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Exciting and Simple: Lew Welch, William Carlos Williams, and Gertrude Stein
City Lights Books has just reissued Lew Welch’s Collected Poems, Ring of Bone, with a cover photo of Lew taken in 1965 by his old friend the photographer “Steamboat” Jim Hatch. City Lights has been distributing Grey Fox Press books, published by Don Allen, since Don Allen’s death in 2004 (Grey Fox was the original publisher of Ring of Bone).
I started reading Lew’s work again, including his two volumes of letters, I Remain, published in 1980 by Grey Fox Press, which cover the years from 1949 to 1971. May of 1971 was the date Lew walked away from his campsite on Allen Ginsberg’s land on San Juan Ridge where he planned to build a cabin. He left a suicide note, but his body was never found… “I went Southwest.”
Reading his letters, one is struck by the manic swing of his many plans. The follow through was always a problem. It was a condition that continued to make his life emotionally difficult. During 1950, his final year at Reed College, where Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder were his classmates, and roommates, he describes, in letters to his mother, the finishing of his 150 page thesis on Gertrude Stein in May.
This is followed in July by the writing of “West Texas” style music to a song of Shakespeare’s from Much Ado About Nothing, which becomes an instant hit, played on the local radio station (“I have become almost famous… I may end up with several hundreds of thousands of dollars”).
Six days later on July 26 he decides to emigrate to Santiago, Chile, with a friend (“will need $2,000 to begin with… I will pay it back as soon as possible”). By October the trip is off, his friend has decided to get married. But by November 4 he announces “It looks as if I am destined to be one to whom interesting things happen.” William Carlos Williams with his wife has arrived at the Reed College Campus and thinks he can get Lew’s Gertrude Stein thesis published, perhaps by Random House— “he thought I was the only one who had grasped her in a clear way.”
Dr. Williams himself is the sweetest old guy I have ever met. Sixty-seven years old, and distressingly, a fairly close resemblance to Harry Truman… And Williams is very very exciting, and very very simple.
These two words, exciting and simple are key words for Lew Welch’s aesthetics of writing and living.
Dr. Williams was reading his poetry last night and got very worked up himself. Very intense and simple and it was like watching a good jam session. He said… “these may not sound like poetry to you, no matter, don’t define the damn things, let’em come to you. And besides, they’re in your own language.” …That’s his kick… We speak American and the poet’s job is to intensify this dialect, keep the words clean and sharp. And my, he is right! One hears the language of conversation in a wholly different way after reading him. Words become lively and poetry unaffected.
Lew’s BA thesis on Gertrude Stein was probably his most sustained piece of writing. This was later published in 1996 by Grey Fox Press under the title How I Read Gertrude Stein. The letter he writes to his mother is very revealing and clear about his process of composition with the “the exciting” and “the simple” in starring roles.
The strange thing was the emotional changes before during and after the writing. Before I began I was really certain I had undertaken an impossible job. I became anxious. I worried and procrastinated and began to assume semi-fetal positions and slept too many hours. One day I grabbed myself by the crotch and began. I did not discipline myself to do it, because most of us are cowed when we think we are disciplined, and I am definitely not going to let anyone in this fucked up world cow me… I did not, then, discipline myself… I began to write by simply beginning. As I wrote I became more and more excited by what I was writing… I was forcing myself to be simple by always asking myself if there was a simpler way to saying what I was saying. There usually was.
I proceeded to become more and more simple and more and more clear about what I wanted to say, and the writing became more and more to be a clear way of saying it. Soon I was not rewriting… Gertrude is right of course. If you say what you mean in the simplest way that makes that thing be what that thing is to you. It will be clear and there will be no need to re-write because the rewriting will only be a new way of saying the same thing….
Well, all of this was terribly exciting. The damn thing grew and grew and there was always more to put into it and suddenly I saw that it could go on forever, and so I began to wonder about whether I was going to finish it. First I thought the job impossible, then I thought it was endless… Suddenly one day I noticed that I had almost said everything that needed to be said… This was last Friday. I very certainly knew that I had only ten pages to go and that was only the work of an afternoon, and so I suddenly felt like singing. I sang as I typed and I felt very joyous. And then quite suddenly there was no longer any excitement. If I knew I could do it there suddenly seemed to be very little reason to do it. I fiddled around for a week… and did not finish. Then again I lost myself in the work by merely sitting down to type
and quite suddenly I had finished. The last of the thesis is the quote “THE EARTH IS ROUND AND EVEN AIRPLANES HAVE COME BACK TO IT.”…There was certainly nothing more to say so I stopped.
Slowly a gradual feeling of certain accomplishment has built up and I am very proud of myself… It is not only a good job but it is entertaining and even Exciting writing, and that is important because as the grand girl says “The artist’s business is to be exciting, and if he is not, then there is nothing to any of it.”
The reading celebrating the publication of Ring of Bone, held July 12 at the San Francisco Public Library, passed on that “excitement”–his work accessible and simple, with his “American” speech still sounding direct and familiar. Copies of his book at the event sold out quickly.