Chicago Poem

By Lew Welch 1926–1971 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.
     The stench stabs at your eyeballs.
The whole sky green and yellow backdrop for the skeleton
     steel of a bombed-out town.
 
Remember the movies in grammar school? The goggled men
     doing strong things in
Showers of steel-spark? The dark screen cracking light
     and the furnace door opening with a
Blast of orange like a sunset? Or an orange?
 
It was photographed by a fairy, thrilled as a girl, or
     a Nazi who wished there were people
Behind that door (hence the remote beauty), but Sievers,
     whose old man spent most of his life in there,
Remembers a “nigger in a red T-shirt pissing into the
     black sand.”
 
It was 5 years until I could afford to recognize the ferocity.
     Friends helped me. Then I put some
Love into my house. Finally I found some quiet lakes
     and a farm where they let me shoot pheasant.
 
Standing in the boat one night I watched the lake go
     absolutely flat. Smaller than raindrops, and only
Here and there, the feeding rings of fish were visible a hundred
     yards away — and the Blue Gill caught that afternoon
Lifted from its northern lake like a tropical! Jewel at its ear
     Belly gold so bright you’d swear he had a
Light in there. His color faded with his life. A small
     green fish . . .
 
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.
 
There’s nobody else to blame. You can’t fix it and you
     can’t make it go away. It does no good appealing
To some ill-invented Thunderer
     Brooding above some unimaginable crag . . .
 
It’s ours. Right down to the last small hinge it
     all depends for its existence
Only and utterly upon our sufferance.
 
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
     monstrocity. It
Snuffles on the beach of its Great Lake like a
     blind, red, rhinoceros.
It’s already running us down.
 
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.

Lew Welch, “Chicago Poem” from Ring of Bone: Collected Poems of Lew Welch. Copyright © 2012 by Lew Welch. Reprinted by permission of City Lights Books.

Source: Ring of Bone: Collected Poems of Lew Welch (City Lights Books, 2012)

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Poet Lew Welch 1926–1971

POET’S REGION U.S., Western

SCHOOL / PERIOD Beat

Subjects Living, Life Choices, Nature, Landscapes & Pastorals, Social Commentaries, Cities & Urban Life

Poetic Terms Free Verse

Biography

Poet Lewis Barrett Welch was born in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1926. After his parents divorced, he moved with his mother and sister to a series of California towns. After high school, he served briefly in the Air Force. Welch was educated at Stockton Junior College, Reed College (where he earned a BA), and the University of Chicago. At Reed, he roomed with poets Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, with whom he formed lifelong . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Living, Life Choices, Nature, Landscapes & Pastorals, Social Commentaries, Cities & Urban Life

POET’S REGION U.S., Western

SCHOOL / PERIOD Beat

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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