Liz’s Weekend Poetry Series: Letters

by lizard

I was tinkering around with a poem a few days ago, changing line breaks and trimming off some unnecessary words. I was doing this on the computer, and when I was done, hit save. Instantly all evidence of my revision disappeared.

As a writer, I’m interested in the process of writing, the craft. I’ve been lucky to have had great workshop experiences at UM (thank you Joanna Klink!) and facilitated a few myself (outside the University), and based on feedback from those critical environments, have almost always revised and produced a better poem. Some of that revision is caught on rough drafts, but most of it gets discarded or recycled.

If I was a poet skilled enough for scholars to spend lengthy dissertations analyzing, not having early copies of poems occludes the process by which I make decisions about how a poem is formed upon the page. Personally, I’ve learned a lot about poetry as craft by comparing the finished product of some well known poems with their earlier incarnations (Ezra Pound’s fingerprints on Eliot’s The Wasteland, for example).

And that got me thinking about what else may be getting lost as our modes of communication continues evolving.

This week’s LWPS looks at letters, truly a diminished form of communication in the age of smart phones and instantaneous global communication. Letters are the more refined comment threads of the previous centuries, yet even then, as evident by the 3rd letter I selected, there are similarities between the correspondences of the past and the atomized fragments of communication from the tortured present. Enjoy.


This first letter is from Allen Ginsberg, and it’s addressed to Dwight Eisenhower. Ginsberg wrote letters to every president from Eisenhower to Clinton:

Allen Ginsberg [New York, NY] to Dwight Eisenhower [Washington, DC] ca. June 16, 1953

Rosenbergs are pathetic, government will sordid, execution obscene, America caught in crucifixion machine, only barbarians want them burned I say stop it before we fill our souls with death-house horror.

Allen Ginsberg


This next letter is part of a poetic series of letters by Jack Spicer from his collection After Lorca:

Dear Lorca,

These letters are to be as temporary as our poetry is to be permanent. They will establish the bulk, the wastage that my sour-stomached contemporaries demand to help them swallow and digest the pure word. We will use up our rhetoric here so that it will not appear in our poems. Let it be consumed paragraph by paragraph, day by day, until nothing of it is left in our poetry and nothing of our poetry is left in it. It is precisely because these letters are unnecessary that they must be written.

In my last letter I spoke of the tradition. The fools that read these letters will think by this we mean what tradition seems to have meant lately—an historical patchwork (whether made up of Elizabethan quotations, guide books of the poet’s home town, or obscure bits of magic published by Pantheon) which is used to cover up the nakedness of the bare word. Tradition means much more than that. It means generations of different poets in different countries patiently telling the same story, writing the same poem, gaining and losing something with each transformation—but, of course, never really losing anything. This has nothing to do with calmness, classicism, temperament, or anything else. Invention is merely the enemy of poetry.

See how weak prose is. I invent a word like invention. These paragraphs could be translated, transformed by a chain of fifty poets in fifty languages, and they still would be temporary, untrue, unable to yield the substance of a single image. Prose invents—poetry discloses.

A mad man is talking to himself in the room next to mine. He speaks in prose. Presently I shall go to a bar and there one or two poets will speak to me and I to them and we will try to destroy each other or attract each other or even listen to each other and nothing will happen because we will be speaking in prose. I will go home, drunken and dissatisfied, and sleep—and my dreams will be prose. Even the subconscious is not patient enough for poetry.

You are dead and the dead are very patient.



And this final letter is from Denise Levertov, addressed to Robert Duncan. Their correspondence in letters is both legendary and lengthy, spanning nearly two decades and composed of almost 500 letters. Legendary because of their falling out over how to respond as poets to the Vietnam war:

Dear Robert,

It was good to have a letter from you but before I can reply to it I have to try & find out what you don’t make clear: whether you are objecting to To Stay Alive for (1) “not being revolutionary as poetry,” i.e. for not being innovative formally, & therefore in your opinion not being decently consonant with its theme (in which case I’d say, “but then you have misunderstood the theme”); or (2) that you feel the quality of my work has fallen off, possibly because of the time & energy I’ve spent in political involvements (in which case I would of course feel very sad to have lost your approval—but I would not be crushed by it as I once would because in my slow (lifelong! retarded?) growing up (nearly 48!) I no longer feel that kind of dependency, thank god—& I’m sure you will be as glad as I am that this is so, for not believing in coercion it must sometimes pain you when you find yourself by the sheer force of your being having a coercive effect—(do you understand?)—or (3) whether your argument is all ideological. If it is the 3d then I will write a response to your letter that will try to present my point of view & show you where I think you are setting me up as an adversary without due reason. Because you do have that habit of projection, of setting people up in roles—of mythologizing, as you did for instance when you identified me with Kali. There are in all of us flickering moments when we are representative of this or that archetypal role—but it is wrong I am certain to fix on those moments, to assume that they are more than moments, to build a system out of them. That leads to the deadly abstract, the inhuman, the false. But anyway—if you could write me quite simply & briefly whether it’s (1), (2), or (3) (or if a mixture, which dominates) then I will do my best to answer.

Love from

  1. Pogue Mahone

    It’s not enough to be a poet. One must be a WARRIOR poet if the world is to survive.

    • lizard19

      the world will recover from the destructive impact of our species. but if we’re to adapt to the changing climate, it’s not going to be the WARRIOR aspect of human nature that will help us accomplish that difficult task.

      • Pogue Mahone

        I disagree. For you see, if you truly feel passionate enough to be a poet, you cannot HELP but be a warrior. And that does not necessarily mean taking up arms. Lorca did not HAVE to return to Granada, but he did. Jose Marti did no HAVE to fight in Cuba, but he did. Artists like Picasso could HAVE appeased fascism, but he did not. Poets have always lived their convictions, which are usually at odds to the prevailing injustice and insanity. A good poet feels things that others do not feel, and then explains it. THAT is what I’m talking about. Get it?

        • lizard19

          to put the concept of the warrior poet in perspective, there’s this from wikianswers:

          The Warrior-Poet is the ancient tradition of dedication to developing the body and the mind as one.

          The Shambhala teachings of Tibet, the chivalrous knights of medieval Europe and the ancient Greek warriors are all examples of this proud tradition.

          The Warrior-Poet retains a mysterious and ancient aura, a member of the leadership class who guides with wisdom and courage.

          They are defined by their dedication to their crafts of warfare, and intellectual study and reflection.

          i don’t believe “true passion” needs to be tied to a dedication to the craft of warfare.

          i can see how that appeals to you, but please don’t try and impose your definition on me.

          get it?

          • Pogue Mahone

            Wasn’t trying to impose anything on you. Did I mention you specifically? I simply said that what we NOW need are warrior poets. Or ANYONE of courage. Were is OUR Oscar Romero? We don’t have one. We are a nation of wussies, be they poets or otherwise. And that is why we’re in the sh*ts. You’re the one that mentioned Lorca, a man I greatly admire. He was gay by the way. Lorca died at the hands of the fascists he despised. He could have easily fled, but he went to them. Big mistake. I think that maybe he thought he fame would protect him as it did Picasso. But it didn’t.

            • lizard19

              your analysis of America’s challenges is enlightening. the “wussie” factor is something that’s been long overlooked. good catch.

        • if you are true to your own nature, it is impossible not to come into conflict with the conformist nature of society at some point. rather than warrior, i prefer the term poet contrary.

          nothing can be truly understood until the inverse is understood.

  1. 1 An April Feast Of Poetry « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] Letters […]

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    […] Letters […]

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