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The Writer's Situation

1. Why do you continue to write? What purpose does your work serve? Do you feel yourself part of a rear-guard action in the service of a declining tradition? Has your sense of vocation altered significantly in recent years?

"Because it's there to be written," as William Carlos Williams said. I don't really know if there is more reason than that, in relation to some sense of purpose or intent. There are clearly things I've wanted to do in writing—specific forms I've wanted to try, as a novel, for example, or diverse ways in which an active seriality might be manifest. But the primary occasion in writing is a situation I've never been able to design, even when I've much wanted to.

Thinking then of why one continues—that's equally inexplicable, except that it is, literally, an active possibility for me, in my life. It keeps happening and the way the world then enters, or how I'm also then known to myself, is a deeply fascinating circumstance. Charles Olson makes a lovely point, that "we do what we know before we know what we do," and that really is the delight in writing, that much happens one has no conscious information of until it is there, in the words. I'm not thinking here of some sort of do-it-yourself psychoanalysis—that's of no interest to me—but a deeper fact of revelation I feel very actual in writing, a realization, reification, of what is .

The tradition to which I relate comes, as Robert Duncan would say, "from a well deeper than time." It's not yesterday's news one is concerned with. However one thinks to qualify it, the fact of being a poet teaches one that it is not an ego-centered occupation but a

New American Review , December 21, 1969.


trust one had really no thought to undertake. But there it was. Suddenly. One morning. With the birds. I'm trying to say that poetry comes from a tradition far more complex and rooted in the human condition than any one 'time' can define. Better to consider Konrad Lorenz's sense of tradition as he speaks to it in his book On Aggression —the intuitive economy of human experience, biological and environmental in this case.

As to my sense of vocation—for a long time I was very tentative about saying in any forthright manner that I was a poet. It seemed extraordinarily presumptuous. But again, it's not a vocation one can earn, however one respects the responsibility of this literal 'calling.' In any case, being a poet is something I can acknowledge more clearly in my own nature at this point. It seems a consistently present reality, although I respect a qualification a friend, Max Finstein, once made: that one is a poet in the act of writing, not otherwise.

However, I realize the nature of this question has really to do with a sense of literary tradition, and vocation as some form of professional occupation, etc. I've always been an amateur insofar as I loved what I did. Olson said that Melville had over his work table the statement: "Be true to the dreams of thy youth." I respect that commitment deeply. If anything, I feel a deep blessing and good fortune in what my 'vocation' has given me as a sense of my life. Saying that—it seems suddenly a little convenient, in a way, but I do feel blessed by life, no matter that at times it is difficult and painful.

2. Do you believe that art and politics should be kept apart? Has this belief changed or grown more complicated during the past decade? What influence has the politicization of life during this period had on your work?

Having come of age in the forties (I started college the summer of 1943), 'politicization' was, it then seemed, so much a part of that time I don't know that it seems more so now. Perhaps it's some sort of weird sandwich one is experiencing, with the blandness of the fifties intervening, the bread being the forties and sixties. But having been in some ways active in the Henry Wallace party, also having been taught politics by the YCL while still in college—it doesn't seem to me that life is now more political. It certainly isn't quite as didactic, let's say, as was the membership of the PAC—or any friends then involved with post-war Marxism. I don't think


there is quite the same insistence on the 'right' and 'wrong' ways that there was then.

Possibly political agency is regaining an active contest. But really the advanced younger people of this moment are, if anything, post -political, just that the available political agencies seem to them so bankrupt. The militant part of the black community might be the one active revolutionary group still intent on political possibilities. I know that many of the young showed an active commitment to Eugene McCarthy's leadership in the circumstances of the 1968 election, but I question, even with reluctance, that that had initially to do with political occasion or possibility. More, I think, they wanted renewal of a kind of presence , in public life, possessed of a demonstrable integrity, even one apart from the usual conditions of political activity. They wanted someone to be literally there—and this was, curiously, not the case either with Kennedy or Nixon. Both were finally part of a system the young have every reason to distrust, as, God knows, the elders might equally.

Obviously the disaster of the national commitment to the war in Vietnam is the largest 'political' counter of the past few years, and it served to energize political agencies in every sense. But again, I'm very intrigued by the hippie culture, so to speak, and its decisively apolitical character. It's as though a very deep shift in the conception of human relations and use of the environment were taking place—and indeed I very much believe that it is. We've come to that time when, as Williams said, we must either change our 'wishes' or perish. I don't feel that present insistence on ecological problems is simply a new game. We have literally to change our minds. In this respect, drugs in the culture have really two, among other, clear possibilities: (1) either to reveal a oneness in all manifestations of life-form of whatever order and thus change the mind by that revelation (certainly the most useful information to be gained from taking LSD); or (2) to kill anxiety, to lull intuitive perception of inherent peril, to simply get out of the 'world' one is actually in—and in this respect the elders are as committed to this use of chemical agency as any of the young.

