to another band! See our Corrections page.