Blake (Allen’s 1975 Naropa Class)

William Blake (1757-1827) – Self Portrait, 1802

Allen Ginsberg’s 1975 Naropa “History of Poetry” class continues from here 

AG: What I want to do today is to run through (William) Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience”. Do most of you have the texts, or some of you have the texts? You might take them out. You’ve all read some Blake. Is there anybody here who never read any Blake at all? Raise your hands. Now, do most of you know some of the “Songs of Innocence and Experience”? I guess. Those of you who read Blake in grammar school, can you raise your hand? What schools did you go to?

Student: Public

AG: Where?

Student: In Detroit

AG: High-school, yeah, their regular high-school English. And then college? Yeah. Well Blake seems to be the one person who’s penetrated through the educational system. [Allen begins, with harmonium, by singing the “Introduction” (from “Songs of Innocence”) – “Piping down the valleys wild..” – followed by “The Shepherd” – “How sweet is the Shepherd’s sweet lot..”].(And) the next, “The Echoing Green”, I have recorded [he attempts to play the recording but the record skips] – can’t do it, I’ll have to sing it.

Student: Do you want some help?

AG: I need some help then. If somebody could come up and turn pages for me,

Student: Is there a chair?

AG: Yeah, there’s a chair. Would you bring that over? [Allen begins with the harmonium and sings, in its entirety, “The Echoing Green” (“The Sun does arise,/ And make happy the skies”), followed by “The Lamb” (“Little lamb, who made thee..?” “Little lamb, God bless thee” – he repeats the final refrain many times with the class] – (Next) “The Little Black Boy”, which is the nearest to a statement of Gnostic nihilism, in a way, or anti-materialism, that Blake came to in this book, except maybe for the last poem, added on towards the end of his life,“To Tirzah”.

[He sings “The Little Black Boy” (“My mother bore me in the southern wild..”) and then follows it with “The Blossom” (“Merry Merry Sparrow..”) ] – “The Blossom”, which is Tantric yab-yum. Sparrow and blossom. Phallus and yoni. I think I have a recording of that I might take out [Allen plays a studio version of “The Blossom”, with a chamber-orchestra accompaniment] – and “The Chimney Sweeper” [he plays a studio version of “The Chimney Sweeper”, which begins with Peter Orlovsky commenting to Allen] – Peter said, “You know the words by heart” – I don’t know if you can hear the words clearly without a text, actually, with that, because we were using echoes. I couldn’t sing that because there were some high notes that only Orlovsky could get – “And by came an angel who had a bright key“. “The Little Boy Lost” is done well on here [the record], and then I’ll get back to singing myself. “The Little Boy Lost” and “The Little Boy Found”.

Student: Allen, the last line of that, or the last couple of lines, what degree of irony.. what degree…is (there in) “The Chimney Sweeper”?

AG: I took it as very straight, naive, in that one. There are Marxist interpretations and others. And Gnostic interpretations that say it’s totally sardonic. But actually, my ultimate feeling about it is that it’s great sentimentality. I like it better that way than any other way at the moment. So that was the interpretation that was put on it. But I guess you should be forewarned that that actually might be Blake being really nasty also. [Allen then performs “The Little Boy Lost” and “The Little Boy Found” – “Father, father, where are you going?/ Oh, do not walk so fast!..”] – Then, “The Laughing Song” [Allen sings with harmonium – “When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy..”] – There’s a weird version, kind of jazzed up, with laughter that we did. Are you interested in comparing the recordings? The trumpet on this (recorded version) is Don Cherry, who’s a really great jazz musician, so it all jazzed itself up. And also Cherry is on the maracas [Allen plays the studio recording of “The Laughing Song] – I was doing that to actually punctuate the rhythm, score the rhythm, with “ha’s”.

Student: What year was this?

AG: This was 19…

Student: 68?

