Lew Welch, Ring
of Bone Collected Poems (New & Expanded Edition)
City Light Books: San Francisco, 2012.
While not thought
of by most literary critics as a major poet during his lifetime,
Lew Welch has become the ghost in the
machine that for the past decade has been churning out
books on the Beat Poets. On
a fateful day in May 1971, Welch had walked into the wilderness
of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and, never heard from again, became
revenant with "a long bronze mane."(1)
He left behind a note that said, in part:
"I could never
make anything work out right and now I'm betraying my friends.
make anything out of it—never could. I had great visions
but never could bring them together with reality. I used it
all gone." This echoes a phrase from his poem, "Song
of the Turkey Buzzard":
Let no one grieve.
I shall have used it all up
used up every bit of it.
What an extravagance!
What a relief!
my friends," I assume he meant his failure
to conquer alcoholism. This, along with the disappointment
of watching his friends being accepted
by major publishers; while,
even after signing
a contact with a New York publisher and receiving an advance on
royalties, the promised book, the first incarnation of Ring
of Bone, didn't appear. Deeply disappointed, at age 45 he
felt all used up. This
is how the poet Albert Saijo imagined Lew's last day:
"He was waiting
for one last thing - it came - on the last day toward noon he
vulture circle high above him - it had found him - after a
long while of lazy circling it slid down thru air toward him
stately rocking glide & swept over him cocking its red
wattled head with unblinking eye looking directly at him -
up & caught its eye - the pact was made - there was nothing
Lewis Barrett Welch
Jr. was born in Phoenix, AZ, in 1926—a banner year
for the birth of American poets,
Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley and Robert Bly. When he was
three years old, his mother moved with him and his
sister to California. (His father died in 1947, having hardly known
the son who was named after him.) Lew attended high school in Palo
the Army Air Force near the end of WWII, then enrolled in Stockton
Junior College, and afterwards entered Reed College, in
Portland, OR., as a junior. It was there that he began to become
by Gertrude Stein, on whose work
and the poetry of William Carlos Williams. In 1950, Williams gave
a reading at Reed that impressed Welch so much that, after
graduating, he visited the poet/physician at his home in Rutherford
After a dreary winter in New York, and a trip to Florida, Welch
became a graduate student in Chicago, working
days as Chief Copy Editor
Married, he began to build a comfortable middle-class
In the Fall of 1955,
Lew Welch read in a newspaper about a poetry reading that
announced a literary San Francisco Renaissance. He suddenly
felt isolated, and wrote to his former Reed roommates, Philip
Whalen and Gary Snyder, both of whom had read that night in San
Francisco, to get more information. Snyder was
in Graduate School in Indiana, studying anthropology.
Welch visited him, and learned that he was preparing to switch
Languages at U.C. Berkeley,
training at a monastery in Japan. Welch's friends were on the verge
of becoming famous poets, while he was writing advertising copy.
The life as a poet he
was passing him by.
It would take a
few years before he could return to California, and leave
behind a Chicago that "Snuffles on the beach of its Great
Lake like a / blind, red, rhinoceros...
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
it anymore." (3)
Returning to San
his marriage eventually ended, Lew made his living driving a taxi,
as a sometimes fisherman, and doing
the late 1960s, in the Haight-Asbury, he became
a leading figure in
the anarchist Diggers, honing
skills the Establishment fears: Dionysian
the free distribution of goods and services, and "the
force of real speech." (4) To
paraphrase the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty: He said what
he had to
say, and lived the way he
had to live
to be able to say
it. "The farther afield he went in terms of the society of his time,"
wrote Aram Saroyan, "the more remarkable and authentic was the poetry
that came out of his life."(4)
In the spring of
1970, I was staying with friends in Bolinas, a small
town on the coast north of San Francisco that had become a gathering
place of poets, unknown and well-known, from around the country.
One day, visiting the home of Dr. John Doss, and his journalist
I was walking past a room in which Welch was holding forth
with one of his riddles. Perhaps it was "The Riddle
culture, 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.)
has been criticized for being
too direct. How could
his aesthetics of accuracy "from
the poise of mind," and his passionate praise of
the Earth Goddess, be understood except as Rousseauian
One way may be
boon of language is not tenderness. All that it holds,
it holds with exactitude
and without pity. Even a term of endearment: the term
is impartial; the context is all." (5) Welch's
context, it must be remembered, was a
time when the
Beat Poets on both coasts were a family
bound by friendship, progressive politics, and an unselfish
promotion of each other's work. This is "the real
story of the generation and it is the real lesson of
their time."(4) Indeed,
with the cynical selling of instant celebrity
won skills, it is an important lesson for our time too. "There are people who write and sometimes make a poem," Welch
told David Meltzer.
