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

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.


"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 (1951) (3) He had met Welch in San Francisco in fall 1959 right after a disturbing episode of televised stardom, his appearance on The Steve Allen Show in Hollywood. Eager for escape, Kerouac was attracted to Welch as the sort of guy who knew how--and where--to get away: "that lean rangy red head Welchman with his penchant for going off in Willie to fish in the Rogue River up in Oregon where he knows an abandoned mining camp, or for blattin around the desert roads" (Big 47). (4) "Willie" was the name Welch gave to his car, a Willys Jeepster, in which he, Kerouac, and Albert Saijo (a San Francisco poet affiliated with Beat writers who features briefly in Big Sur as "George Baso") took off for a cross-country trip in late 1959 to return Kerouac to his home in New York. The trip, which produced a series of collaborative haiku published under the title Trip Trap (1973), was a reprise of Kerouac's adventures with his hero Neal Cassady that had supplied the material for On the Road. Cassady and Welch were the same age, both born in 1926, four years after Kerouac. Big Sur explicitly compares Cassady and Welch, or the characters based on them, as "the two greatest drivers in the world" (71), and Welch, like Cassady, is "one of the world's best talkers" (47). Moreover, at the time of the events chronicled in Big Sur, Welch was more willing than Cassady to join Kerouac in a drinking binge (45, 57).

That is the solace that Kerouac sought after the solitude at Big Sur proved to be too much for him. He recruited Welch to drive him around the San Francisco Bay area, with frequent stops at bars and liquor stores in between visits with friends, including Cassady, whom Welch now met for the first time (Remain 2:7). With Cassady's permission, Kerouac shared his mistress, Jacky Gibson (called "Billie" in Big Sur)--a form of Beat fraternity in which Welch and Kerouac also indulged, according to Welch, who does not identify the woman in question (Remain 1: 182). Kerouac, Gibson, Welch, and the poet Lenore Kandel, Welch's girlfriend at the time, ended up returning to Big Sur to stay in the Bixby Canyon cabin owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti where Kerouac had attempted his earlier retreat. Having failed the earlier test of solitude, Kerouac now seemed to be testing his capacity for being in relationship. He failed once again, measured against the standards of Welch and Kandel. While the latter couple harmonized with the primal wilderness like "Adam and Eve" (Big 157), Kerouac and Gibson tore each other apart, plunging Kerouac into an experience of nightmare. It wasn't just the booze. Jack Duluoz, Kerouac's persona in Big Sur, says:
I marvel that I cant be so useful and humanly simple and good enough to
make small talk to make others feel better, like Dave [Wain, the
character based on Welch], there he is long and hollow of cheeks from
long drinking himself the past few weeks, but he's not complaining or
moaning in the corner like me, at least he does something about it, he
puts himself to the test--He gives me that feeling again that I'm the
only person in the world who is devoid of human-beingness... (Big 168)

To be human, Kerouac seems to imply, is to be in, or at least to be capable of, relationship. Having failed to be in relationship with nature or with another person, Kerouac felt as if he had ceased to be, but that ending opened him to the possibility of a new mode of being.

At the conclusion of Big Sur, the narrative moves rapidly from the depth of despair to a sudden experience of illumination, from defeat to ecstasy. A single sentence toward the end of the book contains this whole movement: "suddenly hopelessly and completely finished I sit there in the hot sun and close my eyes: and there's the golden swarming peace of Heaven in my eyelids" (Big 187). The reference to Heaven is evidence of the persistence of Christian imagery in Kerouac's religious experience, like the image of the Cross that appeared in nightmare visions during the night preceding this moment of enlightenment. However, the word "golden," linked with "eternal" in the next-to-last sentence of Big Sur--"And it will be golden and eternal just like that" (188)--indicates that Kerouac is thinking of the "golden eternity" that was his personal take on Buddhist nirvana. A key difference between the two perspectives is the fate of the individual self, "saved" for eternal existence in Heaven by way of the Cross in Christian doctrine; dissolved into the continuous, undifferentiated process of Being in Buddhist teaching. The moment of awakening or enlightenment, called satori in Zen Buddhism, is accompanied by the death of the ego, so the Beat paradox of defeat and beatitude found ready corroboration, and indeed inspiration, in Zen.

Interest in Buddhism was another common bond between Kerouac and Welch, especially by way of their mutual acquaintance with Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, who had been fellow students with Welch during his years at Reed College (1948-50). After returning to the East Coast from his experience at Big Sur, Kerouac wrote a joint letter to Whalen and Welch in which he expressed the full ambivalence of that experience: "It appears like I had my first serious nervous or mental breakdown this time but now that it's over I wonder if it wasnt some kind of satori, because I've changed" (Selected 265). Linked with the concept of satori, the change that Kerouac claims for himself implies a release from the drive either to escape or to punish himself through binge drinking. But a sense of ambivalence lingers in the doubtful expression, "I wonder." The ambivalence deepens when Kerouac's sense of what he felt is compared with Welch's understanding of what he witnessed in Kerouac's behavior.


Had Kerouac experienced breakdown or satori? On the evidence of Kerouac's behavior, and his own history of alcoholism and depression, Welch diagnosed a breakdown. In November of 1960 he wrote to Kerouac: "I knew you were having some sort of a breakup when we last saw each other [....] when the old body starts screaming for help like yours was: not letting you sleep and bringing on the scares and deep depressions (for there isn't any difference between mind/body)... then the only thing to do is slow down, feed yourself, get back in shape" (Remain 2: 19). In these last words of simple advice we can hear that concern "to make others feel better" which Kerouac attributes to Welch's persona Dave Wain in Big Sur. Ominously, in his letter Welch goes on to warn Kerouac more bluntly: "to put it another way and to stop sounding like a nurse, you don't have the right to kill yourself, Jack--too many of us love you and need you around" (Remain 2: 19). Kerouac's eventual death in 1969 would seem like a kind of suicide by alcoholism, to judge by the standards that Welch applied to Dylan Thomas and Malcolm Lowry (Remain 2: 55). Sadly, despite Kerouac's claim to have changed after his experience in Big Sur, his self-destructive behavior persisted, further casting doubt on his characterization of that experience as a moment of satori. A similar doubt hovers over Welch's disappearance in 1971. The question of whether his action involved suicide is entangled in the question of what sense of suicide might apply.

