Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

10 JUNE, 2014

Maurice Sendak’s Rarest Art: His Vintage Illustrations for William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence”

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“On a cloud I saw a child, and he laughing said to me…”

J.R.R. Tolkien famously asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children”. Decades later, Maurice Sendak (June 10, 1928–May 8, 2012) would come to echo this belief — and yet he remains one of the best-loved and most influential children’s book authors and illustrators of all time, a patron saint of storytelling for young minds. From his heartwarming early collaborations to his most famous stories to his lesser-known and lovely posters, Sendak’s style is decidedly, unmistakably his own — but like that of any creative artist, it is also an assemblage of his influences. Chief among them is the art and poetry of William Blake, whose sensibility reverberated through Sendak’s work, beginning in his dawning days as an insecure young artist and crescendoing in his final posthumous love letter to the world.

In 1967, when Sendak was thirty-nine and at the peak of his career, he received an unusual assignment that moved his heart unlike any other — a chance to finally pay homage to his great creative hero. It was small and noncommercial, but he took it: The London publisher The Bodley Head wanted to publish a Christmas keepsake commemorating the company’s 80th anniversary, featuring seven poems from Blake’s Songs of Innocence. For each of them, Sendak was asked to create a single, exquisite line drawing. The slim booklet, simply titled Poems from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence (public library), was published in a limited edition of 275 copies, none of which were for sale — instead, they were given away as holiday gifts to the authors and artists The Bodley Head represented, and to a handful of other friends of the press.

The book is considered the rarest of Sendak’s published work — so rare that it’s practically impossible for even art historians to get their eyes on a copy for scholarly work. Only a handful are known to survive today, a couple of which signed by Sendak.

As a great admirer and nascent collector of Sendak’s work, and a generally stubborn person, I knew I had to track down a copy after I first heard about this rare masterpiece. After a dogged hunt, I finally struck gold — not just any old copy, but one of those ultra-rare signed ones, with a small, infinitely delightful original drawing alongside the inscription on the front free endpaper.

In the interest of cultural preservation and scholarship, I am delighted to share a glimpse of this treasure — my great hero paying homage to his great hero. Although the feeble digital screen does absolutely no justice to the vibrant analog humanity of this masterpiece, to know that it reaches the eyes and souls of others in even a small way, that it isn’t being sucked try of its aliveness by archival death, is good enough for me. Please enjoy.

Complement with Sendak’s final gift, My Brother’s Book, where Blake’s influence is at its most pronounced — at once his farewell to the world and his last love letter to his deceased partner, Eugene Glynn. Then, dive into the Sendak archive.

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03 JUNE, 2014

Allen Ginsberg Sings William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and of Experience”

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“Come live, and be merry, and join with me, / To sing the sweet chorus of ‘Ha ha he!’”

In December of 1969, Allen Ginsberg (June 3, 1926–April 5, 1997), one of the most beloved and influential poets of the twentieth century, recorded a strange and wonderful LP, setting William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience to song. Accompanied by an eclectic orchestra — Cyril Caster on trumpet, Janet Zeitz on flute, Bob Dorough on piano, Don Cherry on bass trombone, beaded gourd, sleigh bells and finger cymbals — Ginsberg gives Blake’s binary battery of innocence and experience a whole new dimension of enchanting duality.

Blake’s poetry was a particularly poignant choice for Ginsberg at a time when his own spiritual journey had taken him into the depths of Buddhism — at once a curious contrast with Blake’s heavy Christian influence and a sensical parallel to the ambivalence about the human soul, coupled with social and religious ambivalence, at the heart of Blake’s message.

Thanks to the remarkable PennSound archive at my alma mater — which also gave us Adrienne Rich on creative process, love, loss, and happiness, Gertrude Stein’s reading of “A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson,” Yeats on modern poetry, and Charles Olson’s reading of “Maximus, to Himself” — these rare recordings endure in digital form. Here are three of them for our shared delight.

THE GARDEN OF LOVE

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

LAUGHING SONG

When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy,
And the dimpling stream runs laughing by;
When the air does laugh with our merry wit,
And the green hill laughs with the noise of it;

When the meadows laugh with lively green,
And the grasshopper laughs in the merry scene;
When Mary and Susan and Emily
With their sweet round mouths sing ‘Ha ha he!’

When the painted birds laugh in the shade,
Where our table with cherries and nuts is spread:
Come live, and be merry, and join with me,
To sing the sweet chorus of ‘Ha ha he!’

NIGHT

The sun descending in the West,
The evening star does shine;
The birds are silent in their nest,
And I must seek for mine.
The moon, like a flower
In heaven’s high bower,
With silent delight,
Sits and smiles on the night.

