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Last week Gary Snyder rallied his friends to celebrate the new edition of Ring of Bone, the pivotal work of Beat-era icon, and close friend of Snyder’s, Lew Welch. He brought Joanne Kyger, David Meltzer, Peter Coyote, Jerry Martien, Steve Sanfield, Tom Killion, and Huey Lewis (!) to the San Francisco Public Library for what was a very inspired and moving tribute to the brilliant poet. Take a look at our photos from the night, and stay tuned for the audio, which will be up on the City Lights podcast.
Lew Welch entered Reed College in 1948, and the following year moved into a house with Gary Snyder; they were soon joined by Philip Whalen. With the emergence of the Beat movement, Welch’s friends began receiving national attention and his desire to devote himself completely to his poetry was galvanized. He soon became a part of the San Francisco poetry scene. Despite his burgeoning success, Welch suffered from bouts with depression, and on May 23, 1971, Snyder went up to Welch’s campsite in the Sierra Nevada mountains and found a suicide note. Despite an extensive search, Welch’s body was never recovered.
Joanne Kyger’s powerful poetic life started in the company of Snyder, Welch, and Whalen. Her poetry is influenced by her practice of Zen Buddhism and her ties to the poets of Black Mountain, the San Francisco Renaissance, and the Beat generation.
David Meltzer had the crowd laughing, as always. A poet and musician of the Beat era, he’s been described “one of the greats of post-World-War-Two San Francisco poets and musicians,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
As the poets read, the artwork of printmaker Tom Killion streamed in the background. Killion, who long studied Welch’s life and works, included Welch’s poetry in his book Tamalpais Walking: Poetry, History and Prints.
Poet, activist, and close friend Jerry Martien discussed how their group of friends went looking for Welch after he disappeared into the mountains and read a poem dedicated to him. Another close friend, Steve Sanfield, paid tribute to Welch. An award-winning author, poet, and folklorist, Sanfield is also strongly influenced by Zen in his writing.
Actor and filmmaker Peter Coyote first discovered Zen by way of the Beats, and he and Snyder have remained friends since his days in the anarchist improv group the Diggers.
In addition to honoring his stepfather Lew Welch in his stage name, musician Huey Lewis paid tribute by singing the poem “Graffiti,” which he said he thought of as a song, as Welch often sang it around the house.
Gary Snyder closed the evening with the poem “Song of the Turkey Buzzard.”
“. . . It finally came in a trance, a coma, half in sleep and half in fever-mind. A Turkey Buzzard, wounded, found by a rock on the mountain. He wanted to die alone. I had never seen one, wild, so close. When I reached out, he sidled away, head dropping, as dizzy as I was. I put my hands on his wing-shoulders and lifted him. . . .”
Ring of Bone: Collected Poems (New & Expanded Edition) by Lew Welch, published June 2012 by City Lights.
“Music permeates his poems, which range from scored lyrics to epistolary correspondence to formal villanelles… This is a necessary read for anyone interested in the greater Beat movement and its progenitors.”—Booklist
“Welch maps monstrous American cities and alienated American spaces… A postmodern Walt Whitman. . .”—San Francisco Chronicle