In an appreciation of Beat poet Lew Welch, Maxine Hong Kingston says, “Not everybody who writes poems knows what a poem is. Lew Welch knew.”
And yet Welch is probably best remembered for his curious burial request and mysterious disappearance. In “Song of the Turkey Buzzard,” arguably his best-known poem, Welch urged his friends to “place my meat” before the vultures in a sky burial. Sky burials, in which a person’s remains are placed on a mountaintop to be eaten by carrion birds, are a Tibetan Buddhist tradition, considered an act of compassion and kindness for the other creatures of earth, who, after all, need to eat, too. Similar traditions of recycling and/or purification have been performed by Zoroastrians, Australian Aboriginal peoples, and some Native American tribes.
Welch’s college roommate and close friend Gary Snyder referred to him as a worshipper of the Goddess Gaia and “the beauty of that ecstatic Mutual Offering called the Food Chain.” Welch didn’t want to be put in a box. He ends his song in all-caps: “NOT THE BRONZE CASKET BUT THE BRAZEN WING / SOARING FOREVER ABOVE THEE O PERFECT / O SWEETEST WATER O GLORIOUS // WHEELING // BIRD”
Born in 1926 in Arizona, Welch attended Reed College in the late 1940s. His roommates were Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, both of whom also became well-known poets. They all turned each other on to the adventure of post-World War II American verse. Of course, poetry never made anybody much money, so Welch worked a variety of jobs. He was an advertising copywriter for Montgomery Ward, a cabbie, a longshoremen’s clerk, a commercial fisherman, and a teacher. (He also helped his longtime partner raise her son, Hugh, who as an adult musician chose the stage name Huey Lewis in Lewis Welch’s honor. Yes, that Huey Lewis.)
According to poetry scholar Rod Phillips, in between the gigs and the drinking and the breakdowns, Welch produced “a finely crafted and innovative body of work” in poetry. Phillips examines Welch’s “strategic withdrawal” into nature and his “discomfort with modern, urban America” during the go-go years of the post-war boom. Phillips quotes another take on Welch’s collected poetry (collected in a volume called Ring of Bone), “a group of poems that are among the purest and most precise of all the Beat creations.”
Welch got his fill of urban America working in New York and Chicago. Central Park’s cage of green depressed him. Welch wrote about nature: “It is all that goes on whether we look at it or not. All-that-goes-on-whether-we-look-at-it-or-not will always go on (though we almost never look at it) and we are in it, in this form, for a little while at least.” He didn’t see eye-to-eye with Carl Sandburg on Chicago: “The land’s too flat. Ugly sullen and big it / pounds men down past humbleness.” He went back west in the late 1950s, lost his job and marriage, and joined the San Francisco Beat scene. There he took interest in countercultural ideas like communal living, Buddhism, and ecology, a generation before the hippies.
Then one day in 1971, the hard-drinking Beat poet—an inspiration for one of Jack Kerouac’s characters in Big Sur—walked into the woods of Nevada County, northeast of San Francisco. He took a gun and left behind a suicide note. No body was ever found, which is why biographies end his dates with a question mark. This is also why his friends took to looking at vultures overhead to see if they recognized anything: “Is that you, Lew?”