[This essay first appeared in the Sewanee Review. I'll be reprinting it as part of a chapter on William Blake in The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014).]
When a Blake scholar asked me to speculate on how William Blake might have responded to one of my own poems, I knew immediately that I had stumbled into an assignment that would be both a nightmare and a joy. More to the point, however, no matter how I felt, be it burdened or excited, I knew this essay would be hard to write. Even the simple step of allowing myself to visualize crazy, ardent, single-minded Blake leaning a shoulder against the casement of his small window, the better to cast a scorching eye over my work, is an arduous one. The image seems both absurdly arrogant and deeply humiliating; and whenever I picture that scene, my strongest impulse is to run away. Yet as I write these words, I’m angry at my craven reaction. “Turn around!” I want to shout. “Sit down! Keep still and listen to the man!” For I recognize that my fears—these public revelations of my weakness and my vanity, of the gaps in my art and my goodness—are exactly what Blake demands from me. He is a terrifying, unrelenting master. And yet: he is a master.
So I chose a poem for Blake to read.
The Fate of Captain Fetterman’s Command
December 21, 1866
At first light we saw our enemies
on the bluff
silver flashing in their hair
a glory of sun as they rode away laden
with tunics saddles boots arrows
still piercing the cracked boots
piercing our silent comrades
and just visible in the dawn
we saw wolves and coyotes
skulking along the verge
crows buzzards eagles circling
the sun-spattered meadow
but not one white body was disturbed
for we hear that salt permeates
the whole system of our race
which protects us from the wild
to some degree but it was strange
that nothing had eaten the horses either
except for flies which swarmed in thick
like the stench
all day we waited
till the doctor finished his report then
they told us to pack our friends
into the ammunition wagons
this was our job they said to retch
to stumble into the field to grasp
at wrists at ankles dissolving to pulp
under our grip to vomit to weep
to stare at masks pounded bloody with stones
bloated crawling with flies who were they
this was our job but we could not sort
cavalry from infantry all stripped
naked slashed skulls crushed
with war clubs ears noses legs
hacked off and some had
crosses cut on their breasts
faces to the sky
we walked on their hearts
but did not know it in the high grass
As I steel myself to picture Blake at his window, scowling over this poem, my first thought is to wonder what he would think of its mechanics: punctuation, for instance. I am, in general, priggish about punctuation . . . not like William, who appreciates ampersands but otherwise could care less. In this poem, however, I’ve dropped my usual sentence tidiers—my commas and periods, my predictable capitalization—a choice that has forced the lines and stanza breaks to shoulder the poem’s metric and syntactic load. That technical decision feels brave to me, but it’s a bravery that Blake would probably never notice. Nonetheless, he would certainly notice that the poem doesn’t rhyme or thrust itself into the rhythms of blank verse; and my guess is that he wouldn’t much like the quavering sonic result. But to tell the truth, I don’t much like the sounds of his lines either, neither his pedantic little melodies nor his prosy ranting. We would quarrel. Possibly he would find something cutting to say about literary women, and I would throw up my hands and spill his ink bottle. I wouldn’t mean to spill his ink, but I wouldn’t be altogether sorry I’d done it either.
Yet if I can manage to mop up the ink and he can manage to laugh (he does claim to “love laughing”), we may find our way into a common space. For I do think that, as poets and as human beings, Blake and I share at least two traits. We both have energy, and we both believe that “Severity of judgment is a great virtue.”
These qualities were crucial to my invention of “The Fate of Captain Fetterman’s Command,” which is, by the way, unquestionably the most violent poem I have ever written. Its impetus was my immersion in Son of the Morning Star, Evan S. Connell’s account of the bloody war between the U.S. Army and the plains tribes in the years after the American Civil War. While General George Custer is the book’s central focus, Connell also relies on innumerable primary-source accounts from soldiers, officers, tribal warriors, merchants, and bureaucrats, not to mention their wives, children, and servants. By combining these many one-sided accounts, Connell was able to create both a panorama and a general thesis about the cruelty and wrongheadedness of the U.S. government. But my poem doesn’t do that work. It remains a one-sided account—fictional yet arising in both spirit and dramatic arc from the journal entries of soldiers involved in a specific incident: the 1866 slaughter known as the Fetterman Massacre, when the captain and seventy-nine of his men were ambushed and killed by Sioux warriors.
To Blake, this narrowed vision might well be the most unattractive characteristic of my poem. His gift was his ability—his urgent need—to take every side and to castigate every side. Even the small poems are massive in scope and complication. “The Little Vagabond,” for instance, has always struck me as one of the most subversive poems I have ever read.
But if at the Church they would give us some Ale,
And a pleasant fire, our souls to regale:
We’d sing and we’d pray, all the live-long day,
Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray.
Who but Blake would ever suggest that churches should be more like bars? Who but Blake would then slam on an ending like this one?
And God like a father rejoicing to see
His children as pleasant and happy as he;
Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the Barrel,
But kiss him & give him both drink and apparel.
