The Song the Poet Sang: Remembering the life and times of Lew Welch

[Forty years] have passed since the winter we hosted Reed College‘s poet in residence. We were living then on Southeast Schiller, in a tiny two-story house set back from the street behind three towering European birches. Dan had just graduated from Reed, and I was a sophomore studying American lit. Our friends lived in Reed houses with names like Bedshop or Toad Hall, or out at Mist Mountain Farm: Paul in the shake-roofed geodesic called “The Beehive,” Richard and Vicki in the sod house they called “The Hole,” and Steffi and Meg in what had been the goat shed. Our friend Aron built himself a wooden yurt in the Reed canyon and moved in.

Lew Welch ’50 was chosen as the poet in residence that January, I later learned, because Gary Snyder ’51 had been invited but couldn’t come and he suggested his friend Phil Whalen ’51, and Phil Whalen couldn’t come and he suggested his friend Lew Welch ’50. Lew didn’t know this at the time, of course, which was just as well.

We’d been fans of Lew’s poetry for years. While still in high school, I’d made a pilgrimage to the basement of City Lights Bookstore, where I listened raptly as Dan read aloud “The Song of the Turkey Buzzard” from Lew’s longer poem, “The Song Mt. Tamalpais Sings.” I’d noticed turkey buzzards on a hike that same afternoon. Scrawny red-necked creatures gorging on road kill. But Lew described the vulture as a “bird of re-birth,” one who could “keep the highways clean, and bother no Being.” Through Lew’s perspective, I changed my opinion of those elegant, lazy soarers, those ultimate recyclers.

When we heard that Lew had been chosen to be poet in residence, we asked the Paideia committee if we might invite him over for dinner some night. Hell yes. In fact, we could have him for the whole week! We would even be provided with a stipend for his food. Euphoric with our good fortune and sobered by this great honor and responsibility, we busily stocked our refrigerator with wholesome foods: seasonal vegetables and ripe fruit from Corno’s Groceries, whole milk with real cream from People’s Food Store, sausages from Otto’s, Italian cheeses from Pieri’s. We mopped the floor of our little house and transformed the downstairs couch into a guest bed. We baked Tibetan barley bread and a blackberry pie.

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. He was a handsome man still, with fine features and a mane of reddish hair framing a high forehead. His eyes were roguish, quick and alive; his smile to die for. 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.

And speaking of dogs . . . we forgot to tell Lew we had one. Our dog, Elwha Pootel, was off on his nocturnal rounds when Lew arrived the first night. Around midnight, Lew crashed on the couch and we went upstairs to bed. In the middle of the night, Elwha scratched at the door and Lew, half asleep, stumbled over and opened it for him. The exuberant pup leapt into the poet’s warm sheets and shook off his wet, snowy coat. Apparently, poet and dog made an accommodation–we didn’t hear about it until the next morning.

Lew was touched and amused at the domesticity of his young hosts, then both aspiring poets. I think he was honestly curious as to how life would treat us–so young and so privileged–in the years to come. We admired him enormously for all the experience we didn’t have. He was one of the original Beats. He’d driven cross-country with Kerouac. He’d written the line RAID KILLS BUGS DEAD during his short stint as a novice advertising copywriter. The road he had chosen–as an authentic poet, a longshoreman, and an alcoholic–was a hard one.

Lew taught us to revel in the rhythm of everyday speech (“My finger on the throttle and my foot upon the pedal of the clutch”) and he exhorted us to read our poetry out loud. “When you write down a poem,” he said, “you are transcribing a voice.” He made us see that poetry didn’t have to be obscure, it could be as real as the red wheelbarrow or the young girl splashing in the surf at Muir Beach with her jeans rolled to mid-thigh. He helped us see the connection between writing poetry and living poetry.