AG: ’68 or ’69. I forget. I don’t know. This is still available actually. Even here, I think, but the album said “liner notes enclosed” – but they’re not enclosed – So it’s a sort of a mess.
“Cradle Song”, or “A Cradle Song” [Allen proceeds to sing, with harmonium accompaniment, “A Cradle Song” (“Sweet dreams, form a shade/O’er my lovely infant’s head…”, including “Heaven and earth to peace beguiles”, the last line, which he repeats many times, with the class joining in) – and then “The Divine Image” (“To Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love”) and “Holy Thursday” (“‘Twas on a Holy Thursday…) before tape ends here]
[second side of the tape begins with] AG: “Night” – What I’ve done is set about 35 of the 45 songs, so I’ll run through if we have time (left), is that alright? – Students: Yeah, wonderful – [Allen recites, with harmonium accompaniment, and in its entirety, “Night” (“The sun descending in the West..”), then (“I’ll try that again) repeats the last two stanzas]. (Next), “Spring”, which has a refrain at the end – I have a recording of some of these that I’ll put out. This one I’ve done with (Bob) Dylan and Happy Traum doing the chorus work, which you can do ma’am..

Student: Me?

AG: Yep [Allen proceeds to give a rendition of “Spring”, with numerous repetitions of the chorus line – “Merrily, merrily, to welcome in the year”] – The next also has a chorus. “The Nurse’s Song” (from “Songs of Innocence”) . I want to skip, for one second, to do “The Nurse’s Song” (from “Songs of Experience”) first, on recording [Allen plays recording of “The Nurse’s Song” (“When the voices of children, are heard on the green/And whisperings are in the dale..”)] – When I was 20, I had an auditory hallucination of Blake’s voice, which was just about like that. But it took me about 20 years to perfect it. So it was probably a hallucination of my own latent diaphragm vocalization. I was hearing my own voice, probably, as in a dream. (Next), “Nurse’s Song” (from “Songs of Innocence”) – “When the voices of children, are heard on the green/ And laughing is heard on the hill” [Allen performs this song and, as was his manner, repeats the final line several times, midway – “And all the hills echo-ed” – turning it into a “round” – this is followed by “Infant Joy” (“I have no name/ I am but two days old..”) – and “A Dream” – “A Dream – this also has a chorus, a Buddhist chorus at the end of this, making use of “Om” and “Hum”” – “Once a dream did weave a shade”..”Little wanderer hie thee home”..”Hum hum hum hum..home home home home“)] – (and) “On Another’s Sorrow” – Can you hear me when I’m singing low? What time is it?…

[tape begins again] – Allen recites (with harmonium) “On Another’s Sorrow” (“Can I see another’s woe/ And not be in sorrow too?”, repeating the last line, “He doth sit by us and moan” several times)] – “Songs of Experience” – I don’t have all of them done [but Allen recites the first part, the Introduction – (“Hear the voice of the bard,/ Who present, past, and future sees..”)] – I don’t have “Earth’s Answer” prepared. I have a “Holy Thursday” done country & western (style), but I don’t know how to play the chords correctly, so I’ll experiment with it actually. You’ll get the general idea, if I can’t get it straight, anyways [Allen sings “Holy Thursday” (“Is this a holy thing to see..”)] – Now let see how that goes..Okay..yeah..

“The Little Girl Lost” (which is, more or less, an improvisation). I have the chords for it, but I don’t have it worked out. I think it’s actually one of the most powerful of the songs. The sentence and prophecy in it. He says himself, “Grave the sentence deep/ Shall arise and seek/ For her maker meek”. So it’s the same as the “voice of the bard”, saying “Hear the voice of the bard”..”O Earth return!..” “Why dost thou turn away?” “Why will thou turn away?” (“O Earth, O Earth, return../ Turn away no more/ Why wilt thou turn away?”) – So its actually consciousness turning away from his ground that he’s talking about. And “Lyca” [Allen pronounces it like “Lisa”] is the lost consciousness. So Lyca is the consciousness of mankind, which has become lost, and is wandering in the void. As I interpret it. Well how would you pronounce it? [to class] – L-Y-C-A – How would you pronounce it? I’ve puzzled over that for years. LIE-ka?

Student: Yeah, LIE-ka, like “light-house”.

