I’ve been meaning to write about A Visit to William Blake’s Inn for a while, and since I did nothing else creative today, might as well write about it now.
These are notes from my Lacuna notebook, back in April when Marc suggested I write for myself reasons why I decided to do this project in the first place, and from my William Blake notebook.
A Visit to William Blake’s Inn is a book of poetry by Nancy Willard, a poet and author who teaches at Vassar. It won the Newbery Award in 1982 and came to my attention shortly thereafter when I ordered a complete set of the Newbery Award winners for the media center.
I immediately fell in love with the poetry and the illustrations (by the Provensens, who ironically illustrated The Color Kittens, my favorite book as a child). I began to set the poems to music for my own amusement. I think the first two I did were the opening piece and “When We Get Home, Blake Calls for Fire.” I set about half of them, and then let the project slide about the time NCTC moved into the Manget-Brannon building. I just didn’t have time, and besides, the whole thing was moot: I didn’t have copyright permission to be doing it, so they were always going to go unperformed.
Fast forward to January 2003: We had taken the kids to Scotland to perform in the Scottish Opera’s Tale o’ Tam, and on the flight back, we were all talking about doing a similar project here in Newnan, inviting international casts to perform in some work. We batted around a lot of ideas, and then I remembered William Blake. I opened my laptop and opened up all those files to listen to them. I thought that they were still good, and suggested that the group (just us parents, nothing official) take a look at the work as our project.
A couple of months later, we met and I played through what I had. Everyone was encouraging, and so I set about writing the other half of the pieces. I also wrote Ms. Willard at her agent’s to ask permission. On September 6, 2003, I got an email reply from her, very graciously giving me permission to go ahead. That was one of the better days of my life, needless to say.
That was three years ago, of course. It’s taken me that long. Most of the remaining pieces weren’t that involved, but “Milky Way” remained elusive. (There was also the penguin opera, which took all of 2004, so really it’s only been two years, not three.)
So why William Blake? I liked the metrical surefootedness of the verse, it’s very regular, polished even, using traditional meters with no hint of irony. The rhyming is traditional as well, with very simple rhymes, nothing “clever”, which makes it all the more sophisticated, actually.
The illustrations, although not settable musically, and in fact off limits in terms of copyright, are undeniably a major part of the appeal of the book. (Besides the Newbery, it also garnered a Caldecott Honor medal for the illustrations.) They provide a visual hook/gateway to Willard’s world of, as she puts it, “a cat, a wise cow, a rabbit, a celestial stroll, and some odd modes of transportation.”
I think the very simplicity of her approach is what attracted me to the book as a whole. It would have been perfectly easy to set just one poem, but there was a whole world in there. The simple characters become almost mythic in their elemental nature: cat, bear, rabbit, cow, tiger. The humans are the oddballs: the driver, the Marmalade Man, the Tailor and his Wife. Only the child and William Blake are not bizarre, the child circumspect, then curious, Blake serene, jovial ( in the sense of Holst’s “Jupiter.”)
Blake is the magical center of this strange but happy little world. It is somehow through his agency that the Inn, its inhabitants, even the Stars, are even possible. We walk among the stars not only because he has invited us, leads us, but because they are his.
And that’s why “Milky Way” has been so difficult. It is clearly the centerpiece of the whole work. Notice that Willard even includes it in her email to me: “a celestial stroll.” (I had written asking whether she had any poems about the Inn which she had left out of the book which she would now like to put back in, sort of like Eliot’s “Grizzabella the Glamour Cat” in that other musical.)
Its length is a challenge. “Blake Tells the Tiger the Tale of the Tailor” is longer, but that one didn’t take any time at all to write: ghost stories are fun and easy to do. “Milky Way” isn’t about things that go bump in the night; it’s about going way beyond your earthly bounds and responding to things beyond your grasp. It’s about the journey, with the fear and the wonder and the exultation. It’s about how some of us can’t do that.
So am I succeeding in setting this? I don’t know yet. I’m still exploring myself. Sometimes I think it’s grand enough, others not so much. I have half a mind to finish this, I think I’m pretty much on track now to get it done, and then set it aside and write it all over again doing something different. That would be a fresh hell, wouldn’t it?