The Poetics of American Speech according to Beat Generation Poet Lew Welch

deadline for submissions: 
August 1, 2023
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Charles Upton
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The Poetics of American Speech

according to Beat Generation Poet Lew Welch


by Charles Upton

[Excerpted from Giving Myself Away, an autobiography-in-progress;

submitted for consideration to CONTEMPORARY POETRY, Volume 6]



I: The Art of Poetic Recitation

as taught by Lewis Barrett Welch


I was tutored, briefly but intensively, in the art of reciting poetry by my poetic mentor, Beat Generation poet Lew Welch, whose doctrine was: “Language is Speech”. In terms of recitation, this largely translates as “Straight Talk”, thus (ideally) avoiding both emotive theatricality and “clinical” neutrality in the oral presentation of poetry. Lew’s theory as to how poetry should be recited was based on his studied reproduction of prevailing American speech patterns, particularly when they arise from situations where the speech has some real work to do. That it was not simply a form of “method acting”, a reliance upon one’s uncultivated, pre-artistic emotional subjectivity, but rather a true art, or artifice, is indicated by the following lines from his poem “For Joseph Kepecs”:


The poem is not the heart’s cry

(Though it seems to be if you have craft enough)

The poem is made to carry the heart’s cry


As for the sound of speech with real work to do, Lew tells the story of the day he took a group tour through a California winery. As he strolled from point to point with the others, listening to the sleepy drone of the tour guide reciting a spiel he’d performed a thousand times before, suddenly the man’s voice changed: “Who’s kid is that!?” In this necessary, immediate and appropriate response to the situation at hand—an out-of-control child about to fall into a vat of wine—Lew heard the clear contrast between living speech and dead speech: heard it so clearly and permanently that it became a principle and a paradigm.


Lew’s “tutorials” for Language-is-Speech are found mostly in his “Passenger Poems”, as well as in “Din Poem” and elsewhere. In “Din Poem” an example of Straight Talk, also known as “everyday utilitarian speech in interpersonal situations”, appears as follows:









If you can read this overheard or “found poem” out loud—presumably a husband’s admonishment to a careless wife—and make it sound as it really would sound or actually did sound, then (as Lew would say), you can correctly recite poetry that is composed in American English.


Lew’s “Passenger Poems” are found poems from the period when he was a cab driver, overheard American speech from some of the fares in the back seat of his cab. Here’s one from a nurse, presumably a middle-aged woman disappointed with life, who now feels free to issue her complaint—half to herself, half before a witness she knows she will likely never meet again—in the anonymous intimacy of a taxi cab:


I don’t like cats kittens are alright I guess

you can love ‘em when they’re little, like people,

but then they grow up and take advantage of you


and how can you love ‘em any more?


            The voice begins hurried and matter-of-fact, quickly lapsing into a self-pity that still falls shy of full disclosure, though its import is obvious enough—a self-pity likely fueled by alcohol, thus the cab. Anyone who can recite these lines correctly, based on either an unconscious memory or a clear and conscious memory of how one or more Americans have spoken in similar circumstances, can correctly recite poetry written in American English. (This, and the rest of Lew’s tutorials, can and should be practiced by American poets who seriously want to learn their craft.)


            And when it comes to Straight Talk in English language poetry, the two consummate masters are John Donne and Frank Sinatra. Donne was not so much composing or reciting “poetry” as he was talking—thus the correct way to recite him is to just forge ahead, saying what he said, rhyme and meter be damned. Likewise Sinatra “talks” his songs rather than crooning them, which is one of the things that made him the greatest of the Italian-American pop singers. Plenty of great blues singers and jazz singers also know that art. (When Lew first heard Jim Morrison sing, he compared him to Sinatra.)


