As you could have guessed, I love poetry. But not all poems are the same – some resonate with me whereas with others nothing happens. It’s just like with music or any other kind of art. Sometimes, I fall head over heels in love with someone’s work, and recently that’s been William Blake’s work. He just seems so unlike any other poet. He stands out.
A lot of people seem to find his writing rather cryptic and hard to understand, but what if it isn’t? What if he actually meant what he was saying? It may be over the top of some people’s head but he had it down.
It’s like in the 1950s, when some people couldn’t understand Allen Ginsberg’s writing just because they didn’t think anyone was allowed to say such things. That’s the kind of problem people had and have with Blake. After centuries of religious and “scientific” indoctrination, people just seem to have lost touch with the truth. And William Blake was one of those people that saw through the deception of culture. He knew something others didn’t. His world was different from that of others. And the more I immersed myself in this world, the more I was able to gain from it. I’m not the only one who made this experience. He has been an inspiration for many artists – lots of contemporary musicians, poets and painters, too. From Patti Smith to Blur to The Verve, Lily Allen and U2. All drew some inspiration from his work and it lives on. It lives on because it was reinterpreted and reinterpreted, but also because his unique style of writing still feels contemporary. And that’s what brings me to the first lesson that I have learned from him:
1. Don’t tie yourself to a framework
Other poet’s work has become dated. It just sounds old-fashioned. And while it’s still read and valued as cultural background and part of the canon of literature, it feels and seems awkward and intangible.
It’s not that William Blake’s writing is any easier to understand today than it was back then, but other poets tied themselves to a framework. A framework that was imposed by the culture and society of the time that dictated what was considered fitting and right. Blake, on the other hand, chose his words in a way that somehow allowed them to travel across the centuries without losing their validity. He didn’t let himself be influenced by what others did or what fashion dictated.
This is what every artist should be striving for. No framework. No imposed rules. No restrictions and confines. Just a desire to express yourself and uncover the truth.
2. Solve problems creatively by putting aside “expert” knowledge
With his writing, Blake was trying to teach people how to think creatively and how to get out of the ruts of conventional thinking. He was trying to energize the reader’s mind – to make them look at things freshly and from a different perspective. And he did so by using polarities in ways that would surprise the reader, ironically reversing familiar references. He was fostering creative thinking by analogy – personification, fantasy, imagery – and by “making the familiar strange”.
This is what makes art such a powerful tool for advancement. It seems to tap into mental processes that increase our ability to come up with solutions for certain problems. To successfully solve problems in your area of expertise, you first have to overcome what you have learned – your expert knowledge – in order to break out of rigid ways of thinking. For innovation to happen we have to first put aside mental frameworks and petrified thought patterns.
“In Dostoyevsky’s story, Dream of an Odd Fellow, the theme is stated more clearly – the world is very boring, and everything seems the same as everything else, until you can escape from a certain interpretive framework, to see what is really present to you.” – Ray Peat
Blake once said that a line, no matter how finely divided, was still a line. It’s the greater whole we need to see – the imaginative synthesis of the small parts that everything consists of. Theoretically, you can subdivide anything into infinitesimals but that is just not what the human brain usually does. You yourself and the world around you are a synthesis. If you could subdivide a person into lots of small moments and you would keep going, you would eventually come to a point where nothing represents that person anymore. Each person is a summation of many small moments. It’s our imaginative synthesis of those bits of experience that make a person who they are. And the good thing is, we have some control over what makes us who we are. Change those bits of experience and you can change how other people perceive you, but also how you perceive yourself.
4. Reason changes over time – experience doesn’t
“Reason isn’t the same that it will be when we know more.” – William Blake
Reason is what we know up until now. It’s reduced to the analysis of what people hold as “facts”. The problem with this is that it makes you blind to possibility. It’s this idea that if nobody has ever done it, nobody can. But that’s just not how life works. Many people have proven this idea to be wrong by making the impossible possible. And those are the ones that actually changed something. It is experience that we should rely upon.
“As the true method of knowledge is experiment, the true faculty of knowing must be the faculty which experiences.” – William Blake
But Blake does not reduce experience to the senses. Nor does he believe we were born as a “tabula rasa”, a blank slate. He thinks, there is more to the mind than what we were born with. Imagination, innovation and the striving for something better were always factors that could generate new forms. It’s an approach that is very future-oriented. It’s based on invention and discovery, rather than established knowledge, rational thinking and tradition.
In all of Blake’s work it becomes clear that he never underestimated the unlimited world of possibilities that the future holds and never imposed false limits onto anything.
5. Find useful ideas in the thoughts of others, even if you don’t agree with them
In its essence, Blake’s approach to the world was very antidogmatic. He ridiculed the established doctrines in medicine, chemistry, mathematics, and Newtonian physics of the time. That’s why many people have dismissed him as a religious fanatic and overall nut case. The way he ridiculed them, however, indicates that he simply believed that they were bad science. His notes in the margins of books make it pretty clear that he just wasn’t blindly following anyone else’s opinion. Instead, he was able to find useful ideas in the thoughts of others, even when he disagreed with them. Question everything but don’t dismiss anything.
