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Contexts of Poetry[fn*]II—
Contexts of Poetry[*]

What Allen suggested, and what I thought would be a good idea, would be to begin with some sense of writing in the most literal of possible contexts. Now the supposition, I suppose, on the part of some of you who've come, is that we write poetry; in other words, this is what we do. And we, in effect, have been given a definition publicly as poets. We've published books and all the rest. But that kind of qualification is something I'd not like to take on, in this or any other context. So I would like to take up the issue of writing as a physical act. What I will tell you is how I write, and Allen, then you take it from there, you do the same. In other words, I want to speak of what is involved in writing for me.


When I first met William Carlos Williams, for instance, I remember he took me upstairs to show me where the bathroom was, and as we went by the—I think the bedroom—he showed me the desk that had been in his office when he was in active practice; and he showed me his typewriter, which was a large old office machine, and the way it fitted under the desk; and he showed me the prescription pads that he used to use. And again, Allen and I were thinking of how the qualification of the size of the paper, for example, will often have an effect on what you're writing, or whether or not you're using a pencil or a pen. Habits of this kind are almost always considered immaterial or secondary. And yet, for my own reality, there is obviously a great connection between what I physically do as a writer in this sense, and what comes then out of it. So I want briefly to qualify it. I was curious to know how I do it myself, in the sense of what really do I do. Well, say, first of all, I write always with a typewriter. I get very nervous about using a pen, because pens run out of ink in a way . . . ball points are what I would use, as and when I do write that way . . . pencils have to be sharpened, I get so involved with the sharpening of the pencil. Also, I think it goes back to a sense I had when younger, that typewriters, typewriting, implied a "professional" context. If you were going to be serious, or going to claim seriousness for yourself, the instrument that you used in writing had to be particular to what the act of writing was. So that I had, I think, a basically naive sense of this kind. I wanted to be able to do it with a typewriter. Now, equally, I never learned to type. So I mean my typing is a habit that's developed, with two fingers. I never took a class in high school or any other place that taught me how to use the full, you know, all your fingers when you're typing. Think again, that begins to be a qualification of how fast I can write. In other words, I find that the pace of my writing is concerned with the speed with which I can type. Now, I can type actually about as fast as I can talk, with two fingers. I find, for example, if I have to work on somebody else's typewriter, I'm displaced, because there may be a slight variation in the space between keys. I find that now I can use the typewriter I do use without looking at it, so that I can be thinking of something without consciously wondering where my fingers are. I find . . . let's see, I want to keep on a little bit in this sense of what the physical conditions are . . . because again, I started writing in a context where I was embarrassed. I didn't want to bother anybody. I didn't want, you know, like, don't mind me, but just go right ahead with what


you're doing, with your serious business , with your serious preoccupation. This was primarily in a former marriage, and the problems thereof . . . I didn't want to call attention to myself, because doing that might force me to define what I was trying to do—which is obviously impossible. So, the next thing I would do would be to create a context in which there was a residuum of noise, constantly present, so that my own noise wouldn't be intrusive. And so I find often I turn on the radio. I used to—back in New Hampshire, where I think I really sat down to think of how to write or what to write—I used to play records all the time. We had at that time, I remember, one of these big Jensen speakers and all, and amplifier, and I'd put on the records that I then much valued, as Charlie Parker and what not—but just because that rhythmic insistence, I think, kept pushing me, I kept hearing it. And lately for example, in the last year, I finished a long prose work, a novel, and I found that what I was writing could be actually stimulated by playing particular kinds of music. In other words, I don't know . . . I'm not a psychologist or even interested in this aspect, what I'm . . .

What kind of music?

Well, for example, the whole first part is written primarily to an old Bud Powell tape, a record, where you get these great kinds of almost concert style . . . let's say a poor man's concept of beauty, you know, where you get these great crescendoes of sound, and where you get actually a basically simple melody, as "I Got Rhythm" or anything, playing through this, and then you get this involvement that constantly comes back to the simple statement because it's embarrassed actually with its own hope. So this first part of the novel is written in that sense. Then the whole middle section is written primarily to John Coltrane, where you get deliberate dissonance and you get fragmentation—I wasn't conscious of this—and then the last part is written to a kind of Nancy Wilson, you know, where you get a "where love is gone," dig? And you get a real slick pretension. In other words, where she's singing, in effect, the memory of some authenticity which she no longer even . . . she never meant it. I saw her on television and . . . she's no slicker than any professional, but she's singing in a manner which is now a manner . She's not an innovator, as was Sarah Vaughan, or, more particularly, Billie Holiday. Again, the middle section involves Billie Holiday. But what I'm trying to say is: so, that's a physical requirement for me. I find it very useful . . .

