Here's a true voice of the Beat Generation, a poet who has remained "underground" since he published his first book (River of Red Wine) in 1958.
Jack Micheline has never been published by the bigger presses, and according to himself he never will. He thinks he's living in "Siberia in the United States" - the loveless hell of people trying to get by in this greedy world. You'll never see this guy in a shoe commercial - that's for sure!
Jack Micheline was born in the Bronx as Harvey Martin Silver. The reason for the name change was his father, a postman in whom Micheline saw the money-grabbing that could be found everywhere in the ghetto. He never liked the cruelty and injustice in his own streets. So, like many before him, he went on the road.
He began his travelling at the age of seventeen and didn't stop until he was twenty-six. Now he found a home in the streets of Greenwich Village, where he lived the next five years. Rapidly Micheline identified himself with the tradition of American street poets, such as Vachel Lindsay and Maxvell Bodenheim. He walked the streets of the Village and Harlem listening to jazz, digging the vitality and humanity amongst poor people. He found a friend in the black poet Langston Hughes who encouraged him in his writing. In 1957 he also won the "Revolt in Literature Award" at the Half Note Club in the East Village (one of the judges was Charles Mingus). Shortly after that he showed his poems to the publisher of Troubadour Press. He wanted to print them under two conditions: Micheline had to stagger his lines to make them look more unconventional, and get a famous person to write an introduction. Micheline was then living in the same building as poet Howard Hart, who was sharing his apartment with... Jack Kerouac!
Micheline showed his poems to Kerouac who began yelling, "Wow! A new poet!" Kerouac also wanted to write an introduction for the collection. Drunk and in a good spirit Kerouac wrote a page-long introduction. In Kerouac, Micheline also found a new friend.
The book River of Red Wine was published in 1958. Soon Micheline found himself at fashionable literary and artistic parties, and just like Kerouac, he had a habit of getting drunk and trying to liven things up. He could run across the room shouting, "To be alive is to lead an exciting life!" or trying to get the proper girls into bed by using offensive language.
After a while he got bored with the stiff parties and started to hang out with Kerouac instead. They would walk the Bowery, drinking and talking to the bums. Because of his new friendship with Kerouac and his writer friends, he now was a Beat, meaning he was being published in anthologies covering the Beats. He wrote a lot at this period, and most of it is still unpublished. In the early sixties he continued his travels across the States and kept getting rejected by the publishers. He lived in rooming houses, stayed with friends and got in touch with other underground artists. In 1963 he married a politician's daughter and went to Europe with her. Just a year later the marriage broke up. The reason was that an earlier girlfriend gave birth to a child that was Micheline's (it was a boy and is his only child). Now he lived alone in the Village again. He continued to write poetry, fiction and even plays.
Micheline was an enthuastic participant in the counter-cultural movement of the sixties, but he realized quite early that the movement was being commercialized and wasn't going to make it all the way through. "They say we opened up society. What did we open up? We opened up the banks for some people in Hollywood." he said in the eighties.
At the end of his life Micheline lived in San Francisco, writing poetry and painting while still being ignored by the bigger presses. "Good work doesn't sell well they claim. I am a rare human spirit, the work is open, free and alive. I'm sorry if I frighten them. Maybe they want stories with condoms on them, clean and safe. My work is ALIVE! This animal is alive. Sad for this unbrave world. Sad state indeed. It makes one scream..."
He died on a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train on February 27, 1998. The BookZen site has a good page of tributes to him. Immediately after he died, Jack's son helped create an official home for Jack Micheline on the web.
On Friday, February 27, 1998, I learned of Jack Micheline's death. He was found dead on a Bart train, apparently the victim of a heart attack.
Micheline was described on Cafe Blue, The Internet, as "One of the lesser Beats," but was the author of twenty books of poems. He was 68 years old at the time of his death, and was suffering from diabetes. He was born in New York, under the name Harvey Martin Silvaer, and worked as a union organiser before dedicating his life to poetry and painting. While in New York, he frequented the bars and coffee houses of Greenwich Village, walking the streets with the likes of Jack Kerouac, who wrote an introduction for Micheline's first book of poems, "River of Red Wine," which was favourably reviewed by Dorothy Parker in Esquire Magazine.
Micheline was the last of the authentic "street" poets, uneasy in a poetry world turned business. He never sought fame, choosing to write about the people he cared for: hookers, drug addicts, blue collar workers, and the dispossessed, and he did it with and from the heart.
Micheline told me, "I don't want to be published because I wear the same clothes that others wear, or because I have the same ideas. I want respect for my own individuality, but it doesn't work that way."
With the death of Bob Kaufman, and now Micheline, there exists a deep void in what was once referred to as "street poetry." Jack Kerouac, in his introduction to Micheline's "Red River of Wine," said, "His sweet lines revive the poetry of open hope in America," and Charles Bukowski admitted to me that even he couldn't touch Micheline when Micheline was writing at his best. Does this sound like one of the "lesser" Beat poets?" I think not!
