Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘William Blake’

06 AUGUST, 2015

Diane Ackerman on the Secret Life of the Senses and the Measure of Our Aliveness

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“The great affair, the love affair with life, is to live as variously as possible, to groom one’s curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred, climb aboard, and gallop…”

“How do you know but that every bird that cleaves the aerial way is not an immense world of delight closed to your senses five?” So marveled William Blake two centuries before we had the tools to confirm that, at the very least, every dog is a world of delight closed to our limited powers of sensorial perception. Out of such seemingly simple discoveries across the animal kingdom sprang the rattling realization that our notion of “reality” is really a plurality of radically divergent impressions, shaped by the singular biases of perception that each of us brings to our experience of the world. The same sliver of “reality” — a table, a flower, a city block — is experienced in a wholly different way by a bird, a dog, Blake, and you.

That plurality is what science historian and poet Diane Ackerman explores with unparalleled elegance in A Natural History of the Senses (public library) — her 1990 masterwork of science and poetics, which gave us the fascinating inner workings of smell.

Ackerman writes:

There is no way in which to understand the world without first detecting it through the radar-net of our senses… Our senses define the edge of consciousness, and because we are born explorers and questors after the unknown, we spend a lot of our lives pacing that windswept perimeter: We take drugs; we go to circuses; we tramp through jungles; we listen to loud music; we purchase exotic fragrances; we pay hugely for culinary novelties, and are even willing to risk our lives to sample a new taste. In Japan, chefs offer the flesh of the puffer fish, or fugu, which is highly poisonous unless prepared with exquisite care. The most distinguished chefs leave just enough of the poison in the flesh to make the diners’ lips tingle, so that they know how close they are coming to their mortality.

Art by William Blake for John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.' Click image for more.

Ackerman goes on to explore the biological machinery behind each of our senses as a function of consciousness and although the book is strewn with shimmering prose from cover to cover, it is in the closing pages that her sensibility rises toward Blake’s, folding the physical into the poetic in order to transcend it and enter the realm of the spiritual. Ackerman writes:

Deep down, we know our devotion to reality is just a marriage of convenience, and we leave it to the seers, the shamans, the ascetics, the religious teachers, the artists among us to reach a higher state of awareness, from which they transcend our rigorous but routinely analyzing senses and become closer to the raw experience of nature that pours into the unconscious, the world of dreams, the source of myth.

[…]

Our several senses, which feel so personal and impromptu, and seem at times to divorce us from other people, reach far beyond us. They’re an extension of the genetic chain that connects us to everyone who has ever lived; they bind us to other people and to animals, across time and country and happenstance. They bridge the personal and the impersonal, the one private soul with its many relatives, the individual with the universe, all of life on Earth. In REM sleep, our brain waves range between eight and thirteen hertz, a frequency at which flickering light can trigger epileptic seizures. The tremulous earth quivers gently at around ten hertz. So, in our deepest sleep, we enter synchrony with the trembling of the earth. Dreaming, we become the Earth’s dream.

How wonderfully befitting that Ackerman, a Thoreau of science, should call to mind Thoreau himself and his defiant defense of “useful ignorance” in her closing lines:

It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery. However many of life’s large, captivating principles and small, captivating details we may explore, unpuzzle, and learn by heart, there will still be vast unknown realms to lure us. If uncertainty is the essence of romance, there will always be enough uncertainty to make life sizzle and renew our sense of wonder. It bothers some people that no matter how passionately they may delve, the universe remains inscrutable. “For my part,” Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” The great affair, the love affair with life, is to live as variously as possible, to groom one’s curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred, climb aboard, and gallop over the thick, sun-struck hills every day. Where there is no risk, the emotional terrain is flat and unyielding, and, despite all its dimensions, valleys, pinnacles, and detours, life will seem to have none of its magnificent geography, only a length. It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.

