This article considers the use made of William Blake by a range of writers associated with the ‘countercultural’ milieu of the 1960s, particularly those linked to its London-based literary context. Iain Sinclair is offered as a writer who, in his appreciation of Blake, stands apart from the poets linked to the anthology, Children of Albion (1969). The article unpacks this distinction, analysing Sinclair’s ‘topographic’ take in comparison to the ‘visionary’ mode of his contemporaries. Having established this dualism, the argument then questions the nature of the visionary poetics assumed to apply to the likes of key poets from the era. The work of Michael Horovitz is brought into view, as is that of Harry Fainlight. In essence, these multiple discourses point to the plurality of Blake as a figure of influence and the variation underpinning his literary utility in post-1960s poetry.
The exhibition Off Beat: Jeff Nuttall and the International Underground (8 September 2016 to 5 March 2017) showcases the archive of Jeff Nuttall (1933–2004), a painter, poet, editor, actor and novelist. As the exhibition illustrates, Nuttall was a central figure in the International Underground during the 1960s through to the early 1970s. During this time he collaborated with a vast network of avant-garde writers from across the globe, as well as editing the influential publication My Own Mag between 1963 and 1967.
This article discusses how we might formulate an account of William Blake’s avant-garde reception. Having dealt with Peter Bürger’s theorisation of the notion of ‘avant-garde’, it concentrates on a series of portraits, made from Blake’s life mask, by Francis Bacon in 1955. This ‘high art’ response to the Romantic poet is then contrasted with a series of ‘subcultural’ responses made from within the British counterculture of the 1960s. Case studies are presented from the alternative magazine production of the period (notably an illustration from Oz magazine in which Blake’s imagery is conflated with that of Max Ernst). An article by David Widgery in Oz on Adrian Mitchell’s play Tyger (1971) is also discussed to show how the scholarly literature on Blake of the period (mainly David Erdman) was called on by the counterculture to comment on political issues (e.g. Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech). The final section of the article shows how the ‘avant-gardism’ of Oz’s utilisation of Blake might be counterposed to the more activist left-wing approach to the poet in small magazines such as King Mob with their links to French situationism. In terms of the classic avant-garde call for a reintegration of art and life-praxis, such gestures testify to a moment in the 1960s when Blake may be considered fully ‘avant-garde’.
This article explores the more detached and ironic view of Blake that emerged in the 1970s compared to appropriations of him in the 1960s, as evident in three science-fiction novels: Ray Nelson’s Blake’s Progress (1977), Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve (1977), and J. G. Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company (1979). In adopting a more antagonistic posture towards Blake, all three of these books reflect increasingly ambivalent attitudes towards the countercultures of the 1960s, and can be read as critical of some of those very energies that the Romantic movement was seen to embody. Thus Nelson rewrites the relationship of William and Catherine, in which the engraver comes under the influence of a diabolic Urizen, while Carter recasts the Prophet Los as a Charles Manson-esque figure. Even Ballard, the most benign of the three, views Blakean energy as a release of potentially dangerous psychopathologies. In all the novels, we see a contrarian use of misprision, rewriting Blake as Blake had rewritten Milton.
This article, originally published in 1958, was written to commemorate William Blake’s bicentenary. In it, the author observes that Blake has been claimed or dismissed by successive generations since his death in 1827: for the Romantics, he was a ‘weird crank’, while the Victorians enveloped him in ‘their own damp sentimentalism’. The author argues that Blake ‘evades appraisal because he was always working for a synthesis of creation far beyond outward forms and genres’, which meant ‘he had to invent his own methods to express himself adequately’. He notes that the recent bicentenary was marked by ‘floods of exhibitions, magazine supplements, radio features, new books from all sides devoted to him’. This clearly anticipates the Blakean explosion of the 1960s, in which the author himself would play a major role. This article can therefore be seen as marking the beginning of Sixties Blake in Britain.
Despite publishing nearly forty books between 1963 and 2003, Jeff Nuttall remains a minor figure in the history of the International Underground of the long 1960s. Drawing on his uncatalogued papers at the John Rylands Library, this article seeks to recoup Nuttall as one of the key architects of the International Underground. In so doing, my article argues that Nuttalls contributions to global counterculture challenge the critical consensus that British avant-garde writers were merely imitators of their US counterparts. By exploring the impact of Nuttalls My Own Mag (1963–67) and Bomb Culture(1968), it can be shown that Nuttall was a central catalyst of, and contributor to, the International Underground. As a poet, novelist and artist, Nuttalls multidisciplinary contributions to art were at the forefront of avant-garde practices that sought to challenge the perceived limitations of the novel as a social realist document and visual art as a medium confined to canvas.