Poetry Dispatch No. 81 | June 13, 2006
The Basic Con by Lew Welch
Those who can’t find anything to live for,
always invent something to die for.
Then they want the rest of us to
die for it too.
Lewis Barrett Welch, Jr. (August 16, 1926-May 1971?) was a poet associated with the Beats. He also wrote advertising copy and was responsible for the classic slogan Raid Kills Bugs Dead.
Welch was born in Phoenix, Arizona, but moved with his mother and sister to California in 1929. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1944 but never saw active service. He worked for a period before joining Stockton Junior College, where he developed an interest in the works of Gertrude Stein.
In 1948, Welch moved to Reed College, where he roomed with Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen. Here he wrote his thesis on Stein and published poems in student magazines. William Carlos Williams visited the college and met the three poets. He admired Welch’s early poems and tried to get his Stein thesis published.
After college, Welch moved to New York, but he started to display emotional and mental problems and went to Florida to take a course of therapy. He then went to the University of Chicago, where he studied philosophy and English. In Chicago, he joined the advertising department of Montgomery Ward, where he came up with the famous Raid slogan “Raid Kills Bugs Dead.” He was working here at the time of the famous poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco that launched what was to become known as the San Francisco Renaissance.
Wanting to get back to poetry, Welch applied for a transfer to Montgomery Ward’s Oakland headquarters and started to get involved in the San Francisco literary scene. He soon gave up advertising and earned a living driving a yellow cab while devoting more of his time to writing. He became an active participant in Beat culture, living at various times with Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and appearing as the character, Dave Wain in Jack Kerouac’s novel, Big Sur.
Welch published and performed widely during the 1960s, and taught a poetry workshop as part of the University of California Extension in San Francisco from 1965 to 1970. On May 23rd 1971, he walked out of Snyder’s house in the mountains carrying a revolver. His body was never found.