            Just because Poetry is Speech, however, poetic recitation need not be didactic or conversational in tone. Speech that is both passionate and accurate can be, in fact must be, truly sung. I will never forget the night when Lew Welch “sang” me the Yeats poem “Byzantium”. He truly rendered it as High Poetry, with consummate elocution, yet he never inadvertently wandered outside the walls of what is actually possible for standard American speech when functioning at white heat.  Tight, slow, resonant, sonorous, incantory, deliberate—better than the interesting but nonetheless easily-bested magical sing-song of Dylan Thomas—he imprinted that poem indelibly on my memory: stamped me with it. One would “naturally” think, of course, that the high bardic declamation of Yeats in his “Byzantium”, perhaps the most musically and symbolically dense and substantial of all his poems, could never be read in the same voice as “NEVER PUT THE GODDAMN CAMERA IN THE GLOVE COMPARTMENT”. One, however, would be wrong.


            In his book How I Work as a Poet, Lew says: “My job [includes] learning how to become the kind of man who has something of worth to say”. Only if you have something that you really think is worthwhile saying, not just some language-contraption you’ve strung together with bits of twine and paper-clips, will you have a chance to recite it as if you really meant it. This, however, will not absolve you of the need to learn the art of reciting it as if you really meant it. As with depth of character, so with poetic expression: you will need both the native capacity for it and the correct and appropriate cultivation of that capacity so it won’t go to waste. Thus we can confidently assert, in Aristotelian terms, that the correct recitation of poetry requires two things, the Matter and the Form: some thing that is really worth saying and the craft necessary to say it as if you really meant it, an art which still has to be learned and perfected—even if, in all sincerity, you already do really mean it.


 Neither sincerity nor style, when taken alone, are enough. Without sincerity, style will fail; without style, sincerity will not “come across.” A man chatting up a woman will fail if he has only the Form, meaning an accomplished style of approach (“That’s a great line,” says the Muse, “how many other women have you tried that one on?”), or only the Matter, meaning real attraction and/or affection, since the woman knows that if the man does not have the courage to say what he really means with clarity and beauty, he will likely prove inadequate in other ways.


            So, yes, there is a third element necessary for the correct recitation of poetry: courage. The poet reciting either his or her own works or those of another will fail miserably if he or she is not really willing to put him- or herself emotionally on the line; this is part of what Ezra Pound meant when he said “more poets fail through lack of character than through lack of talent.” In the recitation of poetry, emotive theatricality and clinical neutrality, fake emotion vs. suppressed emotion, are two opposing ways of avoiding the moment of confrontation with sincere emotion, otherwise known as the Moment of Truth.


The full danger and rigor of this confrontation is classically expressed by Federico Garcia Lorca in his essay “The Duende: Theory and Divertissement”. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book about the Christian resistance to Hitler called The Cost of Discipleship; Lorca’s essay on the Duende might well have been titled “The Cost of Poetry.” Lew remarked on how many modern poets have died young of alcoholism, suicide, drug addiction; he himself ended his life at 44 as an alcoholic suicide. According to Lorca, the Duende is the dark, chthonic power behind all true poetry, true song, true flamenco or true bullfighting; he tells us that “the Duende will not approach at all if he does not see the possibility of violent death”; when I quoted this definition to a Sufi of my acquaintance, he said: “The Duende is al-Jallal, the Majesty of God.” A perfect expression of the quality of the Duende can be found in the following poem by Ibn al-Qabturnuh, a poet of Muslim Andalusia:


I remembered Sulayma when the passion

   of battle was as fierce

as the passion of my body when we parted.


I thought I saw, among the lances, the tall

   perfection of her body,

and when they bent toward me, I embraced them.


            Dealing with the Duende, with emotional sincerity, requires the virtue of emotional asceticism, an ability to “hold one’s feeling” that is akin to the capacity to hold one’s liquor. This art is becoming increasingly rare in our time, which may be why contemporary violinists can scrape away at an astronomical rate (they call it “virtuosity”) but seem unable to render emotional subtlety or sweetness; they likely fear that if they were to attempt this they would collapse, musically speaking, into slobbering emotional drunks—and they are probably right. It was this quality of emotional asceticism, this continence in the realm of feeling, that W. B. Yeats attempted to express in his notion (from A Vision) of the antithetical tincture (aristocratic and passionate), which is opposed to the primary tincture (democratic and sentimental). Lew Welch’s closest approach to this virtue was his technique, when reciting poetry, of inclining his head so that the tears that flooded his eyes would not blear his vision but drop on the page instead; in other words, he had trained himself to weep without sobbing, which is not an easy thing to do. I can usually only accomplish this if I am able to cause myself physical pain, as for example by driving a ball-point pen into my thigh while reciting. (Lew’s next lesson, which he did not complete, would have been to train himself to feel without drinking.)


