Jack Micheline, a poet of the Beat generation, died of a heart attack on Friday, February 27, 1988 aboard a Bart commuter train. The transit police at the Orinda Bart station discovered his body, which ominously was at the end of the line.
Micheline was a « street » poet who lived out his life on the fringe of poverty, first in the Bronx neighborhoods of New York, where he was born, and later in San Francisco. He saw the Beat generation as a media-created fantasy that had little if anything to do with the creative spirit. He hung out in Greenwich Village in the early fifties where he met Langston Hughes, the legendary Harlem poet. When Hughes was asked why he remained in Harlem, he said he preferred the company of wild men to wild animals. Micheline would adopt this motto as his own.
Langston Hughes was but one of many talented poets, writers and musicians whom Micheline met and associated with in the fifties while living in New York. In 1957 he received the Revolt in Literature Award. One of the presenters was the celebrated Jazz musician, Charles Mingus. This resulted in a lasting friendship between the two men, and they later performed together at San Francisco’s California Music Hall. It was around this period of time Jack Kerouac wrote a foreword for Micheline’s first book of Poems, River of Red Wine, and Dorothy Parker later favorably reviewed the book in Esquire magazine, which further enhanced his reputation.
The fifties were an exciting time for Micheline, a period in which he met Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Franz Kline, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Herbert Gold, and other noted poets and musicians of the Beat era.
He walked the streets of his hometown writing about the down and out, the losers, and the dispossessed, and gave the word « street » poetry new meaning. He was included in Elias Wilentz’s Beat Scene and later in Ann Charters’ Penguin Book of the Beats, which helped further his reputation as a poet.
Born of Russian-Romanian Jewish ancestry, under the name of Harvey Martin Silver, he took to the road at a young age, working at a variety of odd jobs. It was during this time he changed his name, adopting the first name of his hero Jack London and, in part, the surname of his mother (Mitchell). He worked for a short time as a union organizer before devoting his life to poetry and painting. He was 68 years old at the time of his death, and for the last several years of his life had suffered from diabetes.
It has been said that in his younger days he had a « bad boy » persona and often took delight in his outrageous behavior. He would frequently get drunk and make coarse passes at cultured ladies. « To go into a café and go boom! Boom! Boom and see some woman spill coffee on her skirt is a revolution, » he declared to Fielding Dawson, a New York poet friend of his.
There is little doubt that publishers like City Lights and Black Sparrow Press found his behavior offensive and probably accounts for why they never published one of the more than twenty books he published during his lifetime. All of them were published by small presses.
His reaction was to say, « I will never get any awards for how to win friends and influence people. I’m not a politician. I don’t kiss ass. I don’t play the game by the rules.”
I was privileged to be his friend for more than thirty-five years. If there is such a word as « pure” he can lay claim to it, for sadly poetry has become a business world where public relations and backstabbing have become finely tuned arts, and he wanted no part of that kind of world. He refused to bow down
to anyone, choosing to write poetry for the people; hookers, drug addicts, blue-collar workers, the dispossessed, and he did it from deep inside the heart.
He frequently boasted to me that he had never taught a creative writing class, held a residency, received a grant, or sought the favors of the « poetry business boys, » whom he regarded as the enemies of poetry.
In a 1997 interview I conducted with him, he talked about the futility a poet faces in finding a large publisher. He said, in part:
« 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. »
He didn’t attend college. His university was the streets, where he majored in street smarts. He wasn’t concerned with semantics, or the carefully arranged use of metaphor, as we can see from a poem titled “Real Poem”:
A real poem is not in a book
It’s a knockout
A long shot
A shot in the mouth
A crack of the bat
A lost midget turning into a giant
A lost soul finding its own way…
I met him in the sixties but it was not until the early seventies that we became close friends. It was during this time that I was editing and publishing Second Coming, and he became a frequent contributor to the magazine.
In 1975 Second Coming published a book of his poems, Last House in America, and in 1980 I published a small collection of his short stories, Skinny Dynamite.