Satori, as both Kerouac and Welch understood it, is accompanied by the dissolution of the ego, a kind of death. So if one engages in practice that leads to satori, is such practice a form of suicide? In his recalling the many writers who literally committed suicide, Welch drew a careful distinction:
The really tragic thing about the drownings and gunshots and the
irreclaimable madnesses is this:
They, Poets all of them, missed the truth of it by a quarter of an
inch. You do not have to do it with a gun. You do not really do it with
a gun.
(Remain 2:55) (5)

You do it with writing, as both Welch and Kerouac demonstrate. Through their writing, both aim directly at purging the ego, on the one hand, and indirectly at neutralizing the ego, on the other hand, through the discipline of observation. If Kerouac's Big Sur highlights the first method (purging), Welch's "Ring of Bone" highlights the second (neutralizing). In that poem, the self becomes simply a channel of perception, not even a filter, but an opening, "that all of it / might flow through."

In February 1960, shortly after he met Kerouac, Welch wrote a letter to Gary Snyder in which he placed that meeting in the context of several other "huge things" that had recently occurred in his life (Remain 1: 181). He had lost a job, given up on women, and even given up on himself. He was now intent on "getting Lew Welch all empty and gone. I am sick of him. He is weak, romantic, over-sensitive to others, afraid, wordy, too thin, too proud (really believes he is a Prince), moody, ashamed, unemployable, and vain. Not only that, he dreams and hopes" (Remain 1: 182). In response to his self-disgust, Welch invented an alter-ego called Leo, the name of his astrological sign and also a graphically significant transformation of his own name (replacing a "double-you" [w] with a zero [0]). If killing off Lew would be suicide, a mere act of destruction, the prospect of killing off Leo helped to stimulate Welch's creativity. He seems to have experimented first with writing Leo into--and out of--a series of poems. "It is also possible to uninvent yourself," he states in "Entire Sermon by the Red Monk" (1960), one of these "Leo Poems" (Ring 43, Welch's italics). A draft apparently intended as the preface to a collection of these poems offers a succinct summary of Welch's view on writing as a form of suicide: "All Characters in this book are fictitious. The writer invented them for the sole purpose of exterminating himself, knowing that suicide is illegal, in every sense and State, but knowing, also, that what we think of as 'Self' is our chief enemy, and must be destroyed" (Ring 202). In addition to whatever self-disgust might underlie this project as a psychological motive, Welch's statement also implies an ethical motive that commits writing to telling the truth. The self is the writer's enemy because it is false, a fiction. To destroy the self in writing is, at least in part, to expose the self as a fiction.

Under the influence of his new friend, Kerouac, Welch soon turned to writing an autobiographical novel, to be titled I, Leo. However, no sooner had Welch begun writing his novel than Leo began "slowly dropping out of it," as Welch reported in his letter to Snyder (Remain 1: 182). The narrative concern shifted from Leo, as subjective focus, to the people Leo encounters, viewed more objectively. Of course, getting Leo to "drop out" was the original stimulus for writing, but the fading of that character deprived the novel of its center, so within a year Welch abandoned it in favor of a series of more objective short stories, without a narrating "I" (Remain 2: 20). When Kerouac published Big Sur in 1962, Welch had a chance to view himself as a character more objectively. He assured Kerouac that the portrayal did not upset him: "Say whatever you like about Lew Welch. I am tired of him" (Remain 2: 101). Although Welch claimed that Kerouac, too, was "tired of Leo" (Remain 1: 182), he surely did not mean that Kerouac was tired of Welch. Rather, each man was tired of his Leo, his ego. "Like you say about you, I'M [sic] tired of myself," Welch wrote to Kerouac (Remain 2: 23). Thus, it makes sense to read the novel Big Sur as the successful completion, on Kerouac's part, of the writing project that Welch attempted in I, Leo but eventually abandoned: the project of purging the ego. If Kerouac's experience at Big Sur felt like satori only in retrospect ("now that it's over"), as he reported in his letter to Whalen and Welch (Selected 265), it is because Kerouac, at the time of writing that letter, was beginning to take the writer's perspective on the experience of the man. Seeing the self as a fiction became a means of seeing through the self's illusions, freeing writing to serve as a medium of truth. Ultimately, I will argue, this is the reader's perspective on writing in which the writer has disappeared.

The terrors involved in the process of purging the ego were vividly portrayed in letters that Allen Ginsberg sent to both Kerouac and Welch in June 1960, shortly before Kerouac's first visit to Big Sur. Ginsberg was in Peru experimenting with the drug ayahuasca or yage, used by the indigenous people of the Amazon region to induce visions during ritual ceremonies. The purgative nature of the ceremony was viscerally enacted in the vomiting that accompanied consumption of the drug. After one particularly powerful session, Ginsberg became convinced that yage induced visions of death, though he quickly brought the terror of that experience under control by writing in his journal: "The struggle & Pain of Death is only the Soul being forced to recognize its Final nature & leave the Separate Individual Self" ("Appendix" 106). At the beginning of Big Sur, Kerouac explicitly compares the lessons of yage with the bleak vision he derived from alcohol, having "gone the way of the last three years of drunken hopelessness which is a physical and spiritual and metaphysical hopelessness you cant learn in school no matter how many books on existentialism or pessimism you read, or how many jugs of vision-producing Ayahuasca [yage] you drink, or Mescaline take, or Peyote goop up with" (Big 5). At the end of Big Sur, the scene of Kerouac's breakdown is staged as a ritual ceremony comparable to those that Ginsberg was reporting in his letters about yage. In place of the Amazonian curandero, the presiding shaman is Lew Welch. Gripped by paranoia, Kerouac's persona Duluoz asks about the characters based on Welch and Kandel, "are they members of a secret society that dopes people secretly the idea being to enlighten them or something?" (Big 172). The conclusion of the novel, as we have seen, suggests that Kerouac eventually accepted his encounter with death at Big Sur as a form of enlightenment.