In any case, I don't see that art and politics, or that order of present experience involved with the post-political, should all be kept separate. I don't see how they can be. One can't, perhaps, entirely respect an art committed to propagandizing or to a use of life not clearly initiated in its own activity. But when men and women are outraged by political malfeasance, it's hardly likely that their art will not make that quite clear.


As far as my own work is concerned—I've not been able to write directly to a purpose of political involvement. It's not given me in my own nature to be able to do so, but I hope that I've made clear where I stood nonetheless. I hate the outrage of human beings that present political acts now effect. One must protest them—they are literally against life itself.

3. What are the main creative opportunities and problems that attract and beset you in your work? Which movements, tendencies, writers, if any, do you find yourself identifying with or supporting? Which ones do you oppose?

It's difficult to qualify just what 'creative opportunities and problems' are primary. Just that something does come to be said, is an opportunity of very great magnitude. Too, poetry as I've had experience of it is not, finally, at the service of other conditions or orders of information, however much it may serve them once it exists. Olson says that art is the only true twin life has—in that neither is to a 'purpose' apart from the fact of themselves. They don't refer , so to speak. There's no excuse .

The 'problems' occur when one gets lost in such possibility, muffs or misuses the nature of what's given. It is, again as Olson says, something as actual as wood, or fish, that one has to do with. It's not in the mind in some sense that one can now exercise a discretion upon it—thinking about it in some privileged way. On the contrary, there is a feeling that adamantly does insist one is being told something and had better get it right the first time, else there won't be another chance. One is told once . For this reason I find it hard ever to revise—'re-see'—just because the initial seeing has to be responded to with all the ability possible because I'm not given another chance. It's very like seeing someone you do respond to in the instant and having thus the choice of going home and thinking about it, or making that response a manifest act. I agree with Robert Duncan that choice is recognition—not a debate between alternatives. So if one doesn't know 'what to do,' given such circumstances, clearly there's nothing really to do.

Otherwise I'm not much concerned with either creative opportunities or problems. I love a particular poem by Kenneth Koch, beginning something like, "Thank you for giving me this battleship to wash . . ."

'Movements, tendencies, writers . . .' There is a company , a kind


of leaderless Robin Hood's band, which I dearly love. I'm sure there is even a horn to summon us all. There is no company dearer, more phenomenal, closer to my heart. A few weeks ago I happened to spend the night at Allen Ginsberg's farm and coming down to the kitchen in the morning, met with Allen's charming remark, "All the poets are up!" Which very truly we were, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Allen and myself—while five others also there slept on.

Whether learned by intuition or by act, one comes to respect and to love that company of writers for whom poetry is, in Bob Rose's phrase, "active transformation," not a purpose, not discretion, not even craft—but revelation , initial and eternal, whatever that last word can mean to one whose life is finite. Consequently I both identify with and support—and hope I might be permitted the company of—any man or woman whose experience of writing transcends some sense of its value as money in the bank, or edifying addition to one's identity, etc. None of the so-called Black Mountain writers wrote in a literally similar manner. That is, Olson's modes of statement are certainly not mine, nor are they Duncan's, nor Denise Levertov's—and so on. What was, then, the basis for our company? I think, simply the insistent feeling we were given something to write, that it wasn't something we could 'think' to write, that it was an obedience we were undertaking to an actual possibility of revelation. Which to say one might own would be absurd.

What I find abhorrent is any assumption that one has gained the use of writing as a private convenience, to me the ugliest of all attitudes.

4. Has writing entered a 'post-modern' era, in which the relevance of the great modern writers (Joyce, Eliot, Mann, Faulkner, et al.) has declined? If so, what seem to be the literary principles of the post-modern age? If not, what principles of modernism are still dominant and valuable?

Supposing 'modern' to define the primary consciousness of a decisive shift in the conception of reality , which becomes increasingly clear toward the end of the nineteenth century, then one may feel that that consciousness is now a general condition in human experience. The world cannot be 'known' entirely. Certainly it cannot, in the way men are given to live in it and to know it, be 'perfected.' In all disciplines of human attention and act, the possibilities inher-


ent in the previous conception of a Newtonian universe—with its containment and thus the possibility of being known—have been yielded. We do not know the world in that way, nor will we. Reality is continuous, not separable, and cannot be objectified. We cannot stand aside to see it.

Writing, and all of the arts as well, have entered the altered consciousness of our situation in the world. One might speak, possibly, of 'the modern' as the first impact of that realization in the arts: Eliot expressing both regret for previously possible order and recognition of the new experience of how the world happens—simply what takes place. Yeats, in a late note on modern poetry, understandably with frustration, speaks of modern poets as asking us to "accept [a] worthless present," If one thinks then quickly of Samuel Beckett's use of that 'present,' "where to be lasts but an instant where every instant/spills in the void the ignorance of having been," a measure of the change involved is apparent.

