New Songs for Mr Blake

Musician and songwriter Mick Stannard is 69 years old and has, in his words, “been doing music most of that time, in bands and solo”. Ever since an operation meant singing was no longer possible, he’s been recording instrumental albums, but when he recently came across his forgotten copy of Songs of Innocence and of Experience Mick wanted to set some of these poems to music — and asked Kate, his daughter, if she’d like to sing them. Their album, Visions of William Blake, was released earlier this year, and Mick and Kate Stannard now share their experience of working with Mr Blake.


Mick:

I think William Blake has been in my DNA for quite a long time. It feels as if Jerusalem has always been there. And of course it’s the same with The Tyger. Mind you, I’m only a beginner and don’t really know much about his ideas. My first musical influences were Vaughan Williams and traditional English folk; people like Shirley Collins and Sandy Denny. Finding out that artists like The Doors and Nick Drake were quoting him in their songs is probably what drew me to him. To be honest I never knew he was that big in ‘popular culture’.

I go mainly by instinct and to be honest I’ve taken a few liberties with the text of his poems (adding some words of my own and taking some of his out) so I’m not sure if a purist would necessarily approve!

Encounters with Blake

As far as Blake himself is concerned, I’m no expert or indeed scholar. Some years ago I went to an exhibition of his watercolours and it was like a kind of worship. The place was dark and each work shone out from its case like a little jewel. The detail in his paintings fascinated me. It was fantastic. That’s where I picked up Songs of Innocence and of Experience. This in turn (about thirty years later!) led me to the idea of setting these poems to music.

I guess it was pure chance. Kate and I had just finished an album, Welcome to Our World, and I was thinking about what to do next. I was looking in our bookcase for something (I can’t remember what it was) and just happened to come across the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Bingo! The more I delved into it, certain poems leapt out at me from the pages and I could hear the music straight away. With Visions of William Blake, it all seemed to make perfect sense. 

Visions of William Blake, by Mick and Kate Stannard

To take one example, I was amazed at how prescient the words to Holy Thursday are, speaking of poor folk living “in a rich and fruitful land”. I almost re-named our track Holy Food Bank Thursday. It seems that nothing much had changed since Blake’s day! Also I found the words to Earth’s Answer particularly powerful and The Lamb appealed to my sense of pastoral England. That’s where I tried to write music in the style of my hero, Vaughan Williams. Lots of strings, a harp and an oboe. Always an oboe for bucolic stuff!

A creative process

I don’t normally talk much about the creative process but I’ll have a bash. I’m basically a songwriter (of sorts) and love the challenge of writing lyrics and fitting them to music. Obviously with the ‘lyrics’ already taken care of by Mr Blake the process was a bit easier but no less of a challenge. I wasn’t aware which of his poems are well known and which others less so, and I think I chose the ones to have a go at by some kind of instinct — and of course those which appealed to me emotionally. They also had to scan pretty well and have a rhythm I could work with.

I’ve been listening to music for a long time and my influences are very diverse, stretching from traditional English folk to 60’s psychedelia, punk, new wave, classical, thrash metal and avant garde. So I guess my selection was in part dictated by my broad musical taste, which allowed me to devise a particular setting for each poem. Earth’s Answer for instance is very much influenced by Pink Floyd, whilst The Echoing Green is (hopefully) pure Vaughan Williams and strange to say, some of the music in The Door of Death now reminds me (in retrospect) of the last scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey … Where the hell did THAT come from?

Messing around with the texts may seem a bit sacrilegious but it was the only way I could make the finished songs work to my satisfaction. It was simply a case of composing the music and making the words fit even if I had to add or subtract some. I hope William wouldn’t have minded! The Garden of Love wasn’t long enough so I added quite a lot of extra lines, and in The Lamb I took Blake’s lead when he says in Auguries of Innocence “the lamb misused breeds public strife and yet forgives the butcher’s knife”, and wrote an additional verse with that in mind.

In Holy Thursday I saw a direct parallel between the times Blake talks about and today’s austerity Britain so I wrote a final verse about homelessness. I couldn’t possibly have done a different melody for Jerusalem as it already has the best ever tune so I just put in a bit of Brexit chaos at the end to reflect what’s currently happening in our green and pleasant land!