AG: I think, “Lisa”, “Lysa”, “Allysa”. What do you figure? – LIE-ka or LEE-suh? Take a vote. Who wants LIE-ka? What were the various ones? LEE-ka. Who wants LEE-ka? Raise your hands for LEE-ka. Raise your hands for LEE-suh? – Oh shit, who’s got the book? There’s a picture of her in the book. Who’s got the Blake book? “The Little Girl Lost” – Is there a picture of her in “The Little Girl Lost”? Who wanted to know what she looked like? There’s one there who wanted to know what she looked like. Pass it back.

Student: She’s a big girl

AG: You want to pass it back?

Student: Someone else.. It’s over there..

AG: It’s alright. You just keep passing it on.

Student: If its LIE-ka he’s playing with a simile

AG: True enough. You mean “like” ?

Student: LIE-ka

AG: Maybe. Lovely likeness lay (“Lovely Lyca lay”)

Student: I looked up “Lyca” in the dictionary and I can’t remember what it was

AG: The Blake Dictionary?

Student: An old OED

AG: By the way, if anybody’s interested in figuring out Blake.. because, I’m not explaining very much here, because I figure the singing is sufficient – interpretation of the phrasing , and with the right phrasing it’s pretty clear, more or less, isn’t it? Has it been very much complicated about… a few (like this) are really obviously symbolic so I stop and take time, but..

Student: What do you think happened in between the times that these two sets of things were written? Do you think that his consciousness was actually, as that experience would.. indecipherable ? Do you think he knew all the stuff that he was singing about after he wrote…

AG: I think, latently, sure, but I guess he was still holding out for innocence, or still sentimentalizing a bit. But he thought he had made it so innocent that it would be a great stroke of genius to turn the other, dark, side on, maybe. I don’t know. I don’t know the times of composition. It may be that some of the “Songs of Experience” were composed during the time of “Songs of Innocence”, but he didn’t feel they fit, and then, all of a sudden, he had the idea to put them in. Yeah?

Student: Have you set “How sweet I roam’d from field to field..” ?

AG: No, actually Ed Sanders and The Fugs set that. (Sanders will be teaching here, you know. I think the last week of the first session, I think). Sanders turned me on to this, actually. It was through Sanders’ experiments with music with The Fugs that I decided, well, if he can do it, I can be a..

Student: Do you know…

AG: [begins singing] – “How sweet I roam’d from field to field,/ And tasted all the summer’s pride,/ Till I, the prince of love beheld,/ Who in the sunny beams did glide!” – “He gave me lilies for my hair…” (“He shew’d me lilies for my hair..”) – Do you know the rest?

Student: [takes up the singing] – “…And blushing roses for my brow;/ He led me through his gardens fair,/ Where all his golden pleasures grow..”

AG: Louder!

Student: Oh, I can’t sing

AG: Oh..

Student: Do you want me to try…?

AG: Yeah, yeah.

Student [sings, in its entirety, the poem]

AG: [singing] “And mocks my loss of liberty”. Actually, it was (Ed Sanders’) idea, the country & western, originally. Yeah, I took it off from his.. does anybody know that Fugs record? It’s actually a classic. It was recorded, I think, by Harry Smith…

Student: Allen, you started to say, if anybody’s interested in figuring out Blake…