then a weird thing happens to those of us who have
this sense of language with this
kind of intensity. It causes us to train ourselves
as carefully as a flutist will. It is very very close
to music where you have to learn how to practice and
You have to learn how to shave the reed just right—you
have to learn how to breath just right..."(6)
In his Foreward
to Lew Welch's Ring of Bone: Collected Poems, quoting
from his Preface to the earlier Selected
Snyder wrote: "The
heart of the
'Hermit Poems' and 'Way Back' sections—poems
evoking, covering the time spent
in retreat and
practice at a cabin in the mountains of coast north California
deep up rivers still Yurok land." (7) Welch's
memory of this time gives us a different cast:
“When I was
on my hermitage, and it really was a hermitage, we would sit
and weep with bad sherry
wine. Me and a brunch
of bad-ass drunk Indians. And we would read a poem about a dog by
(Robert) Service and we would break up. It was relevant. It was
I would like to have poetry be the kind of thing that a man can say
with good friends in a mountain cabin." (6)
again. at a reading in Santa Barbara, CA, on April
section, called Hermit Poems, is the summer when
I came out. I finally had done the work I needed to do on
these two years in the mountains."(8) No
matter how the myth is told, with the "Hermit Poems," and "Way
Back" poems, Welch's poetic genius begins
to mature Like the best Ancient Chinese mountain poems,
they have the ring of authenticity. Reading them, you know he
was there; really there.
At last it is raining,
the first sign of spring.
The Blue Jay gets all wet. (9)
what was to be a two year hermitage, mainly spent living in
an old Conservation Corps cabin at
of Salmon, in N. California, where he hoped his mind would
settle and his vision of who he is would deepen—
the ghost roan stallion.
The beautiful Golden Girl! (10)
made stanzas that would be memorable in any era:
Let them say:
'He seems to have lived in the mountains.
He traveled now and then.
When he appeared in cities,
he was almost always drunk.
'Most of his poems are lost.
Many of those we have were found in
letters to his friends.
had a very large number of friends.' (11)
There is a regretfully
long list of poets who have taken their own life, the most
popularly hyped being Sylvia Plath's 1963 head-in-the stove
suicide. Lew Welch's exit is more instructive. In "Song
of the Turkey Buzzard," the
last poem in the main section of Ring of Bone,
we have an astonishing incident in American literary history:
of his formidable
leaving, in a poem,
on how to dispose
body, and in what form he will be reborn. In the tradition
of Tibetan sky burials, w
bya gtor, "alms
for the birds," he writes:
With proper ceremony
disembowel what I
no longer need, that it might more quickly
rot and tempt
my new form.
This is not
a suicide poem He is not depressed, but
ecstatic! Writing in
the Clear Light
had been longing for—
NOT THE BRONZE
CASKET BUT THE BRAZEN WING
ABOVE THEE O PERFECT
O SWEETEST WATER
From, "I Know a Man's Supposed To Have His Hair Cut Short."
2 - Saijo, A. (1977) From, "Last Days of Lew Welch." In, Hey
Lew. M. Cregg,
ed. Privately published,
3- From, "Chicago Poem."
A. (1979) Genesis
Angels: The Saga of Lew Welch and the Beat Generation. New York.
Berger, J. (2003) "The Hour of Poetry. In, John Berger: Selected
Essays. G. Dyer, ed. New York.
Interview with David Meltzer, Summer 1969. In, The San Francisco
Poets. D. Meltzer, ed. New York, 1971.
7- Snyder, G. (1976/1982) Lew Welch: Selected Poems. San Francisco.
8- “Introduction to Hermit Poems”: http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Welch.php
9- From, "Preface to Hermit Poems, The Bath."
10- From, "A Know a Man's Supposed To Have His Hair Cut
11- From, "Whenever I make a
1- On the last
poem's last word. Obviously, Welch is referring to the turkey buzzard
the poem's title, the "bird of re-birth," as he put it
in the body of the poem. However, I wonder, too, if he, perhaps
unconsciously, was recalling his days in Chicago, when he'd go
to listen to Charlie "Bird" Parker. "Goddamn!.
That man astounds me to this day!" Welch told David Meltzer.
"He would come
up after a set, you know, one of those fantastic tunes [Lew
scats "Scrapple from the Apple."] and the kids are
trying to stay in there with him, and they are staying as best
they can because they know who they are playing with. They know
2- A search party failed
to find the poet's remains. It was like Wu Tao-Tzu,
the Ancient Chinese
a palace wall a glorious landscape, including a mountain.
Then he opened a door on the side of the mountain, walked through,
and disappeared, forever.
3- This invaluable
edition of Lew Welch's life's work includes his uncollected
poems, introduced by the distinguished editor, and
Welch's literary executor, Donald M. Allen, These poems are followed
by an example
dynamic teaching style, "Language
is Speech." (Originally
published in, How
I Work As A Poet. San Francisco, 1983.)