The first time I met Lew Welch he was teaching a course in poetry at the College of Marin in Kentfield, Ca. My good friend Bill Trumbly was taking Lew's course, but Bill had a bad hangover that day, so he drove me over to sit in for him, because I was still a young poet at that time, and he thought that Lew was somebody I ought to meet. So, I walked into a little sunny alcove or patio somewhere on campus, and there was Lew Welch - eyes wide, brows pushed up high, neck slung forward like a cabdriver leaning into hisacceleration, practicing the fine art of Saying Things Right. His only other student was Mary Korte (the poet), at that time a nun of the Dominican Order, who, as it turned out, had been a novice at Dominican in San Rafael when I was going to kindergarten there - and she remembered me!
This guy Welch was Weird - skinny as a rail, raw beat-red Irish complexion, slow, emphatic,inevitable speech - and he never stopped talking. Everything he said had so much weight. He could be saying: "Uh, let's see now" -- trying to pin down the next word -- and there you'd be, hanging on to the pause, just holding your breath.
Everything meant so much to him, and you couldn't understand how it could until finally you really heard him, and then the bottom dropped out. He was making it all mean that much, right out of nowhere, and it worked. The only thing I remember him actually saying that day was: "There's this Zen monastery over in Japan called Royanji where they've gota rock garden in which the rocks are placed in a certain way; so perfectly that you don'tsee the rocks, you see the spaces between the rocks -- the rocks themselves look like holes in the air. It's really an interesting perception trick. Try it with those trees over there -- try seeing the spaces between the trees as solid and trees as holes." I tried it -- and it worked.
After awhile Lew asked me if I wrote poetry and when I said yes he asked if I had anything with me, and I handed him a couple of manila envelopes of high school vintage poetry (I was still in high school at that time), for him to take home and look over -- or as Lew always told it: "So this punk kid walks in, talking a-mile-a-minute like he knows it all, and so I say -- O.K. kid, put up or shut up - and he hands me a box of poetry that big and - and it's all good." A few days later he called me up and said: "You can be a poet if you want to."
Lew Welch initiated me into the art of poetry. He wrote me a letter a few weeks later declaring himself available as a teacher and guide. He said he'd arrange for me to go down and see Dave Sandburg (a fine poet, since dead), in Boulder Creek -- somebody I ought to meet. Lew put his experience at my disposal. He said he didn't want me to make the same mistakes he had; he wrote: "I have been in all the hells."
So we started spending night after night together at his house in Marin City with his wife Magda, becoming friends, talking, drinking, smoking dope, reading poems to each other far into the night in the traditional manner of the art -- and when Lew picked up a book of poetry he was a master lifting a master's instrument. He'd read a poem by Yeats, carry it through with incredible depth and clarity, and then he'd go back over it again, line by line, syllable by syllable, in tears. He'd developed a certain way of holding his head so the tears would fall on the page instead of filling his eyes.
What a house he held back then -- so much life and meaning gathered together in oneplace. The good booze, good dope, good books, laughter and joyous talk, the warm golden light of the burning of a fine imagination, at a stately and inevitable rate. And he listened to, and read and dug every new poem I turned out and lavished praise, almost too freely -- then all at once he slacked off.
He didn't have the energy
He didn't have the time
He knew I could do it.
He freed me of his praise...
so I could get work.
© 2002 Charles Upton
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