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  • Lew Welch: An Appreciation
  • Maxine Hong Kingston (bio)

Not everybody who writes poems knows what a poem is. Lew Welch knew. I’m glad I got to meet him before he disappeared. He’s often called a San Francisco poet or a California poet. He studied music in Stockton. He lived with his wife, Magda, in a house on a slope in Marin City, which is a Black city.

They had been expecting Earll and me; Magda had made enough sandwiches for about ten people, then went outside to work in her garden. She probably fed lots of kid poets who came to see her husband. Being still young, we naturally expected food and attention from adults, and did not recognize largesse when we received it. Lew Welch then was working at the docks as a longshoremen’s clerk, and now that I’m a worker and writer myself, I know better than to take up a man’s time on his day off.

He had cut his red hair for the summer. He had written about that: “In summer I usually cut it all off. / I do it myself, with scissors and a / little Jim Beam.” He looked exactly as he said in his poem:

Not yet 40, my beard is already white. Not yet awake, my eyes are puffy and red, like a child who has cried too much.

Only, I think, he had reached forty already; he had lines in his face, but though his eyes were red, they opened wide. He looked at you out of bright blue eyes, but at a part of you that isn’t your appearance or even your personality; he addressed that part of you that is like everybody. I would like to learn to look at people that way.

He went for his papers and books and got down to business. He read to us. He cried. He sang:

She bared her bos’m I whupped out m’knife Carved my initials on her thin breast bone.

“I invented putting a note before and after the parts that need to be sung,” he said. “The book has these fussy sixteenth notes because those [End Page 183] were the only notes the printer had. They should have been quarter notes.” I admired his caring about detail, and have checked the editions of his work that were printed after he disappeared, to see if the notes had been changed. They had, and they do look better.

He read a poem about driving, written by one of his students, and said, “Now, there’s a poem. There’s a poet. I phoned him to come do a reading with me, but he had to work on his car.” There was going to be a reading that weekend by the Bay Area’s best-known poets. “That’s cool. That’s right. He ought to be working on his car.”

From the window, you could see down the hill to a round space filled with motorcycles and cars with their hoods up. Kids were repairing them. “Somebody ought to subsidize garages all over the country, stocked with automotive tools,” he said. “Kids can come and work on their cars, something real, when they drop out of school.”

He had many ideas for things for you to do. There is a poem accompanied by a circle drawn in one brushstroke. The poem is in his clear handwriting. He read it as if it were a friendly but imperative suggestion:

Step out onto the planet Draw a circle a hundred feet round. Inside the circle are 300 things nobody understands, and, maybe, nobody’s ever really seen. How many can you find?

One of his ideas was to organize to feed poets “so poets could have babies and fix their wives’ teeth and the other things we need.” He planned a magazine to be called Bread that would discuss the economics of being a poet in America. Somebody still needs to carry out these plans.

He talked about being one of the young poets who had driven William Carlos Williams from the airport to Reed College. I love the way that car ride has become a...