            Emotional sincerity has nothing to do with song vs. speech, lyrical musicality vs. dry prosiness, Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” vs. Robert Frost’s “Good fences make good neighbors.” It can be found or missed in opera; it can also be found or missed in a condemning judge’s stark intonation of “and may God have mercy on your soul.” The question is, can you stand the sincerity of the feeling—stand next to it as a clear detached observer—while simultaneously standing in it as the one fully bearing the weight of it? If you can’t then you’d better get off the stage.


            In poetry, emotion is the Matter, since it can only arise when the poet or the one reciting the poem has been touched by a profound truth, on whatever level that truth may manifest; it is also the Energy that fuels both composition and recitation. The Form is that which contains the Energy, allows it to form itself, prevents it from being wasted, and lets it be transmitted. As William Blake said in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,


Energy is the only life and is from the Body

and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.


            Those poets who can tap the depth and specific quality of the Energy both demanded and invoked by the Matter, and still keep this Energy within Reason, within the Form not imposed upon it but intrinsic and proper to it—those who can be exquisitely careful, as in a Zen tea ceremony, not to spill a drop of it—can recite poetry as it should be recited. And, because Language is Speech, the poet who can recite well will probably be able to write well too, since his language is not a visual thing to him, as it is nowadays with those who text instead of talking, but fully inhabits his body, moves it, and therefore has the power to either save his life or take it away, depending upon whether he or not he cheats.


I will end this essay with one of the justifications that are unfortunately made necessary by the contemporary social mores. The timid, Neo-Puritanical college-educated reader will, of course, have noted the plethora of gender-specific pronouns in this essay, as well as the clear bias toward the masculine ones, toward the poet as “he”. I believe this practice can be justified by considering this essay partly as an historical exhibit, since I received my direct transmission of poetry-lore from Lew Welch in the late 60’s and early 70’s, and partly as a map of a particular psycho-physical formation. Poetry, to Lew Welch, was profoundly heterosexual, likely more so than to any other poet of his generation (Gary Snyder possibly excepted), a generation in which few women of any stature rose to prominence—Denise Levertov being by far the finest exception—and which also included many gay male writers. The heterosexual male model of poetry is certainly not the only one, nor is it necessarily the greatest one, as witness Sappho, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg. But it is a model, a distinct design, a specific configuration of energy that must operate according to its own laws. Lew understood a man’s speech as expressive of his essential masculinity—a masculinity that only exists, however, in a polar relationship with an essentially feminine energy, or force, or figure, without which no poetic expression (on the traditional heterosexual model) is possible: namely, the Muse. And while the power of the Muse essentially envelopes, and profoundly moves, and in this sense dominates the male poet, this in no way undermines his expressive and intentional masculinity. On one occasion Lew expressed this truth to me with undeniable clarity when he told me, “the Muse doesn’t [practice oral sex on you]”. She invokes the male poet’s expressive power, his active intent; she doesn’t drain this power or usurp this intent. And it’s entirely apt in this context to remember Lew Welch’s cogent warning, from “Leo, in Absence of Fire”, to the heterosexual Muse-inspired male poet about the occupational hazards of this approach to his art: “Anyone who confuses his mistress with his muse is asking for real trouble from both of them”.


