Blake for the dense
December 29, 2007 7:59 PM   Subscribe

I'm a person who is apparently too dense to understand poetry, but I'm looking for a collection of William Blake's work.

I know that there exists a million and one collections of his poetry and prose, but what I'm really looking for is a collection of his work that also includes a brief explanation of what it was I just read after each poem.

For example, upon reading The Tyger for the first time I was attracted to the flow and the imagery but had absolutely no clue what it was actually about. It might as well been a collection of semi-random words in a pleasing pattern to my eyes. So I popped over to Wikipedia and read their brief summary and of course it all clicked (in hind sight seemed so obvious) and soon found myself enthralled by the poem.

So yeah, are there any collections that cut out the middle man and have his poems side by side with a discussion on what he was trying to say (preferably just a short little summary to push me in the right direction, no need for a full on set of cliff notes)?
posted by Jezztek to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I know you're specifically looking for Blake, but I think you'd enjoy this general poetry book: Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World's Best Poems. It's poetry followed by in-depth, easy-to-understand commentary. And there is at least one Blake poem in it.

(I hope this isn't too much of a non-Blake derail, but along the same lines, I recommend The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, which pairs each sonnet with commentary. Finally, The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within is a fun guide to the mechanics of poetry. It's intended for people who want to write poetry, but I think it's great for readers, too. For folks who want to peer under the hood.)
posted by grumblebee at 8:11 PM on December 29, 2007

You, sir, need to find yourself an English teacher. I'm afraid mine is probably not for rent or purchase, but you might be well served by finding an English major friend to correspond with. Having a dialog with someone might help you clarify the meaning of a poem, and also provide a sounding board for ideas of your own as they occur to you.
posted by MadamM at 10:04 PM on December 29, 2007

what I'm really looking for is a collection of his work that also includes a brief explanation of what it was I just read after each poem.

Speaking generally, I've had good luck with the Oxford World's Classics series; they usually include great introductions and lots of explanatory notes that help a lot. Here's their Blake Selected Poetry; it's not quite a side-by-side poem/discussion but it may be as close as you're likely to get. And Cliff Notes or SparkNotes or whatever might not be such a bad idea. They usually start with a brief summary before the commentary, which might be just the "push in the right direction" you're looking for without overloading you with information or boxing in your own interpretations too quickly.
posted by mediareport at 10:27 PM on December 29, 2007

What you're looking for is often described as an "annotated edition" of a poet's work. This looks to be the sort of thing you're looking for, Blake-wise.

As an English major and someone who has been enjoying poetry for a long time, I urge you to consider the strong possibilities that (a) you are *not* too dense to understand poetry, and (b) at least some of the people you've presumably heard or read gassing on at great length about this or that poem might in fact be somewhere on the spectrum from "glib" to "completely full of shit," rather than being possessed of some special insights that you don't have the wherewithal to obtain.
posted by enrevanche at 1:12 AM on December 30, 2007

This isn't a complete source but has stuff on Blake
If you're human, you're not too dense to understand poetry..though I still often feel that way. My main tip: read it out loud. Repeat.
posted by Furious Fitness at 5:26 AM on December 30, 2007

I second the advice to find an English teacher -- and, I'd add, don't be afraid to take a class, because nothing sharpens your understanding of a subject like writing about it. See if your local community college offers a course on early English romanticism. Barring that, maybe you could try finding a Teaching Company lecture (here's one, though I've never heard it), make a copy for an interested friend, and discuss it together.

The Blake text that I used when I was reading him is the Norton Critical Edition Blake's Poetry and Designs, and while it doesn't offer the summarizing information that you're looking for, it's copiously annotated and includes reproductions of Blake's graphic work.

(And if you continue past the Songs of Innocence and of Experience, it won't hurt to keep a Bible handy.)
posted by cobra libre at 8:13 AM on December 30, 2007

You can also try this book.
posted by ersatz at 8:17 AM on December 30, 2007

Thanks much, a number of great suggestions!
posted by Jezztek at 8:20 PM on December 30, 2007

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