AG: Oh, if anybody’s interested in figuring out Blake, look up “Lyca”, LEE-suh, LIE-ka.. Likeness. Looking up the likeness of any of the images. There’s S. Foster Damon’s A Blake Dictionary. (The book’s) in the library now. Damon was a great Blake scholar, a friend of Virgil Thomson, who, at an early age, began to study Blake in a sort of scientific way, by going back and getting a hold of the Gnostic and Hebrew cabalistic texts that Blake used and knew, and has written a number of books on Blake which are considered to be the most esoteric, ground-breaking, interesting, mystical books. S. Foster Damon – D-A-M-O-N. He used to set one song of Blake’s to music every Christmas, because he was also a folklore archivist, and I once went to visit him a couple of times to sing to him what I had done, to see if it sounded right. He said what I was doing was more or less probably close, because what Blake was doing was working in the tradition of the Wesleyan hymn songs of the time: John Wesley‘s hymns and hymn tunes. Blake sung these songs, I forgot to say. “Songs of Innocence and Experience” are, literally, songs. They were intended as songs, and Blake sang them. It’s not well-known in grammar school but in the Gilchrist biography of Blake, which is the earliest biography by a family friend, it’s recorded that Mr Blake used to go to his friends’ parlors and sing the songs unaccompanied, or with instruments of the time, and scholar-professors who heard him sing unfortunately did not notate the tunes. So he was out there singing, which is why I try to restore some of the vocalization to them by singing them, because they’re a lot easier to understand sung. And the music of them, that is the rhythm of them, gets a lot more subtle when you sing it. I goofed on the verse in “Night” which is actually the most interesting , rhythmically – “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/” – is like a really fast, sudden, syncopation of it. Here was where I began discovering that if you follow the punctuation you would begin to be able to figure out the breathing, and the swiftness of pronunciation, because, if you’ll notice here – “Wrath”, comma, “by his meekness”, comma/ And by his health (comma) sickness/ Is driven away/ From our immortal day”. Now, in the illustrated edition, you’d have to actually check it out (not from any copybooks, books copied) but you have to go back to Blake’s own edition (which is illustrated with his own pictures) to find the original punctuation as he engraved them on the plates. Because he engraved plates and then colored them. He and his wife colored them. And, if you get a chance, one of the best ways to read Blake is to get to a library in a major city like New York or Los Angeles, the Huntington Library, the New York Public Library, the Morgan Library in New York, and I think some in Washington, I don’t know, some in Washington..

Student: Probably the..

AG: Mellon?

Student: (Library of) Congress too has everything

AG: Maybe. Well, no. They don’t have everything of Blake’s, because there aren’t that many. There are only 24 copies or so of “Songs of Innocence”. There’s only one copy engraved and colored of his major last work extant, “Jerusalem”. Now, a lot of these are reprinted by Trianon Press, Nonesuch?, I don’t know.. what is it? ..what is the… There are a number of Blake books which are illustrated now. Colored illustrations meticulously done. $100 and $200 and $500 and $1000 each, to get copies, $1000 to get a colored illustrated copy of Blake’s “Jerusalem”, but it’s the best way to read them [this discussion, of course, taking place, long before the invention of the internet and the Blake Archives] – Read the texts and then go back and read those. Turn on, get high, and then look at the pictures and read the words, because a lot of his intention is given there in the illustrations, and if you can get a chance to go library to library, like (to the) Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, you can see one or more copies at the same time of “Songs of Innocence”. For instance, in “Night”, you can see how from copy to copy he changed the face of the tiger, the “tyger, tyger”. Sometimes it’s a little cuddly, friendly, human-faced, tiger, sometimes it’s a really wrathful Tibetan tiger. Sometimes it’s a smudgy-faced tiger. Because each illustration he touched up with pen and painted slightly differently, and his wife painted and colored in some of them and touched them up. So to really get Blake, if you get into Blake, it’s a total delight if you can go get something done by his own hand and look at what he did physically. And if you don’t understand what he did, Damon’s researches are among the best that I’ve ever read. Damon has boiled down all of his intelligence into a Blake Dictionary, where all the names, all the concepts, are spelled out and defined and compared from poem to poem. It’s in the library here. You don’t read it, you just .. If you run across a problem in Blake like, who is “Los”? or who is “Urizen”? [pronounced in succession by Allen as “Yur-reason” and “Yur-eye-zen”], you look them up. You can look it up in the book if the right words are important.

The audio for some of this (beginning with Allen’s performances of “Night”,”Spring”, “Nurse’s Song”, “A Dream”, :Holy Thursday”) is available courtesy the Internet Archive at:
Thanks once again to Randy Roark for his pioneering transcription work

addenda: (still from Allen’s 1975 “History of Poetry” class, but the following week (July 4 – sic) –
AG: What I want to begin with is the last song of Blake that I’ll sing (in this particular class) – called “The Schoolboy”. This is a farewell to Blake and a salute to Independence Day and a tribute to those who came. So “The Schoolboy” (Allen sings Blake’s “The Schoolboy” (from “Songs of Experience”) in its entirety – “I love to rise on a summer morn…”) Okay, (that’s) a last Blake for this session.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *