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.")