He insisted on taking us everywhere by taxi, even the half-mile to campus, in the rare heavy snow of that January in Portland. Lew had at one time driven taxi for a living (“When I drive cab/ I bring the sailor home from the sea. In the back of/ my car he fingers the pelt of his maiden”). Now that he was poet in residence, and we were his hosts, damnit, we were going to be chauffeured. Our regular route to campus–Southeast 41st, Woodstock Boulevard–looked entirely different viewed from the windows of a Yellow Cab churning its way through the unplowed streets.

Lew was at a pinnacle in his life (soon to crash again). For the moment he had solve one of his big problems. (“Manifesto,” 1964: “Without in any way causing a strain on my community, without begging or conning anyone in any way, I will pay my bills entirely by doing my real job, which is Poet.”) Lew sang his poetry, nipping on Old Overholt from a silver flask. His young audience listened reverently. He was our own Irish bard and imperfect Zen master, our teacher and our friend.

He came up to the Northwest again, later that spring, to dry out at Bill and Nancy Yardas’s stump farm in Woodland, Washington. Bill and Lew had gone commercial salmon fishing together in the early ’60s; they shared the laughter and the intimacy of old friends. Bill was a burly affable Yugoslav with thick silver hair and a droll sense of humor. A “redneck beatnik,” he called himself. His right arm was withered from a forceps birth. With his good left arm Bill could saddle a horse, chop wood, prime a pump, free a lamb from a blackberry thicket. A pack of Camels was perpetually grasped in the hand of his tiny arm. We’d drive up to Bill’s farm for the night, enthusiastically devour the steak and potatoes that Nancy cooked up on the wood-burning stove, then listen to Bill and Lew rap on into the wee hours of the morning in a haze of tobacco and dope smoke.

That summer, Lew decided to get a fresh start by building his own cabin on land in the Sierra foothills near Snyder’s homestead. We would be the work crew. Lew wrote us letters outlining our duties. I would be the camp cook. (Lew was no student of feminism.) Dan and our friend Steve Nemirow ’71, another Reed poet and then an apprentice stone mason, would help with the heavy construction. We were to show up in early August, when the building materials would have arrived. I remember Lew was worried about the financial outlay, worried about running the show.

When the semester ended, I went down to Los Angeles for a quick visit with my folks. I was exhausted from too many all-nighters. The first day home I slept late, settling down at noon for breakfast. I picked up the L.A. Times lying on the kitchen table. In a little paragraph in regional news, I noticed a bolded headline: SEARCH OFF FOR MISSING BEAT GENERATION POET. My heart lurched. The brief article described how the poet Lew Welch had been missing for a week in the Sierra foothills. On May 23, apparently in a deep depression, the article said, Welch took his revolver and walked away into the forest. His body has never been found.

When August rolled around, instead of working on Lew’s cabin, Dan and I decided to get married at Cape Foulweather on the Oregon coast. We assembled our family and friends at the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific. We stood in a circle: our friends from Mist Farm in their tattered best, my father in a suit, my grandmother wrapped in a pink blanket, Elwha Pootel sporting a red yarn on his collar. We read one of Lew’s poems as part of the ceremony:

I for one, am still looking. So many years have passed since Lew left my life and probably this world. Dan and I still write–occasionally poems, mostly nonfiction–though in different cities and in separate lives. I know now what I didn’t know at 20–how difficult it is for a writer to pay her bills entirely by doing her “real job.” At 60, I am older now than Lew was when I first met him.

Whenever I travel, and drive into a new city, say Albuquerque or Pittsburgh or El Paso, it’s become a habit to look carefully at the hard faces of men in bus stations or huddled in soup kitchen lines. I guess I’m still searching for Lew, though I don’t really think Lew would have chosen to disappear into urban America. Maybe he’s off living his hermit life, as he did that one winter on the Little Salmon River (“I saw myself/ a ring of bone/ in the clear stream/ of all of it”). I think about first hearing “Song of the Turkey Buzzard” at City Lights and I remember Lew’s admonition to his friends in that poem:

Let no one grieve,
I shall have used it all up
used up every bit of it.

