Howl: The War of this World against Vision and Imagination
Introduction: Blake & the Beats
Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997) in front of the opening lines of Howl, referencing Blake in its opening section
William Blake’s influence on the Beat Generation is arguably more significant than that of any other writer or artist. Most notably he was Ginsberg’s “guru” and the “catalyst” for his poetry, and even warranted a mention in “Howl”. Blake supposedly appeared to Ginsberg in 1945 and read “Ah Sun-flower”, and again in 1948 when Ginsberg was reading “The Sick Rose”. He explained,
I was never able to figure out whether I was having a religious vision, a hallucinatory experience, or what, but it was the deepest ‘spiritual’ experience I had in my life, and determined my karma as poet. That’s the-key pivotal turnabout of my own existence. That’s why I was hung up on setting Blake to music.
Visions were important to Blake, who claimed that his poetry was not necessarily a work that he created, but something channeled through him. He referred to himself as a “true Orator” and claimed that poetry came from a voice that he simply wrote down.
The Mind in the Cave and the Cave in the Mind
‘A nude male, almost certainly Milton or a compound of Blake and Milton, strides away from us and into his book, perhaps leading us forward into its depths. Milton may be entering his ‘Own Vortex’. His right arm and hand also cut his name in two, an action suggesting that the route to apocalypse is blocked by a ‘selfhood’ that must be self-annihilated’ – Essick & Viscomi
This essay argues that Blake’s illuminated poem, Milton a Poem in 2 Books (1804-1811), exhibits characteristics of the hallucinations also encountered in the archaeology of rock paintings made during shamanic trances in the prehistoric period. The essay will particularly focus on the trance-like episode referred to at the end of Milton and will link it to similar shamanic trances known to have occurred to southern African /Xam (San) bushmen in their practices of rock painting.