Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Nester chooses Blake

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          In my first year as an undergraduate in college, I entered another world. Up to that time, I did not find school amenable. In fact, I hated it. Given a choice, I would have cut class any day, and spent all my time strolling through the Franklin Institute or perusing the stacks at the library.
But college was a whole different animal. These teachers actually encouraged questions, and spurred on my enthusiastic response to the texts we studied. My favorite class of those idyllic early years was a multi-disciplinary course on the English Romantic period, exploring it from a scientific, philosophical, political, as well as a literary perspective. My favorite writer from that period, who had something to say about all those disciplines, was William Blake.
Blake’s most anthologized work is probably “The Tyger,” from his Songs of Innocence and Experience. Many critics have tackled this work, but they do not agree on its meaning or the light it might shed on Blake’s probable answers to the thorny theological questions it raises.
I chose this poem from among all those I admire because it seems a fit way to celebrate my own forthcoming chapbook, Balance, composed of 15 poems following a sequence of yoga poses developed by B.K.S. Iyengar. Mr. Iyengar introduced this particular sequence in his book, Light on Life, as a way of promoting emotional stability.
On the literary side, my book was inspired in part by Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, a poetic work based emphatically on a concept and one that integrates visual and verbal art. Despite their ability to stand alone, the lyrics in this work cannot be considered wholly apart from their context in the work as a whole or, for that matter, their place in Blake’s overall system.
Not being a visual artist, as Blake was, I sought out a willing and congenial artist to collaborate with me on my book, and ended up, by the grace of the Internet and her own generosity, working with my first cousin, Nina Canal, an artist, fabric designer, and musician residing in Marseilles, France.
For my cover, I worked with the photographer John Genesta, who, from the concept I conceived, produced the cover photograph you see here. I also cannot forget the craftswomen on Etsy who sold me the origami flower pictured in this photograph.
            Poet and publisher Karen Kelsay Davies labored long over the book’s layout, introducing me to the business end of writing as she went, and probably, in the process, learning more herself about yoga and Sanskrit that she ever wanted to know.
            Unlike Blake, who acted as poet, artist, and printer all in one [The Tyger etching at the Met here], I required a whole stable of collaborators to see this project to fruition, not neglecting to mention my good friend Marly, who helped give the project its impetus.


Supta Virasana by Nina Canal

Supta Virasana—Reclining Hero Pose

On the road to the studio, the hills
undulate under the clouds like fish
in the shallows, soft morning light
singing on their silver scales.
I want to lie down in that light
and become a hill, but my mind
won’t let me. Let me try again
to still the muscles’ long
sigh as legs enfold the hips,
tucked under like hospital corners,
the thighs pulled taut as a harp string,
the ribs pried open as I
lie back on the folded blankets
exposing my heart to the world.

Come visit my writer’s page:  http://redroom.com/member/robbi-nester
and my blog, http://robbi-shadowknows.blogspot.com
[You may buy books from Robbi there.]


William Blake may have been the first great outsider artist to crossover into the mainstream of the literary canon. In fact, he arguably exemplifies the Romantic concept of the poetic genius, though not in the Byronic sense we are used to.
“Tyger” emerges from a paired collection of lyrics, half representing the voice of Innocence, and the other experience. Though Blake gives a voice to each of these opposed qualities, we can never forget that each makes up but half of the overall work, embodying Blake’s proverb from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Without contraries is no progression.” Perhaps it is because one may discern this philosophy in “Tyger” that so many have chosen it to represent Blake’s poetic oeuvre.
We see in most elements of the poem Blake’s refusal to settle into any uncomplicated pattern or perspective. This is so of the poem’s poetic form, something critics often disagree about. The poem is composed of 6 four line stanzas with four beats per line, as I scan it. However, though Blake sets a pattern in the first stanza of largely trochaic rhythm, with an accented first syllable and unaccented second one, in the stanzas to follow, it riffs freely on the theme, varying the order of the stresses.
The last stanza largely mirrors the first, reflecting the tiger’s own “fearful symmetry.” In the same way, the work’s accentual rhythm allows Blake to vary the position of accented syllables over the course of the work to begin and end it as a sort of incantation, but emulate along the way the hammer of a blacksmith God, crafting the beast, the beating of the tiger’s newly-minted heart, or the shocked stutter of the speaker, rendered inarticulate before the wonder of God’s creation.
Syntactically and also thematically, the poem reminds us of the biblical Book of Job, particularly those passages late in the book, where, in a catalogue of rhetorical questions, God challenges Job to best his creative power.
In its penultimate stanza, Blake’s poem asks the most significant of the poem’s questions:
            When the stars threw down their spears,
            And watered heaven with their tears,
            Did he smile his work to see?
            Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
This is not the poem’s final stanza, since that comes full circle to repeat the incantatory first four lines, yet it poses the major question we are left with at the end of the work. The martial image of the stars “[throwing] down their spears” evokes both the fallen angels of Milton’s epic Paradise Lost and the Book of Job, where God tells how “the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (38.7).
For the speaker of this poem, the joy of such celestial beings does not seem so apparent. They respond to God’s immanent act of creation with hostility and sadness, suggesting that in their view, there may be something suspect about the whole endeavor.
Here, as elsewhere in Blake’s work, we discern more than a hint of Gnosticism, a doctrine that brands all of material creation as inherently flawed, the product of a demiurge akin to Blake’s own Nobodaddy. Yet at the same time, these celestial beings “Water heaven with their tears,” an act that promotes the growth of this same creation.
The tiger is at once a beautiful creature and, like Job’s Leviathan, the fearsome object of our awe. Though it is both at once, we cannot so emphatically answer yes to the poem’s ultimate question, “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” Blake leaves the question unresolved.
In contrast, the resolution of the Book of Job strikes us as singularly unsatisfactory. Even if God replaces all of Job’s progeny with new offspring and returns him to full health and the respect of his community, does this make up for what he has lost? Not hardly.
The question of evil cannot be glossed over in any blithe way. It must remain a question, as Blake leaves it here in his poem, which I see as a response to that biblical book and to Milton’s epic, Paradise Lost.
Like  the other works in the collection, this poem appears on an illuminated plate Blake has etched. Many commentators have noted the oddly toothless demeanor of the tiger in this plate. Unlike the fierce and fiery beast described in the poem, emblem of divine creation or warfare, this tiger, with its slight, stuffed animal smile and rounded edges, seems oddly toothless. [The Tyger illumination can be seen here.]
While most regard this as an artistic failing, I see it as yet another example of Blake’s dialectical style, confronting things with their own opposites, and leaving us to puzzle out the meaning. Does this mean that the speaker of the poem is an unreliable narrator of sorts, who mistakes the nature of the beast he describes? Or is it an effort to remind us that the tiger, while it might gladly rend and consume human flesh, does so not out of malice but as a means of survival, as many of us eat other creatures’ flesh?
Blake’s questioning did not arise ex nihilo. He is known to have studied mystical as well as  canonical biblical traditions. Questioning the nature of divine creation is common among the mystics of Judaism, whom the self-tutored Blake may well have studied. Faced with evil circumstances as daunting as Job’s, the 15th century scholar Isaac Luria was part of the community Queen Isabella persecuted in the Inquisition and ultimately expelled from Spain. Faced with the conundrum of a monotheistic deity who allowed such evil to occur, Luria  crafted a creation myth to explain the existence of evil in the world we inhabit known as “breaking the vessels.”
In this myth, it is the act of creation itself that inadvertently leads to evil coming into the material world, since the “shells” of material creation, akin to clay cracking in the kiln, are too imperfect to contain God’s divine creative light.
The task of human beings, in this mythos, is to collect the shards of fractured divinity immured in unlikely and apparently evil places of the world and send them back to their source. This process is called “tikkun olam.”
Blake’s system similarly envisions a purpose for human beings of countering evil with imagination and artistic creation. In his view, it is our task to challenge orthodoxies of all sorts, and thus emulate God’s creative energy. Blake’s work exercises this capacity in his readers. 
Christian orthodoxy explains away the obvious rifts between the often capricious nature of the deity portrayed in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, and the God of mercy embraced by the Christian tradition. But characteristically, Blake challenges us to note these lacunae, and explains them by suggesting that these are indeed two different Gods, not faces of the same one.
Thus, when he asks “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” he is speaking not just of the material world but of the two traditions, two bodies of religious texts, with the Lamb taking on its symbolic meaning as Jesus, not just the companion poem to “The Tyger” in Blake’s work.
Yet at the same time, the merciful and gentle face of deity cannot account for the reality of the world we live in. The existence of this other tradition, other deity, other text is necessary to describe our world adequately. Ultimately, the creative tension between these two views is essential to spur us onward, toward our own divinely inspired acts of creation.



Tyger! Tyger! burning bright 
In the forests of the night, 
What immortal hand or eye 
Could frame thy fearful symmetry? 

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire? 

And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet? 

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp? 

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee? 

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry? 



  1. Very nice article. I too love Blake. I think the Vilna Gaon and Benedict Spinoza were part of his reading. Mystics have alway upheld a stricter orthodoxy than the heresies of the mainstream. I shall look forward to reading more of your poetry. Good luck with the book.

  2. Thanks Albert. I will seek out your articles as well. Heresies have always fascinated me, more than orthodoxies I am afraid. There is a reason Blake attracts me.

  3. Congratulations on your book publication, Robbi. I love the book cover. And I enjoyed your article about Blake, whose art and writing I love. A while ago I read a fascinating fictionalized story of the Blakes' marriage in the voice of his wife, who helped him a great deal in his printmaking.

  4. Thanks Marja-Leena. I had the idea for the cover while I was doing yoga one day. I didn't know how I was going to get hold of an origami lotus, but lo and behold! I Googled it, and there it was! A whole store full of them at Etsy!

  5. I am so happy to see William Blake here, and 'Tyger' is such a beautiful and powerful work.
    I always forget it until I hear it, and then... I feel wonderfully grounded.
    Robbi - this is such a nice entry into The Lydian Stones. I know know a great deal more about Blake than I did, and it fires me to read more.
    I also think your poetry is a very elegant and lovely thing - in every respect. What a particularly nice gift this will make for friends you practice Yoga! A gem!