Farewell, green fields and happy groves,
Where flocks have took delight,
Where lambs have nibbled, silent moves
The feet of angels bright;
Unseen, they pour blessing,
And joy without ceasing,
On each bud and blossom,
And each sleeping bosom.

They look in every thoughtless nest
Where birds are covered warm;
They visit caves of every beast,
To keep them all from harm:
If they see any weeping
That should have been sleeping,
They pour sleep on their head,
And sit down by their bed.

When wolves and tigers howl for prey,
They pitying stand and weep;
Seeking to drive their thirst away,
And keep them from the sheep.
But, if they rush dreadful,
The angels, most heedful,
Receive each mild spirit,
New worlds to inherit.

And there the lion’s ruddy eyes
Shall flow with tears of gold:
And pitying the tender cries,
And walking round the fold:
Saying: ‘Wrath by His meekness,
And, by His health, sickness,
Is driven away
From our immortal day.

‘And now beside thee, bleating lamb,
I can lie down and sleep,
Or think on Him who bore thy name,
Graze after thee, and weep.
For, washed in life’s river,
My bright mane for ever
Shall shine like the gold,
As I guard o’er the fold.’

Complement the LP, copies of which are findable online and well worth the hunt, with Ginsberg’s passionate love letters to Peter Orlovsky, then revisit more musical arrangements based on the poetry of Emily Dickinson, W.B. Yeats, and e.e. cummings.

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13 MAY, 2014

Whitman Illuminated: “Song of Myself,” in Breathtaking Illustrations by Artist Allen Crawford

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“He exalted the nature around and within us. His work is an expression of primal joy: He celebrated our animal senses, and the pleasures of being alive.”

Visual artists have long been drawn to the literary classics, producing such masterful homages as William Blake’s paintings for Milton’s Paradise Lost and for Dante’s Divine Comedy, Picasso’s drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy, Matisse’s etchings for Ulysses, John Vernon Lord’s illustrations for Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Salvador Dalí’s prolific illustrations for Don Quixote in 1946, the essays of Montaigne in 1947, The Divine Comedy in 1957, Alice in Wonderland in 1969, and Romeo and Juliet in 1975.

In Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself (public library), artist Allen Crawford brings Whitman’s undying text to new life in gorgeous hand-lettering and illustrations, transforming the 60-page poem originally published in 1855 as the centerpiece of Leaves of Grass into a breathtaking 256-page piece of art. His elegant, lyrical play of text size and orientation layers over Whitman’s poem a kind of visual rhythm that not only harmonizes with the original verses but enriches them and gives them uncommon dimension.

Crawford, who lives in the outskirts of Philadelphia where Whitman settled at the end of his life, writes in the foreword:

Whitman wanted to create a new form of verse, one that was indigenous to America. He wanted to break free not only in form but also in content: He sought complete candor, not allegory or symbolism. His sensibility was American: exuberant, rough, and wild. He reveled in the vitality and sublimity of the physical. He exalted the nature around and within us. His work is an expression of primal joy: He celebrated our animal senses, and the pleasures of being alive.

[…]

With this book, I’ve tried to make the vigor of “Song of Myself” tangible. I’ve attempted to liberate the words from their blocks of verse, and allow the lines to flow freely about the page, like a stream or a bustling city crowd. The text and imagery in this book are intended to be in keeping with Whitman’s unfurnished sensibility.

[…]

I found that in order to add anything at all to Whitman’s panorama of people and places, I had to add a dimension of my own. Events in my daily life affected my approach to each spread, and the Philadelphia of today seeped into the Philadelphia of Whitman’s day. Thus, you’ll find a variety of contemporary or near-contemporary images in this book. Not doing so would have been a disservice to Whitman’s work, which attempts to create a new form of verse for The Here and The Now.

Crawford, who lists among his inspirations artist Matt Kish’s illustrations for Moby-Dick and Heart of Darkness, labored over Whitman’s magnum opus in his basement for a year, working well into the night and spending 8–10 hours on each illustrated spread for a total of 2,560 hours by his own rough estimate. On particularly cold winter days, he logged his hours clad in multiple layers of house robes and a Russian fur hat.

Especially enchanting is Crawford’s heavy use of science-inspired imagery in his contemporary version of the illuminated manuscript, a medieval medium of religion.

All 256 pages between the beautifully fabric-bound covers of Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself are imbued with pure magic, the kind that takes you by the soul-strings and plays you like a billowing ballad.

Illustrations courtesy of Tin House Books; photographs my own

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