A Lost Poet’s Voice Revived

If he's still alive, Lew Welch would have celebrated his 93rd birthday Aug. 16, 2019. A Reed College graduate and one of the half dozen or so poets, including Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Michael McClure, who emerged from the San Francisco Renaissance of the 1950s, Welch was a misfit even among the Beats. For years, he held a 9-to-5 job writing and editing advertising copy for Montgomery Ward, the mail-order company. He also taught the University of California Extension Poetry Workshop, while crafting his own poems and short stories.

On May 23, 1971, he wrote a suicide note that read, "I never could make anything work out right and now I'm betraying my friends." Then, with a gun in hand, he walked into the Sierra Nevada.

He has never been seen or heard from since, and his body has never been found, though fans have turned him into a cult figure, a fate he'd find ironic. A pop poet, Welch wrote for the hipsters, Beats and beatniks who gathered nightly, from about 1954 to 1967, in San Francisco to listen to jazz, drink cappuccinos and sip red wine.

Now, with the publication of "Ring of Bone," a recent collection of his poems, songs and drawings with a foreword by Gary Snyder, he's on the cusp of recognition as a distinguished American author and the real stuff of American myth and legend. As Snyder writes, "This bright-eyed bardic spirit, Lew Welch still wandering and singing on the back roads - I imagine - at the far edge of the West - will be with us a long time."

"Ring of Bone" offers something for nearly every Bay Area poetry lover, including iconic geographical places from Mount Tamalpais to Market Street, plus beloved Bay Area redwoods, eucalyptus and pine. But "Ring of Bone" offers much more than landscapes for locals. Welch maps monstrous American cities and alienated American spaces.

He explores his own alien self in the signature poem, "Song of a Self," with its refrain, "left out and afraid." You can hear the self-pity in his voice and his sly sense of '60s humor, too, as when he writes, "For centuries girls have been seduced by poetry." In the halcyon days of the Haight-Ashbury, he wrote "The Hippy Chick's Lament" and caught the counterculture's lingo in the refrain, "Oh baby come on let's go!"

A postmodern Walt Whitman, Welch focused on the wasteland in his own head. In a 1970 preface to his poems, he noted that his work was a "wasted field in which, like blocks of cement, the wreckage of my mind is scattered." Alcohol and drugs took a toll on his soul. "I've destroyed my brain," he wrote candidly in "Orange Take." Still, he persevered. Always pushing poetic parameters, he abandoned standard grammar and punctuation and added visual effects, such as a hand-drawn heart with an arrow through it and the words "Lew + World." In fact, many of his best poems have the look and feel of well-designed ads.

In the 1960s, Welch lost his way, though he salvaged a great deal. In "Theology," one of his best poems, he wrote, "Guard the Mysteries!/ Constantly reveal Them!" Moreover, in his notes for the Poetry Workshop included at the back of "Ring of Bone," Welch revealed the Zen wisdom he acquired as a copywriter.

At his desk, he wrote ads by going into a "trance" and bringing "words to Mind." To the practice of poetry he brought much the same intense mindfulness. No wonder that his luminous poems feel as vibrant today as when they first burst from the wellsprings of creativity in his own head.

(Jonah Raskin is the author of "American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl' and the Birth of the Beat Generation.")

6 Responses to "A Lost Poet’s Voice Revived"

  1. Charles Upton   October 9, 2019 at 9:13 pm

    LEW WENT SOUTHWEST

    by Charles Upton

    Lew Welch, in his suicide- and/or self-occultation note, said: “I went Southwest”—Southwest, we must assume, from his point of departure, Gary Snyder’s Kitkitdizze, near Nevada City in the Sierra foothills.

    After Lew died or disappeared or turned into a Turkey Buzzard, I had a dream of him where he was at a blackboard, doing something called “Chalk Speak”, like a football coach will do “chalk talk”, diagramming the plays for the players. I was living in Olema, California, at the time.

    After that dream I got a map of the Sierras, looked for some place name that sounded like Chalk Speak, and finally picked “Spanish Creek”. (I was wrong.)

    Then I went to Samuel P. Taylor State Park in West Marin County and picked some Red Larskpur Root—an herb the Miwoks used to use for divination and/or suicide—got into my Toyota Land Cruiser, and headed for Spanish Creek. I hiked in, found a place down by the creek itself, and pitched my tent. That night I ingested just a TINY sliver of the Larkspur Root, and lay me down to dream.

    I dreamt that Lew Welch was alive and well and living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

    Back in Olema, I consulted Directory Assistance and found that there was one Lew Welch listed as living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I wrote him a letter to the effect of “if you’re not the Lew Welch I knew this is going to be a really weird letter, so let me apologize in advance.” I got no reply.

    (Like all my other experiences with magic, this one taught me two things: 1) that magic is real—sort of—and, 2) that it’s not worth the practice. Who would risk death, really, just to establish an astral connection with Milwaukee, Wisconsin?)

    Then later, much later, looking again at a map of the Sierras, I realized (idiot) that Lew in my first dream, with his “Chalk Speak”, had really been trying to say “Jack’s Peak”, the name of an actual mountain in El Dorado County. There it was on the map, southeast of Kitkitdizze, above the southwest shore of Lake Tahoe.

    But then Google Earth was born, and when I looked at the satellite photo of Jack’s Peak in the Sierras, all I saw was a totally barren and inaccessible wilderness of snow and rock. No roads, no visible trails.

    However, it turns out that there’s another Jack’s Peak in the Coast Range near Monterey, in a state park that’s named for it, just off Highway One—the highway that forms part of Geary Street in San Francisco, hits the coast, turns south, becomes the Great Highway, then travels farther and farther south to Big Sur and beyond. From that Jack’s Peak, you can see the Pacific Ocean. In Lew’s words:

    I like playing that game
    Standing on a high rock looking way out over it all:

    “I think I’ll call it the Pacific”

    —from “Wobbly Rock”; and, from “The Song Mt. Tamalpais Sings”:

    This is the last place.
    There is nowhere else to go.

    You could make the case that Lew was not a man to die surrounded by high mountains, any more than Harte Crane was, though his relentless idealism might have told him different. Man follows the Sun. Like the Stamper brothers in Ken Kesey’s SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION, it should have been the Ocean for Lew Welch—the place where the Sun decides to set. Yet he began from Kitkitdizze and sent a dream of Jack’s Peak; and he told Frank Dieterich, “Up in the Sierras there’s these shear granite crevasses hundreds of feet deep. You could balance on the edge of one, blow your brains out, and topple right in; you’d never be found.” He also noted that the totem bird of Milarepa, the great Tibetan yogi, was the Vulture—which is why I mailed a Turkey Buzzard feather Lew Welch “sent” me after his death to a Dzogchen Lama in Nepal, along with a picture of Lew and twenty American dollars, asking the Lama’s prayers for his passage through the bardo….

    But the Jack’s Peak in Monterey County lies southwest (and by south) of Kitkitdizze. If forensic dreams are ever to be relied upon in the run-off of resting-places, if “in dreams begin responsibilities”, then I vote for there.

    And whether that Jack’s Peak, or that other one in the Sierras, holds his bones, too tough for even Buzzard-beak to crack, or whether that mountain was just one of his dream-time way-stations on the road between Here and There (which is the only road there is), there is still a reason to name it: because every NAME is a STEP.

    No step from Here to There is ever final, of course; like Jack Kerouac said in MEXICO CITY BLUES, “You just numbly don’t get there”. So it’s best, I think, to end all these attempts to end it all in the words of Lew Welch himself, from “Hiking Poem/High Sierra”:

    Trails go nowhere.
    They end exactly
    where you stop.

    Reply
  2. Eric Sunswheat   October 10, 2019 at 2:02 am

    The Marin Museum of Bicycling in Fairfax, home to the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, needs volunteers to help with all the many tasks involved with running a museum.

    Depending on your skills and interests, here are some things you could be doing:

    * Graphic design to help us create various pieces for membership drives, event rentals, and fundraising. This would include brochures, posters, letter templates, email templates, cards, newsletters and other items.

    * Special Event and day-to-day front desk staffing.

    * Database maintenance to enter email addresses and memberships, run reports, etc.

    * Website and social media work.

    * Help expand and enhance our online and onsite gift shop.

    * Exhibit and facilities upkeep and repairs. Carpentry, electrical, lighting, audio/video, etc.

    * Many other projects–let us know about your talents!!

    Don’t live near us? We also have opportunities for work-at-home projects for those who do not live close to us–just ask!

    Get more exposure for your work and help Marin County’s new bicycle cultural center reach out and attract more members, visitors and donors. We offer free memberships, event tickets and other items for our regular volunteers. Have fun working alongside and getting to know some of the pioneers of our sport such as Joe Breeze, Otis Guy, Charlie Kelly, Cecile Ojeda-Bodington and many others.

    The Marin Museum of Bicycling is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that was started by a group of long-time cycling friends and is the culmination of years of dreaming, planning and building. We opened in June of 2015 and we are run entirely by volunteers–we have no paid staff. If you are not yet familiar with us, please visit our website at http://www.mmbhof.org

    You do NOT need to be a super experienced cyclist to volunteer–just have a sincere desire to help promote the history and future of bicycling, and a willingness create a welcoming cultural center for people to experience and learn about the many aspects of this most amazing vehicle.

    THIS IS COOL, HOW DO I SIGN UP? Good question. Our Volunteer Application form is available online at:

    http://mmbhof.org/get-involved/volunteer/

    Reply
    • Michael Koepf   October 10, 2019 at 7:27 am

      What the hell does this have to do with Lew Welch?

      Reply
  3. Michael Koepf   October 10, 2019 at 7:36 am

    A few lines from one of Lew Welch’s poems:

    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…”

    From Hermit Poems

    Reply
  4. Steve Heilig   October 11, 2019 at 8:16 am

    I’m a great admirer of his work. Here’s my report from his belated memorial a few years back…
    Buzzard Poetry: An All-Star Tribute to Poetic Icon Lew Welch
    https://www.huffpost.com/entry/lew-welch-poetry_b_1677932

    Reply
  5. Jonah Raskin   October 11, 2019 at 8:30 am

    Thanks Steve. Hope you’re well. I was surprised that the AVA reprinted that review of mine from years ago, but I know people who still remember Lew with great fondness.

    Reply

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