Lew Welch


letting America speak for itself. . .

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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To James Schevill,
from 52 Buckelew Street, Marin City,
16 October 1966

Dear Jim,  Attached are program notes and a press release for the reading.

I kept trying to make my usual poem line breaks, ending with worthless *****s between paragraphs, so please print as edited. Is more than one page o.k.?

I hope so.   Lew

P.S. I have copies which I'll send to [Ralph] Gleason.    LW



Poet Lew Welch, one of the major figures of the new San Francisco Renaissance, appears for The Poetry Center of San Francisco State College on Wednesday, October 26, at The Museum of Art, Van Ness and McAllister Sts., at 8:15 p.m.

Widely published both here and in Europe, Welch is known for the wide range of "voices" in his work, and for a down-to-earth style he sometimes calls "letting America speak for itself."

His many readings have been among those that reshaped the idea of Poetry Reading into its modern form  — a new theater art far more flexible, challenging, and entertaining than what we had in the past.

Welch will perform his poems, songs, and plays in a program called "One-Man Plays."


I first read for the Poetry Center in 1959. I said, in the program note: "When I write my only concern is accuracy. I try to write accurately from the poise of mind which lets us see that things are exactly what they seem. I never worry about beauty, if it is accurate there is always beauty. I never worry about form, if it is accurate there is always form."

I phoned that statement from work. I had a dreary, underpaid job for the Bemis Bag factory, and the roar of their presses and bag machinery was almost too loud to think, or talk over.

Since 1959 all kinds of things have happened to me and the world, but I still hold to this statement, absolutely.

What was then the "Beat Generation" is now down to a few survivors, each of whom went his only way. Most of us are gone (as so many makers go early) into prisons, loony bins, penthouses, graves, and the other silences of whatever desperation.

It has been no different for us than for any generation. Witness Rexroth's poem on the death of Dylan Thomas, where he lists the victims he loved, who lost. Then counter this, or any other, with the list of poets, painters, dancers, musicians who lived beyond their fortieth year.

Happily, I'm still alive and am just turned 40. From such a rare height it is possible to say (in defense of my work, and others here or gone), that today, foolish as they may appear to the frightened eye, young America swings much harder than we did, with less fear, and more love.

American poetry, for at least 54 years, has had to screech above the din of a Bemis Bag, Hart Crane's daddy wanted him to manage the family candy factory. Whitman could say it was marvelous to see the muscled workers. But the poets who followed him (who had to be those workers, at jobs) know that there ain't no muscled workers, they's only victims.

Whitman, the roaming spectator, was victimized later. Fancy professors do it, daily, in the state universities. There's a Walt Whitman Savings and Loan in his old home town. It only goes to show what the reward is, if you work real hard and never cheat.

The sound we hear from our tribe is not much different from the thousand sparrows who used to sleep in a palm tree outside my window, once. The racket was unbelievable, but the birds were only arguing about who has the right to sleep, and where.

So, in my poetry, I've tried to keep the din while being accurate to the poise of mind that lets us know what's what. Sometimes I've called this din "Letting America`speak for itself." Often it's a depressing job.

But I still have faith that if I do this right, accurately, the sound will emerge a "meaningless din of joy." Because I know that the true sound of living things, a carrot or a tribe, is meaningless, and that we, watching it, feel joy.

This sound, the din of joy, is quite distinct from the sound of the Pentagon, Washington in general and especially Mr. Johnson, the fear-ridden hateful spites of J. Edgar Hoover, and the killing orders of anyone who wants to "boss" anything whether or not the work ought to be done.

Therefore, "One-Man Plays," some of the din of the Tribe, speaking for itself. Accurately.