Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

"For/From Lew": The Ghost Visitations of Lew Welch and the Art of Zen Failure: A Dialogue for Two Voices*

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

"For/From Lew": The Ghost Visitations of Lew Welch and the Art of Zen Failure: A Dialogue for Two Voices*

Article excerpt

[The following is a transcription of comments made by two academics in the lobby of a post-9/11 airport, where they sat waiting as their computers were searched. Suspicions were aroused when these two subjects-they claimed they were "scholars" who came to Germany to present long and uninteresting papers at the same academic conference-both objected simultaneously seizure of toiletry items in excess of 100ml. Lab tests confirm presence mouthwash, but halitosis tests were not administered. Our cameras recorded their conversation, which would be completely without interest but for a few brief references to the socialist-anarchist group known as "The International Workers of the World, " or "The Wobblies. " The main writer they discuss, a completely forgotten poet known as Lew Welch who is sometimes associated with the "San Francisco Renaissance," apparently wrote a poem called "Wobbly Rock. " We suspect that references to wobbly matters were coded communication of some sort, since there is no other way to account for their efforts to keep in memory dead poets whose books didn't sell well.]

Second Speaker: Your abstract said something about the San Francisco Renaissance. You're not fooling anyone. San Francisco wasn't even discovered until 1776, and Shakespeare never made it west of Chicago.1 What did Lew do?

First Speaker: Well, he wrote the advertising slogan "Raid kills bugs dead," which in To Be the Poet Maxine Hong Kingston counts as a "four word poem" (92) of the sort often found in the Chinese tradition, but that's not his main claim to fame. The "San Francisco Renaissance" was launched in 1955 with the famous Six Gallery reading, which included poets such as Gary Snyder, Alien Ginsberg, and Lew Welch. Ginsberg and Snyder went on to achieve fame as poets, but Welch disappeared in May of 1971 and is presumed to have committed suicide.

Second Speaker: Presumed?

First Speaker: No one really doubts it, but his body was never found.2 He left a note and took his gun when he went into the mountains. As with Weldon Kees and Elvis, there were reported sightings.3 There seems to be a type of poet, one who disappears mysteriously and then reappears in works of the imagination and in the mind of devotees. A kind of literary apotheosis of Welch returns as a ghost in two Snyder poems. And he returns as a model for how to live, even though his life was, given his end, in large part a failure. It makes us wonder how deities and spirits in many world religions come into the forms that are passed down to us. We may often think that an apotheosis is a kind of ideal figure, one so perfect as to etch a permanent place in the human imagination. But this ... type ... of poet, if I'm right, gives us a different sort of model entirely. What if these figures that find their way into larger systems of memory did not conform to ideal patterns? What if these poets departed in ways that were especially wounding, so much so that readers hold them back in earthly imagination? The popular fantasy is that the ghost has unfinished business and so cannot leave, but perhaps we have unfinished business with the ghost.

Second Speaker So you'll talk about Welch's writings, or writings about Welch?

First Speaker: Much more of the latter. One poem about Welch is from Snyder's collection Axe Handles, a collection of poems about cultural continuity and tradition. The key image of the title poem "Axe Handles" is from Lu Chi's fourth-century Wen Fu, or "Essay on Literature," which states that "In making the handle / Of an axe / By cutting wood with an axe / The model is indeed near at hand." The poet goes on the say that Ezra "Pound was an axe," that "Shih-hsiang Chen," Snyder's teacher who "Translated [the Wen Fu] and taught it years ago" was an axe, and also that "I am an axe / And my son a handle, soon / To be shaping again, model / And tool, craft of culture, / How we go on" (6).

Second Speaker: That sounds pretty general. …

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