Thursday, December 13, 2012



(City Lights / Grey Fox, San Francisco, 2012)

Circling and Singing Through Ring of Bone

The photograph of Lew Welch wearing an animal pelt on the cover of the recent edition of Ring of Bone portrays what might be an outdoorsman and adventurer, but there’s something else going on there. He looks with disarmingly open and youthful eyes off toward some distraction beyond the photographer’s lens. According to Gary Snyder’s 2012 introduction to this collection, Welch had “a way with guns” (and alcohol); but you wouldn’t know it to look at this picture. He’s almost smiling, looking out at the world with guarded curiosity.

This is my first read-through of his work. I read about half-way through the book, then jumped around, skipped to his “Language is Speech” lecture at the back of the volume, then skipped forward, read from the middle of the book to end, and returned to different sections or “books.” Ring of Bone is autobiographical: each section is in itself a “book” of poems covering a range of years. For example, Book II (Hermit Poems) and Book III (The Way Back) are separate, but both cover the years 1960--1964.

Welch viewed the shape of the book as “circular, or back and forth,” a “form [that] never ends.” There’s even a poem entitled “Circle Poems”:

Circle Poems

Whenever I have a day off, I write a new poem.
Does this mean you shouldn’t work, or that you

Write best on your day off?
For example, this is the poem I wrote today.

It begins with a statement; he writes a new poem. Then the mind rambles forward, interrogating, on its quest for answers, as it always does, and he lets it roll out as it will; then it rolls right back to the beginning: this itself is the poem.

He wanted his words to be simple, accurate, and I guess “(I Saw Myself)” is as good an example as any in the book:

            (I Saw Myself)

I saw myself
a ring of bone
in the clear stream
of all of it

and vowed,
always to be open to it
that all of it
might flow through

and then heard
“ring of bone” where
ring is what a
bell does.

Maybe this is how he rests, now, after walking off into the forest with his gun, never to be seen again, body never recovered—a ring, or curve of bone in a stream. Absolute thing, clear sound of water.

In the Red Monk’s[1] commentary on the poem, “The Rider Riddle,” Welch conjures up Manjusri, riding on a lion and wielding a sword, the Buddha who cuts through crap. That’s the idea: accuracy. Not a goal, something to achieve, but what naturally happens when you listen, open to the stream.

Sometimes, that means to be open to the “din” of language:  

Tizuvthee, Old Soapy, land where Thoreau sat and Whitman
walked, despised of all nations, Strontium, alone


Fucked L.A. starlet of tiny dream untrue even to your
Tiny dream intolerable up-tight dirty noise New
York, rusty muscle Chicago, hopeless Cleveland
Akron Visalia alcoholic San Francisco suicide
Tizuvthee, I sing

-excerpt from “Din Poem.”

He writes,

“I’ve tried to keep the din while still being accurate to the poise of mind that lets us know what’s what. Sometimes I’ve called this din ‘Letting America speak for itself.’ Often it’s a depressing job.
But I still have faith that if I do this right, accurately, the sound will emerge a ‘meaningless din of joy.’”

Welch had met and admired William Carlos Williams for his concise use of everyday language, and in “Din Poem,” the language of madmen, the national anthem, and the rambling, cursing tone of wandering, rootless men rings out. Speaking of “madmen”:

“Raid Kills Bugs Dead”

Welch penned that, while working for an ad agency.

On the same page, the image of an eighth note marks another poem, “SUPERMARKET SONG,” because Welch liked to sing, and had a fine voice. He wrote, “This book is a book of scores, for the voice. The scores will become poems only while they are sounded, performed, sung…Far too many of our pleasures are spectator sports already.” He wanted his readers to “actively perform” the poems, themselves. Go ahead, try it yourself:

Super Anahist cough syrup tastes as good as the syrup they put
on ice cream
Super Anahist cough syrup tastes as good as the syrup they put
on ice cream.
Super Anahist cough syrup tastes as good as the syrup they put
on ice cream.

Let’s take out the car and park it
at the big new super market
and go on inside and see
what they got for you and me.

Look at all the brand names!
Aren’t they really grand names!
Continental Can Corporation of America
Has arranged that to be!

I have a difficult time with the first three stanzas. Is it because I don’t have the music of Wall Street in me? It sounds like something written on the side of a box, and something in me resists. But then, that’s the poem/song. I do remember “Super Anahist”; I was probably dosed with it as a kid, and the sound of it makes me want to sneeze. The two stanzas following it go better, because it’s like a little ditty that might go on in my head as I walk through the grocery, only now accompanied by a few lines from “Gangnam Style.”

The poems indicate that Welch moved back and forth between city and country, a “hermit” at times, seeking some kind of pure state, perhaps, often on Mt. Tamalpais:

Praises, Tamalpais,
         Perfect in Wisdom and Beauty,
She of the Wheeling Birds

By “pure,” I don’t mean clean, or snow white. But again, that bone-ringing:

They smell sweet
meat is dry on their talons

The very opposite of

Bird of re-birth

Meat is rotten meat made
            sweet again and

Lean, unkillable, wing-locked
            soarer till he’s but a

Speck in the highest sky

Eye finds Feast! On
            baked concrete


Squashed rabbit ripened:
            our good cheese

(to keep the highways clean, and bother no Being)

                                                -excerpt from “Song of the Turkey Buzzard”

Later, he writes what might be his own anthem of freedom):




Much has been said about Welch’s beat- and hippie-era friends—Kerouac, Duncan, Snyder, Kandel, Kyger—his reverence for Gertrude Stein, his alcoholism and squirrel shooting, his death. So what? I say.

I’m not finished with Lew Welch, yet. More to read.

It’s not all pretty Buddhist haiku-land, but often there is joy.

[1] The Red Monk was Welch’s alter-persona.


Jean Vengua has taught at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, Gavilan College, and California State University, Monterey Bay. She is the author of a collection of poetry, Prau, and a chapbook, The Aching Vicinities. With Mark Young, she co-edited the First Hay(na)ku Anthology, and The Hay(na)ku Anthology Vol. II. In the mid 1990s, Elizabeth H. Pisares and Jean Vengua formed Tulitos Press and published and edited the Debut: the Making of a Filipino American Film by Gene Cajayon and John Manal Castro, and The Flipside, by Rod Pulido. Her poetry and essays have been published in many journals and anthologies. She currently lives and works in Elkhorn, CA, near Salinas. Jean’s website on early 20th century U.S. Filipino periodicals is


  1. That "Ring of Bone" is such a purrrr-fect poem!

  2. Nice review, Jean. I've been reading Lew getting on to 45 years now and he's part of my blood and my own ring of bone. There's no end to him. Because he was a poet. And the way of poetry is eternal.

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