While shamanism is one expression of the ecstatic sensibility that Ginsberg and Kerouac shared, it is very different from the more disciplined and detached attitude of Zen Buddhism cultivated by West Coast Beat writers such as Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen. (6) Welch showed his alignment with the latter when he responded to Ginsberg's reports from the Amazon in the guise, not of a shaman, but of a Zen master, or roshi. In a letter to Ginsberg dated July 27, 1960, Welch begins with a self-mocking posture: "Leo takes out his Roshi stick, assumes instructive face" (Remain: 219). The joke is of course that "Leo," as Welch conceived him, is as false a pose as that of the roshi. Welch is responding coolly to Ginsberg's report that after his yage experience he felt himself to be "a permanent fraud" (Remain 1: 219), a consequence of "the Soul being forced to recognize its Final nature & leave the Separate Individual Self ("Appendix" 106).

As Welch explains it: "What is a permanent fraud is the accident, built by your baby, Allen (he calls himself) Ginsberg. He does not, and never has, existed. Ain't all us Zenboes convinced you of this yet?" (Remain 1:219). Welch elaborates on the image of the baby in a poem included in the letter, a version of "The Entire Sermon by the Red Monk," to which I referred earlier: "Whatever I think I am is an accident, built by a baby, on all kinds of baby purpose" (Remain 1: 220). (7) But the letter also points ahead to a poem that Welch had not written yet, the poem built around the image of the "ring of bone," which seems to have derived from the imagery Ginsberg employed to describe his yage experience. It is typical of the complicated relationship that existed among the Beat writers, as readers of each other's work, that in a single exchange Welch could project an image against Ginsberg (the baby), yet at the same time take from Ginsberg images that Welch would turn to his own purposes (bell and bone).

Referring first to Ginsberg's experiments with "laughing gas" (nitrous oxide), then to the yage experience, Welch sums up the lesson of the roshi: "What actually exists is a void, such as you saw, gassed and laughing: or the gong-purity round inside of skull seen in Andean (and I'm sure) scary wilderness" (Remain 1: 219). (8) The images of a ringing bell (gong) and of a skull (a ring-shaped bone) occur throughout Ginsberg's writing from Peru, perhaps most forcefully in a passage from "The Reply":
a dead gong shivers through all flesh and a vast Being enters my
brain from afar that lives forever
None but the Presence too mighty to record! the Presence
in Death, before whom I am helpless
makes me change from Allen to a skull (Collected 257)

It is clear that, for Ginsberg, this is an entirely negative experience. The "dead gong" is solely a death knell, and the skull is no more than the conventional image of death. But from his Buddhist perspective, Welch reads such images in the positive sense of purification: "the gong-purity round inside of skull." The "change" that Ginsberg laments, "from Allen to a skull," could be a sign of awakening to a new mode of life, the satori that led Kerouac to claim, "I've changed," after his experience at Big Sur (Selected 265).

For Welch the new mode of life corresponded to a different mode of writing, a mode of calm observation that contrasts with the frenzied purgation that Ginsberg expresses in his yage letters and poems and that Kerouac describes in the climax of Big Sur. Each mode of writing offered a means of cancelling the ego without requiring the literal cancellation of the life of the author in an act of suicide. However, the method of purgation opposed the ego with a kind of negative power that risked putting an end to the act of writing. The annihilating Presence that Ginsberg describes in "The Reply" is "too mighty to record." In the method of observation, recording is the whole purpose of writing, and the writer's self is not so much eliminated as absorbed into that purpose.

Although it is not the style for which either Ginsberg or Kerouac is remembered in the popular imagination, both of these writers in fact practiced a mode of observation. In Big Sur, the initial cleansing effect of Kerouac's isolation in the wilderness is reflected in brief notes of sense perception. Chapter 8 of the novel is composed entirely of such notes: "But there's moonlit fognight, the blossoms of the fire flames in the stove--There's giving an apple to the mule, the big lips taking hold" (Big 31). Ginsberg later composed two "Bixby Canyon" poems, named for the location of Ferlinghetti's Big Sur cabin, in a similar mode: "Bixby Canyon" (1968) and "Bixby Canyon Ocean Path Word Breeze" (1971), both in Collected Poems (497-98,559-567). The individual notations in these poems read like haiku, the poetic form employed in Zen practice to focus perception so sharply that the observer comes to a realization of all that is not there. A haiku is "completely packed with Void of Whole," as Kerouac put it (Portable 451), offering another version of the void that Welch saw in Ginsberg's image of "the gong-purity round inside of skull" (Remain 1: 219). When Kerouac read Ginsberg's account of his yage experience, he was reminded of a haiku by Buson, in which the ringing of a bell is the central image:
the sound of the bell
as it leaves the bell (Hass 81) (9)

