Lew Welch



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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Draft of a letter to Robert Duncan,
Bixby Canyon,
July 1962

Dear Robert,   It is odd that I should want to write this letter to you, since I know so many of us better, who I respect as much. But at this moment my spirit, what's left of it, needing to speak, can only speak to you.

I must speak to one who has gone through something as black as this, and who made it somehow — or at least is still there, operating his Human Being (your phrase) decently, as a poet.

I have reached what I hope is nearly the end of 5 months of a total withdrawal of all love, all spirit, all hope, all vision — my whole being drawn into a fist pounding bitterly against Everything, for it has seemed that Everything is dedicated only to mocking MAWKING all that I know is good, and here. I cannot shut out the din anymore. I am afraid,

The other night I miss-heard on television a fat trained fake­virile voice boom:


I don't know what was actually said, but now I use this as my letterhead (the couplet was not intended, I am not giving this letter, always, the care I give to my Writing — where I always hear the
music just before I find the words that sing it)

I will not list the details of my personal troubles, it's the usual list of details.

For it all goes down, now, right to the bottom. All action, all movement, sur-real scenes in an accurate movie — the cashier in the supermart, the dialogue in the bedroom, all true "literally and in all senses" . . . and it's important to remark that the "literal," the "stubborn fact" of it is vividly there for me, as I'm sure it will always be.

For though I am mad, I am mad in the way Poet is always, must be, mad. It is the difference (as Jung put it to Joyce, trying to convince him that his daughter was in grave danger, and Jimmie said "Nonsense, what you describe is what I do all the time. It is even a game we play together.") And Jung answered, "Yes, Jimmie, but you dive to the bottom of the river. She is sinking."

The poet can never sink and, while sunk, be Poet. His diving is always a dive, even if to do it he must sniff the vapors in his oracular cave — or otherwise drastically wrench himself open that the whole river flow through. (Which is what is wrong with Jung's phrase — he makes it sound a little prim: as if one could learn to mount the board, properly suited, spring a few times, and do the trick cleanly whenever one wills.)

And so I have not sunk. And the sickness I've been through had nothing to do with the bottom of any river. It was the worse thing: the deliberate closing of myself.

And I found that whatever it is that chooses to flow through me is so powerful it will destroy me if I resist it in any way. That I must open to it or die. And the death will be a suicide.

I opened to it 2 days ago, here, at Ferlinghetti's Big Sur cabin, after being alone for 5 days. It wasn't a clean opening. It was a pulse. A timid thing, like that way a trout lies still and timidly works his gills a while when you land one and then return him to the water.

,And I got the most radiant vision of openness. I saw how this was all meaning. That I was only a mess of gates. That having Human Being is to have many many gates, that it all all flow through.

That it was all right, too, that we have a Self. That it all be transformed. Different on the way out.

And all of this was so powerful my penis came erect, with no sex to it, and, as the old saying goes "putting your prick through the window, and fucking the world" with helpless love!

What is this? Some black satori?

For I cannot stay open to it. It hurts too much. But what is it that hurts?

I have dropped all devices. I cannot even drink wine anymore. All last night my dreams were horrible nightmares: my mother and I and my best friend (who kept shifting, being all friends, and who I called my brother) left a movie and walked through a deserted, poor, neighborhood trying to reach our car. We started past a school and I said, "Not that way, it's horrible" for the playground was full of darting, dangerous, figures and there was a ghastly refuse-heap that smelled of carrion. So we walked another way and came past another schoolyard, this one full of "monkey bars" and slides and swings. Hundreds of vicious youths of both sexes were sitting on them. They spotted us and yelled "There go 3 of them!" and attacked us. I tried to reach the car but, seeing it was hopeless, stopped and picked up a wine bottle. I broke the bottle, making it into a weapon — jagged glass with the neck a stout handle. (The bottle was an empty half — gallon of Tivola — a good choice.) The largest, most vicious of them made a similar weapon (the street was full of empty bottles). I glanced at the others. My "brother" was lost in a swarm of them. My mother was handing them her purse, begging mercy. It was like being set upon by a troop of baboons . . .

I woke up and said, "Well, those are only thoughts. They may have come from something real, but now they are only thoughts. I can take them."

