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Lew Welch Revisited: a “bright-eyed bardic spirit”
reviewed by Colin James Sanders

Ring of Bone: Collected Poems
Lew Welch
Foreword by Gary Snyder
City Lights/ Grey Fox Press, 2012


“It’s better to burn out / than it is to rust…” – Neil Young

At times, poet Lew Welch (1926-1971?) has been referred to as the least well known of the Beats. Yet as a poet he is always engaging and his oeuvre worth knowing, as attested by this new, expanded edition of Ring of Bone. Originally published in 1973 by Don Allen’s Grey Fox Press in Bolinas, this exquisite new collection will assist in securing Welch equal footing alongside the more public Allen Ginsberg, or with such well known, still living Beats as Gary Snyder and Michael McClure.

What was Welch about? Welch’s old friend, poet Joanne Kyger, to whom at least two poems in this volume are dedicated (“For A Kyger Known by Another Name”; “Dear Joanne”), has noted that he hoped his work would be “accessible and simple.” Building on this, fellow Bay Area poet David Meltzer has remarked, “…all Lew wanted was to have people in the bar understand his poetry…” Gary Snyder, in the Forward to this new edition, notes, “Lew was a handsome, talented, and charismatic man who spoke eloquently on many topics,” and refers to Welch as a “bright-eyed bardic spirit”.

In his essay “Language Is Speech” that is fortuitously contained in this edition, Welch notes, “If you want to write you have to want to build things out of language and in order to do that you have to know, really know in your ear and in your tongue and, later, on the page, that language is speech. But the hard thing is that writing is not talking, so what you have to learn to do is to write as if you were talking, and to do it knowing perfectly well you are not talking, you are writing.”

Welch drove cab in the late 1950s, and the poetics of his practice is reflected in the poem “After Anacreon”, the first of five poems from his “Taxi Suite”, in lines such as: “When I drive cab / I am moved by strange whistles and wear a hat. / When I drive cab / I am the hunter. / My prey leaps out from where it hid, / beguiling me with gestures./ When I drive cab / all may command me, yet I am in command of all who do. /When I drive cab / I am guided by voices descending from the naked air”. In conversation with poet-musician Meltzer, Welch remarked that when he read this poem in its entirety to his cab buddies in a pool hall “…they said: Goddam , Lewie, I don’t know whether or not that is a poem, but that is the way it is to drive a cab.”

Welch espoused a public poetry, a poetry that would speak to common folk, a poetry that did not require a dictionary to read. In this tribal spirit, as noted above by Snyder, Welch was “bardic.” Welch informed Meltzer, “I had the privilege of seeing a poem of mine pasted in the No Name Bar window. I was asked by the owner of that bar to partake in a small demonstration to protest against the misuse of the beautiful area that the city of Sausalito is... So we had this demonstration, and it was really touching to me, and a source of great gratification, to be asked by an innkeeper in one’s own village to partake in such a thing because of the fact that I am a poet.” Here is the poem:

Sausalito Trash Prayer

Little Willow,
Perfect beach by the last Bay in the world,
None more beautiful,
Today we kneel at thy feet
And curse the men who have misused you.

Again, in the spirit of service to community, on Feb. 25, 1967, Welch performed his long poem, “How To Give Yourself Away: The Sermon of Gladness” at San Francisco’s Glide Memorial Church. In this poem, Welch writes:

Love can never free us, is only the
natural state we live in as soon as we
give ourselves away.

Drugs will never free us, are only ways to
find the intimations of
how it is to give ourselves away.

And all Temptations, in this wild age,
to live more wildly (even than this)
are only that: temptations.

For Welch, the poetic concern is “The need is for plain-ness. / To live more plainly (even than this)”. This way of being is captured in one of Welch’s “Hermit Poems”, poetry he wrote while living alone in a shack in the Trinity Alps country, California.

The image, as in a Hexagram:

The hermit locks his door against the blizzard.
He keeps the cabin warm.

All winter long he sorts out all he has.
What was well started shall be finished.
What was not, should be thrown away.

In spring he emerges with one garment
and a single book.

The cabin is very clean.

Except for that, you’d never guess
nyone lived there.

In an evocative, contemplative poem published as Welch’s first book, Wobbly Rock (1960) dedicated to Snyder, Welch writes, “On a trail not far from here / Walking in meditation / We entered a dark grove / And I lost all separation in step with the / Eucalyptus as the trail walked back beneath me”, asking the question, “Does it need to be that dark or is / Darkness only its occasion / Finding it by ourselves knowing / Of course / Somebody else was there before…”

Perhaps these lines and others in this sparkling new edition point toward his enigmatic end. Following college, and working in Chicago from 1953-1957 for the advertising firm Montgomery Ward & Co., Welch apparently penned the familiar ad, “Raid kills bugs dead”. What he desired was to be a poet though, not an ad man, and having continued to correspond with friends Snyder and Philip Whalen from Reed College, Portland, he relocated to Oakland in 1957 in order to participate in San Francisco’s poetry scene. The next year, he performed his poetry publically for the first time at one of Jack Spicer’s weekly poetry nights in North Beach. In a piece written around this period, “Chicago Poem”, Welch is already concerned about ecological issues, and struggling with anguish and against despair, writing:

Driving back I saw Chicago rising in its gases and I
knew again that never will the
Man be made to stand against this pitiless, unparalleled
monstrosity. It
Snuffles on the beach of its Great Lake like a
blind, red, rhinoceros.
It’s already running us down.

