Encountering Patti Smith and Allen Ginsberg on William Blake’s Birthday
By Stuart Mitchner
We begin in the Automat. What better place to launch a column on William Blake’s birthday than with the first encounter between two of his most passionate advocates, Patti Smith and Allen Ginsberg?
Smith’s endlessly readable 2010 memoir Just Kids offers only a few clues as to exactly where and when this chance meeting took place. Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe were living at the Chelsea Hotel at the time (I’m guessing late sixties); “a few doors down” was the Capitol Fishing tackle shop, a favorite source for two artists determined to transform “the insignificant into the divine.” According to Smith, “Horn and Hardart, the queen of Automats, was just past the tackle shop,” which puts the site in question at 202 West 23rd Street.
The routine was “to get a seat and a tray, then go to the back wall where there were rows of little windows. You would slip some coins in to a slot, open the glass hatch, and extract a sandwich or fresh apple pie. A real Tex Avery eatery.” On this “drizzly afternoon,” Patti has eyes for a cheese-and-lettuce sandwich with mustard on a poppy seed roll. After putting all the money she has — 55 cents — into the slot, she can’t get the window open because the price has gone up to 65 cents. When a voice behind her says “Can I help?” she turns around and sees a man with “dark intense eyes” and a “dark curly beard.” Yes, it’s Allen Ginsberg. They’d never met “but there was no mistaking the face of one of our great poets and activists.”
Ginsberg not only adds the extra dime, he stands her to a cup of coffee, which, as any reader of M-Train knows, is elixir to Patti Smith. They sit down at a table, he talks about Walt Whitman, she mentions that she was raised near Camden, where Walt lived out his life and is buried. At this point, Ginsberg asks “Are you a girl?” Yes, she is, she says. “Is that a problem?” He laughs and admits that he took her for “a very pretty boy.” At which she offers to return the sandwich. No problem, “my mistake.” Years later after he becomes her “good friend and teacher,” he asks her how she would describe that first meeting. “I would say you fed me when I was hungry,” she tells him.
In Just Kids, Smith refers to the “very pretty facsimile” of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience she liked to read to Robert Mapplethorpe at bedtime. The couple’s “most prized books” were by Blake. She also read Blake as a child, telling a Rolling Stone interviewer, “Songs of Innocence was next to Winnie the Pooh and Black Beauty.” In the same May 2004 interview, she mentions the childhood visions for which Blake was “ridiculed and even beaten” and how he held on to his visions, wherever they came from, “whether he animated them from within or they were from God.”
Referring to his “Blake visions” in a 1965 interview, Ginsberg says, “The thing I understood from Blake was that it was possible to transmit a message through time which could reach the enlightened, that poetry had a definite effect, it wasn’t just pretty, or just beautiful … — it was something basic to human existence.”
The lesson Smith learned from Blake was don’t give up. “He never got a break in his life. His work never sold. He lived in poverty. When he spoke out, he nearly lost his life. He could have been hanged for insurrection.” After quoting a line from her song, “My Blakean Year” (“Throw off your stupid cloak, embrace all that you fear”), she says, “That’s the one thing in our country — I know we have a horrible deficit, all of these horrible things happening. But the worst thing the Bush administration has done is instill huge amounts of fear in our people. That is deplorable. We have to replace that fear with awareness and a determination to make things better.”
I did a doubletake when I read that. She was talking about the Bush administration.
Tree of Angels
Blake’s childhood vision was of “a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.” In an anecdote not unlike the American legend of Washington chopping down the cherry tree and confessing to his father “I cannot tell a lie,” Blake told his father what he’d seen and would have been thrashed for lying but for the intervention of his mother. He was “eight or ten” at the time. Two centuries later a William Blake Angel Oak was planted on Peckham Common in south London.
In “A Memorable Fancy” from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake (1757-1827) asks the prophet Isaiah how he dared to assert that God spoke to him and Isaiah says, “I saw no God, nor heard any, … but my senses discover’d the infinite in everything.” Being persuaded that “the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God,” Isaiah “cared not for the consequences.” When Blake asks whether a firm persuasion that a thing is so, makes it so, Isaiah tells him, “All Poets believe that it does.”