I believe that the poetic Muse, for Lew Welch, incarnated the power of listening, without which speech, no matter how passionate or how accurate, hurls itself ineffectually against a stone wall. As William Blake put it in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “the Prolific would cease to be Prolific unless the Devourer, as a sea, received the excess of his delights”; this is an expression of the tantra of poetic composition and recitation, precisely. On the other hand, according to contemporary gender mythology—which to my mind is profoundly sexist—speaking is active and represents authority, or authorship, while listening is passive and therefore represents a condition of relative oppression. This just goes to show how wrongheaded today’s notions of both power and gender can be. A fundamental principle is missing in the idea that listening is a form of oppression—the principle that listening is judgment. The Ear of the Muse is rigorous, demanding, and not to be sidestepped, tricked or cheated: if she detects incompetence, insensitivity, evasion, lying or any other form of cowardice in the male poet’s offering to her, she will immediately deny him—by which I mean, deny his living human body—the energy it needs to take the next full breath. Simply stated, if a male poet, operating according to the heterosexual model of poetry, does not make the sacrifices necessary to perfect his art, to both become the kind of person who is worth listening to, and to learn how to say something as if he really meant it, then that art will shorten his life. His liaison with the Muse, as dramatized in “The Ballad of Thomas Rymer” (Child 37, C, B & A) is a contract which must be fulfilled to the letter. Therefore:


American poets, learn your job;

Write whatever irks the mob;

Stomp these wimps who fear to mean,

Whose sole craft is to make the scene.

Born yesterday, to the world they go;

“Born again” they’ll never know.


Cast a slim eye

On dusk, on dawn:

Driver, drive on.



Freedom from the World of Words


Beyond the strictly performance-oriented and “crafty” aspects of the poetic art, one of the central goals of Lew’s curriculum was to create “freedom from the world of words”—a strange thing, one might think, for a poet to teach; yet that teaching was central to his own particular brand of “perceptual Buddhism”, and was perfectly in line with the Buddhist aphorism, “to name something is to kill it.” As Lew declared:


Those who live in the world of words

Kill us

Who seek union with what goes on whether I look at it or not.


“Union with what goes on whether I look at it or not” was Lew’s way of talking about what it might be like to reach absolute objectivity, remembering Frithjof Schuon’s observation that “in order to attain objectivity it is necessary to die a little”, and in the understanding that the world of words, our obsession to name things, always veils absolute objectivity by introducing the subjective element. He well understood that one of the main elements in Sangsara, the world of illusion-producing-suffering—if not the lynch-pin of the whole thing—is the universal human tendency to mistake the names of things for the things themselves, after which we see the things themselves only through the lens of those names, thus his doctrine that “only poets know that words don’t mean anything.” When words cease—at least as the labels we stick on things, the frames-of-perception created by language—what does the world look like? The answer is: Energy. The world-beyond-words is what the Hindus call Shakti—another name for the Great Goddess, known to inspired lyric poets as the Muse. That Energy is the Matter half of the Form-and-Matter pair from Aristotle’s famous hylomorphic theory—which, when the two are married, beget what is called “substantial form”, as when the matter of a poem, what the poet wants to say, is perfectly united with the form of the poem, the best and only way of saying it. All Matter, for the poem or for a life, is drawn from the reservoir of universal Energy, the universal potentiality for experience, otherwise known as the Cosmos. But the Form of the poem, of the life—the soul of it—comes purely from God through the unseen world. There is no way to predict what shape that form will take until it appears; it’s all already there in the first moment of creation, but it only fully reveals itself as the poem is composed, or the life lived out.


For Lew—though he wouldn’t have said it this way—the idea was make the world of language part of the Matter, not the Form, to avoid the trap of expecting your words to do your talking for you by realizing that words don’t mean anything, you do. (The question then becomes: do the words, your intent to speak them, and the form that intent takes, come from you, your ego, or simply through you from beyond you, from inspiration—which ultimately means, from the First Speaker Himself? It could be that Lew Welch’s inability to answer this question is what ultimately ended his life?)


Lew worked to turn words into matter rather than form by comparing human language to the virtually-formless din made by a treeful of blackbirds, and gave us exercises to help us make this transformation, composed (for example) of all the found poems and samples of American speech he exhibits in his “Din Poem”:


Hi, man, what’s happening? See you people later.

Hi, man, what’s happening? See you people later.

Hi, man, what’s happening? See you people later.


