The title, He, Leo, is acknowledged by Oregon State University Press’s editor, Thomas Booth, as “a bit obscure” in an email to me. “It’s a (veiled) reference to Lew’s short autobiography—titled I, Leo—and the fact that he often referred to himself as such. It was something of an alter-ego.” This has only been published posthumously as I, Leo – An Unfinished Novel by Grey Fox Press, a small press of Don Allen’s (The New American Poetry anthology editor) and it has never been reissued. I couldn’t help but notice that the poet must also be referring to his astrological sun sign (Gavin Arthur’s chart is included, an astrologer with the added sexual pedigree of having slept with both Edward Carpenter (who’d slept with Walt Whitman) and Neal Cassady, according to Allen Ginsberg’s Gay Sunshine interview (#16, January 1973). Allen was proud of this direct sexual lineage to Whitman.

The book is a painstakingly researched account of Lew Welch’s life—his friendships, love life, Zen lineage, and tragic end. Known in part for Trip Trap (Welch’s pun on Gary Snyder’s Rip Rap), a series of haikus composed on the spot by Jack Kerouac, Lew Welch, and mutual friend Albert Saijo during a cross-country trip, one cannot help by contrast Welch with Kerouac’s Buddhism and alcoholism. Perhaps the hardest part is to see how little Welch shared in Jack’s epiphanies—instead, he exhibited a fairly relentless clinical depression that he self-medicated far beyond even Kerouac’s athletic destruction. By age 44, Welch’s body and brain were pretty thoroughly shot—enough to not really regard suicide as all that unreasonable except for any moral proclivities one might have.  Jack was Catholic. Lew had no such limitations.

At a time when I found myself severely limited by what we know of Lew Welch, particularly his Zen practice (I was writing about his friends Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen in this context)—this book magically appeared. 

Snyder, Whalen, and Welch all met at Reed College in Portland, Oregon and they mutually explored Zen. It was Snyder who first gave Whalen books by D.T. Suzuki in 1952, still considered a premier scholar of Zen Buddhism and, before Alan Watts made things more accessible, the only real entrance into Zen for some time. 

In 1955, the First Zen Institute of America awarded a scholarship to Snyder in Japan for a year, paid by Ruth Fuller Sasaki, where he was an English tutor to Zen abbot Miura Isshu in Kyoto. In early July 1955, he took refuge vows with Miura, formally becoming a Buddhist. During the period between 1956 and 1969, Snyder went back and forth between California and Japan, his Zen studies including translation work with Fuller Sasaki.

(Before you think I’ve forgotten whose biography I’m writing about, one can’t underestimate Snyder’s influence on this college-born friendship.) 

Snyder established a sort of makeshift zendo called Marin-an at Mill Valley, which Welch found himself running at times when Snyder was away. So did Albert Saijo, who would introduce Welch to his Zen teacher, Nyogen Senzaki, whom Saijo had met during internment at the Heart Center Relocation Center in Wyoming. Sensaki was now teaching in San Francisco, and though not nearly as well-known as some of his Japanese contemporaries, he should be credited with really helping establish Zen on the West Coast.

This group was rounded out by poet Joanne Kyger, a roommate at various times to Lew Welch in San Francisco at the so-called East-West House, and eventually Gary Snyder’s wife for a time. Poet and Zen student Lenore Kandel also roomed there and became involved with Welch, which in some ways seems like the union of Eros and Thanatos. She was a wild sex-affirming presence who would become notorious for The Love Book in 1966, an explicit erotic hymn.  

As for Whalen, he spent 1966 and 1967 in Kyoto, Japan, assisted by a grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a job teaching English. He also practiced zazen daily. He would later move into the San Francisco Zen Center and became a student of Roshi Richard Baker in 1972, the dharma heir of Suzuki Roshi. In 1987, he received transmission from Baker, and in 1991, he returned to San Francisco to lead the Hartford Street Zen Center until ill health forced him to retire.

Even for what threadbare info I had on Welch, the outcome was predictable. But there are surprises along the way.

There has long been a story of Welch coming up with the advertising slogan “Raid Kills Bugs Dead.” I noticed that there was nothing about it the book, or even the index.

Ewan Clark’s response to this question:

This story about Lew and Raid is mentioned briefly in the endnotes (n.31, p. 338). I couldn’t find anything to corroborate this ‘legend’ nor am I sure that the dates correspond. Lew certainly wasn’t living in NYC at that time, although when the advertising campaign for Raid was created by Foote[, Cone & Belding]. he was working for Montgomery Ward in Chicago so it isn’t entirely impossible that he was (partly) responsible. That said, I have always doubted the legitimacy of this claim purely on the basis that, given Lew’s notoriety/fame, someone would surely have documented it in the ensuing years (or more likely, Lew would have done that himself!). Given the lack of any hard evidence one way or the other, I decided to simply leave it as an endnote. It is one of the many myths and legends that seem to have endured concerning Lew!

Eventually, Snyder, Ginsberg, Roshi, Richard Baker, and Swami Kriyananda (a white guru in the lineage of Autobiography of a Yogi’s Paramahansa Yogananda) together bought a hundred acres along the North San Juan Ridge, which Snyder rechristened Kitkitdizze, from a plant known by several common names such as “bear clover,” and a name from the Mintu people—kitkitdizze (pronounced kit kit dizzy). Ginsberg gave Welch a spot to build a cabin, and towards the end of his life, it became a race between his plans to build it and his alcoholism and depression. In 1971, it was at Snyder’s home that Lew left a suicide note and then walked into the wilderness with a .22. His body was never found. 

Frankly, Welch was so far gone physically, the cabin couldn’t have saved him even if he had completed it.

Snyder would later establish a practice hall in Kitktidizze that was called Ring of Bone Zendo, which is a reference to one of Welch’s most famous poems. It’s the best way to remember him.

[I Saw Myself]

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

He, Leo: The Life and Poetry of Lew Welch

by Ewan Clark

Oregon State University Press


ISBN 978-0-87071-247-0