Allen Ginsberg believed as much the day Blake spoke to him. It was June 1948 and he was subletting an apartment at 321 East 121st Street in Harlem. To paraphrase Patti Smith, “wherever it came from, whether he animated it from within,” the experience changed his life. A protracted account of what he calls “the apparitional voice” is in the aforementioned interview, reprinted in Writers at Work, the third series of Paris Review interviews.
As Ginsberg recalls, “my eye was idling over the page of ‘Ah, Sunflower,’ … and suddenly I realized that the poem was talking about me. Now, I began understanding it … and suddenly, simultaneously with understanding it, heard a very deep earthen grave voice in the room, which I immediately assumed, I didn’t think twice, was Blake’s voice.” For Ginsberg, “this was the moment I was born for.” He told himself “never forget, never renege, never deny the voice.” The experience expanded visually to take in the cornices of the old tenement building across the backyard court that “had been carved very finely in 1890 or 1910.” Although there were cornices like that on buildings all over Harlem, “I never noticed them before. And I never realized that they meant spiritual labor … that someone had labored to make a curve in a piece of tin — to make a cornucopia out of a piece of industrial tin.” Everywhere he looked he saw “evidences of a living hand” and “that the sky was the living blue hand itself. Or that God was in front of my eyes — existence itself was God.”
“The Lion for Real”
Ginsberg ends the anecdote by recalling that “a couple of girls were living next door and I crawled out on the fire escape and tapped on their window and said, ‘I’ve seen God!’ and they banged the window shut.” Ten years after the event, in Paris, he brings it to life in poetry: “I came home and found a lion in my living room/Rushed out on the fire escape screaming Lion! Lion!/Two stenographers pulled their brunette hair and banged the window shut.” When he tells his Reichian analyst, “There’s a lion in my living room,” the analyst that he actually consulted at the time says, “I’m afraid any discussion would have no value” and hangs up on him.
It’s as if Ginsberg were acting out Henry James’s “Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”
“Lion for Real” ends “In this life I have heard your promise I am ready to die I have served/Your starved and ancient Presence O Lord I wait in my room at your Mercy.”
Blake at Bedtime
It’s possible I was subconsciously influenced by Patti Smith reading Blake to Robert Mapplethorpe when I took our facsimile edition of Songs of Innocence, a wedding present, to bed with me late one night last week. In the glow of the little booklight, the words and images warmed me, made me smile, the pastel tones as pure as illustrations in a storybook from childhood, the simplicity of the words enhanced by their very faintness, so that making them out meant looking closely, intimately. One I returned to was “Infant Joy,” the tulip enfolding mother and child the boldest, most richly hued image in the book. I read this page twice because when our son was two days old and we were ready to take him home from the hospital (then located on Witherspoon), we were told we needed to write his full name on the form. “We’re still not sure,” we said, though we were leaning toward “Benjamin.” Fortunately, we’d received that same day a handwritten card from a friend, quoting a line from “Infant Joy”: “I have no name, I am but two days old. What shall I call thee? I happy am. Joy is my name, — Sweet joy befall thee!”
We looked at each other and I wrote in “Blake” for Ben’s middle name.
I wonder if I’m the only person who has been plagued by dreams of petty frustration over the past year and a half. I can’t say that these mundane going-nowhere so-what not-even-nightmares began after the 2016 election. But the overriding sense is that something’s wrong, an impediment needs to be cleared, a problem needs fixing, and I wake up relieved knowing that I needn’t worry about completing the trivial task, finding the house I was looking for, or the town, or the solution. Finally, last week I woke up smiling from a joyous dream, the storyline of no consequence save that it involved creating something beautiful. No loose ends, no massive impossible impediment to be cleared. Looking toward the bedside table, I saw the copy of Songs of Innocence that I’d been reading the night before.
The mantra “breathed into” Patti Smith’s ear in her song, “My Blakean Year,” is “One road is paved in gold/One road is just a road.”