A famous passage in Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet urges his young correspondent to “be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue… the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now….” Lew Welch lived the questions like no other American poet of the twentieth century. So much so that the story of his life (and mysterious death) is inextricably bound up with his poetry— not only because Ring of Bone, the collection that first appeared via GreyFox in 1973 and now in a new edition from City Lights, is structured in autobiographical sections; the story of Welch’s life inflects his poetry everywhere because so much of that life hinges on his decision to remain open to the questions that poetry poses.
Indeed, the title Ring of Bone is taken from a mission-statement-type poem, a version of which first appears in a desperate letter to Robert Duncan written in 1962 when Welch, an alcoholic, felt himself sinking into despair (the letter was never sent). Eerily, the letter delves into the topic of poet suicides, with Welch meditating on Mayakovsky’s suicide note-poem before exclaiming, “These suicides are but a part of the job of Poet!” Welch himself would famously disappear into the woods in 1971 at age 45, leaving his own note. But the poem produced at this moment is characteristically spare, musical, and quietly ecstatic:
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
The struggle to remain open to the task of poetry, the pain of being open, and the periodic breakdowns this pain caused punctuated and defined Welch’s career.
Lew Welch studied at Reed College starting in 1948, where he met and forged lifelong friendships with Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder. Gertrude Stein, on whom Welch wrote his thesis, and William Carlos Williams, who visited Reed and befriended the poets, were major influences. Yet Welch left for New York to work in advertising—legend has it he came up with the famous slogan “Raid Kills Bugs Dead”—and wound up in Chicago, studying in the masters program at the University of Chicago while holding down an advertising job with Montgomery Ward. It’s during this time that the struggle began; Welch, drifting into a middle-class lifestyle, watched from afar as his friends were swept up in the burgeoning Beat movement back in San Francisco. His letters to Whalen and Snyder during this time are excruciating, alternating between outright envy and eagerness to join in the fun. He finally arranged a transfer to the Oakland office of Ward’s in 1957. In some ways, the sense of having arrived late to the party would haunt Welch ever after.
Early poems from around this time show his autobiographical approach and the plain, honest shape of his lines. From “Chicago Poem”:
In the mills and refineries of its south side Chicago passes its natural gas in flames Bouncing like bunsens from stacks a hundred feet high. The stench stabs at your eyeballs. … All things considered, it’s a gentle and undemanding planet, even here. Far gentler Here than any of a dozen other places. The trouble is always and only with what we build on top of it. There’s nobody else to blame. You can’t fix it and you can’t make it go away. It does no good appealing To some ill-invented Thunderer Brooding above some unimaginable crag…
Here, one perceives Welch’s attempt to transform the ugliness (to him) of Chicago’s Midwestern urban landscape into some kind of lyric beauty, followed by an elegiac lament on that ugliness, an economic and ecological awareness that becomes more and more a feature of his writing...