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A Poet on the Margins

The American poet, Jack Micheline, was born in 1929 as Harold Martin Silver in The Bronx (New York City.)

According to the biography published at the Jack Micheline Foundation, his parents, who were Jewish and of Russian-Romanian ancestry, changed Harold's first name to "Harvey", to fool the angel of death.

The angel of death may have resented that action. In fact, Jack Micheline did not get along with his father who had lost much during the stock market chaos of 1929. That was the same year his son (Harold/Harvey/Jack) was born. The son thought the father bitter and contaminated by greed. This conflict with the father led to another name change. Micheline replaced his second first name with a third. He now called himself "Jack", to honor the American writer Jack London. The "Micheline" part of the new name was manufactured by extrapolating from the maiden name of his mother, Helen Mitchell (a.k.a. Yetta Klang). Jack's serious tension with his father was likely the reason Micheline went on the road as a teenager (age 17). He went in search of vagabonds and bohemians, which also meant, for him, a search for poetry.

Micheline said he grew up in a neighborhood where poets were thought of as sissies.

A 1992 interview with Micheline was entitled, "Either Poetry or a Machine Gun". During the interview Micheline talks about how for him it was either a life dedicated to poetry or a life of crime. The gangster mind sees...

...only what you see and you don't see beyond your nose. Most people don't see beyond their noses; they are fucking followers, they are not leaders. Most people are sheep...If I didn't write poems, I probably would have bought a machine gun and killed a lot of people a long time ago. It saved my life, poetry, because where I came from was a gangster mentality. My head was in a gangster mentality.

In 1946 the United States had just finished fighting World War II. The State Department, in its historical review of American Literature describes the state of the state of poetry at the time:
Traditional forms and ideas no longer seemed to provide meaning to many American poets in the second half of the 20th century. Events after World War II produced for many writers a sense of history as discontinuous...
This state department essay defines the poetic period 1945-1990 as a period of "anti-tradition." This is also the time-frame coincident with Micheline's poetic work. By the 1950s new approaches to poetry were emerging.

Micheline and the Beat Generation

Jack Micheline is popularly associated with the Beat Generation artists despite his claim that the movement was a "product of the media's hustle." In the 1950s, Micheline moved to one of the central locations for 20th century bohemian life, Greenwich Village, in New York City. There he intersected the Beat generation then emerging from its subterranean origins into popular awareness as Jack Kerouac's novel On The Road (1957) and Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl caught the public's attention. Micheline won the 1957 Revolt in Literature Award, at the Half Note Club, in New York City. (Parenthetically, the journalist Nat Hentoff, writer/radio personality Jean Shepard, and musician Charles Mingus were the award's judges.)

Micheline and Kerouac lived briefly in the same apartment building. Kerouac, then becoming known as the "father" or the "king" of the Beats agreed to write an introduction to Micheline's first book of poetry, River of Red Wine, published in 1958 by Troubador Press.

Micheline's poem "Poet of the Streets" was included by Ann Charters in The Beat Reader (He's part of "Part 4: Other Fellow Travelers") Some of the popular Beat historical stories found in biographies, letters, overviews, etc., mention Micheline, but some do not. He's briefly in Nicosia's Kerouac biography (Memory Babe). There is a selection in the aforementioned Portable Beat Reader. Micheline is indexed in the Women of the Beat Generation anthology. Kerouac mentions him a couple of times in a June 20, 1960 letter to Allen Ginsberg ("--Micheline is out of his mind--"). He does not appear in the "Cast of Characters" associated with Kerouac generated by Douglas Brinkley, editor of Kerouac's journals.

Micheline was more marginal and marginalized than most of the identifiable or published Beat poets. (That in itself may be an accomplishment of sorts.) His view of poetry and culture and business (influenced by his childhood disappointment in his father, done in, the son supposed, by money) would keep him forever skeptical of popular acceptance. However, the Beat Generation was more than a hustle and at some level Micheline probably knew this. The so-called Beat consciousness had emerged some ten years earlier in the groves of Columbia University. It had been crystallized in the "new vision" of souls like Lucien Carr, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac.

Amateurs, Professionals, Outlaws

Micheline is a good example of the poet as a cultural warrior. (Micheline was also a creative painter and went to Mexico with the financial support of the abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline. ) Part of what he identified as the problem with contemporary culture was "greed." The "business of poetry" and its interconnection with the academic, and privileged castes offended the Bronx-born street poet who admired vagabonds and hobos instead of corporation executives. The poet A. D. Winans, who considers Micheline a "mentor" wrote that Micheline "believed and lived by the credo that to be a poet in America is to be an outlaw." Winans goes on to describe how Micheline defined the role of the poet as "a revolutionary whose purpose in life is to free people from the slavery of stifling jobs and relationships." Micheline, in his own words...
[A] professional poet is somebody who hustles and makes a living from the shit, or who tries to make a living from it. And a living poet is every minute you are a poet, you don't have to write to be a poet. A shoemaker could be the greatest poet. The way he hammers the nail in the fucking shoe is poetry. The way a woman lifts up her hair, lifts her skirt, a hooker, the way she smiles, that's poetry. When it's a living thing, it's poetry. But these people who are hung up on fucking words and shit, the academic mentality, they're not poets. They're jerking off, one hand against the other. So it isn't what you say, it's what you do that makes you a poet...poetry in a sense is too elitist. It's too fucking cliquish, elitist, whatever. The politics in poetry is the same thing as gangsters in the garment center, or anywhere else. A lot of poets don't get published because they don't fight their way in. They don't know how to fight their way in."

I've never been a professional poet in my life. I live it. I walk in the streets and I get the message and I write it down. What professional poet? I never graduated high school.

Micheline's anti-professional attitude reminds us of the discourse the experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage has given on the distinction between the amateur and the professional. In our culture, we use the word amateur frequently in a pejorative manner. "That's so amateurish" is a popular put-down. In America, the professional is valued above the amateur because the professional does what he or she does for the money. The amateur, as the root meaning of the word suggests, does what he or she does for the love of it. Money versus love. Micheline, we believe, saw money as the root of all evil.

Obituary writers would include this summation of Micheline: "He wrote about society's downtrodden and called himself one of America's last troubadours...His subject matter was the poor working class and outcasts such as petty criminals, prostitutes, junkies and destitute artists."

More than an outlaw or gangster or criminal (even though he was once busted for pissing in public ) Micheline, in retrospect, appears as a gadfly buzzing about the periphery of the nascent poetical and cultural movements of the 20th century...On the margins, where we need reporters.

Official Cosmic Baseball Record

Official Cosmic Baseball Pitching Record
Micheline was selected by the Dharma Beats during the rookie draft of 1999.

Notwithstanding some of his contentious attitudes regarding the Beat generation he is considered eligible for this team. His association with many of the individuals now associated with the Beat literary movement makes him less than a marginal member of that domain.


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August 5, 2007