Reading Log: I Remain (Lew Welch & Friends)

Full Book title: The Letters of Lew Welch & The Correspondence of His Friends (Volume Two: 1960-1971)

In 1964 Welch applied for a job teaching in Alaska! He writes:

…I’ve applied for a job teaching Indian kids in Alaska next winter.

I am now unemployable here in the U.S. & there are many satisfying things about the Alaska teaching job—not the least of which is the fact that I’ll end up with $3,000 or so in real American dollars.

He apparently wrote to Ted Bordon, who I discovered was, a few years later, Director of the Alaska Travel Division of the Alaska Department of Economic Development.

Welch wrote “I Saw Myself” (aka “Ring of Bone”; read and hear the poem) in late July 1962. This according to an amazing (unfinished and unsent) letter to Robert Duncan. I’ll post a long excerpt from the letter because, before and after the notes specific to what would become one of my favorite poems in the world, Welch discusses “black satori” and suicide. But here’s Welch writing about his moment of enlightenment, the ringing of the poem that never fails to resonate within me:

After the radiant vision of openness (which will take me books to bring into words, for I thought at the time “no poetry, do not stop the flow of it (snagged in flight) but let it go through you”—and, incidently, that this is what’s wrong with wrong writing: it stops us, whereas Poetry means only “this is flight!!!! This is the open flow of it!!!”)

After the radiant vision of openness, yesterday, I saw myself a ring of bone in a clear stream, and vowed never, ever, to close myself again.

But can I do it? Will it always hurt this much? What is it that hurts?

Shall I close myself a little while? Today? (I am eyeing the wine bottle again. I pour myself a cup of win. I will rest.)

Will closing rest me?

What is it that hurts? What is it that needs resting?

(You do not have to answer this question. You cannot. That is precisely what I have to do.)

And right now heard a
“Ring of bone” with
Ring as what a bell does

What does that mean?

I haven’t encountered much criticism of Robert Creeley from the poets Welch is associated with, but in August, 1962, Welch isn’t yet getting much from him:

I’ve been trying to read Creeley with pleasure & confess I cannot. What’s all the fuss about? All I see is childish (or pot) rhymes & a streak of viciousness—a real power thing clothed better but as uninteresting as Spicer’s: certainly none of Olson’s or Williams’ real size and love. I must be wrong—Duncan & Olson have this huge respect for his work & they are a lot smarter than I am.

But by July 1964, when Welch has emerged from his year-long stint in the wilderness of the California Mountains (I wonder what’s become of “Forks of Salmon” and his little claim?), he feels differently, writing in a letter to Donald Allan accompanying poems for the upcoming The New Writing in the USA volume:

Also “Song to a Secret Farm,” which I mean only as a gift to Creeley, in respect for his craft.

Please send Creeley the carbon of this letter. For a long time I’ve wanted to correspond, meet, etc.

The need for the artist to retreat is a cliche, but Welch felt it cleanly. He felt the drag of material things and concerns (which I also feel, and which I often imagine as the jangling tin costume of the de-tongued professor in that Paul Bowles story) keenly. He writes in another letter to Donald Allan, as part of the requested biography:

Crack up, psychoanalysis, advertising, in Chicago, till 1958. Since then a precarious existence in the mountains and San Francisco, turning a buck however I may, trying not to be bitter, trying to get at my work. You cannot do good work, in America, if you are in any way affiliated with anything. Naturally gregarious and joyful, it’s been hard for me to accept this truth. I keep crashing against it. “Yes” is the answer. Yes. And keep on coming back.

Welch was thinking of his correspondence as an artistic vehicle. In a letter to James Schevill, who had invited Welch to speak at the San Francisco Museum of Art, Welch proposes a bet about the number of people he can draw in and ruminates on what he wants to do with his reading and his poetry. Then this postscript:

P.S. I’m writing a book called “I Remain,” consisting of letters I send to friends. I’d like to include this one, perhaps, but I can’t retype it because part of the format is that letters have to be “real,” and try as I may, I always tamper, ruin, and finally, maybe, don’t even send some dandys. Could you either return this letter, or have someone copy it and send it back? Lew.

(If so, also send this P.S., which is part of, as this note, too, is.)

To be continued…

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