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In the introduction to Nancy Willard's A Visit to William Blake's Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experience Travelers, she writes about her first encounter with William Blake's poetry:
"I was seven and starting my second week in bed with the measles when I made the acquaintance of William Blake. 'Tell me a story about lions and tigers,' I said to the babysitter...Miss Pratt, the sitter...began:
Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?"
Two days later, Willard's babysitter anonymously sent her Blake's Songs of Innoncence and Songs of Experience with the following inscription:
Poetry is the best medicine.
Best wishes for a speedy recovery.
It's clear that, after this first encounter, Blake left a long-lasting impression on Willard. So much so that she wrote a Newbery Medal-winning poetry collection (only one other poetry collection has this honor), which dreams up an imaginary inn belonging to William Blake. These poems are filled with wonder and whimsy, with play and curiosity. The imagery and the tone are reminiscent of Mother Goose, Grimm's Fairytales, Alice in Wonderland, and also a bit of Amelia Bedelia. I say Amelia Bedelia because the various speakers in these poems often misinterpret metaphors. Well-worn aphorisms are taken literally, a habit that I love:
"My breakfast is 'on the house'?
What a curious place to eat!"
"The Rabbit cried, 'Make Way!
Make Way for William Blake!
Let our good poet pass.'
The Wise Cow said, 'Alas!
Alack! How shall I make
a thing I've never seen?"
"The Rabbit cried, 'Make Room!
Make Room for the marmalade man!
The Wise Cow said, 'can I
make Room and Way together?
To one that lives outdoors
what's good is weather.
Therefore I must make Room
like a bright loom."
"The Rabbit cried, 'Make Believe,
and make it strong and clear
that I may enter in
with all my kith and kin.'
The Wise Cow said, 'My dear,
Believe shall be a boat
having both feet and fins.
We'll leave this quiet moat.
We'll welcome great and small
with Ways and Rooms for all,
and for our captain let us take
the noble poet, William Blake.'"
The book is also filled with quotes that are at once innocent and experienced, child-like and wise:
"He inquired, 'Is everyone ready?'
The night is uncommonly cold.
We'll start on our journey as children,
but I fear we will finish it old.'"
"Fox and hound, go paw in paw.
Cat and rat, be best of friends.
Lamb and tiger, walk together.
Dancing starts where fighting ends.
In the poem, "The Tiger Asks Blake for a Bedtime Story," there's a beautiful prayer-like passage, which harkons me back to my childhood:
"Now I lay me down to sleep
with bear and rabbit, bird and sheep.
If I should dream before I wake,
may I dream of William Blake."
This rendition of the famous "Now I lay me down to sleep" prayer, retains the same comforting rhythms, but subsititues the harrowing, "if I should die before I wake, I pray the lord my soul to take" bit, with something a bit more upbeat and luminous. I've always found that part of the prayer rather bleak and depressing, so it's nice to have this more uplifting version, this new tradition to grasp onto. I couldn't help but think that this is the kind of poem that I'd like to read to my child at night, before I lay them down to sleep. Even though I don't plan to say "prayers" with my one-day children at night, I can see myself subsititing poetry for prayer. And, as a friend reminded me today, the two really aren't that different from one another.
Allie Leach is the Poetry Center's Education Programs Assistant and co-editor of the Wordplay blog.