Some artists toil in obscurity, but are recognized as geniuses decades or centuries after their deaths. Others are best-selling household names while alive, but fall out of favor after their deaths, their work unknown to future generations. And then there are those unlucky souls who suffer the worst of both fates.
The English poet and artist William Blake is hardly unknown — most of us could finish the “Tyger burning bright” opening line of his poem “The Tyger” with “in the forests of the night” — yet beyond that one poem, he may as well be forgotten: many of us would be hard-pressed to name another poem from the massive body of Blake’s work.
And massive it is: According to one critic, Blake may be ‘the least read’ poet in the English language, when you take into consideration how many poems he produced. One of these, the epic work of mythology, The Book of Urizen, takes on no less a subject than the Creation myth and the book of Genesis – a hugely ambitious undertaking, which hardly anyone reads anymore.
When writer and performer Tom Blunt found a copy of the book in a used bookstore, he was confounded, fascinated – and determined to understand the work and bring it to a larger audience. He’s done that in part by setting the entire text to music, performed by his collaborator, Joshua Martin. This month, the two will perform a live reading of the poem, with Martin’s score and Blake’s original illustrations, at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn.
You can hear a preview of the show here, and learn more about Blake, and Blunt’s project to resurrect his epic, in the following Q&A.
SIGNATURE: How did you first get interested in this project?
TOM BLUNT: Like most people, I was only familiar with Blake’s simpler poems — “Tyger Tyger, burning bright,” and all that. When I worked as a substitute teacher many years ago, I got a lot of mileage out of teaching “A Poison Tree” to middle-school students. They immediately understood the experience Blake was describing.
I stumbled across Urizen in a used bookstore and was instantly seduced by the wild, apocalyptic language — but I had no idea what he was talking about. And I really wanted to! You’ve got to admit that “Lo, a shadow of horror is risen In Eternity!” is a pretty strong opening line. After reading Kay and Roger Easson’s notes on the poem as a work of prophecy, I became obsessed with understanding every word of it — and then with spreading it to others, because that’s how prophecy works, isn’t it?
SIG: Tell me a little bit about Blake and what about his poetry and illustrations interests you.
TB: I am fascinated by people whose awareness exceeded the language and conventions of their time. It’s not surprising how many of these people turned to God and religion, because otherwise imagine how lonely your existence would be — no one else could understand a word you were talking about.
Pretty much everyone around Blake had an understanding of God that was dictated by what they heard in church and read in the Bible… the same as today, actually! Those kind of restrictions impart all sorts of man-made errors on your understanding of God. Blake’s horror of that became the basis for the Urizen myth: a retelling of the book of Genesis in which “God” (Urizen) becomes cut off from all the other Eternal beings because of his fanatical desire to bound and control the infinite. The separation corrupts and degrades him, and he replicates all of that error in his Creation, in us.
It’s a very dark story, one that suggests humans might be looking at God through the wrong end of the telescope — or worse, we’ve left the lens cap screwed on, and all we’re seeing is a reflection of the back of our own retina. Heaviest of all, he suggests that if we ever truly found what we were searching for, we might not like it very much.
I’m no Blake, but I did grow up in a deeply religious and conservative environment where certain questions were never asked. As I grew up and began asking them, I encountered hostility, pity, even violence. I remember finally telling my youth minister I thought I might be gay, desperately hoping he’d have some words of hope or wisdom for me, some path to follow, and all he could say was: “I’ll pray for you.” And then I never heard from him again.
Blake points to a firsthand experience of spiritual truth, reminding us that we each have access to this realm at all times. No priest or book is necessary for this. Your relationship with the divine — or lack thereof — is entirely your own to tend and explore.
SIG: The Book of Urizen seems a difficult, not immediately accessible work. What were some of the challenges you and your collaborator Joshua Martin face in translating the poem into a performance piece?
TB: I’d spent years doing comedy performances, where the appeal was a little more obvious. Even then I think I wanted to challenge what people considered attention-worthy. We did an entire variety show for the 92nd Street Y’s film program about the idea of women transforming into cats. It sounds ridiculous and obscure on the face of it, but we staged interviews with an actress who played Grizabella in CATS on Broadway, and Frances Conroy (who appeared in the Halle Berry “Catwoman” film), and a prominent author who’d written on the subject, and gradually the audience begins to see something that’s been under their nose the whole time. I’d basically infect them with my obsession.