So, many reasons for changing the texts, I guess, and I think it occurred to me as I was going through the poems, kind of spontaneously. The process of making words and music fit is indeed pretty mysterious. That’s why when you hit on something special, it’s really exciting. I’ve no idea where it comes from. A higher place?

Kate:

Dad has always been interested in poetry, so I’ve been aware of William Blake among others for some time. Dad even used to write silly poems for me when I was young to make me laugh, and has always been creative. However I wasn’t very familiar with William Blake’s poetry before we started the album, and I didn’t know about his artwork either! But it’s been a really interesting project to work on together, and fun exploring both the light-hearted and the more sinister.

The poems and songs are all so different. I feel like I take on a different persona for each song on Visions of William Blake, and in a way sing as a different person. I think of them in a very separate way.

Usually we sit down and Dad gives me the poem to read through. I try to visualise and interpret the words quietly on my own, and then Dad plays me the music he’s recorded so far in headphones. Whilst the music is playing, I carry on visualising scenes or images and think about the words and then we go from there. We talk about what kind of tone of voice will work. For example, on Earth’s Answer the inspiration for my reading of the words was Gandalf from Lord of the Rings!

For me, with A Poison Tree it’s the storytelling of the poem. The scene I picture by the end of the poem is both chilling and beautiful, and it’s interesting (to me anyway) how peaceful it is, despite the hatred.

Visions of William Blake for the 21st century

I’ve been surprised at how many people my age and younger know of Blake, and have relatives who have studied his work or have a real interest.

I found it very interesting on first looking at Finding Blake to discover that the website and its users want to ‘re-imagine William Blake for the 21st century’. This very much articulated to me what I felt like we had also been doing with the album, whilst unaware at first of the Finding Blake site. By putting Blake’s words to music in 2019, and particularly for myself as someone who didn’t know very much about him before, I felt like I was in a sense ‘finding’ Blake.

To me, some of his poems are still very relevant now in 2019. For instance, like Dad has mentioned, the ideas behind Holy Thursday are still an issue now and it very much feels like nothing has changed in all these years. That poem could have been written in the 21st century.

Mick:

Blake seems to have had a larger influence on people’s general way of thinking than I had ever imagined. I think this new Extinction Rebellion movement which is currently growing is something that Blake would have enthusiastically espoused. Also, areas of mysticism and spirituality, something I had never considered.


Notes

Mick Stannard and his daughter Kate have been recording music together for about a year. Mick has been playing for longer than he cares to remember and has many influences ranging from The Velvet Underground to Vaughan Williams. He has recorded ten solo albums and three with Kate, Visions of William Blake being one. Kate has a degree in photography and is currently working for a cancer charity in London. She also designed the cover art for all the albums.

Kate and Mick Stannard

Visions of William Blake by Mick and Kate Stannard features twelve of William Blake’s poems: The Garden of Love; A Poison Tree; Auguries of Innocence; The Tiger; The Echoing Green; The Sick Rose; The Lamb; Earth’s Answer; Holy Thursday; The Door of Death; The Angel; Jerusalem. It’s available on Spotify, where you can also find their previous albums, and also available at Amazon as a download. You can buy the CD of Visions of William Blake direct from Mick: email him at mstannm[at]ntlworld[dot]com for details.

You can also discover another version of A Poison Tree in A Pocketful of Riches: Adapting Blake to Song, Joseph Andrew Thompson’s post about Astralingua’s own adaptation of Blake’s poems. And Strange Mystery Flower from Roger Arias describes his own Blakean musical adaptation.

‘Joy’ Reading & Film: Sasha Dugdale on Catherine Blake

Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White announces a special public event and an exclusive film for our project, courtesy of award-winning poet Sasha Dugdale. Sasha’s recent poem Joy brings us the voice of Catherine Blake, wife to William Blake and ‘vital presence and assistant throughout his life’. 