6. Network with all kinds of interesting people
During Blake’s time, London was the cultural center of the world – an eclectic hub for all kinds of people and ideas. European, Asian, and ancient cultures and ideas were debated and addressed. As an engraver, painter, poet and political activist, Blake was at the forefront of this wild mix of ideas and his circle of acquaintances was huge. He made tons of connections that broadened his horizon and expanded his consciousness. He drew from all those different ideas and incorporated them into his thinking. During a time, where we have the entire world at our fingertips, it has become increasingly easy and valuable to make all kinds of connections. Be open. Be promiscuous in who you connect with. Specifically, if it’s people that are completely out of your “field” – your usual area of expertise or interest. And expose yourself to as many different viewpoints and ideas as you can.
7. Move away from the classics and immerse yourself in the rich unofficial subculture
People who “only” spend time studying the classics in school or university are actually somewhat culturally deprived and miss out on lots of interesting new ideas. In 18th century London, an unofficial subculture had emerged and those who participated – like Blake, for example – discussed a vast number of new approaches to art, science and philosophy. It was the blogosphere of the 18th century! Immerse yourself in this culture and expose yourself to people and ideas that are not (yet) recognized by the institutions in power – unpublished writers, artists that don’t exhibit in galleries, musicians that haven’t landed a record deal yet. Trust me, you can only gain from it.
8. Consciousness as the only guarantee of existence
Blake frequently mentioned the importance of perception in our understanding of the world. But he also emphasized that he saw the world as “all alive”.
“Then tell me, what is the material world, and is it dead?” He laughing, answer’d: “I will write a book on leaves of flowers, if you will feed me on love thoughts and give me now and then a cup of sparkling poetic fancies; so, when I am tipsie, I’ll sing to you to this soft lute, and shew you all alive the world, where every particle of dust breathes forth its joy.” – William Blake
He believed that flies, birds, worms, ants and even grains of dust perceive and experience in ways that are essentially not any different from those of humans. In Blake’s world, everything was alive and conscious. It is this consciousness that is at the base of existence. And the implications that this belief holds are vast. If flies, birds, ants and worms are conscious – just like we are – the bonds of sympathy and forgiveness are universal.
“Seest thou the little winged fly, smaller than a grain of sand? It has a heart like thee; a brain open to heaven and hell…” – William Blake
The world should be seen with sympathetic involvement, rather than with analytical coldness. Nothing lives for itself only. The desire for vengeance usually comes from a delusive commitment to the world of memory. And while Blake said, you can’t forgive someone until they stop hurting you, the desire to be forgiven indicates that there is an opportunity to resolve the problem. Forgiveness is the only appropriate response to a world that is always changing and always new. It means that equilibrium and an unspoiled state can be restored at any point in time.
9. Abandon the illusion of matter as distinct from energy
Blake saw through the crude materialism of science and religion and realized that it is essentially a life-denying way to see the world. The dualistic conception of matter as distinct from energy and consciousness is a constrictive illusion put in place by those in power. He was clearly aware that the reason for creating limiting assumptions was to maintain control and to profit from the suffering of others. Seeing that these assumptions were based on a dichotomy of body and soul, he tried to replace them with a unity of consciousness, a world that’s alive rather than dead.
In order to avoid these limiting assumptions about the world, you first need to remember who you are: a living being that interacts with other beings, exchanging energy and information with the environment, experiencing yourself in the world. Only if you see yourself clearly, you can see through the veil that distorts reality.
10. Some people can’t follow unconventional thought and will write you off as crazy
After reading Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, William Wordsworth decided they must have been written by a crazy person. Because he couldn’t fully grasp them, he simply dismissed them.
Blake was well aware that people who couldn’t follow unconventional thought considered him to be crazy. This didn’t stop him from expressing his ideas, though. A lot of his critics read their own beliefs into Blake’s writing, completely ignorant of what he was actually saying. Blake knew this and he accepted that his work, like anything new in the world, could only be understood through active mental processes. And he really didn’t mind being called crazy by those who didn’t employ complex thinking.
Additional lesson: Self-publish your work, if nobody else will
One more thing: If you have something to share – and I believe everyone does – then get it out there. Blake printed his work by hand, without a press, by writing the text backwards on copper plates, surrounded by his drawings and then etching away the surrounding copper, so that the image remained elevated and could be printed. If he hadn’t used this method for printing, much of his work would probably not have survived until this day. Nowadays, it’s much easier. We don’t have to tediously etch our work on copper plates. Instead, we can self-publish almost anything online. And that’s an opportunity we should definitely make use of.
Okay, so that’s it! Those are the most important lessons I have learned so far. I hope you could get a better understanding of Blake as a person, artist and free-thinker, and maybe I could spark your interest in his work a little bit. He is definitely one of the most misunderstood people in art, yet one of the most interesting at the same time. I will continue to research and study his work, and maybe I will blog about him again one day or just share certain quotes and thoughts on facebook. I think, there is still much more to learn form him than even I am aware of as of yet. 2013 might very well become my Blakean year.
“So throw off your stupid cloak
Embrace all that you fear.
For joy shall conquer all despair
In my Blakean year…” – Patti Smith
Abrams, Meyer H. and Stephen Greenblatt, eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. 2 vols. New York: Norton & Company.
W.J.J. Gordon, Harper & Row. Synectics. Cambridge, Mass.: Synectics Research Group, 1961.