previous chapter
"I'm given to write poems"
next chapter

"I'm given to write poems"

I'm given to write poems. I cannot anticipate their occasion. I have used all the intelligence that I can muster to follow the possibilities that the poem "under hand," as Olson would say, is declaring, but I cannot anticipate the necessary conclusions of the activity, nor can I judge in any sense, in moments of writing, the significance of that writing more than to recognize that it is being permitted to continue. I'm trying to say that, in writing, at least as I have experienced it, one is in the activity, and that fact itself is what I feel so deeply the significance of anything that we call poetry.

For some sense, then, of how it was I came to be involved with poetry, at the outset I was much more interested in writing apart from its designated modes, and perhaps I am characteristically American in that respect. To begin with, I was shy of the word "poet" and all its associations in a world I was then intimate with. It was not, in short, a fit attention for a young man raised in the New England manner, compact of puritanically deprived senses of speech and sensuality. Life was real and life was earnest, and one had best get on with it. The insistent preoccupation with words did begin for me early, just that I did want so much to know what people were saying, and what, more precisely, they meant by it.

I think the most significant encounter for me as a young man trying to write was that found in the work of William Carlos Williams.

Lecture delivered at the Literarisches Colloquium, Berlin, January 1967; published in Ein Gedicht und sein Autor / Lyrik und Essay , Herausgegeben und mit Einleitungen versehen von Walter Höllerer (Berlin, 1967), and in Harper's Bazaar , July 1967.


He engaged language at a level both familiar and active to my own senses, and made of his poems an intensively emotional perception, however evident his intelligence. Despite his insistence on his Mediterranean connections, so to speak, he was as Puritan as I—or Lawrence, or Thoreau or the Melville of Pierre .

Otherwise, the forties—the time in which I came of age—were complicated in many bitter ways indeed. Not the least of the problems then evident for someone trying to realize him or herself in the world was the confusion about the very nature of "literature" itself. Coming from New England, I felt awkwardness about books to begin with, because they were for me often instances of social mark or measure, even at times a privilege of intellectual order—just as Hardy speaks of them in Jude the Obscure . I was very shy about communicating my own commitments in reading, and yet I used books as a very real place to be. Not merely an escape from the world—the difficulty was how to get into it, not away—books proved a place very deeply open to me, at moments of reading, in a sense few others were ever to be.

Thinking of that, let me note kinship with another writer—Robert Duncan—who has played a very important role in my life, both as mentor, very often, and as one whom I feel to share with me this particular sense of world, and writing, and poetry, which I most deeply respect. In a collection of his called The Opening of the Field , significantly enough, the first poem begins:


Then continues:

as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,
that is not mine, but is a made place,
that is mine, it is so near to the heart,
an eternal pasture folded in all thought
so that there is a hall therein

that is a made place, created by light
wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.

This sense of a poem—that place , that meadow —has echoes of so many things that are intimate to my own sense of the reality experienced in writing. One would find that field or "meadow" in Whitman also, and it would be equally the sense of place I feel Allen Ginsberg many times to be entering, to be speaking of or longing for. Charles Olson too possesses its occasion in his sense of "open" verse or that open field , as he insists upon it, in composition.


I have found it deeply in H.D.'s writing: "I go where I love and am loved. . . ." And in Pound's "What thou lovest well remains,/ the rest is dross. . . ."

What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
                                               or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
    Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage. . . .

All of these are, to my own mind, not only tokens but evidences of a place, a very distinct and definite place , that poetry not only creates but itself issues from—and one in writing is, as Duncan says, "permitted to return," to go there, to be in that reality. There is a poem by Allen Ginsberg which has always moved me deeply. He calls it simply "Song" and it is included in the first collection of his poetry, Howl . The closing lines of this poem are:

yes, yes,
               that's what
I wanted,
              I always wanted,
I always wanted,
              to return
to the body
              where I was born.

That body is the "field" and is equally the experience of it. It is, then, to "return" not to oneself as some egocentric center, but to experience oneself as in the world, thus, through this agency or fact we call, variously, "poetry."

In the same passage quoted from Duncan, there is another sense of much interest to me in the emphasis he puts upon "made": "a scene," as he says, "made-up by the mind,/ that is not mine, but is a made place,/ that is mine. . . ." And again, two lines following: "there is a hall therein/ that is a made place. . . ." This emphasis takes its occasion from the sense of poet as maker, going back to the Greek root, poiein , "to make."

One of the few books I've ever had that was stolen—not by me, as it happened, but by a girl I persuaded to steal it for me—was William Carlos Williams' The Wedge . It proved fire of a very real order, and, for the record, was subsequently stolen from me in turn when I was teaching at Black Mountain in the mid-fifties. In


1944, when it was first published and shortly after which I got hold of it, its content was a revelation to me. In the preface Williams makes this statement:

When a man makes a poem, makes it, mind you, he takes words as he finds them interrelated about him and composes them—without distortion which would mar their exact significances—into an intense expression of his perceptions and ardors that they may constitute a revelation in the speech that he uses. It isn't what he says that counts as a work of art, it's what he makes, with such intensity of perception that it lives with an intrinsic movement of its own to verify its authenticity.