At once cynical and idealistic, scornful and hopeful, rigid and chaotic, humane and poisonous, the poem is a pipe bomb wrapped up in a blanket of prim singsong.
Blake never seemed to fear the possibility of supporting the wrong political or moral or religious issue. This isn’t to say that he never erred. Rather, I think he believed that speaking was more important than not speaking. Moreover, speaking vehemently was more important than speaking timidly. “Active Evil is better than passive Good,” he scrawled recklessly in the margin of Johann Caspar Lavater’s 1788 Aphorisms on Man. If questioned, I doubt he would have stood up for that statement. What really mattered, I think, was the word active—the reckless resolve to declare to any listener, “What a contemptible Fool is This [Francis] Bacon”; to paint an image of the evening sky so dense and green and tumultuous that the inks soak through the paper and stain the table beneath.
But as Blake also knew, vehemence doesn’t necessarily draw in readers. And in my own case, I’m fairly sure that it explains, at least in part, why the poem has been so difficult to publish. The issue has been, I believe, more a problem of politics than of quality of work. For by calling the Sioux “the enemies,” by limiting itself to the viewpoint of the soldiers, the poem seems to be taking the Wrong Side.
Somehow we are no longer allowed to admit publicly that native Americans have ever behaved badly. Yes, the government took away their land, their culture, and in too many cases their future. But I’m not talking about the big story here: I’m talking about the smaller, messier stories of brutality. And neither side is exempt from that brutality. As Blake writes in America: A Prophecy, when honesty “trembles . . . and like a murder . . . seeks refuge from the frowns of his immortal station,” then the pestilence of violence and dissent can spread to all involved. It no longer matters who is right and who is wrong. Using the American Revolution as his metaphor, he writes,
The plagues creep on the burning winds, driven by the flames of Orc,
And by the fierce Americans rushing together in the night;
Driven o’er the Guardians of Ireland and Scotland and Wales,
They spotted with plagues, forsook the frontiers; & their banners seard
With fires of hell, deform their ancient heavens with shame & woe.
In other words, everyone, on every side, is tainted by injustice.
Simultaneously, however, everyone, on every side, clings to the shreds of his humanity. Blake, by way of “Boston’s Angel,” may seem to support the colonial revolutionaries, but he doesn’t exult over the defeat of “the thirteen Governors that England sent”:
They rouze, they cry,
Shaking their mental chains; they rush in fury to the sea
To quench their anguish; at the feet of Washington down fall’n
They grovel on the sand and writhing lie, while all
The British soldiers thro’ the thirteen states set up a howl
Of anguish: threw their swords & muskets to the earth & ran
From their encampments & dark castles seeking where to hide
From the grim flames.
This is the pity that I felt for those men under Captain Fetterman’s command. They may have been agents of government evil, but they were also men. No, really they were mostly boys: graceful, curious, impetuous, clumsy, pimple-faced, shock-haired, laughing, screaming. The same could be said for the Sioux warriors. I just didn’t happen to find myself writing that poem.
To a certain degree, we are trapped by our own history. Those slaughtered white men were my ancestors. The Sioux who were slaughtered in other battles were not. I don’t see the white soldiers as better than the Sioux, but I know them better; I recognize the details of their cowardice and their bravery. The situation is analogous to, say, the question among American animal-rights activists of reintroducing wolves into domesticated territory. Yes, the wolves have the right of primogeniture. Yes, farmers stole the wolves’ homeland and murdered them in great numbers simply because the animals were following their predatory instincts. I know this history, and I share the guilt of my species. But when a predator invades my henhouse and kills my fat chicks, I still cry, and I’m still angry.
In the eyes of Blake’s “Bard of Albion,” the plagues that revolution unleashes “deform [the Angels’] ancient heavens with shame & woe.” Woe is what drew me to the story of the Fetterman Massacre, a woe that I, for whatever reason, was able not only to share but to imagine—its violence and ineptitude, its scavenging beasts, its tall grass. Meanwhile, the Sioux “on their magic seats . . . sat perturb’d.” They remained distant, mythological. It is my flaw that, in this moment of the poem, I could not imagine them otherwise. Yet perhaps Blake would forgive me my limits, so long as I refuse to forgive myself. Like Milton before him, his mission was to reveal the minute and infinite coilings of human immorality; but neither poet ever exempted himself from sin. “The grandest Poetry is Immoral,” claimed Blake; “the Poet is Independent & Wicked[;] the Philosopher is Dependent & Good.” And God knows I am no philosopher.
“Severity of judgment is a great virtue.” And yet “Some cannot tell what they can write tho they dare.” It seems to me that, as a writer, as a living being, I negotiate day and night between these instructions—now bowing to the impossible demands of clarity and culpability, now recklessly chronicling my ignorance. I think that Blake, standing at his window, frowning over my lines, would give that desperation its due, even as he pounces on my timidity of vision. At least I hope he would. “We walked on their hearts/but did not know it in the high grass” are the words I chose to circle this painful beauty, this hideous despair. His words, as usual, are starker:
And none can touch that frowning form,
Except it be a Woman Old;
She nails him down upon the Rock,
And all is done as I have told.