Like most students in high school, I endured whatever was thrown at me, knowing that by doing so I was furthering my education. One of the poems we were exposed to was The Tyger by William Blake. What made it different from other poems was that the poem was annotated, showing the changes that Blake made to the poem before it reached its final version. I’d never seen that before, but it struck me that poems don’t normally come out in a complete format, that they need tweaking, and sometimes the poet makes several changes to an individual line, phrase or word. That was an education.
However, The Tyger was the only Blake poem that I ever read, until sometime in 1994 (or later) when I ‘discovered’ his work. When I started reading him, it occurred to me that his poetic style had echoes in my own poetry. One of my own poems, in particular, stood out from the rest.
The White Wind
The White Wind whispered, “Death, disdain and cold,”
And, smothering with icy waves of snow,
The World, which now lay frozen in its hold,
It said, “The grass, again, may never grow.”
While standing stiffly on the barren ground,
The Trees, amid a cemetery air,
Kept looking for their leaves, which can’t be found
Because they’d long been crushed and buried there.
Like an inverted palisade of glass,
Protecting frosted windows made of light,
The Icicles withstood the rattling blast,
As windswept Sleet obscured Life from their sight.
Inside the house, in silence, chilled with woe,
A body lay: the dead child did not know.
I distinctly recall the writing of this one, because it seemed to come of its own accord, without prompting from me, and I did not rewrite it after it was done, which is unusual. In fact, I probably wasn’t fully aware of what had been written until I re-read it. The last two lines, in particular, struck me as very peculiar because they broached a subject I would not have discussed: the death of a child. I cried when I finished reading that.
My memory says that I wrote this poem in 1972. The image in my mind was of a house diagonally across the street from my first wife, Judi’s parents’ home on Margaret Street in Angus, Ontario. But overlaid was the memory of huge icicles that used to hang beside my bedroom window in Windermere, Muskoka. Winter in Ontario when I was growing up was quite the spectacle, and seemingly only matched by recent snowstorms.
But how was it similar to Blake?
By William Blake 1757–1827
The wild winds weep,
And the night is a-cold;
Come hither, Sleep,
And my griefs infold:
But lo! the morning peeps
Over the eastern steeps,
And the rustling birds of dawn
The earth do scorn.
Lo! to the vault
Of paved heaven,
With sorrow fraught
My notes are driven:
They strike the ear of night,
Make weep the eyes of day;
They make mad the roaring winds,
And with tempests play.
Like a fiend in a cloud
With howling woe,
After night I do croud,
And with night will go;
I turn my back to the east,
From whence comforts have increas’d;
For light doth seize my brain
With frantic pain.
Except for the first part, not much. But it turns out that the last lines are echoed in a rondeau poem I wrote in 1975, when I was separating from my first wife, Judi.
My Life’s a Lie
My life’s a lie; I’ve lived in vain,
As if I were a drop of rain
Amongst the waters of the sea,
As if I were the smallest flea,
That burrowed in a lion’s mane.
From joys of life I did refrain,
My only feelings were disdain
For those who came too close to me:
My life’s a lie.
So as the streetlights slowly wane,
I’m waiting for a lonely train,
To leave the love I feel for thee,
As I become forever free;
A thought-filled pain stabs at my brain,
My life’s a lie.
Do you see what I mean? Echoes.
For years, I’ve pondered what this all could mean, and have really not been able to answer my own wonderings. Was I Blake reincarnated? Or did I channel him, somehow?
It was only in the past year or so that I began to see my connection to him was through one of his friends, John Varley. John Varley was an interesting character (aren’t they all?) who had a variety of occupations: he was a water colourist, an author, and, the most interesting role of all, an Astrologer. His claim to fame in astrological circles is that he may have been the one to link the (then) newly-discovered planet, Uranus, to Aquarius. Definitely, a man after my own heart.
Again, I cannot confirm whether I am John Varley reincarnated, but at least it’s a better fit than William Blake. At any rate, their friendship might be the means by which Blake’s poetry can subtly influence mine.
Over the years I’ve found many echoes between Blake’s work and my own, but I could never say that I am in the same league as one such as him. He was a seer, a maker of myths; I’m just an ordinary guy, trying to make sense of life as we know it.
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.
Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?
For I dance
And drink, and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.
If thought is life
And strength and breath
And the want
Of thought is death;
Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.
No thoughts had I of anything,
Or at least that’s what I thought.
I even thought I couldn’t think,
But now I think I never thought.
No ends of thoughts are thoughtless ends,
When to my mind for thoughts I send,
But all the thoughts that I can see
Are all the thoughts that endless be.
 Perhaps the best-known English rondeau is the World War I poem, In Flanders Fields by John McCrae