Two hundred years ago, William Blake worked in his engraving shop etching planes of metal with acid in the same manner in which he wrote: with a kind of burning intensity. In his own words, Melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.
He wanted to see, not only beneath inherited artistic surfaces of his time, but beneath the brutal surface of the Georgian London in which he lived. He wished to see beneath glittering surfaces; a wish that was seen at the time as a deep form of insanity. He championed not only child chimney sweeps and infants indentured to textile machines, but wild creatures with no human voice of their own. His language brooked no defenses. A robin redbreast in a cage, puts all heaven in a rage. He was ahead of his time; a harbinger of future sanities that we now, almost, take for granted. His social concerns were all part of a greater artistic vision. We look back now and hear his voice as one of the very few sane voices in a very, very insane society.
We might look at our own time and ask ourselves what particular form of insanity we live with that future generations would look on with disbelief. Many of the massive imbalances of our time are becoming so clear to us that we can no longer turn away. The forgotten poor of America herded into the New Orleans dome. The dispossessed of Africa just a short commute from the bond dealing floors of London.
As individuals, we see elements and dynamics that seem to have no fit together. Even the most ordinary life seems to need a kind of imaginative personal artistry, one such as Blake possessed, to hold all of these conflicting dynamics together. We wonder if we are up to it. We are adolescents, with an adolescent political leadership, entering an adult world of consequences that we did not necessarily wish upon ourselves.
I had a very humbling and very adolescent experience earlier this year, through an artistic residency in Tacoma, attempting to put the art of poetry into a new and different form - glass. Glass in all its forms: Molten glass. Blown glass. Cast, solid glass. Glass to be worked with slowly and painstakingly over days and then broken and shattered and quickly swept away. Glass to be burnt and seared by; glass to be sweated and muttered over; glass to be held up to the light and almost reluctantly admired. I longed for the utter simplicity of pen and paper, of fingers typing and a laptop keyboard. But no, it was glass, glass and glass.
Holding disparate elements together at molten temperatures, coaxing and pampering them as they cooled, I had to learn, and learn quickly, in the company of some very accomplished glass artists, how things held together through astonishing variations of fluidity and temperature.
The central insight was that there was almost always a way, despite my asking the glass workers to do things they had never contemplated doing, with often unfamiliar materials. There was always a trick, a method, a way that pleased the elements and in the end, the eye and the imagination. Out of dozens and dozens of attempts we emerged with just a few good precious pieces, but more especially with very, very precious and unforgettable images. The poetry broke through some invisible barrier at high temperature, alive and shimmering in the glass at 1500 degrees, glowing and revealing infinities in ways that would have made Blake very glad of heart.
I think of the molten flowing realities of our time. The brittle nature of each of us when we cool and become static. The way there is a trick to everything. Even perhaps, to negotiating our present difficulties and creating a future human society more at ease with itself and natural creation, holding all kinds of elements together we never imagined possible. I think of the central metaphor of artistry; the ability of human beings to form an image on a page, in glass, or on canvas that will hold together all the disparate images of their lives, no matter how diverse. I think also of the way, no matter our calling, each of us must learn a way to hold our individual artistry and integrity while risking ourselves bodily in society, as we see Blake did, for a future, others said, it was insanity even to imagine.