Even in poems?


Even in doing anything. It gives me something to focus on or to relax back into as a place where I feel safe. Anyhow: the typewriter, the insistence of music, rhythm, something with a strong rhythmic character, not too loud, subtle enough so that you can always go back to it . . . and paper. Usually an 8 × 11 sheet. I best like, most like, the yellow copy paper that's not spongy, but has a softness to it, so that when you type, the letter goes in, embeds a little. I hate a hard paper. When you erase this paper you take a layer off. And I remember again—now this is why I want to point out, this is not ridiculous—because I remember one time when living in Spain, there was none of this particular size copy paper that I was used to using. So I got a legal size sheet. And it was suddenly a terror, because I would finish what was normally my habit of dealing with the paper and realize that I had about six inches left at the bottom that was blank. This set up a whole different feeling. I remember writing a story actually using this paper, and it seemed to me that things were taking an awfully long time. In other words, the whole balance or pattern of the way of working with the thing was being changed. So the paper is significant. Again, Allen and I were talking about the way Jack Kerouac . . . the qualification of his writing that occurs when he is working in small notebooks. Or could I say the same of Robert Duncan, for example, who uses a notebook and writes in ink, and the composition of his books is obviously done as he's writing. There is, for example, an actual instance of a book of this kind that he did, called Fragments of a Disordered Devotion , in which it's reproduced from the actual . . . well, actually he wrote it as a copy of his own manner. It's an imitation of his manner by himself, so it has that. . . . But you realize that it's all happening visually as well as intellectually or mentally. Olson, in his letters . . . you begin to realize Olson's spacing, the ordering of where things occur in his thought. He'll begin a letter like, "dear so and so," and then start with the information, and before he's, say, halfway through the page you've got these things jumping all around . . . the movement, is moving, trying to locate like, let's put that there . . . no don't, now this goes there, oh but you can't forget that . . . but you can't forget this too . . . you can't put them like that, because it's a lie, they don't exist that way, you've got to . . . He's trying in effect to give the orders of thought—in no pretentious sense—and a typewriter for him, for example, is something that has much defined his habits of writing, as he said himself in Projective Verse . But equally, he has a speed in handwriting that's fast, a very fast style of writing. . . .


But positions and textures of papers, envelopes and what not . . . I find again that in order to be taken seriously by myself that I again had to create a context in which I could exhibit the instance of professionalism. I remember some friend, for example, who said he always washed his hands before he started to write, because he wanted to be clean, he didn't want to get anything dirty. I can remember equally, when I had run out of paper . . . the circumstances of living at some remote place . . . I would really get . . . it would be awful. And then you'd start to improvise paper from envelopes—but very carefully folding them and all but ironing them out to get the right feeling. What I'm trying to say with all this rambling, is that the particular habits of writing that you begin to develop will have, curiously, a great significance for what you write. If you think I'm fooling, you might for example try to see what happens if you write with different kinds of media. In other words, try writing with large crayons, or—I wish we had access to this—it would be interesting to see what happens if you try to write on something the size of this blackboard. I taught first grade also . . . I remember this . . . where you're writing things like [moves to blackboard] . . . I could do this, in teaching handwriting. . . . Now, I can't write like this, I get so absorbed, involved with the voluptuousness, the sensuous . . . it's distracting to me. Because what I'm trying to do, if I'm successful . . . I am not anticipating what I'm thinking, I am not anticipating any content before it occurs. At the same time, I'm trying to recognize, or rather, I'm awfully bewildered by confusions between certain terms—the states of consciousness—e.g., the difference between recognition, understanding, realization, knowing. I'm trying to describe a state in which one primarily feels what is happening as a fit balance. If you do things like ski or swim or drive, for example, you know that sense of feeling when the car is operating smoothly, when the balance of the steering and the movement of the car is coinciding with an intention of your own and is following with a sense of grace, an appropriateness. Everything is, in effect, falling into place. You're not intentionally putting it there, but you're recognizing the feeling of its occurring there. So that when I'm writing myself, if something becomes dissonant or something becomes jarred, arbitrarily, then I have to stop. One other thing I should note, also about the sense of the physical act of writing, is that the same habit of wanting it to be "perfect" in its appearance, means that if I'm writing and I make a mistake, I take the paper out and copy it down to that point, correct


the mistake, and then throw the paper away. In other words, I have a great difficulty writing on the paper. For example, I can never write in books. And I get awfully upset if other people write in my book . . . writing in my book . . . seeing dirty hands all over my book . . . Because I don't really think that I can own a book. I don't think that I have the right , to write.

