Reciting to the Choir

So up here in Sing City, our public transit system has been running a series of ads called 'Poetry on the Way' for years and years. (I used to kill time on longer subway rides by writing rebuttal poems to some of the more egregiously lame offerings). One of the newer poems just bugs the hell out of me, though, even moreso than most. The poem is called 'The Creatures', by Glen Downie:

Caged in your sleep may the great beasts
bless and protect you always the bears of
loving kindness the wise Blakean tigers
of wrath & the horses of
instruction Dream untroubled
by paradox of proportion - the ladybug
bigger than the cat the mouse
as large as the elephant
& wearing pants In their all-forgiving silence
may they love you in ways we fail to
these friends of first refuge
the peaceable kingdom
where the lion lies down with the lamb

OK, sure, it's pretty banal. But the phrase that drives me a bit spare every time I see it is 'wise Blakean tigers'.

The point of the whole campaign is to bring poetry to the masses, right? Entertain and enlighten and all that?

So why would you pick a poem that makes such an insular, exclusionary reference as 'Blakean tigers'?

Think about it. I know who William Blake was, and what his most famous poem was. But if you don't, the line makes no sense. Even if "tiger, tiger, burning bright" is rattling around in your head somewhere as a cultural reference, if you don't know who wrote it you've got no reason to associate it with 'The Creatures'.

In short, it's a reference that serves no purpose other than to create a barrier between the poet and the general public. If you get the reference, you're "in the club"; if not, you aren't worthy. Which might be fine for a poet and a poem in some, maybe even most, common poetic situations but is a remarkably stupid strategy for a poem that should, in theory, be aimed at a wider audience.

The most frustrating thing about it to me? It's completely unnecessary.

Downie could just as easily have said "bright-burning tigers" instead. Same meter, same number of syllables, same reference to Blake... but if you aren't someone who possesses the specialized knowledge that William Blake wrote 'The Tiger', the line still communicates something.

Something other than "I'm smarter than you, nyah nyah", that is.

(Please note the new indictment. Maybe having it in the arsenal will encourage me to read a bit more than I have been recently. I'm probably overdue for my next attempt to tackle Ulysses anyway.)


  1. Personally... I love the line. This line - the Blakean tigers - made me jot down the name of the poet while riding the Bloor-Danforth line to work at 7 am.

    This poem - along with Escondido Night - is one of my favourites to read on ym daily commute. Granted, I am a writer myself and therefore have submersed myself in literature, so of course I know Blake's Tyger, but I was not always so.

    I believe the poetry should shove you into a new sphere - should have references that are obscure, so that you get into your workplace and google things just so you can understand the images put forth in the writing. Take TS Eliot, for an example. When I first started reading Eliot - in particular, the Wasteland - just a few years ago, I had to stop every line and jot down notes to look up later. (How was I supposed to know that Mme Sosostris had syphilis?) But accomplishing that further step, unlocking slowly but surely the keys to the literary puzzle in front of me, made me feel wordy and satisfied. It's like a hard task... the harder you work at it, the better the results feel. It's like reading Faulkner - as you figure out every reference and the story starts to unfold itself in front of you, you start to feel more and more proud.

    Granted, not everyone feels this way, as made evident by your post. I just wanted to present the other side of the coin to you: it exists that some people like to have obscure references as hooks within the poem. (It hooks me and makes me curious)

    Essentially, I'm just glad that the subway poetry is prompting people to talk. English language and literature is a dying art, and I like that this is trying to inject some of it back into the mainveins of the dirty city.

    - Anna

  2. Point taken. I guess 'The Creatures' just never struck me as a poem that invited decoding... writers like Eliot and Faulkner (or Joyce, for that matter) make quite different demands on their readers than Downie's poem ever seemed to, at least to me.

  3. I guess it's subjective... I didn't mean to go on some sort of blustery rant. I just like the idea of people struggling with literature a bit, but maybe I'm a sadist. And a masochist.

  4. Hey, if you can't go on a blustery rant about some insufferably smug blog post, when can you?

  5. Thank you for reminding me of the reference... though i am not sure it's your intention.
    i saw the poem on the subway and loved it but couldn't quite make the connection between blake and tiger. luckily your blog is one of the first links that popped up on google.
    and just to throw it out there, the best poem i discovered through those posters would be Faludy;s "Michelangelo's Last Prayer"

  6. I'm just glad the poem was posted here: I've been seeing the poem on the subway now for a long time and I keep making a mental note to look it up and capture it somehow so that I can read it anytime I like, and here it is. I love every bloody line of it, my favorite line changing every time I see it.

  7. i took a photo of the poem i loved it so much

    illegal? i don't know. thanks for the transcription

  8. I'm another anonymous poster who loved the piece so much I came home and searched for it. I knew the Blake reference but drop the 'Blakean' and the rest of the piece is accessible - I don't understand the rant. Maybe it'll inspire someone else to come home, search, and find some of Blake's work as well?

  9. I went to high school in Toronto and though I can't attest to whether this is still the case, William Blake was on the syllabus in my day. I personally detested the Songs of Innocence and Experience but that's rather beside the point. I do tend to expect the general public to get the reference though.

    But on references that I do not get - it doesn't bother me in the slightest. I don't feel at all 'snubbed' by the literati, as it were. I am actually quite fascinated by the workings of literary 'inside jokes,' if that makes any sense. The idea that there are references beyond my immediate sphere is to me a pleasant rather than intimidating notion.

  10. By the way - what about the fact that the last two lines of the poem is a reference to Isaiah 11:6? Do you also consider that to be unnecessary and/or exclusionary?

    I am still pondering on 'horses of instruction.' Wonder what that is a reference to.

  11. Oh dear. My bad. Horses of instruction & Tigers of Wrath from Marriage of Heaven & Hell - the one Blake text that I DO like. I suppose it's been a long time since I've read it. Just gave me a whole new appreciation for the poem - a modern poet in dialogue with a poet long deceased...

  12. I'm new to Toronto and somewhat new to the English language but reading the poem while on the subway was one of the most important moments of my day and I shared the experience with my family while eating dinner. The poetic language did not seem overtly presumptuous.

    another anonymous

  13. Poetry is meant to expand our world, not shrink to our level. If I didn't know who Blake was, I'm sure I would have been curious - what's a "Blakean tiger"?? And I would probably have looked it up or asked someone about that and would have discovered a whole new poet as a result. I think most of the poem is totally accessible, and it's perfectly legit to throw in something that might stretch people a little. You'll never be able to write something in any genre that is totally accessible to every single reader anyways. So go for it! Say what you want to say the way you want to say it! :-) (This Anonymous's name is Tamara and the TTC's poetry way is one of my favourite things about the TTC. Spotting Downie's poem on the way to dentist lifted my day out of the banal and dreary into a whole new space).

  14. hi, i saw this poem on my way to visit my grandma in the hospital and tried to memorize it to recite it to her. i didn't get the blake reference, or the horse one, or the isaiah one. but i still just totally loved it. and when i didn't remember it by the time i arrived at the hospital, i searched and searched the subway until i found it again today, and took a photo. and now i'm off to google that blake piece. and also isaiah 11:6.
    thanks for posting this up here!

  15. This blog post is highly informational and matured enough with its quality and layout in defining transcription services. I will wait for more such informative posts in future.