Haiku or forms of notation that are similar in spirit to haiku abound in Welch's poetry. As I mentioned previously, Welch collaborated in producing haiku with Kerouac and Albert Saijo during their road trip in 1959. The influence of haiku is palpable in the series of "Hermit Poems" that concludes with "Ring of Bone." For instance, at the end of the "Preface" to the series, a string of three phrases separated by white space reads like the three lines of a haiku fitted to a single line: "Robin bedraggled. Warm rain finally. Spring." (Ring 82). However, "Ring of Bone" itself is based on a different type of observation, less objective in relation to sense data, more self-reflective in two respects. There is, of course, the initial attention to the self as an object: "I saw myself (Ring 91). But there is also the poem's attention to its own language: "and then heard / 'ring of bone.'" In Welch's practice, this sort of attention owes less to Zen than it does to the early influence of Gertrude Stein, the writer who first inspired Welch to become a writer (Meltzer 316-18) and the subject of his undergraduate thesis (1950), published in 1996 as How I Read Gertrude Stein. Ultimately, as Vincent Dussol has pointed out, the two influences appear to have merged: "Ground common to Stein and Zen is the erosion of one's self and the one might say concomitant wish to embrace 'it all,' perceive, think and write in terms of the whole" (167). If in Zen, the self is dissolved into the continuous, undifferentiated process of Being, then in Stein, the self is dissolved into the undifferentiated "stream of consciousness" to which Stein was introduced by her teacher William James (Meyer 234-37), and which seems to be reflected as literary artifice in "the clear stream" of Welch's poem "Ring of Bone."

From the perspective of Stein, the act of seeing with which Welch's poem begins, "I saw myself," is paradoxical because when the writer is absorbed into the act of seeing he or she is no longer available as a subject to be seen. "I am I not any longer when I see," wrote Stein ("Henry James" 149), a maxim that Welch quoted no less than four times in his thesis (Shaffer xxxn2). "This sentence," Stein continued, "is at the bottom of all creative activity." The creator becomes fully absorbed in the act of creation. "We say we are 'lost in our work,'" Welch observed. "When we write very clearly we often say 'the writing wrote itself'" (How I Read 22). Welch was fascinated by the way the activity of "word, word, word, word, word" made itself visible in Stein's writing (Meltzer 318). In Stein's How to Write, for example, Welch examined the sentence, "A seated pigeon turned makes sculpture" (How to Write 58). "See," Welch explained, "the interesting thing about that one is, you don't know where the verb is until the very end. A seated pigeon turned--that's a sentence. Then you say makes, and turned is not a verb anymore" ("How I Work" 57). It is like listening to a Charlie Parker riff, Welch mused. To a lot of people it sounds like "all wrong notes," but some hear it and say, "Wow!" That exclamation signals not merely admiration but awakening to a new set of possibilities--what music (Parker) or language (Stein) can do--and ultimately to a new vision of reality (satori). Like haiku in Zen practice, words in Stein's texts do not merely perform; they transform the reader's consciousness.

In addition to envisioning the loss of the writer, in the image of the skull, "Ring of Bone" releases the transformative power of language, not just as writing but also as speech. "Language Is Speech" was the title Welch assigned to an essay about his goals in teaching poetry workshops (Ring 235-49). He had learned that lesson from his graduate studies in linguistics under James R. Sledd at the University of Chicago (1951-53), where he sought a more formal understanding of what he had intuited from Stein (Ring 238). When it echoes at the end of the poem, the phrase "ring of bone" is not seen, but "heard." And what is heard is quite literally a speech act, not in the technical sense defined by J. L. Austin, but simply as an instance of how words become active and interact with each other, taking on a life of their own; "the writing wrote itself," in Welch's formulation (How I Read 22). As in the transformation of "turned" from noun to adjective in the Stein example, what is first seen (read) as a noun ("a ring") in Welch's poem is then heard as a verb, "where /ring is what a / bell does."

For Welch, such ringing expressed the ground tone of language, the "deep structure" of feeling underlying the surface meaning of individual words. As early as 1954, he had captured this feeling in words that came to him, as if on their own, in a dream:
Through the years of her speech
a persistent gong
told us how grief had
cracked the bell of her soul. (Ring 225)

Months later, Welch realized that he had been dreaming about his mother (Ring 246-47; Meltzer 300-01). However, the "persistent gong" of speech also had, for Welch a collective dimension, which he called "the din of a Tribe" (Ring 236). Like the image of the "cracked bell" in the early poem, or the "ring of bone" in the later poem, the term "din" is deliberately ambivalent, fascinating yet harshly dissonant. Welch found himself drawn to it, but periodically he also felt compelled to withdraw from it. His withdrawal to Big Sur in 1962 came at a moment of crisis in this pattern of oscillation. "I cannot shut out the din anymore," he wrote from Big Sur. "I am afraid" (Remain 2: 51).


That confession appears in an extraordinary document that provides invaluable context for understanding "Ring of Bone." The document is a kind of poem in its own right, as Welch recognized (Remain 2: 54), but it takes the form of a letter addressed to Robert Duncan, written during Welch's retreat at Big Sur in 1962 but "neither completed nor sent" (Remain 2: 56), according to Donald Allen, who published the text in his edition of Welch's letters. It begins by denouncing the state of the culture, the din of the Tribe, that has driven Welch into retreat: "it has seemed that Everything is dedicated only to mocking MAWKING all that I know is good" (Remain 2: 51). As an example, Welch describes hearing on television "a fat trained fake-virile voice," whose "fake" virility must have seemed a mockery of the "good" virility that Welch valued. But very quickly Welch's focus turns inward, to the condition of his spirit, which gives him another reason to fear. The statement I quoted earlier about "the drownings and gunshots and the irreclaimable madnesses" that have ended the lives of other poets comes from this letter to Duncan (Remain 2: 55).

During the past five months, Welch writes in the letter (Remain 2:51), he has descended into a state of depression owing to "the usual list" of personal troubles, which he does not bother to specify (Remain 2: 52); they would likely include his recent breakup with Lenore Kandel (Meltzer 322). Now at Big Sur he feels he has reached the bottom of this descent. Welch fears that his madness--"I am mad," he admits (Remain 2: 52)--may lead to the suicide that has doomed other poets, "the drownings and gunshots" that Welch distinguished from the preferable means available to poets for release from the illusion of ego. The drive for release feels like madness, but the poet has a special means of release that Welch sees, at least for the moment, as his salvation. "I am mad in the way Poet is always" (Remain 2: 52), he writes. Here, his special treatment of the word "Poet," with a capital letter and without a definite or indefinite article, hints at an idealization that became yet another obstacle on the path to salvation; he replaced one illusion (ego) with another (Poet). At Big Sur, however, what mattered most was that being a poet offered Welch an alternative to suicide through the act of writing.