In college itself . . . now let's go back there, because that's where we are again . . . I was in the context of other younger men of that time who wanted to be writers also . . . Donald Hall, for example—that was in Harvard in 1946, a group which then centered around Wake —Seymour Lawrence, now editor for Atlantic Monthly Press, Kenneth Koch. I remember, say, Kenneth Koch one time invited me up to his rooms for, I think it was sherry, and to listen to records, like Bach and what not, and to read me a few poems. Well, I can remember going up to his room, and it was, you know, it was a very comfortable room. Kenneth comes from a family that has money, and so that was evident in his room. It had very tasteful reproductions, there was furniture that he'd bought . . . I couldn't do that. At that time I wasn't writing anything that I felt was that significant. I mean I was desperate to understand what would actually be a poem. Again, as Allen and I were talking yesterday—you've really come at a good time!—because I think each of us in our own circumstances has come to that point where the very definition of a poem as a possibility, not as a possibility perhaps, but as an actual construct, is something we are very unable to state like that. In other words, I cannot define a poem. It's a curious state of mind to have arrived at. I cannot tell you what I think a poem is. I think that has to do with the fact that all the terms of consciousness are, at the moment, undergoing tremendous terms of change. We were again talking, thinking of the context now in the States. There is an alteration of a very deep order going on in the whole thrust or push of the consciousness, literally the Negro consciousness, that has been for years relegated to a kind of underside or underworld. As Duncan says, "I see always the underside turning . . ." Well, see, the Negro personality in the States has been forced to live in this underside world, except in contexts which he could control. LeRoi Jones, for example, grew up in a fairly secure middle-class background that had, let's say, the securities of that status. But you see, there was always a limit to it. You could always take one step beyond the control of the neighborhood and you were suddenly in a world which was utterly unresponsive to your reality. Now this reality,


which has become the dominant reality in the States today, is the Negro reality, it is not the white reality, it's the Negro reality. You may want to interpret the activities of the Kennedys as large, liberal recognitions that have been long overdue, but I think it would be utterly naive to do so. I think that the Kennedys are being washed along in a shift that is not only located in the States but—now Allen can tell you much more accurately these terms—but is coming from a whole shift of controls and communication terms that are actually centered in Africa and Asia.

I don't want to take us too far afield, but my point is that the very premise on which consciousness operates is undergoing modifications that none of us I think are at the moment capable of defining. We can only recognize them. Let's say, that if Pound says artists are the antennae of the race, I think that any of us here is in a position to be responsive to this feeling that's so immense, so definite, and so insistent. Not because we can do anything with it. It simply is, it's a big change, it's a deep change in consciousness, and I'm curious to see what's going to happen—which is a mild way of putting it. Indeed! But you have a poem, Allen, in which you say, "Where all Manhattan that I've seen must disappear." And this for me is what is happening in the States in a different relationship, in a different context—where all the terms of consciousness that I grew up with must disappear, are disappearing momently, daily. The terms of reality are changing. Even the terms of this course are changing . . . by which I mean, this course would have been impossible ten years ago, by definition. Senses of writing would have been impossible to present in this fashion ten years ago. We were, happily, involved with a reorganization of premise that gave us our particular occasion. Yours is going to be perhaps even more a mess. I mean that I think that the change which is occurring now is more significant than the Second World War by far, because it's the residue of that war in reference to the atom bomb and, equally, the shift in all terms of human relationship that have been habitualized since, oh God, thousands of years. This goes back to correct, not to correct, but to reorganize premises that have existed for thousands of years, concepts of person. . . . Look, I'd like you to talk for a while . . .

 . . . the last time I wrote was on a train to Kyoto and Tokyo. I suddenly had a great seizure of realization, on a whole bunch of levels. I was thinking of a poetic problem which is not along lines. . . . It's another matter. Also, about an emotional problem which was just resolving itself. And I was suddenly having feelings for the first time, certain kinds of feel -


ings for the first time in about a half year. I was feeling something that had been growing and growing and growing and all of a sudden appeared to me on the train. So I had to get it then because I knew in an hour when I got to Tokyo I'd be all hung up in Tokyo—you know, looking for a room in Tokyo—and I'd be having other feelings, or going back to material problems of arranging things. But here I had that moment and. . . . That's what I don't understand about your writing, what happens to you if you suddenly realize something—do you have to, arrange your paper? What do you do then, you lose it!

