A Review of Lew Welch's I, Leo: An Unfinished Novel and On Bread and Poetry: A Panel Discussion with Gary Snyder, Lew Welch and Philip Whalen

by Albert Saijo
Point Reyes Station, California

There is a lot of good writing in I, Leo and it isn't as it's subtitled, an Unfinished Novel. Unfinished is an idea. The book goes for 82 pages then stops. It did not give me the sense of something unfinished. It is about a young man, Leo (Lew was a Leo), in a certain time, at a certain place — it was not long ago but seems distant — Portland, Oregon — 1948-50 — living on edge of skidrow — G.I. Bill — Reed College — turning on to literate friends and beginning his life of Art, Poetry, Painting, Romance and the Scholarly Pursuit. The prose is surprisingly careful and formal, even kind of old fashioned. Surprising because the book was written while Lew was heavily under the influence of Jack Kerouac's idea of "Spontaneous Prose." (You do hear an echo of Kerouac here and there.) Careful prose like Joyce's Dubliners, but innocent, innocent as only Lew could be innocent.
Lew was good at description and narrative. The description of the Kamm Building is detailed and fine — a once pretty brick building gone seedy, become just another rooming house for the down and out, the washed out, and the weirded out of our society, whose lives have narrowed to a state of near perfect non-inspiration. The kind of state where the only thing left to do in the way of an inspired act is to either paint everything you own silver or paste up on your wall a newspaper print of Raphael's Virgin on the Barrel Top or one of Abraham Lincoln. It' s tough living on some levels of our society. Leo plops down among them with his painter friend Prosmo. For sure the place needed a shot of the mercurial. Leo painted his room: one wall black, one wall moss green, two walls and the ceiling gray, and the floor an almost black, green. A pretty good indication of how things were then. But down the street was the great American urban refuge, the ubiquitous neighborhood Chinese-American restaurant. This one the prototype of its class, complete with big blonde waitresses and pinball machines. Lew gets it all in.

Leo comes through like Lew, no difference. The other people in the book are as solid as brief acquaintance can make them. The love story is bittersweet and handled just right. The physical place and the human scene come through very clearly. One man looking back and saying, let me describe a beginning, let me tell you how it was.

On Bread and Poetry. I like the frontispiece photo of Gary, Lew, and Philip. I like especially the holographic reproductions of a poem by each. The contrast of calligraphic styles is striking. Three strong hands. The lesson of the text of this book seems to be that you can take the subject as being a Poet In Our Time just so far before the inevitable question arises. So what? So you're a poet, so what? Everyone has a vocation. And the practice of every vocation has its own air. And every vocation has its vicissitudes. In this book, these three gifted poets, friends from college, talk about being a poet in the 50's and 60's along the Pacific coast, mostly. It's sound, pertinent talk.

Western American Literature?
Fall 1978