We waited expectantly for the arrival of our revered poet. Around dinnertime, he appeared at the front door wearing a lumpy overcoat, sporting a stubble of several days, and smelling unmistakably of Jim Beam. He was a handsome man still, with fine features and a mane of reddish hair framing a high forehead. His eyes were roguish, quick and alive; his smile to die for. It was soon clear that our guest feasted on language, not food. He didn't touch a morsel of the lovingly prepared first night's dinner, or any other dinner we set on the table in front of him. Orange juice with raw egg in the morning, some hair of the dog. That seemed to be it.
And speaking of dogs . . . we forgot to tell Lew we had one. Our dog, Elwha Pootel, was off on his nocturnal rounds when Lew arrived the first night. Around midnight, Lew crashed on the couch and we went upstairs to bed. In the middle of the night, Elwha scratched at the door and Lew, half asleep, stumbled over and opened it for him. The exuberant pup leapt into the poet's warm sheets and shook off his wet, snowy coat. Apparently, poet and dog made an accommodation--we didn't hear about it until the next morning.
Lew was touched and amused at the domesticity of his young hosts, then both aspiring poets. I think he was honestly curious as to how life would treat us--so young and so privileged--in the years to come. We admired him enormously for all the experience we didn't have. He was one of the original Beats. He'd driven cross-country with Kerouac. He'd written the line RAID KILLS BUGS DEAD during his short stint as a novice advertising copywriter. The road he had chosen--as an authentic poet, a longshoreman, and an alcoholic--was a hard one.
Lew taught us to revel in the rhythm of everyday speech ("My finger on the throttle and my foot upon the pedal of the clutch") and he exhorted us to read our poetry out loud. "When you write down a poem," he said, "you are transcribing a voice." He made us see that poetry didn't have to be obscure, it could be as real as the red wheelbarrow or the young girl splashing in the surf at Muir Beach with her jeans rolled to mid-thigh. He helped us see the connection between writing poetry and living poetry.
He insisted on taking us everywhere by taxi, even the half-mile to campus, in the rare heavy snow of that January in Portland. Lew had at one time driven taxi for a living ("When I drive cab/ I bring the sailor home from the sea. In the back of/ my car he fingers the pelt of his maiden"). Now that he was poet in residence, and we were his hosts, damnit, we were going to be chauffeured. Our regular route to campus--Southeast 41st, Woodstock Boulevard--looked entirely different viewed from the windows of a Yellow Cab churning its way through the unplowed streets.
Lew was at a pinnacle in his life (soon to crash again). For the moment he had solve one of his big problems. ("Manifesto," 1964: "Without in any way causing a strain on my community, without begging or conning anyone in any way, I will pay my bills entirely by doing my real job, which is Poet.") Lew sang his poetry, nipping on Old Overholt from a silver flask. His young audience listened reverently. He was our own Irish bard and imperfect Zen master, our teacher and our friend.
He came up to the Northwest again, later that spring, to dry out at Bill and Nancy Yardas's stump farm in Woodland, Washington. Bill and Lew had gone commercial salmon fishing together in the early '60s; they shared the laughter and the intimacy of old friends. Bill was a burly affable Yugoslav with thick silver hair and a droll sense of humor. A "redneck beatnik," he called himself. His right arm was withered from a forceps birth. With his good left arm Bill could saddle a horse, chop wood, prime a pump, free a lamb from a blackberry thicket. A pack of Camels was perpetually grasped in the hand of his tiny arm. We'd drive up to Bill's farm for the night, enthusiastically devour the steak and potatoes that Nancy cooked up on the wood-burning stove, then listen to Bill and Lew rap on into the wee hours of the morning in a haze of tobacco and dope smoke.