And he is gone, fled singing to some place I cannot reach. His angels came and he sang to them and they told him they needed him more than I did… Merciless, merciless angels… Merciless angels who know nothing of human despair. And he went with them. He nodded and spoke mild words and was soon gone… And he left a shadow of grime on his collar and a warm bed. And the angels had tall wings, like steeples, or like sails and spread white like the King’s ship in dock, and they took him, only I couldn’t see them, but I know how they looked, for hadn’t he spent all his life in their company and mine? And didn’t they sometimes appear in white like good children, and sometimes like ladies but barefoot, with rosy pink staining their necks and hands and ringlets in their hair? Their sighs were angel swords and their smiles were beams of light. He smiled at me, as if to say can’t you see how bonny they are today, on this, my death day, and there’s the whole pity of it, for I couldn’t see, and I never could.

— from Joy, by Sasha Dugdale

And so spake Catherine Blake, reflecting back upon the life and death of her life-long husband William in 1827; or so writes Sasha Dugdale, poet and translator, who in this wondrous monologue gives voice to one of the most silent muses the world has known — who inspired steadily her vacillating husband-genius, is known to have helped him print and paint his masterpieces, and to whom he dedicated much of his writings.

Catherine Blake, by William Blake
Catherine Blake, by William Blake c1805

The monologue and its volume of other poems, Joy, won the Forward Prize for best single poem in 2016, and was described by the judges as “an extraordinarily sustained visionary piece of writing”. Sasha has written three other collections of poetry, is known for her promotion and translation of Russian literature, and is co-director of the Winchester Poetry Festival. She is currently poet-in-residence at St John’s College, Cambridge.

'Joy', by Sasha Dugdale
‘Joy’, by Sasha Dugdale

We at Finding Blake are delighted to announce that we will be exclusively filming Sasha reading her monologue, to be premiered here on our website and in the final Finding Blake film to be released later this year. On the same day — 11th April, at 7pm — Sasha will be giving a public reading of some of Joy and other work. The venue is a wonderful Victorian engineer’s house, undergoing restoration in the grounds of the Cambridge Museum of Technology by the River Cam. The house — now named ‘Othersyde’, with its lovely gardens and outdoor bar with views across the river onto a nature reserve in the heart of the city — is a new arts and escape rooms venue that I’ve been involved with for some time. This event is the finale of a winter series of literary & musical salons. 


Notes

The event is on Thursday April 11th at 7pm. All welcome, though early booking essential as it’s a cosy intimate venue — with only 25 seats! Booking info is here, and then please email me for a Paypal link to secure your ticket.

For further information on Catherine Blake, see Wikipedia, and there is an essay on her by Angus Whitehead at the Blake Archive.

For further information about Sasha Dugdale, see her Wikipedia page. You can enjoy another excerpt from Joy at the Forward Arts Foundation, (where there is also an interview with her), and here is a review from the Poetry School. The collection Joy (2017) is published by Carcanet Press, and was Winner of the 2017 Poetry Book Society Winter Choice Award; the poem Joy was Winner of the 2016 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem.

To find out more about Othersyde, visit their Facebook page.

William Blake & the Doleful City of God: 4 – Path and Goal

Adriana Díaz Enciso. Photographer: Teresa EspinasaIn her previous posts, Adriana Díaz Enciso recalled how finding Blake on a family shopping trip out of Mexico sparked a series of puzzling encounters with the poet and artist and eventually caused her to embark on her own Blakean novel. Ciudad doliente de Dios would take her from horrific events in Mexico and a writing residency in the USA to Blake’s London. Here, Adriana completes the series, discussing her role in the work of the Blake Society, the publication of her novel and the meaning of Blake’s art as both path and goal. 


Around the time I started rewriting the novel, I finally decided to get close to the Blake Society. So close in fact, that I became a Trustee for several years, then its Secretary. This is not the space to say what went wrong, which is documented elsewhere. I’d rather focus here on what nurtured me, what I learnt and what I enjoyed.

It was a joy and a source of renewed inspiration to see how Blake’s work and spirit are still alive for many people, including younger generations. I’ve found amazing, amusing or even daunting the passions that he can still stir — and I am fully aware that some might make similar comments regarding my own passion for Blake. Wondering who he really was in his homeland is very different from doing so in Mexico. The approach back there is by necessity more sober, focusing mainly on his work. Here in Britain, there are layers upon layers of symbolic dimensions touching on the aesthetic, the religious, the philosophical, the metaphysical, the social and the political.

Of course, all these were issues Blake touched upon through his life and work. And it says much about the power with which he did so that so many years after his death, throngs of people are still seeking his meaning, finding new interpretations… sometimes with such a fierce feeling of appropriation of Blake that it borders on worship. I’ll get there later.

Blakean encounters and wounds

In the Blake Society I got to hear the most wonderful talks … and the most bizarre as well. Involved in organising several events, I’ll always be grateful for the chance to channel through them my wholehearted enthusiasm. There was a walk I led in Peckham Rye looking for Blake’s angels on trees; a midnight vigil in Blake’s surviving home in South Molton Street, waiting for our own Visionary Heads to appear as we echoed Blake’s gatherings with artist and astrologer John Varley; then there was the spirit of Orc, embodied in poet Jeremy Reed at the Occupy London encampment on a freezing December evening outside St Paul’s Cathedral; or taking children from Kids Company to read The Tyger to the tigers in London Zoo, the nonstop rain never dampening the children’s zeal.

There were also projects which met failure, such as that of founding Golgonooza, the City of Imagination built by Los, in the streets of London. I had envisaged having Blake’s images projected on buildings all over the city, making true his never materialised dream of being commissioned to paint murals. Then London would be, albeit briefly, a true visionary city. A completely unaffordable project, it was transformed into an illuminated talk at King’s College Arts and Humanities Festival: Golgonooza as the sacred city of the imagination; as the human body; as a reflection on failure. I said goodbye to the Blake Society, inviting Maitreyabandhu, a Buddhist poet of great insight, to talk about Blake and about the imagination as the supreme human faculty.

To be involved in all these projects in Blake’s London was a joy, and a privilege — something I would have never imagined possible when I bought that Penguin edition in a noisy shopping mall. And for that, I am grateful.

Peckham Rye
Image: Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018

It’s impossible not to mention here as well the 2014 Blake Cottage appeal. Part of its leadership, I gave myself to it with full devotion and hope. It was a beautiful project; the support it received from the public was the most poignant certitude that Blake’s spirit is still alive and touching many. Working on it, I am sure, kept me alive during rather trying times.

Part of the plan was to make Blake’s cottage in Felpham, Sussex, a ‘house of refuge’ for persecuted writers. This, I thought, would be quite a concrete way of honouring what Blake stood for — and precisely in the place where he was accused of sedition. The appeal’s original conception meant for the cottage to be the materialisation, through collective effort, of what Blake believed in as a man and an artist.

True, things didn’t go that way, and the problems that ensued nearly killed me (in compensation, perhaps, for the project having kept me alive for a long while?). Yet I don’t regret one bit having invested so much of me in the dream. I believed in what we were doing, and as far as my own experience goes, the path walked with faith becomes the destination. The ordeal also gave me the chance to have a first-hand experience of a Blakean prophetic poem unfolding live, with all its acute drama. It might have been trying, but no one can say it wasn’t interesting. If I lost my Innocence in the Blake Society and the Blake Cottage appeal, I gained loads of Experience. I am therefore grateful.

Finding Blake again: Ciudad doliente de Dios

For a while, the wounds were so bad that I couldn’t even hear William Blake mentioned without my stomach hurting, and so I walked away from him for the first time in over thirty years. My Blakean novel was finished but not published, and finding a publisher was proving hard. But healing came. I knew I’d be alright the day when, out of the blue, I decided to visit Bunhill Fields again. I sat there, by the fig tree and the old stone with its chipped corner — a place which has become hallowed by the pilgrimage of so many — as I had often done while writing the novel. I wasn’t thinking of anything in particular. I just sat there, watching the trees, the pigeons flying, people passing by. It was a very happy day.

I’m now ready for Blake again.

Which is a good thing, because, after a long wait, Ciudad doliente de Dios was finally published last December in Mexico, by Alfaguara, a Penguin Random House imprint, in co-edition with the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Things therefore became quite intense. The novel had to go to print in October, which gave me the shortest time I’ve ever had to read the proofs of a book of mine (and this is my longest one).

It being a book I finished five years ago, I was at moments tempted to rewrite again. It wouldn’t have been wise though, as it would have meant more destroying than building. On the whole, I decided to trust the writer I was then. It has been twenty-one years since I started working on this novel. I believe it has indeed reached the point when it has to go out into the world.

