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'The Spirit of a Man is Raised'-Allen Ginsberg Singing Blake

By John G. Simon

WHEN William Blake was very young he came home one day and told his parents that he had seen angels hanging like bunches of fruit from the trees in the woods. Given the underdeveloped state of child psychology in the middle of the eighteenth century, his father quite understandably decided to give him a beating for having gone out by himself without permission and for lying about what he had seen.

Blake's mother was very religious and undecided about whether or not to hit William, so she asked him what the angels had looked like. He beat around the bush for a few seconds, or so this little story goes, and then told his parents that the angels had looked like Ideas (a word he always spelled with a capital I). Mr. and Mrs. Blake chose not to beat little William, and were, to tell the truth, probably a little afraid of him. From then on though, he told anyone who would listen, about the wonderful things that he alone could see. When he grew older he began to paint water colors and write poems about what he saw and heard with his invisible friends, and he claimed, in fact, that many of his longer poems were directly dictated to him by angels and other spirits. Whether you believe this or not is your own business.

But about two hundred years after Blake came home to tell his parents about the angels in the trees, Allen Ginsberg had the rare privilege of hearing William Blake recite "Ah! Sunflower" to him while he lay in his bed in Harlem. The spirit also crooned "The Sick Rose" and "The Little Girl Lost" to the prone Ginsberg.

What makes this more than just another chapter in someone's Allen Ginsberg case history, however, is that though Blake had been in the habit of actually singing his Songs Of Innocence and Experience to his human acquaintances, nobody thought much of them at the time, and so the melodies had been lost to many a generation of Music grad students. When Allen Ginsberg heard Blake's poems, Blake was singing them with what Ginsberg assumed to be the same melodies he had sung them with two hundred years before. So Ginsberg sung to himself the songs he had heard Blake singing, and as the years wore on, Ginsberg "imagined," as he calls it, the melodies to the rest of Blake's songs. Ginsberg, however, did not tell his parents about all of this.

INSTEAD he waited for twenty years-until the success of "Howl," the final death of the Beat Generation, and the birth of the "Chicago Teargas Convention." Not until then did Ginsberg finally get around to recording half of Blake's songs of Innocence and Experience to his and Blake's music. He probably thought that with Apocalypse staring us in the face from any or all directions that the rest of us could probably use them. Ginsberg puts it this way:

For the soul of the Planet is Wakening, the time of dissolution of Material Forms is here, our generation's trapped in Imperial Satanic Cities and Nations, and only the prophetic priestly consciousness of the Bard-Blake, Whitman or our own new selves-can steady our gaze into the Fiery eyes of the Tygers of the Wrath to come.

Ginsberg has performed a great service for us all, and he has also promised to set the rest of the Songs to music within another year.

I do not know about you, but I cannot recall having ever chanted much poetry to myself while walking down the street or waiting for the MBTA. Not because I do not like poetry but because I cannot remember the words to very many poems. The ones I do know by heart are mainly the ones that I wish I did not remember (e. g., "I think that I shall never see/A poem as lovely as a tree").

On the other hand, most of us know the words to at least two-thirds of all the Beatles' songs, and probably about half of Dylan's. We are flooded with pop music pouring out from our radios and stereos, and gladly immerse ourselves in it. Now, thanks to Ginsberg, we can bathe in the light of Blake's poetry as sung by Ginsberg and his friend Peter Orlovsky, and accompanied on harpsichord, guitar, laughter, and other instruments. The range of musical styles is amazing-from the madrigal-like version of "The Blossom" to the country and western sound of "The Garden of Love." Buy the record, listen to it half a dozen times, and you will find yourself humming and singing "Night" and "The Echoing Green" on the way back from Hilles Library.

Not all of the album is equally listenable, but it is the kind of music that grows on you. "The Introduction to the Songs of Innocence," "The Lamb," and "The Laughing Song" are all joyously manic tunes that cannot help invading your consciousness. Others like "The Chimney Sweeper," "The Little Boy Lost," and "The Sick Rose" are hauntingly beautiful ballads. A few, like "Holy Thursday," seem to drone on too long, but even here the lyrics come to the rescue.

IN THE "Introduction to the Songs of Innocence," a child-spirit appears before the poet-piper, listens to his songs, and weeps to hear the gleeful and unself-consciously played music. In the "Songs of Innocence," the poet claims gleefully to create in order to recapture the spontaneity and ecstasy of childhood. The act of writing is secondary to the joyousness of the Singer's entire being and it is the spirit, not his own ego, that commands him to record his intuitive inspiration:

Piper sit thee down and write in a book that all may read-So he vanished from my sight, And I plucked a hollow reed. And I made a rural pen And I stain'd the water clear And I wrote my happy songs Every child may joy to hear.

Ginsberg and friend sing the "Introduction" with mad abandon accompanied by guitar and flute. The melody is so natural and tailored to the poem that it becomes easier to believe that Blake did sing this happy song into Ginsberg's ear, except that Ginsberg claims this particular tune for his own musical talents:

I tried to hear meanings of each line spoken Intentionally and interestedly, and follow natural voice tones up or down according to different emphases and emotions vocalized as in dally intimate speech: I drew the latent tunes, up or down out of talk-tones suggested by each syllable spoken with normal feeling.

