“Chicago Poem”

by Lew Welch
   lew welch’s “Chicago Poem,” perhaps his most famous and most frequently anthologized piece, is an eloquent statement of the poet’s midlife change in direction away from urban, corporate America and toward a more inner-directed and nature-centered existence. Originally published in his small collection Wobbly Rock (1960) and later in his posthumously published collected works Ring of Bone (1973), the poem details Welch’s reaction to his residence in Chicago during the years 1953–57, an extremely unhappy period during which the poet worked as an advertising writer in the city. First drafted in June 1957 near the end of the poet’s residence in the Midwest, the poem begins with the first-person narrator (presumably Welch) recalling the gray, dismal landscape of mid-twentieth-century Chicago: The land’s too flat. Ugly sullen and big it pounds men down past humbleness. They Stoop at 35 possibly cringing from the heavy and terrible sky. . . .
   The poem is an indictment—not just of the industrial Midwest but of modern urban life. As an early San Francisco reviewer, Grover Sales, wrote in response to hearing Welch read the poem: “This is not the Chicago of Sandburg but the Rome of Juvenal and the London of William Blake.” In place of Sandburg’s 1916 vision of Chicago as “Stormy, husky, brawling, / City of the Big Shoulders,” four decades later Welch portrays a hopeless urban atmosphere where men “Stoop at 35” under the horrible weight of their surroundings, and in place of Sandburg’s romantic vision of a vital and expansive city, Welch depicts a city fallen victim to its own industrial excesses:
   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.
   The whole sky green and yellow backdrop for the skeleton steel of a bombed-out town.
   The speaker’s only solace is not found within the city but in nature. After five years inside the city, an alternative arises that allows him to “recognize the ferocity” inherent in his urban existence: “Finally I found some quiet lakes / and a farm where they let me shoot pheasant.” Away from the city while pheasant hunting or fishing, he is able to differentiate between the humanmade chaos of Chicago’s south side and beauty of the Midwestern landscape:
   All things considered, it’s a gentle and
   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. As the speaker returns to Chicago after a day in the farmlands, he is determined to condemn the modern city for what it is: a human creation which is no longer under human control—a violent and dangerous monster who now threatens those to whom it once offered shelter:
   Driving back I saw Chicago rising in its gases
   and I
   knew again that never will the
   Man be made to stand against this pitiless,
   monstrocity. . . .
   You can’t fix it. You can’t make it go away. I don’t know what you’re going to do about it, But I know what I’m going to do about it. I’m just going to walk away from it. Maybe A small part of it will die if I’m not around feeding it anymore.
   The solution, according to Welch, is total resignation from the “monstrocity” [sic] of urban, industrial America, an act that seems to foreshadow much of the 1960s counterculture’s rejection of the structures of American society and its embrace of a more nature-centered existence.
■ Charters, Samuel. “Lew Welch.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol 16, The Beats: Literary Bohemians in Postwar America, edited by Ann Charters, 539–553. Detroit: Gale, 1983.
■ Phillips, Rod. “Forest BeatniksandUrban Thoreaus”: Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Lew Welch, and Michael McClure. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.
■ ———. “ ‘The Journal of a Strategic Withdrawal’: Nature and the Poetry of Lew Welch.” Western American Literature 29 (1994): 217–237.
   Rod Phillips

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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