Big Sur Breakdown: Lew Welch and "Ring of Bone"

By Diggory, Terence | Journal of Beat Studies, January 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

Big Sur Breakdown: Lew Welch and "Ring of Bone"


Diggory, Terence, Journal of Beat Studies


Many readers first encounter Lew Welch (1926-1971?) as a fictional character in Big Sur (1962), the novel by Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), in which Welch is called Dave Wain. But Welch was a real person and an exceptional writer-Kerouac calls his character Dave Wain "a marvelous poet" (47)-who was, like Kerouac, haunted by his own fictional projection of himself to the point of self-destruction. Welch's disappearance in 1971 cannot be defined as suicide because his body was never found, but it is clear from his writing that he had long sought to disappear not only from others but also from himself.1 As Beat movement writers, both Welch and Kerouac described experiences that were like suicide, insofar as they involved psychological breakdown, yet from which, they believed, grew a new spiritual awareness; a form of consciousness survived that was not ego-centered. The Big Sur wilderness on the central coast of California was the scene of such transformative experiences for both Kerouac and Welch. In what follows, I focus on the poem that emerged from Welch's experience, "Ring of Bone" (written 1962-63; published 1973), but I intend to "break down" that poem-reemploying that term in the sense of making an analysis-by reading it in the light of Kerouac's Big Sur and a number of other texts, including a report of Welch's Big Sur experience that he composed in the form of a 1962 letter to the poet Robert Duncan.2 Comparison of the poem "Ring of Bone" and Welch's letter helps us to understand both the poet's breakdown and the experience of survival that remains available to the reader.

I.

"Ring of Bone" dates from Welch's stay in Big Sur during the summer of 1962, in solitary retreat at the same location as, but two years later than, the visit on which Welch had been one of Kerouac's companions. That Welch later chose "Ring of Bone" as the title poem for the collected edition that he prepared toward the end of his life as a kind of "spiritual autobiography" suggests the poem's centrality in Welch's thinking about both his life and his art (Ring 17). It is a brief poem, quoted here in its entirety:

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 (Ring 91)

On a first surface reading, there seems to be none of the defiance of convention that is supposed to characterize Beat writing. The form observes modernist conventions, especially reminiscent of William Carlos Williams, an important influence on Welch (Phillips 74). But the imagery reaches back to traditions much earlier than modernism: for instance, to the myth of Narcissus, who fell in love with his image in a stream, and to the theme of memento mori, with the image of the skull ("a ring of bone") serving as a reminder of mortality. The final image of the bell reinforces that theme, recalling John Donne's explanation of "for whom the bell tolls."

The Beat literary twist on these conventions starts with the tone, which literally re-sounds with a strange doubleness, like the repetition of the phrase "ring of bone." Combined with the mood of depression implied by the theme of mortality (Narcissus, we recall, dies of unfulfillable longing), there is simultaneously a sense of relief, even release. Out of the contracted space defined within a "ring of bone" there grows an expansion, an opening to "all of it," even as the visual image of the ring dissolves into the sound of ringing. This is a combination of tropes characteristic of Beat literature, defeat (beat down) leading to ecstasy (beatific), though that movement is sensed only subtly in Welch's poem (Kerouac, "Beatific" 570-71). The full force of the movement comes through when the poem is read in the context of the visionary experiences that Big Sur provided first to Kerouac and later to Welch.

Kerouac retreated to the Big Sur wilderness in July 1960 in the hopes of controlling his alcoholism and getting in tune with a more natural mode of existence than the life of celebrity he had suffered since the publication of On the Road (1957). …

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