This used to be one of those serious critical analysis things. I liked it less and less every time I read it. Now, with the great copyright purge, I've revisited the commentary. It's still criticism, but now at least it's real.
   September 3, 2003

Chicago Poem
by Lew Welch

I lived here nearly 5 years before I could
    meet the middle western day with anything approaching
Dignity. It's a place that lets you
    understand why the Bible is the way it is:
Proud people cannot live here.

The land's too flat. Ugly sullen and big it
    pounds men down past humbleness. They
Stoop at 35 possibly cringing from the heavy and
    terrible sky
. In country like this there
Can be no God but Jahweh.

In the mills and refineries of its south side Chicago
    passes its natural gas in flames
Bouncing like bunsens from stacks a hundred feet high.

[I sit, as I type this, in a box of glass and steel, three floors up a massive parking ramp somewhere near the center of the city of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Minneapolis, for those of you who don't know, is pretty much Chicago's little welterweight cousin. The traffic's better here, and the crime rate's lower. This city is less brutal, reputedly—but we have the winters to make up for it. Our cities share the same icy, Midwestern, industrial presence. The same indifference to the flat, dusty farmland upon which they've been encroaching for decades.

You could call each an island in the sea of fields and grass and crumbling farm houses. You could call each a festering sore.

Lew Welch had a nervous breakdown in Chicago. Chicago came down around him, a modern day Wrathful God roaring and fuming, and he left the city a little broken. He became a minor beat poet, living in San Francisco and Big Sur and up and down the west coast. He wrote this jarring lament, "Chicago Poem," about the whole mess of industry and modernity. He walked away, as he says near the end of this poem; and finally, a few years later, he walked off into the woods with a rifle. He left behind a suicide note ending eerily in "I went Southwest," as if to say "Make sure to find whatever's left of me."

They never found his remains. What we have left of him are a few exceptional poems—this one in particular.]

All things considered, it's a gentle and undemanding
    planet, even here. Far gentler
Here than any of a dozen other places. The trouble is
    always and only with what we build on top of it.

. . .

Driving back I saw Chicago rising in its gases and I
    knew again that never will the
Man be made to stand against this pitiless, unparalleled

[There are lines that make poets, that chime right to the bone in one impressionable young writer or another: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness," or "I had not thought death had undone so many," or whatever.We all have these lines that come to us like religious conversion, striking us with that crucial enlightenment of what the right arrangement of symbols and syllables can do to the nerve center. "Chicago rising in it gases" hits me as so right, so dead-on, it could justify a lifetime of inane scribbling and coffee-house pretension.

This is why I read poetry. This is why I sometimes even write it.]

You can't fix it. You can't make it go away.
    I don't know what you're going to do about it,
But I know what I'm going to do about it. I'm just
    going to walk away from it. Maybe
A small part of it will die if I'm not around

    feeding it anymore.

[This is a poem of primitive religion. This is Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" (section II) transplanted into the Midwest, with a jealous, senile god peering downward and growling. The buildings, the industry, the entire weight of humanity bear down upon Welch, and at some point he realizes that his "Jahweh" is this weight. God (much like Sartre's Hell) is other people.

We're what's wrong with this world.

And it is no great leap from Welch's solution in this poem to his solution in life: he walks away. "Maybe a small part of it will die," he says without much conviction. It feels a little like rationalization to me, and a whole lot like fatalism. It feels like the first step in his final walk, southwest, into the woods near Gary Snyder's home.

I sit now, as I type this, 200 miles and a world away from the rural wilderness in which I spent my childhood. The disconnect that tears at Welch in this poem, that weighed heavily upon his life—it's a part of me too. It's an anxiety about skylines and sprawl, about megalopolis, about inevitability and loss. About simplicity much more than such a loaded term as "environmentalism." Abandonment isn't the answer, and I think Welch knew it. But the sentiment, this poem, these simple remains he's left, this might be a start.]

The block quotations in this writeup are from "Chicago Poem" and are Copyright © by Lew Welch.

This writeup is CST Approved.