In his letter to Duncan, Welch quotes from a version of "Ring of Bone" as an example of such writing. Before the quotation, he introduces the poem as the product of a "radiant vision of openness" that he experienced at Big Sur, wrenched from the closure into which he had descended in his state of depression (Remain 2: 52, 54). As an alternative to seeing himself as "a ring of bone in a clear stream" (Remain 2: 54), as in the poem, he also envisions himself in the letter as "a mess of gates," understanding "that having Human Being is to have many many gates, that it all all flow through" (Remain 2: 52, Welch's italics). (10) Like the poem, the letter also records Welch's vow "never, ever, to close myself again" (Remain 2: 54), but the letter goes on to concede that this vow is impossible to fulfill. It "hurts too much," he confesses simply (Remain 2: 53). Although he experiences orgasmic ecstasy, a sensation of "fucking the world" (Remain 2: 53), during his moment of total openness at Big Sur, the longer such experience lasts, the more likely it becomes that the sensory overload it entails will be felt as intolerable pain.

Awareness of the hurt turns the experience of enlightenment into a "black satori" (Remain 2: 53). There is something in him that defends against the pain of openness by seeking closure, something that resembles the ego that dissolves in the experience of satori. "Whatever it is," Welch concludes in his letter, "this must be killed again and again!" (Remain 2: 55, Welch's italics). Is this the death sounded in the ringing of the bell at the end of Welch's poem? "What does that mean?" Welch asks after quoting the poem's conclusion in his letter. Then he writes, "All that is left to say, here, is that this is the moment of suicide" (Remain 2: 54). In the context of this letter, it is clear that this statement does not refer to literal suicide, but rather to the writerly suicide available to the poet, and perhaps essential to the poet's role as seer.

Throughout the letter, Welch alludes to Arthur Rimbaud to distinguish the special madness of the poet from ordinary, uncreative madness. Underlying his thinking must be Rimbaud's declaration of the "derangement of all the senses" necessary to become a "seer," who discovers the unknown by abandoning familiar sensation, including the familiar self, abandoned in a gesture that is metaphorically suicidal: "I is another" (Miller 80, 86,102). (11) But what Welch actually quotes from Rimbaud emphasizes gain rather than loss, an illumination of meaning "literally and in all senses," as Rimbaud explained the meaning of A Season in Hell (Remain 2: 52, 53; Miller 100). The emphasis on literal meaning insists on the substantial nature of the vision. What is seen is fully present, not immaterial. In a later interview, to explain the nature of the vision he had at Big Sur, Welch put it this way: "A seer is a man who can see things that others cannot see. He is Prometheus, a man who goes into the void, and brings back something and shows it to you, so that that kind of void is forever illuminated" (Meltzer 320). Again, literal meaning is emphasized in the direct presentation of what has been brought back from the void. The seer does not merely tell you about it, he "shows it to you," Welch says. In turn, you, the reader, are invited to see.

Like Rimbaud, whose insistence on literal meaning was a response to his mother's inability to understand his work, Welch was frustrated by his readers' failure to see what his work presented, even when "we write down and down and down, as I have, almost getting to a plainness that obviates all poetry" (Remain 2: 53). In his letter to Duncan, Welch complains that the literalness of his poem "Wobbly Rock" (1960)--"it's a real rock" (Ring 68)--made no sense to a reader whom he identifies elsewhere as his sister. "I don't understand it," the reader objects. "Why don'tyou write so that everyone can understand it.? [sic]" (Remain 2: 53-54). (12) This is an aspect of the mockery that Welch associated with "the din of the Tribe." Such incomprehension ultimately led Rimbaud, Welch infers, to abandon the vocation of poet altogether. He disappeared in the wilderness of Africa, though not as completely as Welch disappeared in the Sierra foothills; after falling ill, Rimbaud returned to France where he died. Welch's letter to Duncan concludes, "Is Rimbaud's way the only way, in this vulgar age? That we must finally kill Poet out of our total contempt for this time that mocks us?" (Remain 2: 56). Thus, the impulse to "kill" expressed in Welch's letter leads in contradictory directions. On the one hand, the poet's role is to "kill" something inside himself that resists openness. On the other hand, the resistance he finds outside himself, in society, pressures him to "kill" or abandon his role as poet.

The idealistic value that Welch assigns to the role of poet in this letter--often signaled by the capital "P"--helps to explain the curious fact that the letter is addressed to Robert Duncan. That Welch himself regarded the fact as curious is acknowledged in the letter's opening sentence: "It is odd that I should want to write this letter to you, since I know so many of us better, who I respect as much" (Remain 2: 51). Welchmay have first met Duncan in the late 1950s while residing at East-West House, a San Francisco Buddhist commune, where Joanne Kyger, another resident, organized a writing group that welcomed Duncan as one of several visiting mentors (Jarnot 166, 465n4). From then on, Welch and Duncan occasionally crossed paths, but they were never especially close. (13)

Welch seems to draw on the evidence of Duncan's writing rather than any intimate knowledge of his personal life when in his letter he identifies Duncan as "one who has gone through something as black as this, and who made it somehow--or at least is still there, operating his Human Being (your phrase) decently, as a poet" (Remain 2: 51). (14) Duncan refers to "humanbeing" as a condition rather than a person in "Pages from a Notebook" (401, 407), which appeared in The New American Poetry (1960), Donald Allen's revolutionary anthology that also included two poems by Welch. Among the more substantial selection of Duncan's poems was "A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar," which retells the myth of Psyche as recovery from a depression such as Welch had suffered, "something as black as this," as he writes to Duncan. Duncan had written:
must despair, be brought to her
insect instructor;
must obey the counsels of the green reed;
saved from suicide by a tower speaking,
follow to the letter
freakish instructions. (53)