A Natural History of the Senses, equal parts illuminating and elevating in its entirety, was followed by Ackerman’s equally magnificent A Natural History of Love. Complement this particular segment with Richard Feynman on why uncertainty is central to morality, Annie Dillard on how to live with mystery, and Wendell Berry on the essential role of ignorance in human progress.

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22 APRIL, 2015

Beastly Verse: From Lewis Carroll to William Blake, Beloved Poems About Animals in Vibrant and Unusual Illustrations

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“Stories are a meal. But poetry is a glass of water, perhaps even a single drop that will save your life.”

Half a century after Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls, legendary artist Tomi Ungerer’s illustrated compendium of famous authors’ verses about brothers and sisters, another singular illustrator of our own era applies the concept to a different domain of the human experience — the inclination toward thinking with animals in making sense of our own lives.

In Beastly Verse (public library), her spectacular picture-book debut, Brooklyn-based illustrator and printmaker JooHee Yoon brings to vibrant life sixteen beloved poems about nonhuman creatures, real and imagined — masterworks as varied in sentiment and sensibility as Lewis Carroll’s playful “The Crocodile,” D.H. Lawrence’s revolutionarily evolutionary homage to the hummingbird, Christina Rossetti’s celebration of butterfly metamorphosis, and William Blake’s bright-burning ode to the tiger.

What makes the book doubly impressive is the ingenuity of its craftsmanship and the striking results it produces. Trained as a printmaker and fascinated by the traditional, industrial techniques of artists from the first half of the twentieth century, Yoon uses only three colors — cyan, magenta, and yellow — on flat color layers, which she then overlaps to create a controlled explosion of secondary colors.

A gladdening resonance emerges between her printmaking process and the craftsmanship of poetry itself — using only these basic colors and manipulating their layering, Yoon is able to produce a kaleidoscope of emotion much like poets build entire worlds with just a few words, meticulously chosen and arranged.

Yoon explains her process:

Seen alone, each layer is a meaningless collection of shapes, but when overlapped, these sets of shapes are magically transformed into the intended image. To me the process of creating these images is like doing a puzzle, figuring out what color goes where and to make a readable image… There is a luminous brilliant quality to the colors when images are reproduced this way that I love.

The project, four years in the making, comes from Brooklyn-based independent picture-book powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books — creator of consistently rewarding treasures — and was a close collaboration between Yoon and ELB founder Claudia Zoe Bedrick, an immense poetry-lover herself, who became besotted with poetry early and has remained bewitched for life:

For my 8th birthday, my dad gave me a book called Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle: a book that now sits on my teenage son’s shelf. His inscription: Stories are a meal. But poetry is a glass of water, perhaps even a single drop that will save your life. At the age of eight, I didn’t fully understand what he meant, but I came to, and have ever since thought of poetry as water: essential, calm, churning, a vortex of light and shadow, refreshingly cool, pleasingly warm, and sometimes just hot enough or cold enough to jolt, charge, render slightly uncomfortable, and bring one fully, deeply to life once again.

Adding to the pictorial delight are four gatefolds out of which the elephant of Laura E. Richards’s “Eletelephony” marches into the living room, Palmer Brown’s spangled pandemonium hides from its hunter, D.H. Lawrence’s hummingbird stretches its beak across evolutionary time, and Blake’s tiger marches majestically into the jungle.

THE TIGER

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake

HUMMING-BIRD

I can imagine, in some otherworld
Primeval-dumb, far back
In that most awful stillness, that only gasped and hummed,
Humming-birds raced down the avenues.

Before anything had a soul,
While life was a heave of Matter, half inanimate,
This little bit chipped off in brilliance
And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems.

I believe there were no flowers, then,
In the world where the humming-bird flashed ahead of creation.
I believe he pierced the slow vegetable veins with his long beak.

Probably he was big
As mosses, and little lizards, they say were once big.
Probably he was a jabbing, terrifying monster.
We look at him through the wrong end of the long telescope of Time,
Luckily for us.

