Silverman, Herschel

(1927– )
   Can Herschel Silverman make an authentic claim to being the “last of the beatniks?” Possibly so, though he has a better claim to being last of the Beat-era poets to achieve widespread recognition. Until Longshot Books published his selected poems in his 75th year he was the classic “local poet,” his locale being the city of Bayonne, New Jersey—an oddly isolated working-class town that is located on Upper New York Bay—where he encouraged younger poets, publishes himself and others using a balky home photocopy machine plus a velo-binder, and is respected enough locally to have read at a mayoral inauguration.
   Born in California, Silverman was orphaned by age five and was sent East to be raised by an aunt in Jersey City (a city adjacent to Bayonne). After serving as a navy seabee during World War II and marrying young to his wife Laura, he opened a candy store called Hersch’s Beehive (the store was opposite the city high school whose sport teams were called the Bees). Despite the seven-day-a-week grind that such a profession entails, Silverman developed an interest in poetry, taking classes at the 92nd Street “Y” and attending readings of such poets as e. e. cummings, Dylan Thomas, and Robert Frost.
   In 1957 Silverman read an article about allen ginsberg and his Beat compatriots as well as reading his work in the Evergreen Review’s West Coast issue (access to myriad magazines being a bonus of running a candy store). Fired up by their adventures across Europe and America, he was tempted to join them on the road. However, the reality of a wife and two kids stopped this. (Silverman is one of few male Beats to be have been married at length and to not have alienated his children.) Silverman instead corresponded with Ginsberg and gregory corso, often sending them much-needed funds.
   Silverman soon became active in the Lower East Side poetry scene, reading at such famed spaces as the Metro, Le Deux Maggots, and Doctor Generosity’s and publishing in magazines such as Nomad and El Corno Emplunado. He became friendly with many poets who were involved in the downtown scene such as Paul Blackburn and Susan Sherman. He developed a lifelong friendship with Theodore Enslin and their 30-plus years of correspondence is part of the SUNY–Buffalo Library’s Enslin holdings.
   However, the demands of his job and family could not be ignored, and Silverman’s activities were more and more confined to the west side of New York Harbor. He was actively involved in the North Jersey poetry community, mentoring two generations of poets and managing to give poetry readings around the car-centric Garden State despite not possessing a drivers license.
   Silverman’s “discovery” came after he turned 60. A hefty rent increase forced him to give up the Beehive, and he spent the next couple of years nursing his wife through a long struggle with cancer that ended with her death in 1988. A bit unanchored, he then took a workshop with Bernadette Mayer at the Poetry Project and soon was discovered by a new generation of younger poets. It was the beginning of the era of both the poetry slam and the revival of all things Beat, and Silverman’s Beat-influenced poetry was suddenly au courant. He began to read all over Manhattan, usually with poets more than half his age.
   Silverman’s work shifted at this late, more active stage into works that more increasingly served as a score for performance. A frequent collaborator in the 1990s was the great jazz clarinetist Perry Robinson, recently, Silverman has performed with Gunter Hampel’s Galaxy Dream Band.
   It has only been in the last few years that Silverman’s work has found a reliable tenancy on the printed page. His appearance in the very popular neo-Beat Outlaw Bible of American Poetry (2000) raised his visibility on the national poetry scene, and his book of selected poems finally offered a comprehensive body of his mostly fugitive work. All the while, Silverman has remained deeply attached to the Beats, especially the legacy of Ginsberg, who in “Television Was a Baby Crawling Towards That Deathchamber” declared, “candy store emperor Hersh Silverman in Bayonne, dreaming of telling the Truth, but his Karma is selling jellybeans & being / kind.” Perhaps, an even greater testimony to Silverman’s kindness came at his surprise 75th birthday party that brought together poets, neighbors, and grown-up versions of the students to whom he once sold Yoo-Hoos and comic books. Not only did the tenants of his Bayonne townhouse show up, but they also offered testimonial as to what a great landlord he was.
   Joel Lewis

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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