Like most writers, my creative process is rarely linear. It requires recursive movement between free-form generative writing and disciplined self-editing. This dance between drafting and revision can be a delicate one. If I linger too long in the generative stage of the process, I can find myself tangled in a free-associative clump of language with no shape or coherence. At the same time, if I linger too long in revision, I can easily get stuck, Prufrock-like, in a self-critical loop of “decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”
This movement back and forth between drafting and revision would be far more difficult if not for one of William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell,” from his book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
“You never know what is enough,” Blake writes, “unless you know what is more than enough.”
Blake’s belief in the subversive power of the imagination lies at the core of his “Proverbs of Hell.” His Proverbs function collectively as an infernal revision of the Book of Proverbs, subverting our taken-for-granted assumptions about spiritual practice, ethics, and creativity. In the “Proverbs of Hell,” Blake’s angels are devils who inhibit the imagination; his devils, in contrast, are generative muses for whom “energy is eternal delight.”
Blake’s Proverbs encourage their audience to discover new ways of seeing through direct experience rather than through abstract conceptualization, which is why his Proverbs are so well suited for what Blake often described as the imaginative labor of art-making.
This particular Proverb is an urgent reminder that I cannot generate early drafts while working under the duress of a self-critical mind. But this Proverb reminds me, too, that my writing risks a loss of shape and purpose without the imperative to uncover, through revision, what is just enough in the more-than-enough raw material of my earliest drafts. It gives me permission to make a mess of my initial drafts—to experiment, indulge, and meander on the path to discovering what I really want to say (and how I want to say it).
Most of all, Blake’s Proverb is a reminder not to overthink. During the early stages of the writing process, it helps me resist the authoritative pull of the editor who lives inside my head. Don’t get me wrong: the editor-in-my-head is a vital, and welcome, part of my creative process, but my internal editor is primarily useful once I’m further along in a poem—not necessarily in the initial stages of the process. In those early drafts, when I’m trying to listen to a poem as it tells me what I’m writing about, the editor-in-my-head is an unwelcome squatter in my imagination. Blake reminds me that I can temporarily send my internal editor into exile, provided that I allow the editor to return later in the revision process, as I begin to sculpt my early drafts into what eventually becomes a finished poem.
Blake’s Proverb does more than just allow for an unruly early-draft sprawl that can be refined in later revisions. It also helps me decide where a poem should end. Blake inspires me to write far past a poem’s potential endings in order to determine exactly where a poem should finally land. I’m always on alert for where the final lines might manifest themselves, and with Blake’s Proverb in mind, I often discover the ending of a poem hiding in plain sight on the boundary between “just enough” and “more than enough.”
Instead of listening to the cautious editor-in-my-head warning me against the messiness of overflow in the early stages of the process, Blake encourages me to forage in excess so that I might discover the poem emerging from my early-draft writing. I can’t know what is enough until I’ve eventually gone too far. And, as Blake reminds me, it’s crucial to begin by going too far.
Below, the “Proverbs of Hell,” seventy pithy statements of what Blake called “infernal wisdom.” Blake’s Proverbs celebrate the energy of the creative imagination (“What is now proved was once only imagined”) while also suggesting we might create a better world with this energy (“The most sublime act is to set another before you”). But, like all of Blake’s poetry and painting, they pivot on contrariety, with real work of the imagination occurring when we untangle our contradictory impulses—when we try to make sense of the collision of opposites. Seems fitting, then, that the poet who once wrote “Opposition is True Friendship” would close the “Proverbs of Hell” with a Zen-koan-like brain teaser: “Enough! or Too much.”
William Blake: from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”
PROVERBS OF HELL
In seed-time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
He who desires, but acts not, breeds pestilence.
The cut worm forgives the plough.
Dip him in the river who loves water.
A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.
He whose face gives no light shall never become a star.
Eternity is in love with the productions of time.
The busy bee has no time for sorrow.
The hours of folly are measured by the clock, but of wisdom no clock can measure.
All wholesome food is caught without a net or a trap.
Bring out number, weight, and measure in a year of dearth.
No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings.
A dead body revenges not injuries.
The most sublime act is to set another before you.
If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.
Folly is the cloak of knavery.
Shame is Pride’s cloak.
Prisons are built with stones of law, brothels with bricks of religion.
The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
Excess of sorrow laughs, excess of joy weeps.
The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of Eternity too great for the eye of man.
The fox condemns the trap, not himself.
Joys impregnate, sorrows bring forth.
Let man wear the fell of the lion, woman the fleece of the sheep.
The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.
The selfish smiling fool and the sullen frowning fool shall be both thought wise that they may be a rod.
What is now proved was once only imagined.
The rat, the mouse, the fox, the rabbit watch the roots; the lion, the tiger, the horse, the elephant watch the fruits.
The cistern contains, the fountain overflows.
One thought fills immensity.
Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.
Everything possible to be believed is an image of truth.
The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow.
The fox provides for himself, but God provides for the lion.
Think in the morning, act in the noon, eat in the evening, sleep in the night.
He who has suffered you to impose on him knows you.
As the plough follows words, so God rewards prayers.
The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.
Expect poison from the standing water.
You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.
Listen to the fool’s reproach; it is a kingly title.
The eyes of fire, the nostrils of air, the mouth of water, the beard of earth.
The weak in courage is strong in cunning.
The apple tree never asks the beech how he shall grow, nor the lion the horse how he shall take his prey.
The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.
If others had not been foolish we should have been so.
The soul of sweet delight can never be defiled.
When thou seest an eagle, thou seest a portion of Genius. Lift up thy head!
As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.
To create a little flower is the labour of ages.
Damn braces; bless relaxes.
The best wine is the oldest, the best water the newest.
Prayers plough not; praises reap not; joys laugh not; sorrows weep not.
The head Sublime, the heart Pathos, the genitals Beauty, the hands and feet Proportion.
As the air to a bird, or the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.
The crow wished everything was black; the owl that everything was white.
Exuberance is Beauty.
If the lion was advised by the fox, he would be cunning.
Improvement makes straight roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement are roads of Genius.
Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.
Where man is not, nature is barren.
Truth can never be told so as to be understood and not to be believed.
Enough! or Too much.
Tony Trigilio’s newest books are Proof Something Happened (Marsh Hawk Press) and Ghosts of the Upper Floor(BlazeVOX [books], 2019). His selected poems, Fuera del Taller del Cosmos, was published in Guatemala in 2018 by Editorial Poe (translated by Bony Hernández). Trigilio co-edits the poetry journal Court Green, and he is an associate editor for Tupelo Quarterly. He is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago.