Lew Welch



Language Is Speech



Quite a while ago now, when Brandon Holmquest and Stan Mir
and I were first discussing doing this page, we all agreed that
an engaging poetics could be drawn from the few books of prose
and letters that Lew left us.

Here, beginning with this extract from How I Work as a Poet ,
continuing through nine letters, and, finally, the extract from
How I Read Gertrude Stein, is that poetics.

Jack Krick

from How I Work as a Poet

to Dorothy Brownfield, 28 September 1949

to Dorothy Brownfield, et al, 4 November 1950

to Philip Whalen, 7 July 1957

to Donald Allen, 18 December 1959

to Charles Olson, 9 August 1960

to Larry Eigner, 7 September 1961

draft of a letter to Robert Duncan, July 1962

to James Schevill, 16 October 1966

to Robert D. Wilder, 19 June 1969

from How I Read Gertrude Stein



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Since 1965 I have been teaching a class for the University of California Extension called Poetry Workshop 819. There is no credit for the course and it is open to all. This year, 1970, my course was dropped for budgetary reasons, and I miss teaching it so badly I decided to write a written form of the course. I say "write a written form of the course" because the course itself could never be transcribed since its nature is oral and dependent upon the kind of students who happen to take it.

I always try to have a working writer as a guest for at least one meeting (we used to meet ten Tuesday nights for two hours) and once Allen Ginsberg was the one. I barked for one hour (Allen surprised and delighted me by dropping in unannounced so I just kept on going with whatever I was talking about) and after the break Allen gave a beautiful talk about and demonstration of chanting.

After the class, over drinks, I told Allen I had become a little concerned about the form of the class, that gradually over the five years it had distilled into a loose, rambling, skip-about thing that was really a course in Lew Welch, 1A. "Of course," he said, "all they want is to see and hear a live poet. Where else can they find one?"

That is one way of going at it. Another way is to think of what language is from the long historical building of it.

In America we speak and write American English, which is completely different from British English, and it all comes from the Sanskrit, we are told, but we learned it from our parents and our friends. It is all we have. Our native speech.

Of course there are other speeches we have, from reading. We have Walpole saying: "I write to relieve, not the emptiness of my purse, but the fullness of my mind." It is almost impossible to read that sentence aloud without going into a British accent.

American English has sentences in it like Burroughs': "Motel, motel, motel loneliness blows across the continent like foghorns blowing over still oily tidal water rivers."

And to know how recent it is! Whitman had no language to write in. There was no American English when he wrote, which is why his poetry seems so awkward at times. For all his rightness and greatness we have to see Whitman as a man fumbling among languages, the British, the French and the emerging American.

Language is speech. You ought to be able to say language is speech and then get on with the rest of it, but you can't because so very few believe it.

Language is what goes on when you open the door of a banquet-room and there are 300 ladies having lunch. It is very interesting to hear. It rises and falls, and every once in an inexplicable while it will suddenly stop, there will be a total silence, and then all 300 ladies will hear that silence and comment on it at the same moment. Then you get a roar.

Language is speech. Any other form, the printed one or the taped one, is a translation of language. All poems are translations. This book is a translation of the speech I use when I teach this course, talking to people.

Once I lived in an upstairs room with a single window in it. Outside the window was a large date palm tree. Every sparrow for miles around slept in that palm tree. The din each evening was unbelievable, and it was the same thing every dawn, hundreds of sparrows chattering to each other about where they were to sleep and how it went last night or whatever.

That is language. Speech. The din of a Tribe doing its business. You can't control it, you can't correct it, you can only listen to it and use it as it is.

If you want to write you have to want to build things out of language and in order to do that you have to know, really know in your ear and in your tongue and, later, on the page, that language is speech. But the hard thing is that writing is not talking, so what you have to learn to do is to write as if you were talking, and to do it knowing perfectly well you are not talking, you are writing.