I really wanted to do the same with Blake, but I knew I couldn’t accomplish it on my own. Josh’s work in this show is crucial — he’s the talent. He creates the atmosphere, and works on the audience’s imagination, and uncovers the emotional truth in Blake’s story. So the main challenge was sitting down with him and basically explaining the whole poem, beat by beat, so that it made sense to him the way it did to me. That took longer than reading the whole thing verbatim. But once he knew all that, he began making musical choices that corresponded perfectly with what you see on the page.
SIG: Is there any section you particularly struggled with?
TB: The Preludium at the very beginning is the hardest for me. It’s the first thing people will hear, and it’s basically an invocation. As the speaker, I don’t get to ease into the show — right out of the gate, I’m stuck supplicating myself to the Eternal beings. It’s a hell of an ice-breaker.
Almost every chapter required something new to be conceived and built from the ground up, musically-speaking. And beyond the producer/mastermind aspect, which I’m quite used to, performing the text requires more acting and vocal skill than I’ve had to put forth in many years. That’s really intimidating — I should hire a better actor, but it feels much kinder to pick my own performance to shreds instead of someone else’s.
SIG: Do you have a favorite passage or section?
TB: Too many to count, but this part toward the end, when mankind loses the ability to perceive the constraints of its own awareness, always gives me a chill:
The shrunken eyes clouded over Discernd not the woven hipocrisy But the streaky slime in their heavens Brought together by narrowing perceptions Appeard transparent air
SIG: What was your working process like with Joshua? How did you arrive at the musical mood and tone for the poem?
TB: I was lucky to meet such an experimental musician who can play just about any instrument. It gave us a whole new palette to paint from. You’ll notice his instrumentation is airy and ethereal at the beginning — a chorus of flutes. As Urizen begins to suffer and transform there’s more bombast, with instruments like sax and clarinet. By the end, when Earth’s inhabitants become completely cut off from the rest of eternity, the music goes entirely digital, which gives a haunting contrast.
SIG: Were there any pitfalls to this sort of translation from the page to the stage that you were wary of falling into?
TB: Just like in the Bible stories he’s parodying, Blake’s mythic characters just suddenly appear and start doing things without any introduction. That’s the biggest challenge for a listening audience, and as a storyteller who’s bound to the script, I have to help them make sense of what’s happening.
Sunday school teachers have to do this all the time. The world that’s depicted in the Bible, and the people it was written for, couldn’t be more different than our own. The familiarity we feel with it is completely an illusion. Imparting that illusion to others at an early age has become tradition, and upholding tradition is how we exercise control over reality — our own, and everyone else’s.
Imagine reading the book of Genesis for the first time as an adult from an entirely foreign culture. You wouldn’t recognize any of the names or themes. Everyone’s decisions, including God’s, seem painfully arbitrary. Growing up with a basic understanding of Biblical lore is something most Westerners take for granted. Even when we step outside of it, or stop believing in it, we still carry all that with us as a reference point.
Urizen is a work that forces us to look at ourselves from outside — not just outside America, or outside Christianity, but outside human consciousness itself. That’s a lot to ask an audience to unpack in under an hour!
SIG: What do you think people would be most surprised to learn about Blake and/or the poem?
TB: Probably that it exists? Or that anyone would take the time to read it in the first place, let alone perform it? That may sound uncharitable, or a really low bar to clear, but we’re no longer in a time when you can count on anyone being exposed to more than a few titles from classic literature, let alone the more cobwebby corners of it.
And truly I’m not a snob about that. I’m a product of the same miserable American education system as everyone else. All I want is to reward people’s mild curiosity with something memorable. I want people of all backgrounds to be able to experience the same surprise they might get from a Shakespeare performance: the past can still reach you. The past can change you.
SIG: I imagine you were fairly familiar with Blake before undertaking this project: is there anything you learned or discovered in the process of setting the words to music and preparing to perform them live that you didn’t already know?
TB: After doing mostly comedic performances, I’ve just learned how terrifying it can be to take something seriously in front of other people. The risk of appearing ridiculous is something we spend most of our lives avoiding, and in comedy there are all sorts of weapons you can turn back on the crowd to surprise them and win them over. I know the cringe of being left on the outside of someone else’s weird art. Thanks to Joshua’s music, I don’t think many people will feel that way, but it’s impossible to try anything new without risking it.
SIG: What do you hope audiences will take away from the performance?
TB: While this project functions as art or entertainment, it’s really a work of historical preservation. To all you people out there who feel you have no talent, or worry you’ll never leave your mark: you might be right. I feel your pain. But consider those out there who DID have talent, who DID make their mark, and then got buried under avalanches of time or indifference.
That person and their work may need your help. They’re dead now, and can’t keep rolling the stone along. In the short time you have left, the least you can do is take it up for them and roll it a few more feet.