Welch's projection of such experience onto Duncan is an inference drawn from the poetry: "you could not have this gift unless you often took trips as black as this, as painful" (Remain 2: 56). What counts is the gift, that is, the gift of being a poet, for it is "as a poet" that Welch addresses Duncan in his letter "written by a Poet to a Poet" (Remain 2: 54). Of the poets among Welch's acquaintance, Duncan was certainly the one who assumed most grandly the mythic role of Poet, with a capital "p." (15)

But what about Kerouac? Welch had frequently exchanged letters with him since they met in 1959. Although poetry was not his principal medium, Kerouac was certainly a "seer" in the tradition of Rimbaud, about whom he wrote a long biographical poem, "Rimbaud." His novel Big Sur records a visionary experience that Kerouac had in the same location as Welch's later experience. Why did Welch not address his letter to Kerouac rather than Duncan? The choice of turning either to Kerouac or to Duncan--though it may not have been a choice that Welch faced consciously--is like the choice examined earlier with regard to Kerouac's experience: was it breakdown or satoril In Kerouac, Welch had witnessed breakdown. Turning to Duncan and writing to him as "a Poet to a Poet" allowed Welch to avoid viewing his own experience as breakdown (Remain 2: 54). It was satori, though a strange kind of "black satori," he conceded (Remain 2: 53). In a letter to his mother written from Big Sur at the same time (dated July 18, 1962), Welch insisted rigorously on the distinction. "I have had a violent time of it spiritually," he wrote, "but it looks like I'm coming through. Breakdowns for others are breakthroughs for the Poet. It is one of our major jobs" (Remain 2: 51).

It could not, however, be a full time job, as Welch's life confirmed during the years following his vision at Big Sur. The simple explanation, "it hurts too much" (Remain 2: 53), applies once again. The demand for ecstasies "every day" gets to be "a drag," Welch discovered (Meltzer 324), and it eventually brought him down. A relationship with Magda Cregg, begun in 1964, sustained him for a while, but they broke up in 1971 amid what Welch recognized to be a breakdown like Kerouac's. He wrote to Cregg: "I really know now where Kerouac was--how the spirit dies so there isn't even fear anymore & the body dies so there isn't any love or courage possible. You can't stop because there isn't anything to stop with" (Remain 2: 180, Welch's italics). Such desolation would feel bad enough, but Welch was tortured additionally by the disparity between the desolate reality and the visionary ideal. In the final entry of his journal, the day before his disappearance, Welch wrote: "I had great visions but never could bring them together with reality. I used it all up. It's all gone" (Remain 2: 187).

It seems that one of his "great visions" was the ideal of being Poet. Although writing poetry served Welch as a means of killing, or neutralizing, the ego ideal that closed him off from the world, his self-image as Poet proved to be the ideal come back to haunt him. He knew there was something wrong. In his letter to Duncan, he wrote, "I begin to wonder how many more times I can kill this thing. Is he always going to grow? Will he always be that same shape? There is some error to the way I keep doing it" (Remain 2: 55). His error was to envision the role of Poet as the killer, when it was in fact just one more role that needed to be killed. (16)

While the ideal of the poet never relinquished its grip on Welch, in practice he seemed increasingly willing to relax his grip on the ideal of the poem. The process may have started with "Din Poem" (1961), which purposely lets the "din" in--in the form of song parodies, brand names, street talk, religious and political rhetoric (Ring 115-24)--rather than shutting it out as Welch felt he needed to do at the time of his retreat to Big Sur in 1962. Even in the letter that he wrote to Duncan during that retreat, there is evidence that Welch's writing may be moving toward greater openness of form, starting with his recognition that the letter itself "is a poem, a letter and a poem" (Remain 2: 54). If clipped, haiku-like effects distinguish the sequence of "Hermit Poems" that includes "Ring of Bone," a looser prose poetry distinguishes "The Way Back," a complementary sequence that marks a later stage in the "spiritual autobiography" that Welch traced in his poems (Ring 17). (17)

"The Way Back" includes a text written entirely in prose, entitled "He Begins to Recount His Adventures," in which the speaker describes a fantasy of falling through a hole to the center of the earth and being suspended there, oscillating back and forth over a distance of "only 50 feet or so" from a central position from which "every way is up" (Ring 108). This fantasy also appears in the letter to Duncan as an image for a different response to the various dilemmas that tormented him: openness versus closure, visionary ideal versus reality. Once he had killed off the ideal for the moment, perhaps his error was that "I try to come back from it, instead of resting on it, when I'm through with it, hanging there, as one would hang, poised, in the center of the earth" (Remain 2: 55, Welch's italics). The possibility gives an ironic twist to the title "The Way Back," but perhaps there was a way of resting in a dilemma, rather than constantly moving back and forth between its poles.

Although it offers this glimpse of a resolution, on the whole Welch's letter to Duncan moves between the poles of its dilemmas rather than resting in them. On the one hand, Welch commends the process of writing "down and down and down" as "almost getting to a plainness that obviates all poetry" (Remain 2: 53). On the other hand, the dominant thrust of the letter turns out to be away from plain "poetry" toward "Poetry" with a capital "P," following the vision that Welch finds himself groping to describe: "After the radiant vision of openness (which it will take me books to bring into words, for I thought at the time 'no poetry, do not stop the flow of it (snagged in flight) but let it go through you'--and, incidently [sic], realized that that is what's wrong with wrong writing: it stops us, whereas Poetry means only 'this is flight!!!! This is the open flow of it!!!'" (Remain!: 54, Welch's italics). This ideal of Poetry shares a flaw with the ideal of the Poet that Welch was ultimately unable to reconcile with the reality he experienced, either of himself or of the world. Seeking to extend his vision "at the time," the Poet envisions Poetry as continuing all the time: "do not stop the flow of it." This is the very condition that "hurts too much" to be sustained in the poet's life.