If William Carlos Williams, the mentor of many of the Beat poets (including Lew), could say “no ideas but in things” (a very Aristotelian poetic), Lew did him one better by maintaining that “words are things, not ideas”, thereby leaving no way for Form and Meaning to arrive but from somewhere beyond language entirely.



Two Riddles


            As a further step toward producing freedom from the world of words, Lew composed three riddles—“The Rider Riddle”, “The Riddle of Bowing”, and “The Riddle of Hands”—whose answers are entirely concrete. The solutions to these riddles are not ideas; they are nothing that the world of words could conceive of or understand—consequently nobody affected by “the philosopher disease” will be able to solve them. I’m leaving out “The Rider Riddle” here because it leads somewhere else, toward Shamanism; it’s basically a way of finding your spirit helper or totem animal. (I’ll get back to this riddle when the time comes to tell to the story of Lew’s death and continuance.) But the other two are more like koans. They can’t be figured out by thinking about them; the only way to solve them is to let go of all philosophical and symbolic thinking, and make your mind as concrete as possible. Lew says about them: “They are Koans for beginners, making no claim for Perfect Enlightenment, but those who solve them will discover a deep spiritual insight.” Unlike koans, however, they have explicit answers that can be told—but shouldn’t; they should only be confirmed. Both The Riddle of Bowing and The Riddle of Hands have only one right answer.


As an introduction to these I’ll give you the riddle from one of Lew’s major poems, “Wobbly Rock”, along with its correct solution, just to show you what I mean by “concrete”, and to introduce that riddle I need to say (in Lew’s words) that Wobbly Rock is “a real rock/ (believe this first)/ resting on actual sand at the surf’s edge:/ Muir Beach, California….Hard common stone/ Size of the largest haystack/ It moves when hit by waves/ Actually shudders”. Lew used to sit on that rock to meditate; it has a precisely square little step or cleft on it that makes a perfect meditation seat (half lotus). I’ve meditated there myself. Imagine how sitting in meditation on a huge boulder that rocks back and forth as the waves strike it—k-CHUNK, k-CHUNK—could teach, in a completely visceral, non-conceptual way, the Buddhist principles of universal anitya—Impermanence—and universal shunyata—Emptiness.And, paradoxically, you can only realize the anitya part of it, universal motion, if you become perfectly still—if, as Lew puts it, you “sit real still and keep your mouth shut.”


Here’s the riddle:


Dychymig Dychymig: (riddle me a riddle)


                                                         Waves and the sea. If you

                                                         take away the sea


                                                   Tell me what it is


This riddle brings together two (not unrelated) things that Lew liked to do: play with language, and point to the world beyond language, the real world. The solution is: If you take away “the sea” from “Waves and the sea,” you get “Waves and,” which, to the ear, is also “wave-sand”. So the solution is something anyone who has seen a sandy ocean beach has seen: the pattern of waves, or ripples, left by the ebbing tide in the drying sand. The whole conceptual universe of permanence vs. change, stationary vs. moving, Form vs. Matter is thus reduced to a single concrete visual image, available to anyone who’s ever walked on a sandy beach. Subtract the word-play, and this is the precise mind that can solve the following two riddles. (I could add that “The Riddle of Hands” and “The Riddle of Bowing” have to do with jiriki and tariki—two terms taken from Zen, denoting “self-power” and “other-power”but this is a later conceptual gloss; it’s not really a hint but only a smoke-screen, a misdirection.) And so:



The Riddle of Bowing


In every culture, in every place and time, there has always been a religion, and in every one of these religions there has always been the gesture of bowing so fully that the
forehead strikes the ground.

Why is this?

(There is only one right answer to this riddle)


Sooner or later the gesture is necessary no matter which way you go. Suzuki bows with so much confidence we all feel bold.


The Riddle of Hands


In every culture, in every place and time, there has always been a religion, and in every one of these religions, there has always been the gesture of hands clasped together, as Christians do to pray, in order to signify something important.

Why is this?

(There is only one right answer to this riddle)



The gesture has but one source. Who would think to pick his nose, or cross his eyes at such a moment?

The man who claims to feel power between his hands is lost in forms and ideas. The man who clasps his hands and waits will never see the light.


