Recently a friend of mine shared a poem by William Blake, bringing to my mind Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and his Illustrations of the Book of Job.
I was introduced to poetry in the most perfunctory of ways in high school, with a heavy emphasis on Anglo-Saxon literature. Geek I am, I would read through the textbook on the school bus home, thinking about the poems we didn’t learn in class. Though I considered myself an existentialist in my teens, I still found Blake’s poems radiant, and perhaps they comforted me with their simplicity and purity.
Blake’s faith was a cornerstone of his life and work. That’s part of why I always found his Illustrations of the Book of Job so interesting. He created his Illustrations by manner of drawing, watercolour, engravings and etchings. Each illustration contains Blake’s interpretation of the Book of Job using visual art and language to retell the story. The Book of Job is basically a part of the bible about a man named Job whose faith in God is tested. And I mean tested. In the course of the story, Job is plagued by misfortune, tempted by the devil, and suffers physical, emotional, and mental pain. Yet, his faith never wavers.
Blake created Illustrations of the Book of Job in 1825, only a few short years before his death. I always felt that Blake might have created his Illustrations while feeling his mortality, and perhaps his own faith was being tested toward the end of his life.
Needless to say, after all this thought about it, I wanted to read the book. When I opened it up, a piece of paper fell out, revealing a poem I had written nearly 15 years ago. It was so strange to find. I quickly realized that I had written the poem while I was at work. At that time, I worked in a bakery each day from 6am until noon, after which I would walk to the train station and then take the train to Manhattan to go to school.
I was attending The New School, taking late-afternoon and night classes on scholarship, and exploring the village with very little money, haunting areas surrounding Washington Square Park, Bleeker and Houston. Back then, the east village was not what it is today. Back in the day, one could hang out around St. Marks and buy LSD on the street, and the “questionable” area started much closer on Avenue A. I had been going into the city since I was a teenager, when friends played shows in the closet sized basements of east village bars. We were all underage, but we didn’t drink and they didn’t mind. It was all cool, loud noise; chaotic music, punk kids.
The time in which I went to The New School was a very transitional time in my life, and it also was what author Stephen Cope would call a “transformational space”. It was at The New School I first started writing seriously, and, most importantly, when I first began thinking of myself as a writer.
The poem I found isn’t exactly a great poem, but I love how I responded to Blake’s Job. It brought me back to a time and place where nothing in my life was stable or certain. I wanted to be a writer; I knew that would be a difficult path to travel. Yet it seemed that everything in my life had led me to that path. And there I was; young, unsure, and full of wanton desires, confronted by the absolute faith of William Blake.
Reading Blake at 8:30 am, working
at the bakery; “the letter
killeth the spirit giveth life, it is
And I wonder how, 171 years later,
I can be moved by the words of a
long dead poet, by the faith
of the truly religious
“oh that my words were printed
in a book, that they were graven
with an iron pen and lead in the
And I wonder will I ever behold
such a strong message, when I
live in a world where god
was pronounced dead
on the front page of a newspaper
I want to believe in something -
“behold he is in thy hand; but
save his life.”
Blake, mentor, friend, guide
this troubled spirit, ease
this poet’s heart
I etch these words on transient
paper with a found pen
and I do not hear god’s voice
except maybe when I stand by
the ocean, looking at the place
where the sky and water meet,
all that blue, that feeling
of eternity – “how precious
are thy thoughts onto me, O God,
how great is the sum of them.”
I think maybe, possibly, I hope -
is that strong enough?
Should I believe
in myself completely?
and then could I believe in you?
It would be easier if there was
not so much pain and violence
and disease and death
in this world
is that the price we pay
I would rather you strike down
this sodom and gomorrah, I
shun this world, but I was born
into it, and I’m still longing
for a miracle
in this concrete hell,
what is my purpose, I am half-mad
with asking that question
knowing the paths set before me
as clearly as stopping by the woods
on a snowy evening, “And I only
am escaped, alone to tell.”