Lew Welch
City Lights ($17.95)

by Maria Damon

Making things with words—that is what Lew Welch did. Early in his career, recently graduated from Reed College (where his friends were the poets Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder), he worked in advertising. The famously laconic and extremely effective four-word slogan “Raid Kills Bugs Dead” is attributed to him, though it is possible that, had he lived long enough to experience the global ecological awakening, he would have regretted lending his brilliance to a pesticide that has deleterious side effects for human and other species’ health.

On either side of that apocryphal bit of notoriety, Welch wrote poetry, struggling to get the sound—“American speech” in the tradition of William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, the Black Mountain and Beat poets, and so forth—to sync up just right with “Mind,” which, according to the poetics statement that comprises the last entry in this new edition of Ring of Bone, must always be “One.” Indebted to the Buddhism that entered the popular culture of the U.S. West Coast in the 1950s (the practice had long been extant there because of large numbers of Asian immigrants but really emerged into mainstream culture after World War II), this concept nods to a universalism, a kind of “ultimate reality” that then expresses itself in the particulars of immanent conditions—historical realities of time, place, individual sensibility, and other contingent circumstances. As Welch succinctly puts it in his explication of “Mind is shapely. Art is shapely,” an unattributed Kerouac aphorism, “Mind is always One, but it is always easier to see how that is if you look at a particular place and time. You see how shapely it is.”

The aphorisms “Raid Kills Bugs Dead” and “Mind is always One” bracket Welch’s life in dynamic and ultimately tragic tension. Though clearly not impervious to the beauties of the world and its spiritual riches, Welch struggled with mental illness and alcoholism for most of his life. In May 1971, he left the rustic shack he’d been living in and walked off into the woods with his dog and his revolver, leaving a suicide note. His body was never found. The mystique that has accrued around him has not necessarily been matched by attention to his work, though Ring of Bone has been in print, albeit sporadically, since the legendary Donald Allen edited and published it through his Four Seasons Foundation in 1973. This fortieth-anniversary expanded edition features a new foreword by Gary Snyder, Welch’s former college roommate and longtime poetic and philosophical kindred spirit; the final poetics essay quoted above, which Welch had intended as part of a textbook for a University of California extension course he regularly taught for several years; and a biographical timeline that includes key poetic, professional, and personal phases in the poet’s life.

Welch’s poetry bristles with earnest desire to live a fully unalienated life; in his preface, Welch refers to the book as a “spiritual autobiography.” The continuing passage is worth quoting at length, as it exemplifies the desire for integration, the seriousness that characterized Welch’s commitment to poetry as a linguistic vehicle for urgent insight:

The mind grows in a flickering kind of way. Sometimes an insight comes too early to be fully understood. At other times, we are shocked that it came, being so obvious, so late. . . .
The shape of Ring of Bone is circular, or back and forth. Naturally such a form never ends. The principal characters are The Mountain, The City, and The Man who attempts to understand and live with them. The Man changes more than The Mountain and The City, and it appears he will always need both.

Clearly Welch considered writing an integral element in personal development, which task he approached, like Whalen and Snyder, with a heavy Buddhist influence (Snyder’s studies of Zen in Japan are well-known, and Whalen became a Zen monk in 1973 and went on to head several important monasteries). At the same time, the influences of American imagism (via Ezra Pound) and a commitment to the everyday both linguistically and thematically (from William Carlos Williams) meant that process was balanced with sharpness of aperçu and acute necessity of utterance–nothing superfluous, nothing casual. The everyday is a portal to the “One.”

The poem usually referred to as “Ring of Bone” (actually untitled and listed as “[I Saw Myself]”) showcases a metaphysics that turns the body itself into a sacred space that is also a process, a noun that is also a verb:

I saw myself
a ring of bone
in the clear stream
of all of it

and vowed,
always to be open to it
that all of it
might flow through

and then heard
“ring of bone” where
ring is what a

bell does

The poem has the power of a synesthetic vision in which the self is continuous with, or a vessel for, “the clear stream / of all of it” and simultaneously an expression thereof, a sonic representation that responds to impulse and flow like Coleridge’s Aeolian harp, fully immersed in a being / doing that is inseparable from every other being / doing. At the same time, the poem presages a death in which a body’s tissue has disappeared, leaving only the bones at the bottom of a shallow stream. The configuration of the bones affects the stream’s flow, but in ways completely beyond the control or volition of the subject.

One traditional Buddhist meditation, the purpose of which is to overcome attachment and understand impermanence, is to visualize one’s dead body decomposing, rotting away to bone, the bone dissolving into dust, etc. Welch takes this as far as he can, yet reserves a special role for the poet so that the bone can be a bell—a functioning, music-making part of the social and natural world. Like that bell, Welch’s work posthumously sounds its contradictions, its urgent seeking with moments of insight, its great attachments to romantic love, drink, camaraderie, language, and intellect, and its unachieved apotheosis as the expression of an untroubled, unified subject.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012