Friday, 21 June 2013

Chain of Fools

People of a certain age and inclination may recall Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention's satirical (and, um, inventive) album of 1968, We're Only In It For the Money, deliberately mocking [gasp!] the then not-yet-inviolably-iconic Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and its knees-up psychedelia.  Younger folk may not realise that the whole hippie thing (not to mention the whole Beatles thing) was already ripe for parody by 1968. I cringe when I am asked, as if it were a matter of membership of a club, "Were you a hippie, old fellow?"  No, young 'un! I was a small-town stoner with a mistrust of vegetarians, a love of certain narrowly-defined currents of rock and folk music, and a taste for extreme-left politics and dressing like a tramp.  I realise this is the vanity of small differences, but these things matter.  Hippie?  Pah!

Anyway, on that album, there is a doo-wop parody, "What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body?"

What's the ugliest part of your body?
What's the ugliest pa-art of your body?
Some say your nose
Others say your toes
I think it's your mind...
I think it's your mi-ind...

A good joke, but also a profound one, at least to a know-nothing teen.  That one's mind is just a part of one's body -- and not the most attractive part, either -- is a "disruptive" thought, to say the least, and you may wonder how it occurred to a musician with no formal education to speak of beyond high school.*  Well, one of the uglier mind-forged manacles is certainly intellectual snobbery.  If pop culture has taught us anything, it is that creativity and fresh thinking rarely flourish among the highly-educated; indeed, the wrong sort of "education" is a prison from which few escape.

Is NOTHING original? (see bottom right)

William Blake (whose coinage "mind-forg'd manacles" is) was nothing if not original, yet entirely self-educated.  Perhaps if his work had been less profound, he would be regarded as the great-great-grand-nobodaddy of all those "outsider" artists, obsessively painting out their personal demons, assembling miniature Sagrada Familia accretions out in the desert, or developing their very own theories of everything.  Come to think of it, that's exactly who he is.

Blake (or, at least, the Blake of the Songs of Innocence and Experience) was an important figure to the Beat Generation (who, when it comes down to it, set the agenda for the "alternative" 1960s).  He is as close as English poetry gets to the condensed, gnomic, portable work of those Eastern poets writing in the Zen and Taoist traditions.

In particular, Blake's poem "Ah Sunflower!" seems to have been a key work for them, as it had been for a previous generation of English modernist-romantics (Nash and Britten, for example).  I really couldn't say why, but it clearly struck a resonating chord.  It was famously the subject of Allen Ginsberg's "Blake vision", and was even a track on The Fugs' first album, sung by Ed Sanders.
Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the travellers journey is done.

Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

Songs of Experience, 1794
It's been all over the place in the last 60 years.  So it was with some astonishment that I read that a children's poem by Nancy Willard, which riffs on Blake's poem, is being disseminated on the Web -- and even taught in some American schools -- as a work by Blake himself.  What?
Two Sunflowers Move in the Yellow Room

"Ah, William, we're weary of weather,"
said the sunflowers, shining with dew.
"Our traveling habits have tired us.
Can you give us a room with a view?"

They arranged themselves at the window
and counted the steps of the sun,
and they both took root in the carpet
where the topaz tortoises run.

(from A Visit to William Blake’s Inn, 1981)
How anyone in a position to teach poetry, even at primary school level, could mistake this for a poem written in the late 18th century is a mystery to me.  It's true, intellectual snobbery may be one mind-forg'd manacle, but blissful ignorance posturing as expertise is surely its partner-in-chains.

* You may also wonder how that same school, Antelope Valley High, produced both Frank Zappa and Don Van Vliet a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, not to mention ethnobotanist psychedelitician Terence McKenna.


Zouk Delors said...


You'll be absolutely free
Only when you want to be

What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry

At least the Zappa rhymes properly!

Sagrada Familia accretions

What are Sagrada Familia accretions?What, indeed, are ordinary accretions?


Did you know the Italian is girasole (turns-with-the-sun)? Whence the corruption "Jerusalem" in the name of the related artichoke?

Teechers don't no nuffink, innit?

Kent Wiley said...

Nice one, Zouk.

"My hair's getting good in the back."

Mike C. said...

"accretion": Growth or increase in size by gradual external addition, fusion, or inclusion.

"Sagrada Familia": The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, commonly known as the Sagrada Família, is a large Roman Catholic church in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain, designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (1852–1926). Although incomplete, the church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Stick 'em together, what have you got? see, for example:


Zouk Delors said...

Ok. It's verging on the self-referential.

Truly amazing creations on that link.

Would these count as FSA's:

Mike C. said...

Well, termite mounds are amazing things, but it would be stretching things to call them the work of "outsider artists"...


Zouk Delors said...

... where by FSA's I mean,of course, SFA's. Those things.

Zouk Delors said...

Why, what have you got against termites?

Mike C. said...

It is The Way of social insects that outsiders and misfits of any sort are not tolerated. I have this on the authority of "A Bug's Life".


Zouk Delors said...

Fair point, well made.