The least-known member of the trio of Beat poets who met at Reed College in Oregon, Lew Welch was perhaps even more tuned into literature than the other two, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen. He was born on August 16, 1926 in Phoenix, Arizona and began writing poetry as a young man after becoming fascinated with the experimental writings of Gertrude Stein. At Reed College, Welch wrote an extensive thesis on Gertrude Stein. When William Carlos Williams visited the campus he read Welch’s poems and tried to help get the thesis published.
Lew Welch did not share the remarkable Buddhist calmness that his good friends Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen had in common. After college these two poets became instantly famous after participating in the landmark Six Gallery poetry reading. At the time Lew Welch was in Chicago, working as a marketing researcher while recovering from a nervous breakdown.
Lew Welch is the hard-partying Dave Wain in Jack Kerouac‘s novel ‘Big Sur.’ Matching Kerouac drink for drink during the joyless events described in this book, he appears destined for the same troubles that faced Kerouac (although even he tells Kerouac to stop drinking by the end of the novel). During this time he was in a relationship with Lenore Kandel, later the author of a well-known book of erotic poetry, who appears as Ramona Swartz in Kerouac’s book. He and Kandel broke up shortly after.
He later began a long-term relationship with a woman named Magda Cregg, who had a young son who would go on to become the famously good-natured 80’s MTV pop star Huey Lewis (who actually has a couple of good tunes to his credit, though it’d be hard to locate any Beat echoes in his work).
Lew Welch appears to have committed suicide in May 1971 while staying at Gary Snyder’s house in Nevada City, California, although his body was never found. He left the following note, discovered by Snyder:
“I never could 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. Don Allen is to be my literary executor- use MSS at Gary’s and at Grove Press. I have $2,000 in Nevada City Bank of America – use it to cover my affairs and debts. I don’t owe Allen G. anything yet nor my Mother. I went Southwest. Goodbye. Lew Welch.”
Aram Saroyan wrote a biography of Lew Welch, ‘Genesis Angels’ a touching and well-written consideration of the short life of this enigmatic poet.
And here’s a memoir of a 1964 poetry reading at San Francisco’s Longshoreman’s Hall.