Lew Welch has been dead now for 40 years, just about as long as his total time on earth. He disappeared on May 23, 1971, walked out of poet and friend Gary Snyder’s house into the mountains of California, carrying a gun, and leaving behind a suicide note that read, “I had great visions but never could bring them together with reality. I used it all up. It’s all gone.” Despite a search, his body was never found. A mysterious end to a troubled life, one that prompts Snyder to envision, in his forward to Ring of Bone, “Lew Welch still wandering and singing on the back roads—I imagine— at the far edge of the West…”
Associated with the Beat poets, Welch attended Reed College in Portland in the late 1940s, with Phillip Whalen, Gary Snyder, and the formalist William Dickey. After college he spent time in New York and Chicago working in advertising, and was purported to have come up with the slogan “Raid Kills Bugs Dead.” But he maintained ties to Whalen and Snyder and when the San Francisco Renaissance began to take hold, in the late 1950’s, he transferred to the Oakland advertising office of Montgomery Ward. In “Chicago Poem” he wrote of leaving the city and the oppressed life he’d been leading.
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.
Welch had a history of breakdowns and alcoholism. He was fired in 1958 from his advertising job, and took up driving cab. In 1962 and 1963 he spent time in the back country of Northern California where he produced Hermit Poems and The Way Back. Publishing picked up once he returned to San Francisco, and he delivered a few lectures on poetry and participated in panel discussions, all while working as a busboy at the Trident restaurant in Sausalito, (it seems living several lives at once was a special talent.) It was during this period that he met long time partner, Magda Cregg, and together they parented her son, Hugh, who went on to play music under the stage name Huey Lewis, (yes, the famous one,) his alias an homage to Welch, whom he remembered as “a great teacher.”
Welch helped to compile the first Ring of Bone (a smaller, Selected volume, now out of print) and even wrote the preface that remains, alongside Snyder’s) an introduction of the reissue. What proceeds is his complete collection of poetry, as well as drawings, sheet music and lyrics, something akin to a play, a biographic outline, and a statement of poetics based on a class he taught for several years at the U.C. Extension Poetry Workshop in the late ’60s—pretty much the whole shebang, less his work for Montgomery Ward. In the poet’s own words, it is a spiritual autobiography.
Of these poems, Snyder wrote, “he turns sometimes to street-talk, street-jive, blues, bop rhythms, and can score it on the page. This is done without cuteness or obscurity. Indeed, all these poems have music and clarity of language and a compression such that ‘the words stop, but the meaning keeps going on.’” Though he wrote sometimes about factories and the dismal subsistence of industrial America, though he drove cab and worked as a bus boy, Welch was no automath. It was in spite of a classical education that he adopted the plain speech of the street, he was not simply falling in with a movement but enacting a passionate study of linguistics. As he writes in the brilliant essay, “Language is Speech,” a Statement of Poetics,
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…No one would ever argue that Bach’s music is the collection of little black notes on paper, but nearly everybody thinks language has something to do with libraries and dictionaries…The street writes dictionaries, the able lexicographer is a recorder and statistician with a fine ear for the language, the speech of a tribe.
Lew Welch was many things; a scholar, a father, a drunk, a laborer, an adman, a madman, a friend, and an ascetic— no better description of him exists than that which came in his own vision, deep in the wilds of the Klamath Mountains, the poem after which the collection is titled:
I saw myself
a ring of bone
in the clear stream
of all of it
always to be open to it
that all of it
might flow through
and then heard
“ring of bone” where
ring is what a
A bell, we might add, also resonates. These 40 years later, Lew, you are missed.