from the Outlaw Bible of American Poetry (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999); Edited by Alan Kaufman and S.A. Griffin, pg 95-97
Jack Micheline. Photograph by Rosemarie Hausherr (from the Jack Micheline Foundation website)
JACK MICHELINE by Matt Gonzalez
JACK MICHELINE DEVOTED himself to poetry after walking out of a sweater factory, where he worked in New York City, one day in the early 1950s. He traveled across the United States, Mexico and Israel trying to find himself. In a biographical note he sent to the British journal Cosmos in 1969, Micheline wrote that he had pushed a handcart in a garment factory, worked as a messenger boy, dishwasher, farmer, actor, union organizer, panhandler and street singer. He joined liberal causes and criticized the oppressive elements of government that enforced censorship or tacitly accepted racism. He identified with the disenfranchised people he encountered in his travels and learned to love the sound of jazz and poetry. As a poet Micheline spurned any form of modernism or avant garde poetry aesthetic in favor of a populist ideal that he believed resonated with the people he met in the Midwest. He used words from the common vernacular, including words normally seen as too vulgar or obscene for regular usage. He would often say that the sound of words mattered more than the words themselves, and he came to rely on the rhythm and rhyme of his lines to reach an audience that normally had little contact with poetry. His travels around the country, which were usually initiated with insufficient financial preparedness, nevertheless liberated Micheline from the confines of city life and taught him to value the simple beauty in mundane things. He became a messenger for the principle that beauty could be found everywhere.
Jack Micheline, ne Harold Silver, aka Harvey Martin Silver, was born on November 6, 1929 in the East Bronx of New York City. His first published poem appeared in the American Friends Service Committee Newsletter in Wautoma, Wisconsin, where Micheline worked building latrines for Mexican migrant workers in 1955. In 1957, at the Half Note Café on Hudson Street in the West Village of New York City, Micheline won a poetry reading contest, the “Revolt in Literature Award,” judged by Charles Mingus, Jean Shepard and Nat Hentoff. The prize consisted of ten dollars’ worth of jazz albums from Mingus’ “Debut” record label. The following year Hettie Cohen and Leroi Jones published one of Micheline’s poems in the premiere issue of Yugen magazine along with work by Philip Whalen, Diane diPrima and Allen Ginsberg. It was the first time the name “Jack Micheline” appeared in print. Micheline selected the name “Jack” after his favorite author Jack London and “Micheline” by adding an “e” to the end of his mother Helen’s maiden name. Also in 1958, his first book of poetry River of Red Wine and Other Poems was published with an introduction by Jack Kerouac. Dorthy Parker reviewed the book for Esquire and the poet Jack Micheline was launched into the literary world of New York City.
In the early 1960’s Micheline traveled to Europe, published his second book of poems I Kiss Angels, and edited a collection of poems Six American Poets which included a preface by a writer he greatly admired, James T. Farrell. In 1965 Micheline self-published his first book of stories In The Bronx and Other Stories. By the late 1960s Micheline had relocated to the West Coast and was one of the poets who comprised the Venice Beach petry scene in Southern California along with his friends Charles Bukowski, Harold Norse, and John Thomas. He was a frequent contributor to the underground magazine Open City and a story written by him and selected by Bukowski for inclusion in the magazine resulted in obscenity proceedings brought by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.
Jack Micheline & Charlie Mingus, Great American Music Hall, San Francisco, 1976
Throughout his life Micheline viewed himself as an outlaw and was uncomfortable with the “Beat” label that was cast over his work. While his work had undisputably gained attention because of his associations with the Beats in New York city, he preferred to be identified with the vagabond and bohemian tradition of Vachel Lindsay and Maxwell Bodenheim. Later he identified with the emergence of a “street poetry” that included many of his contemporaries in the North Beach district of San Francisco including Bob Kaufman, Jack Hirschman, Wayne Miller, A.D. Winans, George Tsongas, Kell Robinson, Kaye McDonough among others. For Micheline being an outlaw meant that the “academy” would ignore him; his work would not be readily available, he wouldn’t be anthologized, he wouldn’t be taught in schools. Any success he had would be through the pure strength of his work and would be disseminated by small publishing houses or through self-publication efforts. For the most part, he was helping to define a new poetry canon.
Micheline did not, however, romanticize the alienation that being an outlaw caused him. Though he could boast of having published over 20 poetry books, none were by a major publisher, and virtually all of them were out of print at the time of this death in February of 1998. Nevertheless, he was proud of his achievements including his largest publishing success: the 1977 publication by Paul Mariah’s Manroot Press of almost 150 poems, North of Manhattan, Collected Poems, Ballads and Songs: 1954-1975.
Diane diPrima has said of Micheline that he was “a true minstrel, living in our own sad, desperate times.” Floyd Salas has called Micheline the “Peter Pan of the Hard Streets.” David Meltzer has compared Micheline to “one of those club fighters up against the ropes [who] always rallied to win another fight.” And ruth weiss has said that “Jack Micheline cuts his words from gut strings to make the music of his poems.”
Portrait of Chuck Gonzalez at the Jelly Jam Factory by Jack Micheline. Gouache on paper, 1997.
Micheline was a vagabond poet who wrote poems in a particular moment and who delighted in giving unpublished poems away to anyone who wanted them. He devoted much of his time to making his own books from mimeographed or Xeroxed pages. He wrote letters to women in prison, wore large colorful bowler hats and painted his old friends in beautiful gouache colors. He reveled in a traveling vagabond style that meant leaving poems strewn across America in much the way Johnny Appleseed has been immortalized in legend. For Micheline, this meant writing and giving and trading poems for food and a place to sleep. Perhaps there was no clear bargaining that occurred when this happened, but it was implicit in dealing with Micheline that he left something behind to remind you that he had been there. It is anticipated, and perhaps Micheline would have preferred it this way, that a “Complete Works of Jack Micheline” will be impossible to assemble because his poems will continue to surface. They will be found under floorboard cracks, behind stoves, couches, and refrigerators, in suitcases, closets, and attics. Wherever he was, he is.
Editors Note: new biographical information about Micheline has emerged since this piece was first published in 1999 and can be found at the Jack Micheline Foundation.
Jack Micheline, photograph by Ed Buryn.
“Poet At Midnite”, portrait of Jack Micheline by Ed Balchowsky.