"Teaching Blake," by Paul Fyfe

This is designed as interactive approach to the difficulties of teaching Blake, though it would work for many texts and authors who incorporate visionary and/or visual elements.  My discussion section for ENGL 382 divided up and made "plates" for their favorite hellish proverbs or poetic lines from "Songs of Innocence and Experience" and "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell."

1) Before class: Have the class familiarize themselves with the visual materials, in this case, Blake's plates for his editions of these poems.  The online Blake Archive (www.blakearchive.org) has accessible versions of Blake's editions.  You can also bring samples from the library to pass around the room.  Plan to bring in something to play music (recommend "The Doors").  For maximum spontaneity, do not tell the class in advance what they'll be doing.

2) Turn on.  As class begins, start the music in the background, preferably "Break on Through," as you cite Blake's "Marriage of Heaven and Hell": "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite."  Make the tie in to Aldous Huxley and Jim Morrison, as a way of suggesting Blake's counter-cultural moment at the end of the eighteenth century.  Suggest how today's class will depart from the norms to encourage Blakean door-cleansing on perceiving what the poet is all about.

3) Set out crayons and blank paper.  Have the class pair off or get into small groups.  The idea is to make a "plate," though the instructions can vary, according to what you think is most productive.  I suggested making plates from people's favorite proverbs of hell, or making one that expressed the contraries in any pair of parallel poems in "Songs of Innocence and Experience" (e.g. lamb + tyger).  I also had them include at least one line of his verse within their plate, to jibe with the matrices of word and image in Blake's own plates.  It's key to emphasize vision over illustration; in other words, instead of illustrating the poems they are visualizing their provocative elements or themes.

4) Then drop out.  Keep the music playing, give them the first half of class to collaborate and draw.

5) Tune in.  When students have finished, go around the room talking about the selections.  Have the artists explain what they chose to visualize, and talk about any pertinent thematics they're addressing.  As you go, facilitate a discussion about Blake's contraries, his publishing style, Romantic imagination, issues of poetic/visual representation, Doors lyrics, etc.

Finally, after class and if you have time, consider scanning and posting the class's images, either to an accessible toolkit or a web site.  The "plates" have been surprisingly complex and provocative, warranting everyone's reconsideration.  Also, students are proud of their creations, and being shown off is an ennobling experience.  Moreover, they'll likely want their originals back, so it's a good idea keep a digital copy.