What an extravagance!
What a relief

There’s one of Lew’s poems I’ve kept taped to my kitchen wall in all the cities I’ve lived in during the last two decades. It’s a poem that never fails to help me put my life into perspective. I recommend it highly:

Small Sentence to Drive Yourself Sane

The next time you are dong something absolutely ordinary, or even better.

The next time you are doing something absolutely necessary, such as pissing or making love,
or shaving or washing the dishes or the baby or yourself or the room, say to yourself:

“So it’s all come to this!”

[originally published as “The Song the Poet Sang: A Friend Remembers the Life and Times of Lew Welch,” REED Magazine, 1999.
this week is the 40th anniversary of Lew’s disappearance.
Tomorrow night at ALOUD, with Gary Snyder, Lewis MacAdams and April Fitzsimmons, we’ll commemorate Lew’s life and work.

13 Responses to “The Song the Poet Sang: Remembering the life and times of Lew Welch”

  1. A beautiful, moving essay. I’m going out today to buy me some Lew Welch (most of our books are still untouched in storage since the move to NYC). Louise, you bring back such a time of our lives. I can almost taste the Northwest this morning, and I certainly hear the poems that were all around us then.

    • thanks, Melis. Lew’s collected work, “Ring of Bone” OP, so grab one if you can at the Strand. Good chance that City Lights will bring it back in print I hear, maybe in the next year. His correspondence is wonderful, too.

  2. steve nemirow Says:

    hey Louise!
    all around, like weeds, like coyotes
    people thinking along the lines Lew laid down.

  3. Charlotte Says:

    How fortunate for us that you republished this incredible, poetic essay on Lew. It sparks vivid memories of those times, the people, college, when every aspect of life was seen anew. Beautiful.

  4. Frances Phillips Says:

    I loved reading this piece, Louise, and remembering Lew’s residency at Reed. I remember that he led a writing workshop and started it off by asking us to go around the room and say what we wanted to talk about. I said that I was interested in hearing how everyone did their work–their process. And when that comment clearly wasn’t going over well, I added (making it worse), whether they wrote by hand or on a typewriter. I quickly realized that the wish was absolutely uncool in that room and that I should keep quiet, which is what I usually did anyway. Lew shot me a bemused but sympathetic smile.

  5. A lovely introduction to Lew Welch! Such a haunting story. His poetic advice on how to drive yourself sane is brilliant. I can’t help but smile when I think of going through the day, pausing intermittently to say, “So it’s all come to this!” Thanks, Lew. Thanks, Louise.

  6. Betsy Amster Says:

    Lovely, Louise.

  7. Thank you Louise, for transporting us into the North Western 1960’s wilderness, and introducing me to turkey buzzards in the best way possible. Thank you for introducing those of us who didn’t know him to Lew, big hearted, sometimes lost and whose spirit still is.

  8. Courtney Angela Says:

    Louise, this is beautiful. It’s prompting me to read more of his work (I’m ashamed to say that I wasn’t familiar with it until reading your essay). It’s such an evocative piece, not just (but especially) about Welch’s life and work, but also about this moment in time. Thanks for this.

  9. susan banyas Says:

    Innocent wide eyed wonders of words Louise. You and Lew, forever. I treasure this remembrance, this homage to a time + place + spirit. Kisses, hugs, good wine, fine times, circles.

  10. Wayne Norman Says:

    Wonderful program last night. Thank you for all your efforts putting this together. It was a memorable evening.

  11. Piecing together my own beleagured memories of Welch’s reading in the Faculty Office Building that night, I tumbled to this lovely essay. Excellent work! Most helpful in the letter I’m writing to the editor of TOADSUCK REVIEW (yes, there is a Toadsuck, AR and TOADSUCK REVIEW is the lit mag of the writing department at the University of Central Arkansas) thanking him for reprinting Welch’s fabulous essay LANGUAGE IS SPEECH. Thanks to your own splendid essay, I’ll be able to fine tune some of the facts in my epistolary reminiscence of that snowy boozy Portland evening in FOB when Welch demonstrated the sound of one hand clapping (remember that?).

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