The poem ends with lines suggesting Welch was already considering ways to exit this life.

You can’t fix it. You can’t make it go away.
I don’t know what you’re going to do about it,
But I know what I’m going to do about it. I’m just
going to walk away from it. Maybe
A small part of it will die if I’m not around
feeding it anymore.

Besides a love of poetry and language, like Spicer, Welch had an affinity for alcohol. In “He Writes To The Donor Of His Bowl”, he gathers mushrooms with a friend and speaks of returning “…to the car for a pull on the wine-jug”, and in a poem from around this same early-Sixties period, “Orange Take”, writes, “I’ve destroyed my brain, part of it, / deliberately, partly, partly, with / booze with age with carbon monoxide (inadvertently, / in Fishing Boat) with city-din with / bachelor food with fasting”. And in “Inflation”, says,

At 50 cents
I can buy my second drink
with change from the first.

At 60 cents
I have to wait for my third drink
before I can buy it
with change from the first two.

At 70 cents
I have to wait for the fourth drink
before I can buy it with change.

You have left me penniless,
and drunk.

In “Whenever I Make a New Poem”, another piece from “Hermit Poems” (1960-64) he reflects, “Let them say: / “He seems to have lived in the mountains. / He travelled now and then. /When he appeared in cities, / he was almost always drunk.” This all seems confirmed when in a letter to Ginsberg a month after Welch disappeared, Snyder advised, “Keep an eye out in the city. Maybe he’s monstrously drinking.”

On the evening of May 23, 1971, Snyder, went outside to call Welch for supper. Welch had vanished, leaving a suicide note in his vehicle. Welch had recently come to the San Juan Ridge region to build a cabin on land co-owned by Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. Snyder gathered some forty neighbours from the vicinity and they spent several days searching for Welch; to date, his body has never been discovered. Apparently, he had in his possession at the time a Smith & Wesson .22 calibre revolver. Decades later, Snyder proclaims, “Lew’s memory and mystery lives on.”

Before he disappeared, Welch wrote marvelous work, poems that epitomize what one of his mentors, Charles Olson, intended when he wrote, “…the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge.” In “He Praises His Canyons & Peaks”, Welch observes:

Driving out to Callahan, you get the setting for it all:

Cloud-shrouded gorges!
Foggy trees!

I can’t see the ridges anymore!

Big Sung landscape scroll a
mile high and

longer than I’ll ever know!

It was Michael McClure who once tellingly remarked, “I prefer to read a book of poems, a larger piece of consciousness.” This new and expanded edition of Ring of Bone represents an evolving scroll of Welch’s consciousness, his struggles, his anguish, his despair, and the ways in which he negotiates the snares and nets of samsara. Until he disappeared, Welch struggled to make meaning amid suffering and pain, and to do so with acceptance through the ways in which he moved through anguish, despair, loneliness and solitude. Again, as he wrote in an essay, “…the business of living has so many barbs in it” (“The Language Of Speech”).

Bioregionally-alert readers will note how Welch’s mind was attuned to the particular, to the specifics of the Pacific coastal and related rural environments and bioregions, and to the commonplace. At the same time, there is erudition in his writing and always an appreciation, on his behalf, of “mind.” Again, as Snyder notes in his Forward, Welch “spoke eloquently on many topics”, and his erudition extended back to a familiarity with Shakespeare, Shelley, Milton, Pope, Dryden, Donne, Whitman, Mayakovsky, Crane, Eliot and others.
“There is clearly something special about the way we bring words to Mind when we write”, Welch explains in “Language Is Speech” and “The words come to Mind through the whole history of whatever tribe you learned your language in. The words come to Mind through all the private history of how you’ve lived your Human Being”.

My reading of Welch’s mind, as represented by his poetry, is that a middle way between solitude and navigating social relations eluded him. Welch’s poetry indicates that he was comfortable in the backcountry, and upon the ridges, and he was also conscientious of community, and was a person who understood gratitude, acceptance, and compassion. We see this in the way he dedicates numerous of his poems to other poets, friends, and mentors. Readers of this new edition of Ring of Bone will note these dedications include a roster of familiar counter-cultural names, including], Rock Skully, manager of The Grateful Dead, to whom the poem “Song of the Turkey Buzzard” is dedicated, with such evocative lines as, “Praises Gentle Tamalpais/Perfect in Wisdom and Beauty of the/sweetest water/and the soaring birds/great seas at the feet of thy cliffs” and others.

This new edition collects Welch’s poetry for us and additionally contains his essay “A Statement of Poetics”, as well as a succinct chronology of highlights regarding Welch’s life, and a useful index of first lines. City Lights is to be commended for this, as is Gary Snyder for persevering in sustaining the words and memory of his bardic friend, whom he visualizes “… still wandering and singing on the back roads – I imagine – at the far edge of the West…”

This far edge of the West was understood all too well by Welch, and in “The Song Mt. Tamalpais Sings” (again to Meltzer, Welch claimed, “…I have taken Mt Tamalpais as my goddess in a very real way, like a priest takes a vow”) is explained as “…the last place. There is nowhere else to go.” But “go” he did, leaving behind his words, this articulation of his mind.

Colin James Sanders lives in Chinatown/Strathcona, east Vancouver. The B.C. Director of Master of Counselling Programs for City University of Seattle in Vancouver, his “Beat Scene Interview” with Robert Duncan appears in A Poet’s Mind: Collected Interviews with Robert Duncan, 1960-1985, edited by Christopher Wagstaff (North Atlantic).

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #18