Standing by the boat one night I watched the lake go
absolutely flat. Smaller than raindrops, and only
Here and there, the feeding rings of fish were visible a hundred
yards away — and the Blue Gill caught that afternoon
Lifted from its northern lake like a tropical! Jewel at its ear
Belly gold so bright you’d swear he had a
Light in there. His color faded with his life. A small
green fish …
Lew Welch was one of the very best Beat Generation poets, though he never quite got famous for it. He caught the tail end of the Beat movement, reaching his creative peak in the 1960s along with Michael McClure, Diane Di Prima and Lenore Kandel. Lew Welch worked as an ad man in Chicago before leaving the commercial world to become a full-time poet/dharma bum, and in this capacity he was part of the creative team that came up with the slogan “Raid Kills Bugs Dead”. Welch was highly regarded by other Beat poets, but despite his savvy in the advertising business he never found a secure foothold in the fast-changing 1960s hipster/poetry scene, and seems to have considered himself a lost cause. Welch killed himself in 1971.
A new collection of Lew Welch’s poetry has just been published by City Lights. Ring of Bone: Collected Poems covers his entire career, from his early attempts to write jazz poetry inspired by William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein to his increasingly self-directed, sardonic later verses, which encircle his creative frustration. Some titles: “Sausalito Trash Prayer”, “Song of the Turkey Buzzard”, “A Round of English”, “Not Yet 40 But My Beard is Already White”. This book now stands as the authoritative edition of Lew Welch’s work, and includes a foreword by his close friend Gary Snyder.
Two interesting facts about poet Lew Welch: first, his stepson was the San Francisco 1980’s blues-pop singer Huey Lewis (who must have taken the last name “Lewis” in tribute to his stepfather, even though in the 1980s it was hip to be square).
The second fact is more personal, and is a story I’ve never told here before. In the year 2000 I met with Thea Lowry, a Petulama, California yeoman farmer and writer who had a special connection to Beat history: she was the younger sister of Gary Snyder, and in the late 1940s had attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon during the same years that Gary Snyder, Lew Welch and Philip Whalen all studied there. She told me wonderful stories about all the Beat writers, several of whom, she confessed with frank pride to me, she had had surreptitious love affairs with. One of these was Jack Kerouac, who she described as a gentle and eager if confused lover.
But, Thea Lowry told me, there was one “friend of Gary’s” who she loved most, and with whom she shared a special enduring relationship. “Lew Welch was the one I really cared about, and he was the best poet of them all,” she told me. I hope Thea wouldn’t mind me telling these stories now (Thea Lowry died in a car accident shortly after I had the pleasure of meeting her).
If you’re in San Francisco this Thursday, there will be a celebration of Lew Welch (and of the new City Lights book) at the San Francisco Public Library, featuring Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger. Gary Snyder is also the subject of a nice tribute by Vince Larue.
And, since I don’t know when I’ll be back again with more Beat Generation links (maybe when that On The Road movie finally comes out in America? No dates have been announced yet), here’s more about the Lenore Kandel book mentioned above, and here’s Larry Ferlinghetti thinking visually at the Poetry Foundation. Finally, from the Allen Ginsberg Project, here’s some delightful Beat kitsch, and then even some more Beat kitsch. Nothing ever wrong with that.