deputized by Stacy Szymaszek, read by Alli Warren
George Albon is a poet and bookseller.
Alli Warren is a poet, administrative assistant, and co-curator for The (New) Reading Series at 21 Grand.
Stacy Szymaszek is the author of Hyperglossia (Litmus Press, 2009) and the Director of the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church in NYC.
In 1961, Robert Duncan was asked to contribute an essay to Journal for the Protection of All Beings, a journal whose name was originally going to be The Protective Association for All Beings. Aiming his essay at the original title, Duncan challenged its assumptions. Privation and adversity, he suggested, weren’t to be avoided at all costs; they may even be engines of creation. Using a Manichean language to comment on the socially well-meaning presumption he heard in the language of the request, he wrote, “I strive to realize the Good, not against the Evil, but in order that there be Good in the Gift as well as Evil.” The journal’s editors were doubtless thinking of protection as leftist concern over the wars of the moment, ideological wars as well as actually deployed ones, and their new atomic face. Going to the root, Duncan saw “protective” as paternalistic at best and state-managerial at worst. What would a “protective association” be if not coercive? Duncan’s devotion to “the orders of a household” may have given him a measure of psychic stability that other poets lacked, but his poverty was as real as anyone else’s. “This writer has no steady resource,” the essay began. “He is as likely to run thin as to leap his channel; he must run his course where he may.” For Duncan, economic insecurity was a hardship that contained aspects of freedom; it pointed toward the opening of the field as much as anything else. Security, on the other hand, was chloroform—it disabled the active imagination from encountering those glimmers in a precious and uncertain life that are its most acute testament. “Wasn’t vulnerability,” he asked, “the very quick of the light?”
Along with checks from home, and with no dependents, Duncan got by as a typist. There were other people, and other ways, to consider the problem. Talking with David Meltzer in 1969, Kenneth Rexroth (an early avatar, like Jack Spicer in his own way, of Pacific Nation) told his young interviewer: “People on the West Coast work.” “People” meant male poets. Poets in the West can make physical labor play their way. Rexroth offered a counter-example in Hart Crane, who “spent all his time fretting about his economic problems, but if he had been a Westerner, he would have gone out and gotten a job in the woods or at sea or something like that, and he would have made a lot of bread. A hell of a lot more bread than he ever did writing advertising copy for candy.” When Rexroth talked about work out West, he was emphasizing outdoor jobs as opposed to white-collar office jobs, but there’s a factor here which is not spoken. The work in the West was seasonal work. Harvesting, summer lookout posts, Merchant Marine tours, non-union dock gigs during high periods—these were ideal for poets who were physically able to do it, because they could make “a lot of bread” and then have stretches of time off for poetry.
As it happened, Rexroth was talking about a seat-of-the-pants personal economy that had worked for canny individuals in the recent past and which gave the promise of crossing over to a present moment of the collective and the tribe. No doubt the Rexroth model worked for some, and was impossible for others. “Seasonal” work is also one season in a life—how long it is sustained will be up to individuals and circumstances. In 1964, five years before Rexroth told his interviewer that “people on the West Coast work,” a symposium was held at the Old Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco, on the subject of “bread and poetry.” Advertised (and maybe organized?) by Lew Welch, the symposium featured Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, and himself. The question that night was how to live as a poet. The three poets, who shared much common ground in their poetics, revealed three different temperaments that evening. Snyder, with some trade-in skills under his cap, had the most equanimity. Besides working in forestry and park services, he was also among the first wave of Americans to earn money by teaching “business English” overseas. The Rexroth model par excellence, his self-sufficiency in this context was enviable. Forward-looking, “progressive” in its view of limits, it had one foot in the archaic small society and the other in the federally funded conservation job corps developed in the 20s and 30s. Writing poetry that was often about the process of staying self-sufficient, his approach had some calm in it: “Whatever work I’ve done, whatever job I’ve had, has fed right into my poetry, and it’s all in there.” Whalen, with a physique less suited for physical labor and a poetry requiring endless dredgings of the unseen, has a harder go of things, but “I don’t mind a part-time job ordinarily.” At the time, however, he no longer had his half-day gig washing laboratory glassware at UC, “and it’s a great burden on my nerves. Right now I’m sort of getting by on my pretty face.” A classic Whalen attitude: humor as resilience, giving the Neapolitan razz to hardship.
The most poignant is Welch. The one with the greatest variety of job work under his belt, he’s also the most unstable. Cab-driver, salmon and crab fisherman, post office worker, even a stint in advertising (where, as legend has it, he came up with “Raid Kills Bugs Dead”), his back is to the wall. He’s getting by on “any kind of left-handed job that’s left over, that nobody seems to want.” He was just back in town after a breakdown and an extended stay in a CCC shack near California’s northern border. (CCC shack…Old Longshoreman’s Hall…were the mid-60s the last period when totems of labor history like these still had a living ambience?)
Welch’s quandary—his sense of choices—may be conditioned by alcoholism. But he has a strong pull toward the Poet as Being, rather than just part of being. “While I was growing up my job always seemed to me to be to get myself into the kind of person that would have something interesting and accurate to say about things. And in order to develop into that kind of person, I always found it exciting and interesting to change jobs a lot, to do a lot of different things, and I always like working with my hands—just labor jobs.” Now, at 37, the scene is different. (None of these poets are young. Snyder, the youngest, is 34, and Whalen is 40. And at the time of his essay, Robert Duncan was 42.) Welch’s horizons are shifting, though he would also embrace the tribal consciousness blooming in the Bay Area, and its realignments, in which the Poet was a benefice to the community and thus accorded a living. This was the era when some poets wanted to put “poet” under “occupation” on forms. (I wanted to, too, if I’d been old enough to fill any out.) It’s hard to imagine poets doing this in the present—either it was a silly idea all along, or poets now have a more horizontal view of what they do and don’t choose to privilege the “poet” part. (Or they’ve internalized the skepticism of the clerks.)
These three poets are optimistic, each in his way. Snyder, cohesive and integrated, simply says, “I’ve had no problem at all.” Whalen acknowledges a split between crummy jobs of the past and his vocation “that I had a hard time sewing up but I’ve gradually, I think, fixed it up. It’s all evening out slowly.” Welch wants to forget the bad jobs and embrace the new tribes. “First I have to solve my problem. Without in any way causing a strain on my community, without begging or conning anyone in any way, I will pay my bills entirely by doing my real job, which is Poet.”
These optimisms were healthy personal convictions, part of the bodily optimism of any moment, but in the ambience I can feel the vibration of a particular few decades, a grace period floating inside the mythic boundlessness of the American Sublime.