Wednesday, October 31, 2007


William Blake's "London" is for me the threshhold for so-called *political poetry.* You'll never retain my interest as a reader in a political poem that remains trapped in its politics (which is not the same thing as saying I'm anti-didacticism, mind you). Blake's "London" is the most effective political poem I've ever read for reasons below....but first, here's the poem:

I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man,
In every infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear:

How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace-walls.

But most, thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot's curse
Blasts the new-born Infant's tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

A lot has been said about this poem and I'm certainly no Blake scholar (and much of what's shared below is from notes from, or meditations that took off from, scholar Donald John's lectures). But here are some elements that move me about the poem:

Among the poem's impressive layers is how the first draft of the 2nd stanza's last line "The mind-forg'd manacles I hear" actually was written as "The German-forg'd manacles I hear", reflecting of course the history at the time with the Hanover empire and Great Britain. But by BRILLIANTLY changing the word to "mind-forg'd," Blake opens up the possibilities for hope and redemption -- that one can use imagination and creativity to address problems. (Which, in turn, brings humans back onto the path towards the Paradise [as fulfilling human potential] from which we were kicked out, if you continue with Blake's underlying concept...) So that the line is located in the specific, and yet becomes the kind of poetry that lasts because it doesn't remain trapped in its 18th century historical reference. And the point? Why, that a 21st century reader is called to be politically proactive -- that one need not be limited by (inherited) circumstance; that one can think of ways to act to improve or address the ills of one's specific times...

Note also the reference to Chimney-sweepers in the 3rd stanza's line, "How the Chimney-sweepers cry". London back then really was a hellhole for the poor. Families sold their children to chimney sweeps because only children can be small enough to clamber through those chimneys. There were laws -- like the chimney sweeps couldn't sublease their bought kids to other chimney sweeps, that they're supposed to buy them a fresh set of clothes at least once a year, feed them healthily and all that; mostly, these laws were ignored. There also was a maximum term of service -- seven years; but by the end of seven years, the children already had been permanently disabled with crooked spines, cancer from breathing in the soot et al, and so on. And who was the biggest employer of chimney sweeps? The Church. For nearly two centuries, the religious hired chimney sweeps knowing full well how abusive this practice was against children.

And the two lines "And the hapless Soldiers sigh / Runs in blood down Palace walls" -- these lines weren't just about the *general* plight of soldiers; this is a *specific* reference to the British war veterans returning from the American revolution who had been promised but were failing to receive military benefits.

The reference to "youthful Harlots"? London then was the center of child prostitution.

And so on. Now, note that "London" was written at a time when London poems had been generally used to honor, to glorify England. Blake (and other Romantics) subverted "London" to indict England -- to draw attention to the rulers' hypocrisies and abuses. The references to the word "mark(s)" not only meant its literal meaning but was chosen for being a highly-charged Biblical word (ref. Ezekiel, "mark of the beast," "Isaiah"...).

Remember that, as with the majority (like, 95%?) of Blake's poems, "London" was written also as an Illuminated Poem -- text inseparable from the visual imagery that Blake created for/with it. Among the figures for "London" is a child guiding an old man along the streets. The child obviously hearkens innocence, Blake's larger theme -- as explored in Songs of Innocence & Experience -- as regards soul-making. That one first is innocent, then becomes experienced, but from that experience -- through the tools of creativity/imagination like poetry -- one moves to a "Higher Innocence."

Imagination, according to Blake, is the closest thing to "God" -- to bring human beings to maximize their potential. Significantly, and as influenced no doubt by his criticism of organized religion, one need not be Christian to relate to Blake's soul-making path.

So, in this poem, there is content, there is visual poetry, AND THEN the bloody thing is so purr-fectly pitched it can be sung. I just heard the version of this poem in William Bolcom, Songs of Innocence and Experience (William Blake), Univeristy of Michigan School of Music (2004). It is nothing less than MAGNIFICENT. This poem resonates for being a bountiful feast for the mind, the eyes, the ears -- the spirit.

So that ultimately, here's the thing about "London". The poem is *successful* because it was created based on the poem's terms (poetic terms?), rather than only to manifest a political gesture. And because the poem is successful, the reader is moved. And as a result of being moved by the poem, this reader turns attention away from the specific suffering of 18th century England to the sources of suffering in one's own times. And therein lies the impetus for political action. That the poem then becomes -- as good poems can be, whether for political or non-political matters -- a portal to new experiences.

Most of the contemporary "political poetry" I've read remain mired in authorial biography (granted, it could be a function of my reading habit) -- they were writ primarily to make the authors feel better (by *feel better*, it includes ranting against abuse). But while the authors got some relief, it's a masturbatory relief and has nothing to do with Moi (or Toi); what's inherent in masturbation is that it's a solitary act. (And using literary techniques that elide the spedifics of didacticism doesn't necessarily change things.)

So a political poem -- perhaps more than any other type (so to speak) of poem -- needs to be conscious of audience. So consider, when you do a political poem, how palatable, for example, is being preached at? If you don't like being preached at, then don't preach through your poem. You preach through a poem and that poem becomes or remains being about you the author, instead of the polis of "us". Same question could be raised as regards -- how palatable being abstruse?

And there's always this thought I've heard spouted by many: "Fine fine you're a concerned human being -- so go ahead then and vote, protest, et al; no need to specifically write a poem about how concerned a human being you are -- if only because such a poem is not likely to be as effective anyway for addressing politics as voting, protesting, et al." (While I empathize with this view, btw, I don't actually posit it -- it crosses the line for me on telling people how to write their poems, which I choose not to do. Poets should write whatever they want; the matter I address is how I come to want to read what a poet writes -- a different matter.)

MIS DOS CENTAVOS, anyway...I blog, ergo I got two cents. Good mawning!

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