On reading the proofs, I was reminded of what a strange novel it is. I liked that. As a dialogue with Blake’s prophetic poems the visionary mattered more than any conventions of modern fiction, and it feels right to have been loyal to that intent.

I was struck too by the degree to which this is a Christian book, in the sense that Blake was Christian (I hope!). I felt somewhat melancholic. I’ve talked before of how I’d been a Christian who responded to the symbolic power of the myth while struggling with the dogma. Precisely in the years I was finishing the novel, I started to walk away from the remnants of my identity as a Christian, as I discovered Buddhism. There aren’t so many contradictions, and I even find much that sounds utterly Buddhist in Blake himself. Ultimately, the quest of my characters for the meaning of the cross and the figure of Christ is a quest for understanding of suffering, and it’s moved by compassion. The questions in it remain utterly genuine and alive for me.

Another matter I pondered on while reading the proofs is the extent to which the tragedies endured by the country where I was born take centre stage in the novel. Set on the visionary rather than the mundane side of reality, it doesn’t take place in any ‘real’ geographical spot. Its characters walk towards the sacred city, led by an image of St Paul’s Cathedral. However, the unfathomable suffering of a country called Mexico has been woven around the cosmogony of William Blake, in an effort to understand and to find meaning. I do hope, therefore, that Ciudad doliente de Dios honours all the people who have endured such suffering with courage and even — as is the case of the community Las Abejas, members of which were the victims of the Acteal massacre — with hope.

Revising the manuscript Image by Adriana Díaz-Enciso
Revising the manuscript
Image: Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018

Blake: art as path and goal

It must be clear by now, the importance that William Blake has had in my life, as a writer and a human being. He’s an artist and poet who talks to me. One whom I honour and admire for the way he lived the extremely hard battle it was his lot to fight. A sublime and truly inspired but misunderstood artist who endured mockery, incomprehension and poverty.

However, William Blake is not a saint, and in coming closer to some other people’s appreciation of him, I believe that the kind of fanaticism encountered around him now and then is a great loss: a deviation of what really matters in his legacy.

There is no doubt that he lived an exemplary life, as a courageous human being who remained steadfastly faithful to his call, his passions and his principles, against all odds. He believed in the power of art and the imagination to transform human life by helping us break through the veils which hinder our awareness of transcendent reality. And he considered this power the essence of divinity in human existence. He devoted his life to that vision, and therefore to create beauty and meaning. What else can we possibly demand from him?

He gave us more than enough, and like any true artist, he demands in turn our full regard for his work, our full responsiveness. Any other extraneous meaning whimsically projected onto him is a deviation from this. Blake’s belief in being able to communicate with certain spirits (his brother Robert’s; the sages he saw on the shores of Felpham; and his angels) wouldn’t be more interesting than any other person’s perhaps unusual beliefs, had he not linked that faith to a greater, encompassing one: his faith in the human spirit, capacious enough to hold within it God, the universe and all the questions hence derived.

Furthermore, he was adamant about art’s paramount importance in the life of man, believing that a society which stands with its back to the arts is impoverished, lame and crass. Art was, to him, the vehicle, the path and the goal: what he dedicated his life to. If we make any claim to having accepted his gift for posterity, it is to his images and his poetry that we must turn — and they are certainly not for the literal-minded.

We live in times of confusion, when the arts are often understood either as a commodity, novelty, entertainment, a sorry mirror for the vacuous existence of the consumer society, or (with good but misguided intentions) as a by-product of sociology, which then becomes surreptitiously an instrument for social engineering.

All these approaches strip art of its transcendent principle, and when that happens, art is dead. The death of art means the death of a society’s spirit, of human freedom. That is why artists such as William Blake are important, and it is a thing to celebrate that there are many individuals in younger generations who understand this and want to make Blake’s art and poetry a part of their lives.

The art and the poetry of a man who lived on earth. Nothing more and nothing less. 


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

'Ciudad doliente de Dios' cover, Adriana Díaz-Enciso
‘Ciudad doliente de Dios’ cover

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

You can read her three earlier posts in this series for Finding Blake: William Blake & the Doleful City of God Part 1 – McAllen, Texas, Part 2 — London, England and Part 3 — Visionary City