I think this is very much the way Americans are given to speak—not in some dismay that they haven't another way to speak, but, rather, that they feel that they, perhaps more than any other group of people upon the earth at this moment, have had both to imagine and thereby to make that reality which they are then given to live in. It is as though they had to realize the world anew. They are, as Charles Olson says, "the last first people." Now, in contemporary fact, they are also the oldest issue of that imagination—even in some ways bitterly so, because they have thus inherited the world as not only a place to live in, but also as that reality for which they are responsible in every possible sense.

However, I would mistake my own experience of poetry if I were to propose it as something merely intentional , and what men may imagine, either as worlds or poems, is not simply a purpose either may satisfy. Williams also had no sense of patness in the making of a poem, or of a world—but felt, as he says in one of his own poems:

Be patient that I address you in a poem,
                   there is no other
                                       fit medium.
The mind
                   lives there. It is uncertain,
                                       can trick us and leave us
agonized. But for resources
                   what can equal it?
                                       There is nothing. We
should be lost
                   without its wings to
                                       fly off upon.
The mind is the cause of our distresses
                  but of it we can build anew.
                                       Oh something more than


it flies off to:
                   a woman's world,
                                       of crossed sticks, stopping
thought. A new world
                    is only a new mind.
                                        And the mind and the poem
are all apiece.

To put it simply indeed, it is not the intention to write that matters, but that one can —that such a possibility can exist in which the mind may make evident its resources apart from the limits of intention and purpose.

In "The Desert Music"—for myself the loveliest form he left us—Williams makes further qualification of the poem in its peculiar and singular function of making real:

                                                                   Only the poem
only the made poem, to get said what must
be said, not to copy nature, sticks
in our throats

The law? The law gives us nothing
but a corpse, wrapped in a dirty mantle.
The law is based on murder and confinement,
long delayed,
but this, following the insensate music,
is based on the dance:

                                                  an agony of self-realization
bound into a whole
by that which surrounds us

                                                                      I cannot escape
I cannot vomit it up

Only the poem!

Only the made poem, the verb calls it
                                                              into being.

Act becomes the primary issue of "verb," or verbum , a word. "In the beginning was the Word"—and the word was the reality of the imagination . The "music," which the poem's title emphasizes and which becomes so central a content in the poem's activity, is that which vivifies, the anima mundi , lifeness and/or life itself. Our response to it or what it creates, its effects in the reality we are given, is the "dance."

Now the music volleys through as in
a lonely moment I hear it. Now it is all


about me. The dance! The verb detaches itself
seeking to become articulate

Poems are very specific kinds of dancing , because language is that possibility most specific to our condition as human beings. But I do not speak easily of these things because I feel, always, a timidity and confusion trying to isolate a sense that can only be experienced in the literal fact of the poem itself. It is as though I were trying to make actual a sense of wetness apart from water itself.

It is possible, nonetheless, to continue now to use those men I have used so much, to make evident what senses of poetry have been for me insistent. In "Maximus, to Gloucester" Charles Olson gives measure of the occasion in a way that informs my own:

He left him naked,
the man said, and
is what one means

that all start up
to the eye and soul
as though it had never
happened before

My sense of his statement is this: in the fact of our lives we are brought to primary situations, primary terms of experience—what they might have meant by "first things first" but probably didn't. "Nakedness" is to stand manifestly in one's own condition, in that necessary freshness , however exposed, because all things are particular and reality itself is the specific content of an instant's possibility. In poems we realize, not in discursive or secondary manner, but with this implicit and absolutely consequential fact of firstness , terms of our own life, manifestations of that life which, otherwise, are most awkwardly acknowledged. It is, again, that "field" that Robert Duncan speaks of as being "permitted" to enter. First things. We arrive in poems at the condition of life most viable and most primal in our own lives.

I've said that I feel myself to be a poet who is given to write. And I'm even awkward about using that designation, that is, to call myself so, a poet—because I do not feel I have that decision in it. Yet the complexity of the dilemma seems to me a very real one. How shall we understand Williams' painfully marked insistence just before the close of "The Desert Music":


                                                         I  am  a poet! I
am. I am. I am a poet, I reaffirmed, ashamed

In America, we are certainly not poets simply, nor much of the time.

