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Modest Things

Finding Blake is delighted to welcome artist, musician, illustrator, songwriter and poet Salli Hipkiss, who has very generously offered a poem she wrote in 2017. Modest Things brings her life-long love of William Blake to her growing concern with the problems of climate change and other environmental threats to human and other life.

As with many children, I first encountered Blake when my primary school teacher read The Tyger aloud in class. I remember being awed by the vivid creature that formed clearly in my imagination, and also being a little shocked and thrilled by the mis-rhyme of “eye” and “symmetry” which hinted that the rules of language were far from set in stone.

As an ‘A’ level English and Art student, Blake appeared again and I enjoyed responding visually, carving a mahogany dragon knotted around a wax rose inspired by The Sick Rose as part of my sculpture course. I feel I grew up with Blake. Since those beginnings I have continued to feel a strong kinship with the way he moves fluidly between vision, language, poetry, and advocacy — between eye and ear and mind and heart. 

The Sick Rose (Songs of Innocence and of Experience)
by William Blake , ca. 1825
Medium: Relief etching printed in orange-brown ink and hand-colored with watercolor and gold
Public Domain: The Met Museum, New York
www.metmuseum.org

I went on to gain a degree in Fine Art and Art History from Goldsmiths College and later an MA in Children’s Book Illustration from Cambridge School of Art. I have worked as an art teacher at home and internationally. 

I am also drawn to Blake’s sense of an innate justice, especially his railing against forces which rob people of their natural, creative life paths and individual flourishing, or nature of its natural expression and abundance:  “A Robin Red breast in a Cage/ Puts all Heaven in a Rage”. And I delight in exploring the universal in his more mystical lines.

The poem I am thrilled to be sharing here was written in March 2017 in response to my own musing — and attempt not to be despairing — about the magnitude of the environmental problems facing our planet today. Seeking intuitively to find an imaginative, inner mentor to help grapple with these issues I found myself asking the question: “What would William Blake have done?” I felt a pulse of excitement as I recognised this could be the first line of a poem and I crafted the rest of the poem from there. I am very happy to discover the Finding Blake website and her community of like minds and feel honoured to be asked to share my work here. Thank you.

Modest Things  


What would William Blake have done when faced with climate change?
Would he have balked at mills rolled out at scales
His pastoral demons never could have seen?                                   
Should we be kinder to our visionaries living now?
Those with imaginations wide enough to see the enormity of what might loom:
(The unmarked loss of countless furred and scaled and feathered kin);
Those with ears that hear too loud
The faltering beats – yes, hearts as well – as Evolution fails her prismatic wings?
 
And oh how highly we value our Van Goghs now!
But a heart that flowers golden;            
An acute feeling for stars;
An affinity with infinity:
These are senses that can crack a soul too wide open
If not comforted and contained by softer, closer loves.
           
And so I take my garden patch, my childrens’ corner plot,
And pour into those earthen hands as many seeds and roots and worms as I can find.
I watch as dust and rain and sunshine gather in and cradle all these modest things;
Tendrils climb and walls turn green with shiny hearts that hold a Wren.           
What I can I do to help stall Evolution’s spin,
With pen and can and hoe and taking time to show
That trees that reach so high into the stars
Must grow deep roots to balance them below.


Salli Hipkiss ©1st March 2017. All rights reserved.

Notes

Salli Hipkiss is a poet, writer, artist, songwriter, and singer who for fifteen years has worked freelance as a creative practitioner and teacher/advocate of arts and sustainability, recently alongside being a full-time home-schooling Mum. Salli’s creative work has moved between art, music, illustration, songwriting, poetry, novel-writing and more.  She is passionate about human creativity and individual flourishing, and about environmental sustainability and regeneration, and is curious about how the two areas can be symbiotic, leading to a holistic vision of wellbeing. Some of her portfolio can be explored on her website: www.sallihipkiss.com

Millefleurs 2004 © Salli Hipkiss
sallihipkiss.com

 

 

Reflections on ‘Infant Joy’ and ‘Infant Sorrow’

Our latest contributing - author, storyteller, writer and educator - Marion Leeper reflects on her childhood, teenage and adult encounters with William Blake through two of his paired poems from Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

You don’t need to be a scholar or an expert to find a connection to Blake’s poetry. These two short poems have grown with me all my life.