You're right! No, I was just thinking as you were saying this, that the limit of my ability to write, at the moment, and has been for the last two years, is that I have to secure a physical context in which I can "work." It not only has to be qualified by having paper and the rest of the paraphernalia, but it has to have equally a social qualification. I remember, for example, friends walking in when I'm working. I literally stop. I cannot work when someone's looking at me. So that, I envy you. I remember . . . again this experience of knowing both you and Jack in San Francisco, and Jack equally will walk always with a notebook and be writing away. Or Robert Duncan, again. . . . That's why I suppose I always end up living in these circumstances that are very isolate, in other words, where I won't be disturbed. Yet I don't think it's a pretentious thing. It's frankly a need I . . .

 . . . what you set up . . . does that actually catalyze feelings?

It seems to create a context in which those feelings can occur. The thing is that I'm so shy—in no specious or stupid sense—but I'm so worried about keeping myself together when I'm in public, so to speak, as even now. I mean these habits of speaking are, after all, the habits that I got from teaching. But when I'm writing, you see, that business of Olson's, "He left him naked, / the man said, and / nakedness / is what one means . . ." In order to be in that state of nakedness, I have to be where—it isn't so much distraction—but where I can open up this equally small thing, and feel it with the intensity of all the perception that I . . . that the ego bit can recognize, and then destroy the ego by its own insistence. It's shy in other words . . .

Situated where there is no threat .

Well, equally, it's an . . . see, I would be embarrassed for years. I remember when I got to the Southwest, the people there have a very easy and pleasant habit of embracing one another when they meet; that is, in-laws or friends.


It took me years! I was, frankly, when I saw you for example, I was so pleased that I could put my arms around you as an old friend and hold on to you. It took me years to be able to do that, and maybe one day I'll be able to do this too. I'm not satisfied with the habits of limit that I've created for myself, because not only have I given myself a million excuses for doing nothing nine-tenths of the time, but I've created a context in which only—I realize now—only certain kinds of feeling can come. In other words, after all, when you've got the fort, like all the guns mounted and ready to blast until you're utterly safe, and you let out this little agonized thing . . . it skips around the room, you know, and you're embarrassed, you hear someone move in the kitchen, think O my God they're coming  . . . no wonder the poems are short! I'm amazed that there are any at all! At the same time, you see, one is stuck with one's actuality, at the same time this is the only point I can begin, this is the place where my feelings are most present. I mean that in the sense of I have a horrible training. . . . Olson speaks of being trained to speak, you know. He said that when he was a younger man—he's a very large man—and as a younger man he was . . . obviously must have been awkward, and his presence was a problem. He'd walk in, people would, like, duck, or they'd respond to him in ways that were not particular to his feelings at that moment. I equally had somewhat the same thing. I found that my feelings had an awfully bothersome quality for people I wanted to get to. God I'd, you know, I'd do anything to please them, and I found that I couldn't. I mean I couldn't in a way that I could depend upon. So that the poems anyhow began to be a way of dealing with things that I was otherwise prevented from having. Well anyhow a sense of security . . . I don't mean security in the sense of insurance or not being afraid. I think in those instances within that room all hell breaks out, as you well know, in the sense that everything is possible there in a way that . . . Again and equally, if I walk on, if I'm sitting on the train with a notebook, I'm so self-conscious about it. Again this habit of my environment. I think what we're trying to do with all this is to insist to you that these aspects of what we're talking about are not immaterial. In other words these are the . . . I don't mean to give them undue significance or to . . . I don't want to qualify this way at all. What I'm trying to say is don't start thinking of writing as some particular activity leading to some particular effect for some particular purpose. It is just as relevant what size paper you use, as whether or not you think you're writing a sonnet. In fact, it's more relevant. And this aspect of your activity ought to be, you ought to be aware


of it, simply that you should begin to feel as rangingly all that is issuing as a possibility and as a qualification of that possibility. In other words, if you want to write with a paper like this, please do! If you find yourself stuck with habits of articulation, try doing something else, try shifting the physical context. . . .

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