Mountain party will celebrate life, work of poet Welch

May 17, 1998
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Poet Lew Welch was last seen on the San Juan Ridge in Nevada County on May 23, 1971. On that day, he took his revolver, left behind a despondent note, and disappeared. Friends and neighbors scoured the area on foot and horseback but never found a trace of the 44-year old Beat poet.

On Saturday, May 23, "Homage to Lew Welch: A Celebration of his Poetry, Life and Legacy" will honor the man whose work and life continue to touch people of all ages. If Welch were alive today, he would be 71.

The tribute will begin at 7:30 p.m. at the North Columbia Schoolhouse Cultural Center on the San Juan Ridge outside Nevada City. It will feature poetry, stories and memories.

Many people in Northern California have been touched by Welch's mysterious disappearance (how tragic! how romantic!) including students in Davis and communities in the mountains who learn about Welch through poet Gary Snyder. Snyder lives on San Juan Ridge - it was from his property that Welch disappeared on his final hike - and frequently teaches at UC Davis. Many dissertations have been written on the Beat poets, Snyder and Welch.

At the gathering on May 23, Snyder will read some of Welch's poems and share reflections on Welch as a friend and artist. Sean O'Grady, also a Davis graduate, poetry editor of the literary journal Terra Nova and assistant professor of American Literature at Boise State University, Idaho, will talk about Welch's unique significance as a poet.

Storyteller/poet Steve Sanfield will take the stage, in addition to a number of poets and friends from far-flung places whose remembrances of Welch appear in a recently published literary homage titled "Hey Lew." Among them will be Welch's wife Magda Cregg, who edited the collection of essays, poems, songs, photographs, drawings and memories and Welch's stepson, musician Huey Lewis.

Some of the more than 40 contributors to the book are Lewis, Peter Coyote, Robert Creeley, Margo Patterson Doss, Robert Hunter, Joanne Kyger, Michael McClure, Sanfield and Snyder. All contributors have been invited to attend the May 23 event.

Born in Phoenix in 1926, Welch described himself as a "high school track star and pool hustler." While at Reed College in Portland in the early 1950's, he roomed with Snyder and Philip Whalen, destined to become two of the most influential poets of their generation.

William Carlos Williams read Welch's poems while visiting Reed College, and tried to help Welch publish his thesis on Gertrude Stein. But Welch's emotional illnesses and nervous breakdowns were to crippled his promising literary career. After leaving Reed, and following a short stint as an advertising copywriter in Chicago, Welch traveled to San Francisco's North Beach, where his cab-driving experiences provided the grist for a series of poems called "Taxi Suite."

He met Jack Kerouac during that period, and a road trip to New York with Kerouac and Albert Saijo produced "Trip Trap," a book of road haiku written by the trio. Another journey down the California coast gave rise to Kerouac's "Big Sur," in which Welch appears as the hard-drinking "Dave Wain." Welch worked also as a dock clerk on the San Francisco waterfront and as a poetry lecturer at various schools and institutions. He was an avid fisherman and observer of nature.

"Ring of Bone: Collected Poems 1950-1971," contains paeans to subjects near to Welch's heart: majestic Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, and turkey buzzards, the wheeling bird with which he was to become associated.

Battling depression and alcohol in 1971, Welch traveled to the San Juan Ridge to build the cabin of his dreams near Snyder's home. In his farewell note he wrote: "I never could make anything work out right and now I'm betraying my friends. I can't make anything out of it, never could. I had great visions but never could bring them together with reality. I used it all up. It's all gone. Don Allen is to be my literary executor, use mss. at Gary's and at Grove Press. I have $2,000 in Nevada City Bank of America, use it to cover my affairs and debts. I don't owe Allen G. anything yet nor my Mother. I went Southwest. Goodbye."

The following books by Welch are still in print: "How I read Gertrude Stein"; "I, Leo: An Unfinished Novel"; "Selected Poems" and "How I Work as a Poet." The North Columbia Schoolhouse Cultural Center is located at 17894 Tyler-Foote Road, a 30-minute drive north of Nevada City, and 8 miles off Highway 49. Admission is $5 for members and students, $7 for non-members.

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