In contrast to the letter that contains it, the poem "Ring of Bone" comes closer to resolving, or resting in, the contradictions that tore the poet apart. Although the poet's "I" is prominently placed as the first word of the poem, the "flow" to which the poem opens is no longer channeled through a "you." As expressed in the poem, the desire is "that all of it / might flow through," whereas the letter to Duncan retains a personal object for the preposition: "let it go through you." Removal of the "you," the self as object, increases the poem's openness. Perhaps even more significant is the poem's handling of time, which resolves, or suspends, the tension between the visionary intensity of the moment and the desire to continue that moment indefinitely. The first stanza presents the moment of vision: "I saw." The second stanza vows to continue: "always to be open to it." But rather than permitting time to flow continuously, the third stanza explicitly divides time by introducing a second moment, "then," that shifts to a different sense modality: from seeing the image of a ring to hearing the word "ring." Indeed, the way the poem draws attention to each separate word through its careful placement has the effect of suspending time, fixing in place a succession of moments. The impression is like that of the Zen garden of Ryoanji that Welch describes in "Wobbly Rock," an image of the ocean (perpetual flow) made out of rocks, "Precisely placed" (Ring 69). (18)

Like the image of hanging in suspension at the center of the earth, the title image of "Wobbly Rock" evokes dynamic equilibrium, a way of resting in a dilemma. Welch describes a "real rock" on Muir Beach in California that shudders when it is hit by waves, but remains firmly fixed in place: "Notched at certain center it /Yields and then comes back to it" (Ring 68). This meaning would suffice to explain Welch's allusion to "Wobbly Rock" in his letter to Duncan, in which Welch wrestles with the central dilemmas of his life and work. But the letter suggests more specific links in a chain joining "Wobbly Rock," the dilemma of suicide (with a gun or with writing), and the poem "Ring of Bone." After quoting "Ring of Bone" in the letter, Welch declares:
this is the moment of suicide (or, in my phrase:
The instant
After it is made (Remain 2: 54)

The latter quotation is from "Wobbly Rock," in the passage about the garden of Ryoanji, describing the experience of the monks who made the garden and:
first saw it, even then, when finally they
all looked up the
instant AFTER it was made (Ring 69)

As Welch explained in a commentary on this poem, the monks saw "what they were doing" only after they were done ("How I Work" 81). As in "Ring of Bone," the crucial time-marker, "then," divides a continuous flow into separate moments, a moment of doing and a moment of knowing. (19)

If "this is the moment of suicide," as Welch claimed in his letter to Duncan, it may be because the writer ceases to exist when the moment of doing is over. The act of writing is complete, or the act of seeing, since the writer is a seer in the tradition of Rimbaud. Yet this mode of suicide does not bring simple annihilation because what was seen can now be heard in words, like the word "ring," and the words remain to be read. At the point in "Ring of Bone" when Welch writes, "and then heard / 'ring of bone,'" the writer is reborn as a reader. He achieves a perspective similar to that which Kerouac reported after his experience at Big Sur: "now that it's over" (Selected 265).

For both Kerouac and Welch, there is a complex relationship between the original vision that prompted the writing and what is given to the reader to see in the writing. There is a difference. "The poem is not the vision," Welch ultimately conceded (Meltzer 323). However, the poem is a different type of vision, specifically a reader's vision, that reproduces the freshness felt by the one who "first saw it." Later in "Wobbly Rock" (Ring 73), after the passage about Ryoanji, Welch humorously compares his vision of the Pacific at Muir Beach with that of the Spanish explorers when they first saw that ocean, as Keats envisioned them in "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer." Although he is reading Chapman's translation, Keats feels he is seeing Homer's world with an immediacy similar to that of the Spanish explorers viewing the Pacific. For Welch as for Keats, the reader's experience of words well placed recovers the freshness of vision.

It seems likely that Welch's body will never be recovered from the California wilderness where he disappeared in 1971, but he left behind a body of work that deserves to be recovered from the sort of incomprehension that Welch complained of in his readers, and that, as "the din of the Tribe," contributed to his breakdown at Big Sur. In contrast, his disappearance in his work, such as the poem "Ring of Bone," is a creative act that gives rise to the vision of a reader who is encouraged to see "all of it," including the work into which the poet has disappeared. Is such a reader any less of an ideal than the ideal of the Poet which proved to be such a problem for Welch? Welch has left that question to his real readers to decide.


LewWelch, "["I Saw Myself']" and excerpt from "Dream Poem/Mother" from Ring of Bone: Collected Poems 1950-1971. Copyright [c] 1979 by DonaldAllen, Executor of the Estate of Lew Welch. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of City Lights Books,

(1) "A Brief Chronology" in Ring of Bone is my basis for dates in Welch's life (251-54). It concludes: "On 23 May [1971], in a deep depression, he took his revolver and walked away into the forest leaving a farewell note. His body has not been found."

(2) Because Welch referred to "my poem called 'Ring of Bone'" (Meltzer 322), I refer to the poem by that title. Ring of Bone is also the title of a posthumous collection of Welch's poems first published in 1973 and of the "new and expanded edition" published in 2012. The latter edition presents the first line of the poem in square brackets as the title: "[I saw myself]" (Ring 91). For the draft letter to Duncan, I cite the text as it appears in I Remain, vol. 2 (51-56). It is also available online (Welch, "Draft of a Letter to Robert Duncan").

(3) See T. Diggory, "Many Movies," which examines Kerouac's Big Sur experience in detail.