A self-proclaimed lyrical poet, Micheline drew on old blues and jazz rhythms, infusing them with pure energy and joy. He rolled with the cadence of word music, while paying tribute to the gut reality of the material he wrote about. His life was profoundly influenced by music. He told me: "I write the music first (not the words for it), before I write the poem. I hear the music, the rhythms, and therefore I'm basically a composer, a musician. I can't remember when music wasn't an important part of my life."
Micheline's poems ring true, because beyond the lines and stanzas flow the energy of life. His voice was an original one. No one has tried to imitate it, as is the case with Bukowski, because it can't be imitated. He was loved by both young and old alike. He exasperated many people with his outspokenness, but his real friends saw through this facade, and knew the deep love he had for the common man and woman. Before his death, Micheline told me, "I never wanted to be a poet. I still don't want to be a poet. I just want to live my life. The thing is that the working class, given the chance, would relate to poetry, but they have all this football, baseball, and television. They've never had a chance to see a real poet that relates to their own way of life. in America, everything is profit motivation. It's the spirit that I relate to. The church doesn't do the job. Television doesn't do the job. Everything in America is based on greed, the almighty buck, and mediocrity."
Micheline's words remind me of the lines from a poem by the late William Wantling: "I never wanted to be a poet. I would carry a lunchbox just like the rest of them if only the muttering would leave me alone." We are fortunate that the muttering never left Micheline alone. It took a force no less powerful than death to silence the muttering.
Micheline's poems were heartbreaking, and real; not the street pose that too many poets try to take, but slices of real life; poems from the gut and the hearts. His poems came from street life experience, not from reading Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, or William Stafford. He knew that true poets don't choose poetry, that it chooses you, and that in the end it is the way you live your life that counts. He knew that the only thing a poor poet owns is his integrity, and he knew even more that if you sell this intangible asset that you will have sold the only thing a poet can claim as his own
On his death, several newspapers paid tribute to Micheline, two of them describing him as a Beat Icon, but his poetry extends beyond any label put on him. Micheline, in fact, never wanted to be called a Beat poet, preferring to be known as a Bohemian.
On March 3, 1998, they held a Memorial service for Micheline, at a church near where he lived. The church was inconspicuous in that it bore no name or cross; the kind of church Micheline would have felt comfortable in. 300 people crowded into the church to pay their respects with recollections and poems. There were the usual poetry fakes: a poet proclaiming to be a life long friend of Micheline; Lawrence Ferlinghetti sending a message saying how much he respected Micheline and his work; the same Ferlinghetti whose City Lights Bookstore doesn't stock a single title of the over twenty books Micheline has published. But these people were in the minority. Poet and friends alike stepped up to the podium; some of them sharing stories about Micheline; others reading poems of his, or poems dedicated to him. Ken Keasey, recovering from a minor stroke, sent a message praising Micheline and his body of work; Michael McClure and Harold Norse read short poems, and Herbert Gold talked about meeting Micheline in New York in 1953. A jazz musician (saxophone) played in the background. Death is as savage a beast as there is. She spares no one. The San Francisco poetry scene, and the poetry scene at large, is diminished by Micheline's passing.
I met the poet Jack Micheline in 1970 in New York City at Dr Generosity's, a saloon at 73rd and Second on the East Side. I waited tables there and helped run a Sunday afternoon reading series and was editor and publisher of the Dr`Generosity Press, which from 1969 through 1972 put out a number of books and broadsides of poetry.
Of all the poets who came through the Doctor's doors, and the list is long and impressive, Jack was the only one who was a full time poet. I mean that's all Jack did, be a poet. He had no regular job, didn't teach, and at the time was sleeping on the subway. For drink and food Jack would take a poem or two in typescript, make copies, staple the pages inside a brown folder, and on the cover write the poem's title with a marker. On the inside there was a cover page with the title and Jack's signature and the edition number, like This Is Copy 3 Of A Limited Edition Of 10 Copies, again`written by Jack with a marker. These productions he peddled for a few dollars each in saloons and on the street. Jack called them Midnight Special Editions.
At that time there were several saloons with regular poetry readings, uptown and downtown, The Tin Palace and St. Adrian's among them. Jack always showed up for these events, and always, invited or not, got on stage and recited a piece or two. Never read, always recited. He knew all his poems by heart. Other poets carried briefcases stuffed with paper, Jack carried his poems in his head.
At some point in the early 70s Jack moved out to San Francisco and we kept in touch by mail. In 1975 I was involved in the production of a book of his, Street of Lost Fools. I lived in Westhampton and had a studio connected to the garage behind the house, where I drank and wrote and kept the pot belly stove cranked up to 80 degrees. One winter night I ran out of plugs of wood for the stove, there was snow on the ground outside where the woodpile sat, I was shirtless and drunk and dreaming myself in Hawaii. No way was I going to get bundled up to go out in the freeze and get wood, no way. So I fed 30 or 40 unbound copies of Jack's book into the pot belly. The stove glowed. Never has any poet's work given me such immediate satisfaction.
In 1980 I moved back to Hawaii and lost touch with Jack. I got sober and realized the book burning was a terrible thing to do. I had to make an amends to Jack, but I had no idea where he was. So I wrote this poem to him: