William Blake

2 posts

Brian Doyle: Pro at Prose Poetry


Note: It is with sadness that I report that a few short months after I wrote this post, Brian Doyle passed away from a brain tumor. To lose a writer of his talent is a loss for all of us.

I first discovered Brian Doyle when I read his imaginative novel of the sea, The Plover, a few years back. The good ship Plover makes a cameo in Doyle’s earlier book, Mink River, which I just finished reading yesterday,

Doyle is a prose writer with poetic blood coursing through his veins. You need only look at his inspirations to learn why. In the back of Mink River, Doyle includes among his “lodestars, compass points, emotional touchstones” while writing the book these stalwarts: The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake and The King James Bible. He also tips his hat to that poetic essayist Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being.

Blake and the KJV especially are quoted early and often in this book. The crow is partial to the Psalms. The doctor likes Ecclesiastes. And Blake words just jump willy-nilly, followed by the one-word nod, “Blake.”

Among the poet’s bag of tricks, anaphora and polysyndeton and alliteration are three favorites. Doyle’s disciplined rambling brings a small Oregon town to life slowly but surely. In episodic chunks, we meet a cast of characters, Winesburg, Ohio-like, including a speaking (and thinking) crow named Moses. The book walks the line between real and surreal at times, but a gentle approach to surrealism always seems to carry it across the suspension bridge of disbelief. And before you know it, gentle reader, you have favorite quirky characters. Or quixotic ones, maybe. All cued up.

So what does this poetic prose look like? Let me copy a bit from the text as an example of Doyle’s delights. If you like it, perhaps a whitewater raft trip down the Mink is in your future. Or a trip at sea on the Plover, if you prefer.

And even if not, it’s fun to watch a writer having fun, luxuriating in words, turning in them and breathing them like oxygen for the creative lungs. Here, then, is a dash of Doyle:

“New trout, having never seen rain on the river, rise eagerly to ripples on the Mink. Some windows close against the moist and some open for the music. Rain slips and slides along hawsers and chains and ropes and cables and gladdens the cells of mosses and weighs down the wings of moths. It maketh the willow shiver its fingers and thrums on doors of dens in the fens. It falls on hats and cats and trucks and ducks and cars and bars and clover and plover. It grayeth the sand on the beach and fills thousands of flowers to the brim. It thrills worms and depresses damselflies. Slides down every window rilling and murmuring. Wakes the ancient mud and mutter of the swamp, which has been cracked and hard for months. Falls gently on leeks and creeks and bills and rills and the last shriveled blackberries like tiny dried purple brains on the bristles of bushes. On the young bear trundling through a copse of oaks in the woods snorffling up acorns. On ferns and fawns, cubs and kits, sheds and redds. On salmon as long as your arm thrashing and roiling in the river. On roof and hoof, doe and hoe, fox and fence, duck and muck. On a slight man in a yellow slicker crouched by the river with his recording equipment all covered against the rain with plastic wrap from the grocery store and after he figures out how to get the plastic from making crinkling sounds when he turns the machine on he settles himself in a little bed of ferns and says to the crow huddled patiently in rain, okay, now, here we go, Oral History Project, what the rain says to the river as the wet season opens, project number …something or other … where’s the fecking start button? …I can’t see anything … can you see a green light? yes? is it on? damn my eyes … okay! there it is! it’s working! rain and the river! here we go!”

I’ll miss the book and the next one will suffer a bit by comparison. Is there any higher compliment you can pay an author?

William Blake, British Rockers, and a Chariot of Fire


Students tend to think of poetry as an English teacher problem. “Oh, man,” their attitude seems to be. “Only an English teacher could love something like poetry. Me, I can’t understand any of it, except maybe the poems I read in elementary school.”
Ironic, given how much students love music, because music means lyrics and lyrics are first cousin not-at-all-removed from poetry. If you don’t believe me, you only need go as far as a Swedish Academy near you, where some fellow name Bob Dylan, songwriter, just stole off with the Nobel Prize for Literature.
One particular “grown-up” poem that shows how poetry can meld with music and film is William Blake’s lovely nugget from the larger poem Milton. Embraced by the British, the poem segment is more often known by its first quoted line, “And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time.”
My first exposure to Blake’s poem came not via the classroom, but by way of an

albumcut in 1973 by the British rockers Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Brain Salad Surgery (what a poetically-lovely title!) opens with, of all things, Blake’s poem, only I didn’t know it at the time. I thought it was the fantastic brainchild of the group itself. Only years later would I learn that the mesmerizing words came from a fascinating mysticwho lived in England from 1757 to 1827.

When I offered the poem in my classroom, I always played the old Emerson, Lake, and Palmer version after we’ve read and discussed it. Then I reinforced the word “allusion” by talking about 

the 1981 moviethat took its name from Blake’s poem. That movie was about British runners who competed in the 1924 Paris Olympics.

As for the poem itself, I simply ask students to point out the “cool lines.” It is amazing how simple that request can be in the classroom. Students, even those who know nothing about poetry and profess to hate it, are naturally drawn to poetic devices and good writing.
They were intrigued by metaphors in lines like “these dark Satanic mills,” “my Bow of burning gold,”  “my arrows of desire,” and “my Chariot of fire.” They loved the personification of “Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand.” And they were fascinated by the concept of Jerusalem being built in, of all places, “England’s green & pleasant Land.”
And who wouldn’t be? In Blake’s hands, even an ordinary and clichéd word like “pleasant” becomes le mot juste. There can be no better evocation for the natural beauty of England under the threat of industrialization and those “dark Satanic Mills.”
Here, then, is the poem that inspired the music and the film. If you teach, it will inspire your students, too.


“And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time”
by William Blake
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.