Much that the modern writers got said seems to me still of great relevance. Both Williams and Pound—or Lawrence, Stein, H.D., and many others also—point up the dilemma of what may be called individual sensibility in an environment insistently generalizing all circumstances of apprehension and decision. That problem hardly seems solved. However, what is at first feared as a loss of coherence—felt most in the loss of history's authority—starts to become less that as other situations of experience occur. High and low art begin to melt as historical valuations blur. All being now , all that is there has possibility.

The ego's authority tends to relax and conceptions involved with proposals of 'good, better, best' also lose ground. Most interesting to me is the insistent presence of what has been called the chance factor in the activity of all the arts of the past several years. Whether in 'happenings' or in the music of younger composers like Cornelius Cardew, one sees that a discipline, so to speak, is being gained to discover a formal possibility in a highly variable context of activity. It may well be that 'beauty' is simply being returned to 'the eye of the beholder,' but what the eye expects to see is nonetheless much altered.

Still it does seem that terms such as 'modern' and 'post-modern' are habits of art history. One tends to use all that he can get hold of and I don't know that one 'time' is thus distinct from another, in the actual practice. Here is where one seems to be.


5. Has there been a general collapse of literary standards in recent years? Are you conscious of a conflict between your past standards and your present ones?

I remember an incident, like they say, involving a critic I much respect, Warren Tallman, and an Englishman, in a radio discussion of Jack Kerouac's Big Sur for CBC. Warren was plugging for Kerouac's genius in being able to make so articulate and substantial all the data of the senses. What impressed Warren was the fact that when some thing or activity was spoken of, one's experience of it was extraordinarily vivid. The Englishman, however, felt that some canon of literary form had been broken. When Warren pushed him to qualify just what 'standard' he was referring to, the man hedged, unable actually to state it—then said, "Well, we know enough to know these standards exist, even if we don't know what they are."

Kind of a wistfully moving point, actually. But I'm extraordinarily wary of any 'standard' not the direct result of an active experience in the practice of the art involved. Or as Olson puts it, "telling me what in the instant I knew better of," and this is not by any means an egocentric response to 'rules' imposed by taste and opinion, that have nothing to do with the nature of the language and all the possibilities therein. Pound quotes Remy de Gourmont, "Freely to write what he chooses is the sole pleasure of a writer"—and I agree with that utterly. 'Standards' are only interesting in relation to the possibilities they recognize. In the forties I felt them arbitrarily restrictive and dominated by the practice of criticism apart from the practice of poetry itself.

So far from feeling there has been a collapse of literary standards, I feel there has been a reconstitution of them in the practice of writing itself. Think of the victories actually won: relaxation of censorship in the use of specific words, admission of serial order as a complex and diversely organized phenomenon, a riddance to all senses of 'poetic subject,' poems bien fait to some dull mold, and so on. The list is happily a long one. In short, I think that such standards as poetry involves, and they exist unequivocally, are again the issue of the practice—not a viciously parasitic addendum put on the practice of poetry by people in no wise committed to it.

My past standards continue to be my present ones. I permit myself possibly more freedom now—not by a relaxation, but in the broader range of perception I am able to respond to in writing, in


the degrees of emotional condition I find I can speak. Man standing by his word —Pound's translation of the Chinese ideogram for sincerity —stays as my own measure, but I have begun to apprehend too the complexity of that situation. It's not a simple honesty, etc.

6. Have literary criticism and journalism kept pace with, and faith with, the best fiction, poetry, and drama produced in the sixties?

A lovely novelist we know, world-famous no less, writes on a Christmas card just received: "For Christ's sake keep up the good work and don't be sidetracked by Christmas or the goddam reviewers who are ugly people . . ." As far as I'm concerned, and speaking particularly of the situation of poetry, there is no correspondence of any interest to me between the activities in contemporary criticism and that poetry I am myself most engaged with. Even if one considers a particular critic of intelligence, Richard Howard, who is also a writer of poems, the score is still lousy. In his book, Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950 , there are gaps I so deeply question that the book itself becomes a fine instance of mandarin writing—i.e., an 'entertainment' of 'sensibility.' And he is, in my own estimation, perhaps the best. Where 'journalism' may be in any of this, I simply don't know. Reviewers are either so tardy or so absent one can hardly consider them as 'keeping pace.' A fellow wrote recently to tell me he'd been asked by The Nation to review my collection Words for one of their coming issues. The book was published in 1967. Pieces , a subsequent collection of poems, was published last August, and possibly that might be reviewed in the far, far distant future. But really, one hardly depends on it.

The point is, if one meets with an exceptional critical intelligence—e.g., Kenneth Burke, D. H. Lawrence, Edward Dahlberg, Ezra Pound—then that's the point, not 'literary criticism.' Joshua Whatmough says, in a book called Language , that literary criticism is just an exchange of opinion and has no authority in relation to the activities it criticizes. That cheers me up. When younger, I was not 'criticized' at all. Now older, it seems I rarely do things right, or five years ago I did them right, not now. As for literary criticism 'keeping faith'—I didn't know it had faith to keep. If one is thinking of people active in the arts making notes, etc., then the whole question obviously changes.


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