Lew Welch


I am now too pissed off to be a 'poet'. . .

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 Philip Whalen,
from 5433 South Dorchester Avenue, Chicago,
7 July 1957

Dear Philip, Attached is a whelm of poems all written since your letter of 4/25. This is more than I have written in 5 years actually more than I have written since Reed. It goes to show you what a town like this can do to a person. I have shown some of these to my friends. They mean well but Kee-rist how they don't dig! Others, not nearly so important as friends, really enjoy many of them. The long Chicago poem was demanded by several — most notably by a Dutch friend named Ensink who is a cultured person. Translated Sartre into Dutch for small Amsterdam theater group which has since died because of lack of Ensink translations to play with.

I have carefully examined all poetry known to me. It is astonishing how the great ones are all alike in their almost agony of plainness. People who know Homer tell me he writes like people ordering cabbages. Eiiot's way of translating Dante shows his (Dante's) serene indifference to the lacy verbiage that everyone since Blake thinks is poetry. Chaucer I know myself. John Donne kills you with his simple talk. Blake at his wildest is jingling along almost in baby talk so you won't possibly misunderstand. Jonson and Dryden and Marvell and Pope and Browning (a whole lot better than I remembered) are almost always spending most of their time cutting through the grease of inaccuracy and dishonesty and "poetics." And those "small" 18th century people, Gay, Prior, Rochester, et al.: They even make Doc Williams seem fancy. Most of Pound's writing is unforgivable (he really only wrote a few things in Personae and all those terrific translations and lots of his letters) and I'm afraid his teaching misleads by trying to make it all seem stranger than it is. I know he says things well (poetry must be at least as well written as prose) but in the final analysis, as I said to Snyder years ago when he was in Bloomington, Pound and Stein and Joyce and Cummings and what I know of Rimbaud is really only an attempt to jack themselves somewhere beyond criticism.

The only people that like my writing are either absolutely untutored in poetry, or of the highest sophistication. Those in between all tell me it's prose.

I knew all this years ago, sort of. But I lost the straight path somewhere in the streets of this dangerous city. The few poems you sent me, the remarks you made, the Rexroth I bought, the Williams I read again, the Yeats I tested against verbal honesty, really shook me up. Nobody has the slightest idea of what poetry is! Everything they teach and write about is a big lie!

Do you know what Blake's Tyger is? It's a T - y - g - e - r with fur and teeth and stinking breath. 700 pounds of cat. You try to tell anybody this. You go into the Cal. library and read all the bullshit about that animal. They bounce off the poem so fast they never really read it.

And so on. You don't have to be told all this.

In addition to all the attached I have about 20 things started. The important difference is that now it is a pleasure, a necessity. Always before I was trying to be a "poet." I am now too pissed off to be a "poet."

This is how I live: The alarm clock starts me. I have a hangover. I am nauseated all morning. The toothpaste frequently makes me heave. I can't keep down orange juice, toast, and tea. I chew gum and go to my car dressed in a suit and a tie. I fight idiots who don't know how [to] drive on a highway where thousands of cars go too fast and all the signs, streetlights, and policemen are confused and wrong. My car is old and unresponsive. Dies frequently and whistles in its generator. At the office I do the urgent, not the important. A friend describes it as "pissing on small fires." The meetings are not to be believed. If a tape recorder were put in the room and then transcribed everyone would think that someone like Perelman or Bemelmans was trying to be funny. It can't be burlesqued. It can't be told. All day long I am humiliated by inferior people who insist that I must do something in less time than it takes, and when I do they change it, making it only different, not better, so that I have to do it all over again in even less time. It never should have been done in the first place, anyway. Then I come home. The same idiots that can't drive are now as furious as I am. We try to kill each other for 30 minutes. Then I am home. I have a cocktail. I have 5 more. Finally I am back in the room. Dinner is served (delicious, Mary a fine cook) but I am so loaded and sick by this time I only nibble. Very insulting to Mary. All women deserve big eaters. All men deserve to get huge girth and to pat it proudly. Then to bed with good love if I am capable. Usually I'm still in a rage and/or passing out.

Now, don't ever ask me to talk about it again.

I am going to a doctor who tells me not to drink and smoke and to stop working as I am. I stopped smoking for several days & felt almost human the other day. Am now drinking only beer. Liver is better (was "damaged" in some way). U. of Chicago making it almost impossible for me to get my degree. I will take a leave of absence and go full time to get an M.A. for one quarter. Will have degree by next summer, taking French and tests etc. while working. Then to West Coast, prolly U. of Cal. in Berk., and full time for Ph.D. courses (two years). Then to teaching somewhere in West while writing thesis. Back to health. Back to friends. Back to beautiful country.

I will treat you as the Chinaman treats someone who has saved his life. The attached poems are your responsibility. Scribble on them. Tell me where I might publish them. I don't expect to write this much all at once all the time, but am serenely confident that by the time I'm 50 there will be far too much to ignore. Now I went to all this trouble to type these up neat and everything, please do same with yours, for me. I like to read what you write. I have trouble finding things I like to read. Feed me.   Lew

[P.S.] Am sending these to Snyder and Jones, also.


The poems enclosed included: "Why Did Gary Snyder Go to Rinko — in?", "For Joseph Kepecs," "Notes from a Pioneer on a Speck in Space," "On Seeing an Exact Bird" (which became part 3 of "Four Studies in Perception"), and an early version of "Seventh Grade."