In the winter of my sophomore year at Reed College, I had the honor of hosting my favorite poet, Lew Welch, at the little house I shared with my boyfriend on S.E. Schiller Street. Lew was the designated Poet-in-Residence that January, also the month of a rare Portland snowfall. In anticipation of our guest’s visit, we baked fresh bread and a blackberry pie, mopped the floor, stockpiled fresh produce from Peoples Food Store.
We waited expectantly for the arrival of our revered poet. Around dinnertime, he appeared at the front door wearing a lumpy overcoat, sporting a stubble of several days, and smelling unmistakably of Jim Beam. It was soon clear that our guest feasted on language, not food. He didn’t touch a morsel of the lovingly prepared first night’s dinner, or any other dinner we set on the table in front of him. Orange juice with raw egg in the morning, some hair of the dog. That seemed to be it.
Nevertheless, Lew kept us enthralled with his poems, with his voice, with his advice. He exhorted us to observe the rhythms of speech in our own work. (He was, after all, the man who wrote the phrase RAID KILLS BUGS DEAD while working a stint as an advertising copywriter, before one of his nervous breakdowns.) Lew had also driven a cab for awhile (he also worked as a longshoreman on the San Francisco waterfront), and he insisted on ferrying us the few miles to campus in thigh-high snow by taxi cab… a novel mode of travel for two students.
His friendship and his work continued to inspire us after that initial visit, over the months to come when he visited us in the Pacific Northwest again, and over the many years since the day that Lew, in a deep depression, left a note and disappeared with his revolver into the rugged foothills of the Sierras near his friend Gary Snyder’s home near Nevada City. His body has never been found.
On the 40th anniversary of Lew’s disappearance last spring, some friends of Lew—including myself, Gary Snyder, Lewis MacAdams, and April Fitzsimmons—decided to host a memorial reading as part of ALOUD in his honor. We told stories about Lew, and we played audio of Lew reading his own poems. It was moving and eerie to hear Lew’s voice ringing out in our auditorium after all these years. It was exhilarating to introduce his work to a new audience. You can listen to the podcast here.April Fitzsimmons, Gary Snyder, Louise Steinman, and Lewis MacAdams. Photo by Gary Leonard.
We commissioned two limited editions broadsides by the printmaker Dirk Hagner for the evening… Lew’s poem, “Ring of Bone” we gave away to everyone who attended. A limited edition broadside of Gary Snyder’s poem, Axe Handles, signed by the poet and the artist, is still available for sale in our Library Store.
We planned to have copies of Lew’s marvelous volume collected poems, Ring of Bone, for sale at the program, and we were all surprised to find out the book was out of print from City Lights Books. As it turned out, City Lights Books was surprised to learn this as well and made plans to re-issue the book. It was released this week, with a new preface by Gary Snyder. I couldn’t be more pleased.
From Gary Snyder’s preface to Ring of Bone:
“Lew’s memory and mystery lives on. In the spring of 2011 the Central Library of Los Angeles sponsored a gathering of several poets and writers who had known Lew, and we were all surprised by the size and enthusiasm of the crowd that came, people of all ages. City Lights Books took over Lew’s works after Donald Allen’s death [Donald Allen was Lew’s executor], and in 2011 all of Lew’s books were out of print. The Los Angeles celebration of his work was push enough to get us to a new edition of Ring of Bone. 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. As Lew also wrote,
Guard the Mysteries!
Constantly reveal Them!
Mystery: the life of art (though poets are always com-
plaining) is without equal. There is nothing to regret.”
-posted by Louise Steinman