Sometimes, it really pays to listen to your intuition. Make that all the time.
On Monday morning, hours before the special tribute reading a half-dozen Ananda College students and I gave Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder, a message hit me like a brick over the head: Where is Lew Welch in all of this?
We’d planned and rehearsed a strong set of poems from Gary’s friends and influences over his remarkable 60-year stretch as one of America’s greatest and most important poets and essayists. Two of my students, Chitra Sudrakaran and Anna Preston, even handcrafted a book of the poems and beautiful bookmark paintings for Gary — which touched him very much when he received it.
Our reads included Rumi, Kenneth Rexroth, Wendell Berry, Diane DiPrima, Allen Ginsberg, and Japanese wandering poet-scholar Nanao Sakaki. My student and graduating senior, Matthew Frederickson, closed with two poems by the guest of honor, including “How Poetry Comes to Me,” which Gary wrote during the Sierra Matterhorn climb with Jack Kerouac memorialized in The Dharma Bums. It ends, “I go to meet it/at the edge of the light.”
Then Gary, fresh off the plane from a Spanish tour for The Etiquette of Freedom, his book and documentary film/conversation with novelist-poet Jim Harrison (who Gary told me was one of his favorite authors, hence one of his reasons for doing the film), would take over the rest of the night with poetry and discussion.
“How did you miss Lew Welch?” I said to myself. Lew was Gary’s roommate in college and one of his dearest friends – not to mention the author of six fine poetry collections — before disappearing without a trace into the Sierra foothills in 1971. The only reason why I haven’t considered him one of my favorite poets is that I don’t know his work well enough. Every time I pick up a Lew Welch poem, I’m taken to the core of my soul. What an amazing man of words.
I raced into the computer room, remembering the poem “I Saw Myself,” Lew’s most famous of many great poems, the beautiful poem for which The Ring of Bone Zendo, the Zen prayer building/gathering place Gary built on his property, got its name. In a personal tribute to Lew, I’ll give you the poem right now:
I saw myself
a ring of bone
in the clear stream
of all of it
always to be open to it
that all of it
might flow through
and then heard
“ring of bone” where
ring is what a
My, how listening to our inner voice can add to life! When I read this poem aloud to Gary, he was visibly moved. Later, during his featured reading, which focused on poems written about the place we were sitting – the San Juan Ridge — he told us why: Exactly forty years ago Monday, on May 23, 1971, Lew took his revolver, left Gary’s house (he was going to build a cabin on Gary’s property), and was never seen again. He left behind a note that left no doubt. Gary shared this story, and then read us the poem he later wrote for Lew, out of the collection Axe Handles.
On Thursday, Gary and several other friends of Lew Welch are gathering at the Mark Taper Library-Central Auditorium in L.A. There, the friends will gather, share stories, read Lew’s poems publicly and discuss the lasting contribution of his work. I’m sure someone will bring up the same old issue that claims so many keenly sensitive artists – the inner battle between light and darkness. In Lew’s case, he couldn’t stop drinking away his pain. According to Gary, that’s what made Lew throw up his hands and give up life, halting one of the Beat generation’s sweetest poetic voices at just 44.