Luke Walker on Willam Blake & Ginsberg’s Visions

Having just completed last week our long-running transcription of Allen’s 1979 Naropa class on William Blake’s The Four Zoas, we thought we’d celebrate with a weekend of further  Blake studies. Today, leading Blake scholar, Luke Walker (from Global Blake, the international conference that took place last month) on Allen and his Blake vision.

Walker writes:

“The strange 1948 experience that Allen Ginsberg referred to as his “Blake Vision” was foundational to his identity and career as a poet and activist. His compulsion to retell the story, Ginsberg said, was comparable to that of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. Through such verbal and textual reiterations, the vision became a central part of the Beat mythos, and a key element of the proselytizing mission which Ginsberg conducted on Blake’s behalf within the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. However, the narrative details of this visionary experience, as presented within Blake scholarship and in much writing on Ginsberg and the Beats, have nearly always been drawn from a single source –  the Paris Review interview conducted in 1965, some seventeen years after the vision itself. This reliance on one source has led critics to overlook other fascinating, frequently conflicting, accounts of the vision. These include a series of short, intense poems written in 1948 in a lyric style which is very different to Ginsberg’s later poetry, as well as a contemporaneous letter in which Ginsberg cryptically tells Neal Cassady that “The light broke for me several times in the past weeks.” Critics have also largely overlooked Ginsberg’s earliest sustained narrative account of his Blake vision, written in 1949 as part of an unpublished “Portrait” of the hustler and Beat muse Herbert Huncke. This contains many individual phrases which recur in the later Paris Review interview, but also notable factual differences. Ginsberg makes broad comparisons between his visionary experience and the content of Blake’s poetry, but omits any mention of hearing Blake’s voice, or the causative role of reading Blake’s poetry immediately prior to the vision. Alongside an examination of these little-known early sources, my paper presents an overview of Ginsberg’s lifelong process of re-examination of his “Blake vision.” In doing so, it seeks to contextualize several other significant elements of the famous Paris Review interview, including Ginsberg’s statements on his changing relationship to Blake, his approach to visionary and psychedelic experience in general, and the process by which poetry works on the mind.”

Walker is the author of the upcoming William Blake and Allen Ginsberg: Romanticism, Counterculture and Radical Reception, forthcoming from Manchester University Press.

His review  of Allen’s double-CD Complete Songs of Innocence and Experience for the Blake Quarterly can be found here

Other pertinent scholarly articles include ‘Allen Ginsberg’s Blakean Albion’ (Comparative American Studies, 2013) – an article on the influence of William Blake on Allen Ginsberg, focusing on poems Ginsberg wrote during various visits to Britain and showing how Ginsberg engages with Blake’s mythopoetic system and the figure of Albion”, “Allen Ginsberg’s “Wales Visitation” as a neo-Romantic response to Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey” (Romanticism, 2013) – “showing that William Wordsworth had an unexpectedly strong influence on Sixties counterculture, via Allen Ginsberg””, “Psychedelic Romanticism: Ginsberg, Blake and Wordsworth” (a chapter in the collection Psychedelicacies based on his 2017 paper at the 2017 Breaking Convention), ‘Tangled up in Blake:  the triangular relationship among Dylan, Blake, and the Beats’, (in the collection, Rock and Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, and Rock from Dylan to U2  (2018) – “My chapter examines the influence of William Blake on Bob Dylan (up to his 2012 album Tempest), showing the significance of Dylan’s friendship with Allen Ginsberg”), a chapter in The Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature (2018) – (‘Beat Britain: poetic vision and division in Albion’s “underground”) – and,  recently, “One physical-mental inspiration of thought”: Allen Ginsberg and Black Mountain Poetics”,  tracing the history of Allen Ginsberg’s engagement with the ‘Black Mountain’ poetics of Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov, include in The Beats, Black Mountain, and New Modes in American Poetry (2021)

2 comments

  1. So interesting! — Ginsberg’s early visionary experiences 1948 were not the auditory hallucination of Wm Blake, rather Ginsberg invented that story ten years later to describe what is absolutely indescribable. This is my new understanding from Steven Weine’s forthcoming book on Ginsberg and “madness”

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