He never received the acclaim that Ginsberg or Burroughs received, not even the recognition afforded Lawrence Ferlinghetti or Gregory Corso, but the body of work he left behind is considerable, and I have no doubt that some day he will be given his rightful place in Beat history. John Tytell, a professor at Queens College, New York called him an Orphic figure, ”a poet of urgency and exhortation in the tradition of Jack London and Vachel Lindsey. »
A self-proclaimed lyrical poet, he frequently drew on old blues and jazz rhythms, infusing the cadence of word music, while paying tribute to the gut reality of the material he wrote about. I asked him how much music influenced his poetry. His response:
« I was born to a poor family in the Bronx. I think if I had been born into a cultured family, I would have been a composer. 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. Without music there is no life. »
His poems ring true, because beyond the lines and stanzas flows the energy of life. His voice was an original one and no one tried to imitate it because it can’t be imitated. He was truly at home with himself, and loved by both young and old alike. Although he exasperated many people with his outspokenness, his true friends saw through this facade, and focused on his genuine love for the common man and woman.
In my 1997 interview with him, he said: « 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 people don’t understand poetry. All they have is their football, baseball, and television. They’ve never had a chance to see a real poet that relates to them.
“What they need are poems that relate 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, money and mediocrity.”
Ignored by the poetry establishment and the larger alternative presses, he went about his writing, fighting off the disillusionment and bitterness that have overcome so many poets his age. He survived with the skills of a street fighter, his words resounding like a hammer on a nail.
His poems were personal poems. Poems that came from the heart and personal heartbreak; poems that were questioning, probing, and often accusing, but which always rang out with the truth. They came from street-life experience, not from reading Charles Olson or Robert Creeley.
At the age of twelve, he happened upon a copy of Studs Lonigan, and found eerie comparisons to what he read in the book and in the cruelty and injustice he saw in the streets he was raised on. However, convinced that poets were « sissies,” he didn’t take up writing until the age of twenty-four. When he did begin writing, it was with a desire to find poetry in the everyday happenings of life. He sensed true poets don’t choose poetry, but that poetry chooses them, and that in the end it’s the way you live your life that counts.
Walking the streets of the Village and Harlem, he inherited the richness of the culture, especially the culture of black jazz musicians. He found himself drawn to the warmth and humor of the black poets and musicians whom he encountered in the after-hour Harlem jazz clubs he regularly frequented.
As a young man, he was a major part of the Greenwich Village fifties Beat movement, and identified himself with the street poet Maxwell Bodenheim. Early on he became friends with Eddie Balchowsky, a classical pianist who had lost his arm in the Spanish War, and had gone on to become a visual artist.
Balchowsky walked him through the alleys of New York, pointing out things Micheline had never noticed before/
« Balchowsky gave me my eyes, » he said, explaining Balchowsky had told him, « ’Before you can see, you must first rid yourself of the misconceptions that ordinary people accept without question’. »
Micheline described Greenwich Village as a poor, working class Italian neighborhood, where the rent was cheap, and the people poor, but the center of artistic expression, a place where people were at ease relating to one another.
Tiring of the New York Village scene, he left in the early sixties for California and adopted San Francisco as his new home. It didn’t take him long before he became a force in the North Beach literary community.
« Poetry was everywhere. We drank a lot. Every day Bob Kaufman and I read a poem. It isn’t part of history, but I was arrested for pissing on top of a police car, the same day Kaufman was arrested outside the Co-Existence Bagel Shop. We were taken down to the Kearney Street police station and thrown in the drunk tank, where they beat Kaufman up, and they beat me up too. »
If he screamed poet loud and often, perhaps it’s because the literary establishment unfairly ignored him. He did, however, achieve his fifteen minutes of fame when in his later years he appeared on the Late Night with Conan O’Brien TV show, where he read a poem accompanied on the trumpet by his long time friend, Bob Feldman.
We don’t know much about his years growing up as a child. We do know he was born premature; a six-month, two-pound six-ounce baby, who had to fight for survival, even as he did in later life. By his own admission, he described himself as a « shy and dreamy » boy who grew up in the poor section of the Bronx, born to parents who fought like « cats and dogs. »
In his writings, he describes his mother as a religious woman, who cried a lot, but who possessed a heart of gold. He paints a portrait of his father as a
bitter postal worker who seldom smiled after losing everything he owned in the 1929 stock market crash.
He said as a kid he felt lost in crowds, and preferred to walk the streets alone « Looking at the lights in the neighborhood houses, » or walking to the Bronx Park, which was miles away from his home. It was here, at the park, he was able to find a semblance of peace, listening to the waterfall rushing down the Bronx River. It became a welcome relief away from his parent’s constant fighting. He said of those early years:
« I always seemed to be on edge, nervous and self-conscious. »
He was forced by his mother to regularly go to the synagogue and take Hebrew lessons. Carrying his Hebrew books under his arms on his way home from school, he often had to defend himself from neighborhood Catholic boys lying in wait for him.
He said, « It was not easy being a Jew. I did not know what to believe, or who to believe in. I did not know my mother, my brother, or my father. No one seemed real. Everyone seemed to be acting a part in a play. »
In a short story, he talks about coming home after receiving a beating by neighborhood bullies, and how his mother tended his wounds and tried to console him.
« I went to my room and cried. Tears and torment poured out of my head. It was a hell of a world. There had to be a place somewhere where it wasn’t hell, where fear didn’t choke you like a knife, where you wouldn’t have to hide in your own skin, and swear at the Bastard earth.”
In search of that elusive peace, he began a long trek across America; recording in his notebook everything he saw and heard, even at the age of seventeen serving a stint in the Army Medical Corps. By the time he was nineteen, he found himself in Israel. Then it was back to the United States where he worked at a variety of odd jobs while traveling Kerouac’s On the Road.
He spent a short time in Chicago, writing from a cheap $6-a-week hotel room, and described himself as a possessed man, who slept little, as he wandered the streets at all hours « mumbling to myself and counting empty
beercans. » But his best creative years were in Greenwich Village and San Francisco’s North Beach.
He saw the poet as a revolutionary whose purpose in life was to free people from the slavery of stifling jobs and relationships. He believed it was the poet’s job to live poems and set a fearless example for others. He was a close friend of the late Charles Bukowski (Hank) in the days before Hank became famous. They drank together at Hank’s pad, and he recalled to me how John Martin (Black Sparrow Press) would come over to Hank’s apartment and leave him art supplies so that Hank could create drawings, which he used to promote his books.
“We became good friends,” said Micheline. “We went to the track together, a few times. He was very vulnerable, but he changed, like everyone does after they become famous. He had to protect himself. That’s understandable. He had a magic there, and it carried over to his writing. »
The love relationship between them is evident from a July 16, 1973 letter that Hank wrote me:
« Micheline is all right—he’s one-third bull shit, but he’s got a special divinity and a special strength. He’s got perhaps a little too much of a POET sign pasted to his forehead, but more often than not he says the good things –in speech and poem –power- flame, laughing things. I like the way his poems roll and flow. His poems are total feelings beating their heads on barroom floors.
“I can’t think of anyone who has more and who has been neglected more. Jack is the last of the holy preachers sailing down Broadway singing the song. Going over all the people I’ve ever known, he comes closer to the utmost divinity,
the soothsayer, the gambler, the burning of stinking buckskin than any man I’ve ever known.”
Their friendship transcended their different philosophies. Micheline saw poetry as a holy message to be delivered to the masses, while Hank saw poetry as just another job that was no different from a carpenter or electrician, and
certainly saw nothing holy about it. Hank disliked giving readings, and only read for money. Micheline read for the pure love of it.
In his youth, he was by his own admission a wild man. One of his favorite sayings was, « To be a poet is to be mad. »
One evening, in New York, after leaving a literary party, he found himself dancing up West Eighth Street, on his way to the Cedar Tavern, when two cops attempted to place him under arrest for being drunk and disorderly. He wrestled the two officers to the ground, suffering cuts and bruises, and in the process, bit one of the officer’s on the nose. He was taken to a nearby hospital emergency room, and a doctor who by chance had heard him read his poems at a local club attended to his wounds. The doctor told the officers that while he was drunk that he was otherwise okay. The two officers disagreed and took him to Bellevue Hospital where he was admitted to the psychiatric wing on a 72-hour hold.