D.H. Lawrence

CATERPILLAR

Brown and furry
Caterpillar in a hurry,
Take your walk
To the shady leaf, or stalk,
Or what not,
Which may be the chosen spot.
No toad spy you,
Hovering bird of prey pass by you;
Spin and die,
To live again a butterfly.

Christina Rosetti

THE CROCODILE

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws!

Lewis Carroll

THE PELICAN

Captain Jonathan
Found a pelican
On an island in the Far East.

In the morning
Jonathan’s pelican
Laid an egg all round and white.

Out of the egg
Came another pelican
That resembled the first a lot.

In its turn
The second pelican
Laid another round white egg.
And predictably
One more pelican
Came out and laid one more white egg.

This story could go on forever
Unless someone makes an omelet.

Robert Desnos

DREAM SONG

Sunlight, moonlight,
Twilight, starlight —
Gloaming at the close of day,
And an owl calling,
Cool dews falling
In a wood of oak and may.

Lantern-light, taper-light,
Torchlight, no-light:
Darkness at the shut of day,
And lions roaring,
Their wrath pouring
In wild waste places far away.

Elf-light, bat-light,
Touchwood-light and toad-light,
And the sea a shimmering gloom of grey,
And a small face smiling
In a dream’s beguiling
In a world of wonders far away.

Walter de la Mare

Complement Yoon’s immeasurably wonderful Beastly Verse with French graphic artist Blexbolex’s similarly printed, very differently bewitching Ballad, then revisit this fascinating exploration of why animal metaphors enchant us.

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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 FEBRUARY, 2014

William Blake’s Mesmerizing Illustrations for John Milton’s Paradise Lost

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Aesthetic rapture between heaven and hell.

There is a rare confluence of joys about celebrated artists’ illustrations for literary classics, from Picasso’s 1934 drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy to Matisse’s 1935 etchings for Ulysses to Salvador Dalí’s prolific illustrations for Don Quixote in 1946, the essays of Montaigne in 1947, Alice in Wonderland in 1969, and Romeo & Juliet in 1975. But among the most breathtakingly beautiful are William Blake‘s illustrations for John Milton’s Paradise Lost (public library). Blake created three different sets of artwork for the Milton classic — one in 1807, at the age of 50, under a commission by the Reverend Joseph Thomas; one in 1808, commissioned by Blake’s patron Thomas Butts; and one in 1822, commissioned by John Linnell, the same patron who facilitated Blake’s stunning illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy. The first two sets contained twelve paintings each; the Linnell set was incomplete, with only three finished works surviving to this day.

Even though Blake created all of the Paradise Lost paintings late in life, Milton was his greatest influence and the writer whose work he illustrated more than any other. In a letter to his friend John Flaxman from September of 1800, Blake wrote:

Milton lovd me in childhood & shewd me his face.

And how beautifully Blake reciprocated that love — however one may feel about religion, there is something undeniably and immeasurably powerful about Blake’s paintings, an ineffable magic that sparks its very own source of divinity:

'Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels' (Butts set)

'Satan, Sin, and Death: Satan Comes to the Gates of Hell' (Thomas set)

'The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden' (Butts set)

'The Rout of the Rebel Angels' (Thomas set)

'Satan Watching the Endearments of Adam and Eve' (Linnell set)

'Adam and Eve Asleep' (Butts set)

'Satan Spying on Adam and Eve's Descent into Paradise' (Thomas set)

'Raphael Warns Adam and Eve' (Thomas set)

'The Temptation and Fall of Eve' (Butts set)

In 1976, a gorgeous leather-bound limited edition of Paradise Lost was published, collecting Blake’s work from the various sets. Complement it with Blake’s art for Dante’s Divine Comedy, on which he worked until his dying day, and Maurice Sendak’s little-known, formative illustrations for Blake’s own verses.

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