Lew comments:


It is no accident that people, everywhere, have always clasped their hands that way, for those purposes. Think about it. Why not any of the millions of other gestures and stances? Why, always, this one?

            The Riddle of Bowing is much easier of the two.  Try that first and use the same Mind to try to solve Hands.

            But please don't waste my time by telling me that Bowing shows respect for the earth or that you are vulnerable to a great power or you are submitting to something. I haven't got time for that baby-talk.

            Lew told me the answer to “Bowing”, and I solved “Hands” by myself, my answer later confirmed by his common-law wife Magda Cregg after Lew’s suicide. Whoever wants to crack these riddles must conquer the Monkey Mind and get cured of the Philosopher Disease. The one who thinks he or she has solved one or both of them is invited to apply to me, since I am empowered to say “pass” or “fail”.



Poets and their Dilemma


Ezra Pound once said: “Poets are the antennae of the race.” It’s been my experience, however, that we are actually more like “the mine-canaries of the race”, the ones who first pick up all the toxic influences and cultural diseases that will later spread throughout society; if the poet sitting next to you keels over, you’d better put on your face mask and go into quarantine as quickly as possible. As poets, our psychic immune-systems are in a generally weakened condition, something that is both an occupational hazard and a necessary element in the particular kind of sensitivity necessary to the art. Those of us who survive their various infections with minds and bodies relatively intact will have built rare immunities—not to mention the fact that we sometimes become world-class diagnosticians.


            The pure quest for experience, which pretty well describes the greater part of lyric poetry, always involves sin, which leads either to repentance or to the denial of God. But can we really recognize sin without experience? The shari’ah, the Sacred Law of Islam, or any moral code based on Revelation, says that we can. Yet is not every saint, in some sense, a repentant sinner? The Law does not absolve you of experience, of the pure quest of the ego, the nafs, for its own self-expression, but it does show you how to recognize that misguided and errant quest, even in actions that seemed entirely pure and un-self-interested. First the Law discovers sin, then the Remembrance of God absolves it—which is why the genre known as “Confessions of the Reformed Rake”, like the one by St. Augustine, will always have its place. William Blake said, in his “Proverbs of Hell” from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “If the Fool would persist in his folly he would become Wise”—wise enough to leave that folly behind. He also said, “The Road of Excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom”, simply because “You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.” “Hell” to Blake, at least in that fairly early poem from which these quotes are taken, was not the Kingdom of Evil but the Kingdom of Energy and Experience, which is why he said of his master John Milton, author of the great Paradise Lost—both of them born under the sign of Sagittarius, as I was—that Milton was “a true poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Goethe, in his Faust, the great theological treatise on the Romantic spirit, was wrong to say that pure experience alone, whose patron and guide is the Devil himself, will lead to salvation without repentance, without the painstaking discovery of sin and the painful purification from the bonds of it. Likewise the surah “The Poets” of the Holy Qur’an tells us: Shall I inform you upon whom the devils descend? They descend on every sinful, false one. They [the sinners] listen eagerly, but most of them [both the sinners and the devils, the Jinn, whom the pre-Islamic poets of Arabia claimed to be inspired by] are liars. As for the poets, the erring follow them. Hast thou not seen how they stray in every valley, and say that which they do not? Save those who believe and do good works, and remember Allah much, and vindicate themselves after they have been wronged? To say something but not do it is to extend the name and image of Reality into imaginative forms that one has neither the power, the integrity, nor the right to fully realize. It is to create phantasms, to go into debt to Reality Itself, and thereby to wrong oneself, sometimes mortally. Poetry is boast, only action is proof; to know more than you can be or do is to be ravished, and then sorely punished, by the Reality on whose ground you have trespassed without invitation, purely on the basis of arrogance and self-will. The poet who vindicates him- or herself after having inflicted great self-wrong is the one who has paid, with spiritual warfare and the suffering of the Greater Jihad, the debt he or she incurred when arrogantly claiming the power of Divine creative speech—speech whose function is to say what is—and has thereby become a siddiq, an honest human being. This is what it is to be “as good as your word”.