In a short story, he recalls his short stay on Ward Nine (the violent ward) as a place for the damned: « The stale smell of antiseptic prevailed. Everyone was shot up with drugs. »
There is no denying he found a wealth of writing material from his short incarcerations in jail, and his experience at the mental ward. He recalls a man named Doc, who, from his wheelchair at Bellevue, made regular rounds of the other patients, and a tall, skinny patient named Moe who moved his fingers up and down on an imaginary saxophone. These are the kind of people who became subject matter for his poems. After his release from Bellevue, he walked
the streets back down to the East side, « spitting into the darkness of death, » vowing that life must encourage more life.”
« I drank, wept, and pissed and created in the darkness of a world which seemed bent on destroying itself through its ignorance, fear, greed, and insensitivity and futility of its existence. »
After moving from New York to San Francisco, he was again arrested, this time by the San Francisco Police, outside the Co-Existence Bagel Shop, and charged with indecent exposure, for pissing in public. He was taken to the Hall of Justice and forced to spend the night in the drunk tank. The next morning he appeared before the judge and listened to the charges being read: « Urinating on the corner of Grant and Green. »
When he showed no shame, the judge became outraged, and ordered him sent to County Hospital for mental observation. When he next appeared before the judge, he said he swallowed his pride and apologized to the judge, who gave him a ten-day suspended sentence.
He remained a wild man well into the 1980s, when he became ill with diabetes, and was forced to give up drinking. The wild times became but blurred memories, like the time he visited Hank in Los Angeles, arriving unannounced at Hank’s apartment, and carrying with him a stack of paintings and poems. After a day at the races, and a night of heavy drinking, Hank told him he could sleep overnight, and offered him his living room sofa. According to Hank, he sensed that Micheline might vomit, and placed a wastebasket near his head. He told him if he had to vomit to make sure he hit the wastebasket.
Hank said the following morning he got up and drove Micheline to the airport to catch his airplane back to San Francisco. On returning home, he discovered Micheline had vomited, had completely missed the wastebasket, and had wiped up the mess with a magazine Hank had been published in.
It was incidents like this that cost him more than a few friendships, but his real friends found it hard to stay angry with him. While there is no denying he
was sometimes loud and abrasive, it is also true that what he said was always
honest, even if sometimes blunt and brutal. If one could get past his sometimes-abrasive personality, they found he was a force to be reckoned with.
It had to have hurt him not to receive the recognition afforded peers like Ferlinghetti, Corso, and McClure, and he didn’t make it any easier on himself by
offending those in a position to help him. He would have one believe the slights he received from the literary establishment didn’t hurt him, but I knew better.
In his last years his fight with diabetes had taken a toll on him. He looked all his age and then some, but he was still indomitable, giving readings and presenting art shows throughout the city.
Sharing a cup of coffee with him a few short months before his death, I looked out the window of the café and saw two punk rockers walking by. It reminded me of the time a group of punk rockers came to one of his readings, intent on hooting him down, but who in the end found themselves wildly clapping their appreciation. No one, but no one, could turn around an audience like he could.
He was to many the reincarnated voice of Walt Whitman; a poet who understood Kerouac’s mad genius, a writer who refused to include an SASE with his work. He was the ultimate nonconformist. He believed and lived by the credo that to be a poet in America is to be an outlaw. His poems were his six guns, never backing down from anyone or anything.
The steps move the heart
The heart fuels the eye
The mirror of the brain
Listen to the rhythm of your breath
This is how rare poems are written
Not with words but with strange notes
That moves the pen on the page
This is the eye of the storm
God’s gift to nature
I’m proud to have been his friend for over thirty years. To have broke bread with him; to have gotten drunk with him; to have laughed and cried with him. There is and was no closer poet friend I have ever known.
Shortly after his death I submitted a proposal to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to rename a street in North Beach after him. On November 18, 2003, the City of San Francisco honored him by renaming an alley in North Beach after him. He now joins such noted Beat poets and writers as Bob Kaufman, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Rexroth, and Jack Kerouac, whose names adorn North Beach streets and back alleys.