Langston Hughes was but one of many talented poets, writers and musicians whom Micheline met and associated with in the 50s 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 in the seventies at San Francisco’s California Music Hall. It was around this period of time that 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 50’s 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 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 that 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 to him, 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, which probably accounts for why they never published one of the more than twenty books he published during his lifetime. All of them 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 30 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 metaphors, 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 60s, but it was not until the early 70s 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 flow 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 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.
(To be continued)
–first appearance at emptymirrorbooks.com–