The saints of my own calendar are saints of this exposure, beginning with Columbus and like men whose imagination realized, reified , one might say, the world I live in. They are Poe—who, as Williams makes clear, forced the local to yield him a world apart from the habits of English manner; Whitman—for the permission of life he insisted upon; Melville—the primary imagination of the isolation of our condition; Pound—who, like any Yankee, makes intelligence an invention of necessity; Hart Crane—whose "failure" regained the possibility of our response to what we are given to feel. It may well be that in the absence of such allusive society as European literature, in its own condition, has necessarily developed, the American in contrast must so realize each specific thing of his own—"as though it had never/ happened before." I think of Williams' sharply contemptuous answer to the British English professor, met with in Seattle, Washington, of all places, who asked him after a reading, "where he got his language"—to which Williams replied, "Out of the mouths of Polish mothers"—meaning not Polish, but the harsh, crude, blocked "poor English" of those immigrant women he had as patients in his profession as a doctor. My "saints," then, are those men who defined for me an explicit possibility in the speech that I was given to use, who made the condition of being American not something chauvinistically national but the intimate fact of one life in one place at one time.

To speak then of the writing itself, which I can do only tentatively—just that I am persuaded by Heisenberg that "observation impedes function"—I have again much depended upon senses of procedure and examples (which are, of course, the point) given me by such men. In the forties there was so much talk about the poem, about levels of meaning, ambiguities, symbols, allusions. It was even felt that criticism itself would prove the most significant literary activity of the time.

Pound, in contrast, spoke of the literal condition of the writing, and it was he I used as guide—and continue to now, twenty years later, because his advice proved facts of perception as active to my mind now as when I first came to them. For example, his quotation from Remy de Gourmont, "Freely to write what one chooses is the sole pleasure of a writer," continues for me the only actual measure


of the occasion I am aware of. He gave me the experience of integrity as "Man standing by his word." More, he spoke so clearly of the explicit situation of writing:

In making a line of verse (and thence building the lines into passages) you have certain primal elements:

That is to say, you have the various 'articulate sounds' of the language, of its alphabet, that is, and the various groups of letters in syllables.

These syllables have differing weights and durations

A. original weights and durations

B. weights and durations that seem naturally imposed on them by the other syllable groups around them.

Those are the medium wherewith the poet cuts his design in TIME.

Against the arguments of taste and opinion which criticism so largely depends upon, Pound called attention to the character of the activity:

Rhythm is a form cut into TIME, as a design is determined SPACE. . . .

LISTEN to the sound that it makes . . .

However, it is really Charles Olson I must thank for whatever freedom I have as a poet, and I would value him equally with Pound and Williams and those others I have mentioned. Freedom has always been for me a difficult experience in that, when younger, I felt it had to propose senses of experience and of the world I was necessarily not in possession of—something in that way one might escape to. I mistook, I think, the meaning of "freely to write what one chooses," which both de Gourmont and Pound may well have had in mind, because I took "freely" to mean "without significant limit" and "chooses" to be an act of will. I therefore was slow in realizing the nature of Olson's proposal, that "Limits/ are what any of us/ are inside of," just that I had taken such "limits" to be a frustration of possibility rather than the literal possibility they in fact must provoke. Despite Pound—or rather, because I could not hope to gain such means as he had—I had to find my own way, and at first I was completely ignorant of what it might be.

In consequence, what Olson made clear to me during the late forties and early fifties was of very great use. I am speaking of the kind of thinking that is evident in his essay, "Projective Verse," written during the same time. Let me quote an instance:


The objects which occur at every given moment of composition (of recognition, we can call it) are, can be, must be treated exactly as they do occur therein and not by any ideas or preconceptions from outside the poem, must be handled as a series of objects in field in such a way that a series of tensions (which they also are) are made to hold , and to hold exactly inside the content and the context of the poem which has forced itself, through the poet and them, into being.

Not long ago, in conversation, Robert Duncan qualified his sense of choice as being recognition , that is, choice is significantly the act of recognition, and I believe it. What one "chooses" in writing is importantly of this nature, for me, and composition is the fact and effect of such activity. One isn't putting things into poems, then, at least not as my own experience of writing informs me. There is never a "subject" about which one constructs an activity called "poetry." Nor can one, as Williams says, "copy nature," take from that which is elsewise informed some felicitious appearance, whether a rhyme or a so-called sentiment.

However best it might be put, what Olson made evident to me was that writing could be an intensely specific revelation of one's own content, and of the world the fact of any life must engage. It has nothing to do with "personalism"—which, like personality, is a mirror or reflective image sense, a cosmetic of intentions. To the contrary, what emerges in the writing I most value is a content which cannot be anticipated, which "tells you what you don't know," which you subvert, twist, or misrepresent only on peril of death.

What I have written I knew little of until I had written it. If at times I have said that I enjoy what I write, I mean that writing is for me the most viable and open condition of possibility in the world. Things have happened there, as they have happened nowhere else—and I am not speaking of "make-believe," which, be it said, is "as real as real can be." In poems I have both discovered and borne testament to my life in ways no other possibility has given me. Can I like all that I may prove to be, or does it matter? Am I merely living for my own approval? In writing it has seemed to me that such small senses of existence were altogether gone, and that, at last, the world "came true." Far from being its limit or director, the wonder is that I have found myself to be there also.


previous chapter
"I'm given to write poems"
next chapter