Meltzer, David

(1937– )
   When Donald Allen edited his landmark anthology The new american poetry, 1945-1960, little did he realize the critical trouble that he was creating when he divided his poets among “schools” and regional allegiances. Most notably was the placing of Denise Levertov and Larry Eigner among the poets of Black Mountain College—an institution that they had never visited and that had tenuous prosodic connection.
   Equally confusing was the placement of David Meltzer in Allen’s catch-all Section Five—despite his strong connections to the San Francisco Bay Area and to the circle of writers around Jack Spicer. What does stand out was that Meltzer, along with Ron Loewinsohn, was the only poet under 25 in an anthology whose oldest poet was born in 1903.
   Meltzer is sometimes viewed as one of the last Beat poets standing, which is, hardly an accurate categorization. However, he was part of Los Angeles’s early Beat scene that was made up of a mix of artists and actors that included Dennis Hopper and Wallace Berman. His move up the coast put him in contact with the lively San Francisco scene, which by the late 1960s transformed from beatnik to hippie. Meltzer caught the Zeitgeist when he formed a rock band that was popular enough to open up for The Doors and to record two albums for a national label.
   Meltzer’s journey begins in Rochester, New York, in 1937. Four year later the family moves to Brooklyn and in 1952 moves again to Los Angeles. Meltzer termed himself a “compulsive dropout since thirteen” and though he saw himself as Michael McClure and Ray Manzarek in performance, a writer, assumed that it was “a private enterprise, nearly impossible to learn or teach within the school format.” This attitude abruptly changed in 1954 when he met the artist Ed Kleinholz, who was renting a space off Santa Monica Boulevard from Meltzer’s girlfriend. Soon, Meltzer came into contact with a group of artists that included George Herms, Robert Alexander, and, most importantly, Wallace Berman. A remarkable figure, whose influence caused him to appear as part of the cover art of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and in a small part in Hopper’s film Easy Rider, Berman was deeply interested in mysticism in general and kabbalah in particular, elements that continue on in Meltzer’s work. Meltzer married in 1958 and moved to San Francisco in 1959. He became involved in the jazz and poetry-reading movement and made contact with all the major figures of that community—including Robert Duncan, lew welch, and kenneth rexroth.
   His first book, Ragas, was issued by Discovery Books in 1959. Meltzer is the author of many additional volumes of poetry including The Clown (Semina 1960), The Process (Oyez 1965), Yesod (Trigram 1969), Arrows: Selected Poetry, 1957-1992 (Black Sparrow Press 1994), and No Eyes: Lester Young (Black Sparrow 2000). He has also published fiction including The Agency Trilogy (Brandon House 1968; reprinted by Richard Kasak 1994), Orf (Brandon House 1969; reprinted by Masquerade Books 1995), and Under (Rhinoceros Books 1997) and book-length essays including Two-Way Mirror: A Poetry Notebook (Oyez 1977). He has edited numerous anthologies and collections of interviews including The Secret Garden: An Anthology in the Kabala (Continuum Press 1976; reprinted, Station Hill Press 1998), Birth: Anthology of Ancients Texts, Songs, Prayers, and Stories (North Point Press 1981), Death: Anthology of Texts, Songs, Charms, Prayers, and Tales (North Point Press 1984), Reading Jazz (Mercury House 1996), Writing Jazz (Mercury House 1999), and San Francisco Beat: Talking With the Poets (City Lights 2001). His musical recordings include Serpent Power (Vanguard Records 1968; reissued on CD in 1996) and Poet Song (Vanguard Records 1969). He teaches in the humanities and graduate poetics programs at the New College of California. He lives in the Bay area. His most recent venture has been the jazz magazine Shuffle Boil, which he coedits with Steve Dickson. Meltzer himself is quite uneasy about the notion of a Beat “movement” and its current revival. In an interview in the NY Press he noted, “I think the local press and then the national media created it more than it created itself, at least selfconsciously. [allen] ginsberg, of course, was a notorious promoter—wonderfully so, for his friends—but I think the taking up of the whole ‘Beat’ and ‘beatnik’ stereotypes that came out of that period, that was all media-created, and unfortunately it’s that image that seemingly many people still believe in and are nostalgic for. But they’re nostalgic for something that never really existed in the sense in which the media represented it. Movements, as we understand them historically, are always labeled as such after the fact—they’re easier to nail down that way, when they’re over and when these guys aren’t in your face anymore. Then you can place them and you can basically study them—take them off the streets and into the more formal institutions.”
   Although Meltzer’s own work shares much with what it is considered Beat writing, his stance is a bit more introspective. In his “Tell them I’m struggling to sing with angels,” a popular anthology piece, the tone is far removed from Ginsberg’s “bop kabala” or jack kerouac’s catholicized version of Buddhism:
   Tell them I’m struggling to sing with angels who hint at it in black words printed on old paper gold-edged by time Tell them I wrestle the mirror every morning Tell them I sit here invisible in space nose running, coffee cold & bitter Tell them I tell them everything & everything is never enough. . . .
   It is perhaps Meltzer’s rather distinctive writing project that has created a critical void in the reception of his work. The kabbalah-laden texts of books such as Yesod lacked the greater context that is now available with current Hollywooddriven interest in kabbalah. Likewise, his continual thematic reference to jazz limits such works as No Eyes: Lester Young to an even narrow slice of readership. Perhaps this accounts for his exclusion from some of the more recent anthologies of postmodern and alternative poetries. Like one of his intellectual heroes, kabbalah scholar Gershon Schoelem, Meltzer’s work—the poetry, the prose, the music, the anthologies—act as an authentic counterhistory of life as lived out in his own imagination and in the imagination of the artists of the Bay area.
   Joel Lewis

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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