THE SERPENT POWER OF POETICS: David Meltzer
David Meltzer is a poet and a time traveler. He came here from 1937, and remembers feeling “doomed by the atom bomb” when he was a student. A power structure using fear to control the population is nothing new—in the 1950’s children in school were told to hide under their desks as a practice drill in case the Soviets dropped an atom bomb nearby. That’s enough to make you want to drop out and find some other way to live.
David found himself among the Beats in the 1950’s and became one of them. He showed up at City Lights in April with a book that came out in 1977, but is being reissued with some added material: Two-Way Mirror, A Poetry Notebook. He1 is frail and rosy-cheeked and very alert. He has the sense of humor of someone who uses his intelligence as a shock absorber. The ground floor room was crowded, with bookshelves pushed aside. He read from the book, but spent more time speaking off the cuff. “I’m here to give digression… you can read it yourself.”
He is not into “chronic nostalgia”, but can’t ignore “the goneness of things” as one continues through the years, weathering the changes and the disappearing people. “I’m waning poetic,” he said.
He referred to the layers of memory that accumulate, as if our minds are an archeological site. He is preoccupied with “the process of forgetting”, why it happens and what is lost. It is especially important these days, when the authorities want us to forget about war crimes and abuses of power. Dwelling on the past is given a negative connotation. And yet the past is what we are made of and where we come from. Meanwhile, the government has a long-term memory when it comes to someone like myself owing a few hundred dollars in back taxes. When hundreds of billions of dollars in public monies are missing, we are told to move on, don’t look back, etc.
David mentioned growing up in a neighborhood in Brooklyn which was full of socialists and left-wing sympathizers, many of whom were immigrants. His first typewriter was called a Hermes Rocket (no relation to his old buddy, the sculptor George Herms). He moved to California, and in the 1960’s he was in a band called The Serpent Power.
He mused about poetry being “neutralized in this country.” It means more in some countries, but the downside of having more significance is when poets are thrown into prison or executed.
Poetry began as “sung data.” It was “history set to music,” a “one-man opera.” Contemporary poems (in my opinion) are often more elusive, trying to avoid anything in the way of useful information or a coherent narrative.
“Art is a resistance movement,” David said, and also “an acceptance.” I wondered if he would mention the Whitman quote from the book, and a minute later he read it. Here is how it begins:
The greatest poet hardly knows pettiness or triviality. If he breathes into anything that was before thought small it dilates with the grandeur and life of the universe. He is a seer… he is individual… he is complete in himself.
He also read a short bit about “Ka-Rear”:
How I analyze the Ideogram.
Ka, the shadow; rear, the end.
So, career is the shadow of your end.
The book has insights and advice about poetry, such as “No subject is more or less ‘poetic’.” That’s good to know, as I once wrote three sonnets about a heavy metal band. “Who started the rumor that love poems have to be vague?” Vague is so in vogue these days you wouldn’t know it is a poem, much less one about love.
“Night Started by the Lark” – William Blake (1820)
He said that William Blake and his wife would sit naked in the backyard of their house in London waiting for angels to join the conversation. That would have been in the early 1800’s.
I talked to a couple of writers afterward who said the reading was a letdown – I think because they like his poems and he gave them mostly prose.
David was at the podium for an hour with his able cane. He signed books for a while, and then I carefully walked with him and his wife across the street to Specs.
A couple of days before his reading we talked on the phone. I didn’t think it would go on for more than 20 or 30 minutes, but we spoke for more than two hours. It was a wonderful conversation, and the transcript can be found here.
Featured image by Ariel Gonzalez.
Steven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011)