(4) My quotations from Kerouac silently reproduce his idiosyncratic spelling and vocabulary, since they are such well-known characteristics of his style.

(5) This is from the draft of a letter to Robert Duncan from July 1962, discussed below. Crane's suicide in particular is cited in similar contexts in a letter from Welch to Allen Ginsberg dated My 27, 1960 (Remain 1: 221) and in an undated draft preface for a collection of Welch's "Leo Poems" (Ring 202).

(6) See interviews with Ferlinghetti and Snyder in Meltzer (104, 288-89). On his property in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Snyder named the site devoted to Zen meditation Ring of Bone Zendo, in honor of Welch (Martien).

(7) Section 7 of "The Entire Sermon by the Red Monk" reads: "On all kinds of baby purpose, you invented whoever you think you are. Out of ingredients you couldn't choose, by a process you can't control" (Ring 43).

(8) Ginsberg's experience with laughing gas is recorded in the poems "Laughing Gas" (1958) and "Aether" (1960), the latter drafted during his trip to South America (Collected 189-99, 242-54). Other poems from that trip are "To an Old Poet in Peru," "Magic Psalm," and "The Reply" (Collected 239-41,255-56, 257-58).

(9) See Kerouac's letter of June 20,1960 (Kerouac and Ginsberg, Letters 450), in which Kerouac mistakenly credits the Buson haiku to Basho.

(10) Compare the tradition of the "gateless barrier [or gate]" in Zen (Wu-men-kuan in Addiss 89). Zen offers a way toward full openness to existence, but the way cannot be conceived as an opening (or gate), because such conceptualization imposes form, or closure. Welch's image of "a mess of gates" resists form through messiness and multiplication, whereas the Zen image works through purifying negation, but the goal is similar.

(11) My references to Rimbaud are cited from Miller because I believe this work is at least one of Welch's sources for Rimbaud. Mller's sources are Rimbaud's letter to Georges Izambard (May 1871) and Isabelle Rimbaud's memoir, Rimbaud mystique (1914), containing her brother's explanation to his mother that A Season in Hell must be taken "literally and in all senses." Rimbaud was also an important figure for Duncan, who taught a seminar on Rimbaud at Black Mountain College in 1956 (Jarnot 463nl9); and for Kerouac, who wrote the poem "Rimbaud" (1960).

(12) Welch identifies his sister as the uncomprehending reader in "How I Work as a Poet" (77-78).

(13) According to the chronology in Ring (253), Welch helped Duncan organize a show called "Looking at Pictures with Gertrude Stein" in spring 1965.

(14) Compare Kerouac's persona Duluoz, on feeling "devoid of human-beingness" (Big 168). Lisa Jarnot rejects the suggestion that Duncan suffered from depression in his life (452n23). On the other hand, Peter O'Leary identifies depression as a key element in Duncan's poetics (151-60).

(15) See the opening paragraphs of Duncan's essay "The Truth and Life of Myth" (1968). Here, as Peter O'Leary notes (130-32), Duncan presents the experience of "the inspired poet" as both psychotic, aligning with Welch's account of madness in his letter, and shamanistic, aligning with Ginsberg's experience in Peru. Welch's description of his ecstatic experience at Big Sur recalls characteristic features of shamanism, particularly the sensation of flight (Remain 2: 54), which ultimately finds its fullest expression in Welch's late poem, "Song of the Turkey Buzzard" (1971) mRing (147-51). Following Mircea Eliade, O'Leary (147) discusses shamanistic flight in connection with Duncan's poem "My Mother Would Be a Falconress" (1968).

(16) Compare Zen teaching about "killing the Buddha" (Lin-chi Record in Addiss 49-50). Although the Buddha represents emancipation, as a representation, he is just one more "form" from which one needs to be emancipated. In writing to Snyder about the need to purge "Leo," Welch had complained that Leo "really believes he is a Prince." I contend that Poet became for Welch a version of that Prince that needed to be purged.

(17) In Ring, "Hermit Poems" precedes "The Way Back," but both sequences are assigned the same range of dates, 1960-64. Thus, while the structure of the book suggests a linear narrative sequence, the overlapping dates of composition suggest repeated oscillation between two impulses, withdrawing from society and returning to it.

(18) Compare Snyder's image of words "like rocks. / placed solid" in "Riprap" (1959). In thinking about the "wobbly rock," Welch acknowledged that he had "on my mind" (Remain 1: 194) the image of the "unwobbling pivot" that Ezra Pound adopted from Confucian writings (Chung Yung). Welch's perspective, influenced by Zen, is more experiential--"it's a real rock" (Ring 68)--and less dogmatic ("unwobbling").

(19) The version of "Ring of Bone" quoted in the letter to Duncan seems to resist the division into two moments: it reads, "right now heard" (Remain 2: 54), instead of "then heard" (Ring 91). A fusion of the moment of doing and the moment of knowing is suggested in a formulation by Gertrude Stein that Welch liked to quote: "You know yourself knowing it" (Stein, "Poetry and Grammar" 320). See Welch, How I Read Gertrude Stein 16; "How I Work as a Poet" 52. References to Stein at the opening of "How I Work as a Poet" lay the groundwork for Welch's later discussion of the Ryoanji passage in "Wobbly Rock" ("How I Work" 78-81). In addition to the quotation from "Poetry and Grammar," Welch seems also to be thinking of a statement from "Composition as Explanation" which supports the division of moments: "they all really would enjoy the created so much better just after it has been made" (521). This is closer to "the / instant AFTER it was made" described in "Wobbly Rock" (Ring 69).

Works Cited

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Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. Interview with David Meltzer. 1999. Meltzer, pp. 96-106.

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--. How I Read Gertrude Stein. Edited by Eric Paul Shaffer, Grey Fox, 1996.

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By Terence Diggory
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