POETICA
Critiques of Poetry and Poetics

Joel Weishaus

 

 

Lew Welch, Ring of Bone Collected Poems (New & Expanded Edition)
City Light Books: San Francisco, 2012.


1.

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 a 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. I can't make anything out of it—never could. I had great visions but never could bring them together with reality. I used it all up. It's 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!

By "betraying 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 saw his vulture circle high above him - it had found him - after a long while of lazy circling it slid down thru air toward him with its stately rocking glide & swept over him cocking its red wattled head with unblinking eye looking directly at him - Lew looked up & caught its eye - the pact was made - there was nothing left to do."(2)

2.

Lewis Barrett Welch Jr. was born in Phoenix, AZ, in 1926—a banner year for the birth of American poets, which included 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 Alto, served in 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 a writer, influenced by Gertrude Stein, on whose work he wrote his B.A. thesis, 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 N.J. 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 in Montgomery Ward's Advertising Department. Married, he began to build a comfortable middle-class life.

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 to Oriental Languages at U.C. Berkeley, and also to undergo formal Zen 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 had dreamed of 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

      feeding it anymore." (3)

Returning to San Francisco, where his marriage eventually ended, Lew made his living driving a taxi, as a sometimes fisherman, and doing odd jobs. During the late 1960s, in the Haight-Asbury, he became a leading figure in the anarchist Diggers, honing skills the Establishment fears: Dionysian love, 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 in order 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)

3.

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 wife, Margot Patterson Doss, I was walking past a room in which Welch was holding forth with one of his riddles. Perhaps it was "The Riddle of Bowing":

In every 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.)

Welch has been criticized for being too forthright, 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 nostalgia? One way may be through art critic and novelist John Berger's statement,"The 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 over hard 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.

"But 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 practice. You have to learn how to shave the reed just right—you have to learn how to breath just right..."(6)

4.

In his Foreward to Lew Welch's Ring of Bone: Collected Poems, quoting from his Preface to the earlier Selected Poems, Gary Snyder wrote: "The heart of the book is 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 truly relevant. I would like to have poetry be the kind of thing that a man can say with good friends in a mountain cabin." (6)

Then, again. at a reading in Santa Barbara, CA, on April 22, 1967, he said: "This 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)

He begins what was to be a two year hermitage, mainly spent living in an old Conservation Corps cabin at Folks of Salmon, in N. California, where he hoped his mind would settle and his vision of who he is would deepen—

I'm the ghost roan stallion.
Leif Ericson.
The beautiful Golden Girl!
(10)

Sometimes, he 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.

'He had a very large number of friends.' (11)

 

5.

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: a poet at the height of his formidable talent leaving, in a poem, instructions on how to dispose of his 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 he had been longing for—

NOT THE BRONZE CASKET BUT THE BRAZEN WING

SOARING FOREVER ABOVE THEE O PERFECT

O SWEETEST WATER O GLORIOUS

WHEELING

BIRD

 

 

References:

1- 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."
4- Saroyan, A. (1979) Genesis Angels: The Saga of Lew Welch and the Beat Generation. New York.
5- Berger, J. (2003) "The Hour of Poetry. In, John Berger: Selected Essays. G. Dyer, ed. New York.
6- 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 Short."
11- From, "Whenever I make a New Poem."

Notes:

1- On the last poem's last word. Obviously, Welch is referring to the turkey buzzard in 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 it."(6)

2- A search party failed to find the poet's remains. It was like Wu Tao-Tzu, the Ancient Chinese artist who painted on 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 of Welch's dynamic teaching style, "Language is Speech." (Originally published in, How I Work As A Poet. San Francisco, 1983.)

 

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