The "Introduction" fades into "The Shepherd," a devastatingly simple lyric poem, that like all of Blake's songs, is nevertheless rich in its suggestive power. Ginsberg's music is sweet and flowing but the song is almost spoiled by Peter Orlovsky's bleating voice. Ginsberg solos on "The Echoing Green" and the results here are much better. On the next cut, "The Lamb," Ginsberg and Orlovsky join voices again, and turn what is probably Blake's most popular poem into a tripped-out nursery song. This song expresses the essence of Blake's vision of innocence. Man is Child gently watched over by Christ, the Shepherd, as a human shepherd cares for his flock of lambs.

Little Lamb who made three?

Dost thou know who made thee?

He is called by thy name

For he calls himself a Lamb:

He is meek and he is mild,

He became a little child:

I a child and thou a lamb,

We are called by his name.

The other side of the record has about half The Songs of Experience on it The "Introduction," one of the most potentially powerful songs on the album is distorted, and many of the words made incomprehensible, by lousy singing. These are the other sides of the coin, the necessary balance to the Songs of Innocence. Here, the poet wears the mask of the wise old world sorcerer, rather than that of an ecstatic child:

Here the voice of the Bard

Who Present, Past and Future sees,

Whose ears have heard

The Holy Word.

That walk'd among the ancient trees.

THE SONGS on the second side are more somber in mood, and on the whole, Orlovsky's unearthly voice works to the better advantage on them. "Ah! Sunflower," one of "Blake's" original musical compositions, is not as prettily done by Ginsberg as it was by the Fugs on their first album, but after a few listening it seems more appropriately, if less melodically, tuned on Ginsberg's record.

"The Sick Rose" is one of Blake's finest poems, and it is also the short masterpiece of this album. With guitar and organ, Ginsberg performs the song with an exotic, perhaps Arabian, sound. Its simple imagery takes on allegorical power subtly symbolizing the corruption that disillusioning experience tells us must lie in every rose. Gnisberg says it nicely: "What's the Rose? Genital Flowers? Body Life? God? What's the Worm? Cancer Syphilis? Mind Time? Death?" The song suggests all of this, and much more.

O Rose thou art sick

The Invisible worm

That flies in the night

In the howling storm

Has found out thy bed

Of crimson Joy:

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.

"To Tirzah" was put into the Songs of Experience by Blake, ten years after the rest of the poems were compiled. At first, the poem seems out of place because of its explicit metaphysical concerns and its lack of concrete visual images. However, the poem raises an essential question that mystics have been asking themselves for a long time. Granted both Blake's and Ginsberg's belief in the illusory nature of the universe, and the transience of the ego in any one incarnation, how then does one relate to other men and society? The poem is the voice of man's eternal soul speaking to the mortal body.

Whate'er is born of Mortal Birth,

Must be consumed with the Earth

To rise from Generation free;

Then what have I to do with thee?

The question of involvement was never really very difficult for Blake, however. Listen to Ginsberg's tender singing of "The Little Black Boy," and "The Chimney Sweeper." These songs tell of goodness lost and crucified in both the slums of London and the world at large. Blake's vision of the angels in the woods remains pure and intact as we are told of a chimney sweeper's dream:

As Tom was a sleeping he had such a sight

That thousands of sweepers Dick, Joe, Ned and Jack

Were all of them lick'd up in coffins of black

And by came an Angel who had a bright key

And he opin's the coffins and set them all free.

Then down a green plain leaping laughing they run

And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.

IN ADDITION to defending human goodness in his poems, Blake also expressed, what was for his day, radical anger at the Church and the Government's role in preventing and exploit-ing man's godhead. Ginsberg does full justice to Blake's original poems in a lilting barricades-style song of "The Grey Monk" and a slow funeral dirge of "London":

How the Chimney-sweepers cry;

Every blackening Church appalls,

And the hapless soldier's sigh

Runs in blood down palace walls.

In one way or another, both Ginsberg and Blake reached the mental resolution to involve themselves in the controversies of their times. More remarkably, both managed to maintain a love of humanity and compassion for the suffering of others that Eliot, Pound, and countless other intellectuals abandoned along the way.

Blake warned Thomas Paine that the English police were going to arrest him for sedition in time for Paine to escape by boat to France. In the same tradition, Ginsberg braved clubs and mace to chant and speak at the Pentagon, Lincoln Park, and even in Judge Hoffman's Star Chamber.

The one time that I saw Allen Ginsberg was in Harvard Yard one late night last June when most of Harvard had either left for the summer or was in bed. Harvard tenants were attempting to exercise squatter's rights in the Yard and were willing to disrupt graduation ceremonies in order to force Harvard to accede to negotiations with them. The trustees were taking the episode with their usual lack of humor and there were rumors of a bust for late that night.

Ginsberg had read his poetry at Boston University that night, and at about 2 o'clock in the morning he came over to the Yard to be with the tenants for part of that long night. Sitting in the center of a circle of about fifty people, he led a chanting of Blake poems, power mantras, and other songs.

None of the newspapers knew that he had been there, and most of the tenants did not even know who he was. Still, it's one thing for a poet to chant poems and songs before an appreciative audience of middle class radicals, and quite another kind of act to go before a group of black tenants.

William Blake wrote:

"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."

Allen Ginsberg is perhaps our only poet of any considerable reputation who also sees and hears them. We should be listening both to him and to Blake more closely now than ever before.

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