Welch, Lew

(1926–1971)
   A writer who successfully bridged the Beat era of the 1950s and the San Francisco youth counterculture of the late 1960s, Lew Welch left behind a body of work that is among the most precise and beautifully crafted of any poet of his generation. Born in 1926 in Phoenix, Arizona, to an intelligent, often overbearing mother and a freespirited, often absent father, Welch’s childhood was marked by a sense of alienation and detachment. He moved frequently, spending much of his youth in several small towns along the California coastline where he was raised by his mother following his parents’ divorce. After a brief term in the army air corps at the end of World War II, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill and enrolled in college, first at Stockton Junior College in California and in 1948 as an English major at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.
   At Reed, he met and roomed with fellow students gary snyder and philip whalen. The three shared common interests in poetry and Eastern spirituality and formed a lasting friendship that played a significant role in the development of the West Coast Beat movement. While at Reed, Welch published his first poems in the school literary magazine, Janus, and along with Snyder and Whalen, he hosted a campus visit by poet William Carlos Williams. The elder poet encouraged Welch to publish his B.A. thesis on the work of Gertrude Stein and to continue to follow his ambitions as a poet.
   The years after Welch’s graduation from college provided the grist for much of the discontent with urban America that would figure so prominently in the poet’s mature work. In the mid-1950s, as the West Coast was in the midst of a literary renaissance, he moved to Chicago, married, and worked as an advertising writer. (Welch is credited with writing the famous slogan “Raid Kills Bugs Dead.”) He found the job, the marriage, and the city (which he called a “pitiless, unparalleled monstrocity [sic]”) unbearable, a situation that he later captured in one of his finest works, “chicago poem” (1958).
   By 1957 Welch returned to San Francisco where he worked at numerous part time jobs—cab driver, longshoreman, commercial fisherman—to support his career as a writer. He began a serious but short-lived course of Buddhist study with Snyder, and many of his poems from the late 1950s, including his powerful Pacific coast meditation “Wobbly Rock” (1960), draw heavily from Buddhist imagery. He published several small collections of poems in the 1960s, writing with clarity, precision, and an ear for American speech that sometimes escaped his colleagues in the Beat movement. The finest of these small collections, Hermit Poems (1965) chronicles his solitary withdrawal into the California foothills in the early 1960s. During the heyday of the San Francisco counterculture in the late 1960s, Welch was affiliated with members of the Digger commune, an experience that is reflected in many of his later poems and essays.
   Despite growing success and recognition as a poet in the late 1960s, Welch was plagued by a battle with alcohol, and on May 23, 1971, he left behind a cryptic suicide note and wandered into the California foothills, carrying a gun. His body has never been found. His volume of collected poems, Ring of Bone, was published in 1973.
 Bibliography
■ Meltzer, David. “Interview with Lew Welch.” San Francisco Beat: Talking with the Poets. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2001, 294–324.
■ Phillips, Rod. “Forest BeatniksandUrban Thoreaus”: Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Lew Welch, and Michael McClure. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.
■ Saroyan, Aram. Genesis Angels: The Saga of Lew Welch and the Beat Generation. New York: Morrow, 1979.
   Rod Phillips

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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