And I deliberately went back into the dream, over and over again (for that is something I have trained myself to do, seeing it as one of the skills of Poet). I met that viciousness over and over again, trying this way, and then that way — nothing worked.

I then woke fully, and began to weep. I have been weeping ever since. I cannot stop! (the grammar of that last sentence is not pity, but astonishment) I cannot stop ! (astonishment and despair)

I am struck by what is meant [by] "crying in the wilderness."

"Literally and in all senses" how wise Rimbaud was! (and that the literally part is what is most befogged — till we write down and down and down, as I have, almost getting to a plainness that obviates all poetry. Fighting the baboons again. As if to shatter that "more truth than poetry" vicious saying of all our vulgarity! And still to get ((from Wobbly Rock))!!!! the cry "I don't understand it.

Why don't you write so that everybody can understand it.?"



My God!!!

After the radiant vision of openness (which it will take me books to bring into words, for I thought at the time "no poetry, do not stop the flow of it (snagged in flight) but let it go through you" — and, incidently, realized that that is what's wrong with wrong writing: it stops us, whereas Poetry means only "this is flight!!!! This is the open flow of it!!!")

After the radiant vision of openness, yesterday, I saw myself a ring of bone in a clear stream, and vowed never, ever, to close myself again.

But can I do it? Will it always hurt this much? What is it that hurts?

Shall I close myself a little while? Today? (I am eyeing the wine bottle again. I pour myself a cup of wine. I will rest.)

Will closing rest me?

What is it that hurts? What is it that needs resting?

(You do not have to answer this question. You cannot. That is precisely what I have to do.)

                                                     And right now heard a
                                                     "Ring of bone" with
as what a bell does

What does that mean?

. . . . . .

All that is left to say, here, is that this is the moment of suicide (or, in my phrase:

                                                     The instant
                                                     After it is made

I hope all who would be Poet read this poem (for now I realize this is a poem, a letter and a poem, for it is still a letter written by a Poet to a Poet, for he needed to speak, and couldn't if there weren't a Poet to speak to)

The other possibility, the only other possibility, is suicide.

I have long been struck by the long list of suicides by Poets of our time. Yesterday I read for the first time Mayakovsky's suicide note:

                                                     As they say
                                                     'the incident is closed.'
                                                     Love boat
                                                     smashed against mores.
                                                     I'm quits with life.
                                                     No need itemizing
                                                     mutual griefs
                                                     Good luck and good-bye.

This, and the suicide of Crane of Lindsay of Thomas (through his drink, as Malcolm Lowry went, drowning in his vomit) as Wieners almost went and is miraculously back with us, by means of his enormous strength, though he seems so frail, and there are hundreds more you know of, or can find, easily, if you look around

                     These suicides are but a part of the job of Poet!

For whatever it is that hurts. Whatever it is that needs to rest from time to time. Whatever it is that can be opened to the flow of it, or closed from pain.

This must be killed again and again!

The really tragic thing about the drownings and gunshots and the irreclaimable madnesses is this:

They, Poets all of them, missed the truth of it by a quarter of an inch.

You do not have to do it with a gun. You do not really do it with a gun.

Though, lately, I begin to wonder how many more times I can kill this thing. Is he always going to grow? Will he always be that same shape? There is some error to the way I keep doing it. Perhaps I try to come back from it, instead of resting on it, when I'm through with it, hanging there, as one would hang, poised, in the center of the earth, if the earth had a shaft through it, and you jumped down the shaft.

What a jump that would be! Is!

Up and down. Up and down. Through. Below. Above.

I am through with this.

I cannot stay as open as this.

I am going to be drunk the rest of this day. But only for the
of this day.


. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Robert, I have stopped weeping. I am buzzy, though not yet drunk. I went to the creek and washed my face, after first reading this that I wrote to you.

I thank God for this gift, as you must have, on many occasions. It has saved me again. As it must have saved you, again & again.

Is this why he keeps coming back again and again, to be killed?

Do you see how the writing goes! How it brings it all up at the end?

You, who have this gift, for you could not have this gift unless you often took trips as black as this, as painful


(in theory at least)

Is Rimbaud's way the only way, in this vulgar age? That we must finally kill Poet out of our total contempt for this time that mocks us?


This letter was neither completed nor sent.