I first met Infant Joy aged about six: I had to copy it, in careful copperplate, for handwriting practice. It wasn’t until I went to college that I discovered Infant Sorrow.

Infant Sorrow

‘Infant Sorrow’
Artist: William Blake
Image (public domain): Wikipedia

My mother groand! my father wept.
Into the dangerous world I leapt:
Helpless, naked, piping loud;
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.

These words mirrored how I saw my teenage self, a free soul leaping into the world, struggling my way to freedom and adulthood from the fetters of family life.

Struggling in my fathers hands:
Striving against my swaddling bands:
Bound and weary I thought best
To sulk upon my mothers breast.

It was the second verse, though, that spoke to me as a young mother, discovering how powerful a baby is, a being that can be too much for two grown adults, in the sleep-deprived stretches of the night. Blake looks so intensely into the moment: he captures exactly the way a baby lifts up its head to look out at the world, but then, finding the effort too much, falls back and nuzzles the mother’s shoulder.

Infant Joy

Infant Joy’
Artist: William Blake
Source (public domain): Wikipedia (click image to link)

Infant Joy, that piece of copperplate writing, took me much longer to love. My tutor at college warned me not to underrate Songs of Innocence. Misery and experience are easy to put into words: innocence is much harder. I didn’t buy it. Infant Joy seemed banal and sentimental to me.

I have no name,
I am but two days old --
What shall I call thee?

But when I started teaching, I began to understand the poem’s power. The poet asks questions of the child – ‘What shall I call thee?’ – and listens to the answer!

I happy am
Joy is my name --
Sweet joy befall thee!

An adult valuing a child’s ideas: that seemed to me a radical idea in education then, and – with a recent Ofsted report questioning the value of play in the education of young children – no less radical now. Blake, who saw angels on every tree on Peckham Rye, depicts a baby’s smile, an infant’s knowledge of joy, as a precious gift for humanity.

Pretty Joy,
Sweet joy but two days old,
Sweet joy I call thee;
Thou dost smile,
I sing the while,
Sweet joy befall thee.

The infants in both poems are born rich, strong and powerful, to borrow a phrase from the educators of Reggio Emilia. The babe in Infant Sorrow is already bound: like too many children still today, destined for a life of hardship simply by the situation into which they are born. But the child in Infant Joy, with an adult that recognises and shares in that joy, symbolises a hope for the future.

My tutor was right. It’s too easy to accept the bound child. It’s much harder to fight for the innocent child, and their right to a world of joy. That’s why I think Blake deserves to be celebrated now, this poet who can see heaven in a grain of sand: the hardships and social injustices which cut him like knives are still hurting us today. But Blake sees beyond them to what might be, and tells us, loud and clear, that we don’t have to put up with injustice.


Notes

Marion Leeper is a storyteller, writer and educator. Based in Cambridge, England, she grew up in a family of actors, raconteurs, tellers of tall tales and downright liars. She has been listening to and telling stories (true and less true) for longer than she can remember. She tells stories for children of all ages, and specialises in multi-sensory storytelling for the very young and for people with learning difficulties. She has toured her adult shows to clubs and festivals around the country and internationally. Based in Cambridge, Marion and her amazing story mat are familiar visitors to museums, schools and libraries around the region. You can find out more at marionleeperstoryteller.co.uk

Stories in the Dark, from Marion Leeper

The Reggio Emilia approach to preschool and primary education is a student-centered philosophy. “At its core is an assumption that children form their own personality during early years of development and are endowed with ‘a hundred languages’, through which they can express their ideas. The aim of the Reggio approach is to teach how to use these symbolic languages (e.g., painting, sculpting, drama) in everyday life. It was developed after World War II by psychologist Loris Malaguzzi and parents in the villages around Reggio Emilia, Italy, and derives its name from the city.” (Wikipedia) You can discover more at the Reggio Children website, where you will also find The Hundred Languages, a poem by Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of Reggio Emilia’s educational philosophy (translated by Lela Gandini).

You can find many of William Blake’s poems, including Infant Sorrow and Infant Joy at pages listed in our More Resources pages.

Visiting Lida

In our latest post, artist Linda Richardson describes a recent Finding Blake visit to the workshop where William Blake's new headstone is being created by a master of the craft. "I recently had the great privilege of visiting Lida Cardozo Kindersley in the workshop on Victoria Road in Cambridge. She had begun to lay out the words on the Blake stone and James had come to film the process."

It has secretly been a long held desire of mine to visit this hallowed ground of letter cutters. For a few years, I had a stone masonry business of my own, where I learned not only the hefty art of lime rendering but also the fine art of letter cutting. Letters Slate Cut, one of Kindersley’s publications, was a great inspiration as I was learning and I used to drive past their workshop holding my breath, like someone passing the house of their favourite movie star.

Beautifully cut stones of all kinds

It was an overcast day but the workshop was bright, not only with daylight but with cleverly sited electric lighting. All around the walls and on every available worktop and shelf there were beautifully cut stones of all kinds, with many different fonts and inspiring words. In this place are held decades of lovingly crafted work, a tribute to the skill and care of generations of crafts people who not only produce some of the best letter cutting in the world, but remain grounded and humble. 

Lida was busy taking calls and then she had to spend some time with a sculptor who was making a clay likeness of Lida’s head. We chatted to her sons and after a little while Lida arrived completely unflustered, and calmly apologised for keeping us waiting. Then she settled herself in front of the huge piece of Portland stone and began to talk us through the composition and placement of the letters for the new Blake headstone. 

Letters drawn on stone:
Lines from William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion’
Photograph: James Murray-White © 2018

 

It was a joy to chat with her while she drew on the words, rubbed them off, drew them on again, rubbed them off again, put them on again, brandishing her specially cut pencils like magic wands. I was deeply gratified to see that she worked in exactly the same way as I did, writing and erasing, moving the words up, moving them down, erasing the whole lot and starting again. It gave me such a thrill to realise that I had been creating in exactly the same way as this highly skilled artist, but had thought myself incompetent because of all the erasing and re-drawing.

Where work takes as long as it takes

At break time everyone in the building stopped and met around a large refectory style wooden table where drinks had been prepared to everyone’s direction and a tin of biscuits was passed round. Amid plenty of convivial conversation and laughter, some of us tackled the Telegraph crossword and after half an hour, without a bell ringing or a word spoken, the company broke up to continue work. It was like a well oiled, well maintained machine that could run and run because nothing was over worked or stressed but all worked together like a beautiful clock. 

In the highly stressed, highly mechanised world we live in, it is a delight to visit crafts people and artists like this, where work takes as long as it takes and people are allowed as much time as is necessary to do their work to their highest potential. Without a doubt William Blake would have loved this place.

Since our visit, Lida has moved on to the cutting of the letters — a truly significant moment for the project of bringing William Blake’s new headstone to creation, and one which Finding Blake has been proud to document in these photos — with video footage to follow.

Lida Kindersley cutting the letters into Blake’s new headstone
Photograph: James Murray-White © 2018

 


Notes

Linda Richardson is an artist. Based in Cambridge, England, she makes work that engages the imagination and intuition and tries to make a creative space for the viewer to connect their inner nature with their outer nature to form ideas that are not rooted in convention, reason or rationality. However neither are they pure fantasy that provides and escape from humdrum life. Linda wants instead to awaken the senses to the beauty and wonder of the world in which we live, to activate the attention to the mystery of the human experience.

In a later post — coming soon — James Murray-White will summarise the whole process whereby Lida is creating the new headstone for William Blake, with further posts looking in more detail at some of the main steps.

You can find out more about the Cardozo Kindersley workshop in Cambridge at their website, and the publication Linda that mentioned: Letters Slate Cut – workshop philosophy and practice in the making of letters.

There is a series of readings of the full text of Blake’s Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion on YouTube — part of a series of readings to be found in the Blake Society’s Voice pages, although this one was missing at the time of writing. As always, Wikipedia has an informative page on this book, “the last, longest and greatest in scope of the prophetic books written and illustrated by the English poet, artist and engraver William Blake,” which is not connected with Blake’s more famous poem Jerusalem.