Gloria Frym


David Meltzer: On Whom Nothing Is Lost

The Serpent Power
The Serpent Power
Vanguard Records, 1967

David Meltzer is a mind, to paraphrase Henry James, upon which nothing is lost. Not that I'm an authority on his work or person, because I've only known him for nineteen years and read his work since the dazzling The New American Poetry came my way in graduate school. He's a scholar of everything that's interesting and makes everything that isn't rise to his occasion just by speaking of it. You can't start a conversation with this poet that doesn't burst out into kaleidoscopic splendor, bibliographic rays generating more rays, until the walls of the room melt away and he's riffing into space. That is to say, open space emanating from an open mind. If you need proof, all you have to do is listen to this poet jazzman ping-pong with a young, indie musician. How is it that Dr. Meltzer knows the music of Ween, The Boredoms, Matmos, American Music Club, when most people on earth have never heard The Poetiks or Continuous Peasant (two contemporary rock groups with poet lead singers and songwriters)?

When the 24 hour Information Desk at the Berkeley Public Library, my favorite source of answers to important late-night questions (such as, What does a sea sponge eat?) went the way of all indispensable de-funded services, I could still call Dr. David and get an answer. Perhaps the best answers come from his genius for leading you where to look for an answer. Or for the possibility of many, divergent answers, happily questioning themselves. To be in his proximity as a teaching colleague for fifteen years in the Poetics Program at New College of California was some of the best learning I did. And now that I teach elsewhere, our frequent get-togethers offer me post-doc education. To chat with Dr. Meltzer is a spiritual experience akin to reading the Talmud while listening to Eric Dolphy.

Of course I save his emails. Why wouldn't I? Who else would go home after a sumptuous sashimi dinner, remember one piece of a three-hour sake-drenched volley, and e-mail me minutes later with "Irony -- via Latin ironia -- which signifies deliberately pretending ignorance, particularly as a rhetorical device to get the better of one's opponent in argument."

Well, Dr. Meltzer in his vast knowledge of literature, film, music, philosophy, semiotics, bionics, myopics, yiddishkayt, you name it, he knows about it, barely has a single ironic cell in his DNA. And that's what makes his poetry so marvelous. It's encyclopedically true, without a trace of pretense:

book is fact
book survives
book lies
book lives
in their death
book is barrier
book opens the gate
book remembers language
book forgets
book never sets the record straight
book knots the tangles
book hides w/ metaphors
death is the others
writer survives
to right death
but gets it wrong
what's the song*

Don't imagine that David Meltzer even likes the honorific Doctor. I conferred it on him whether or not he wants it. He teaches ideas, hold the workshops, because he's too egalitarian to defang anybody else's poetry. This man simply doesn't pass judgment.

Okay, David, I'll stop with the Doc, or as he writes in Beat Thing:

Kerouac's postcard
"Don't' call me Mister
call me Jack"

Let's face it. Even in his many poems critical of Empire & Capital, David Meltzer's anger at oppression and injustice is devoid of the mean or the bitter. A Meltzer poem mines the language for pun, enabling the silenced a voice and the cretins a spot to spin their own cocoon:

it was the Bomb
it was void
spirit crisis disconnect
no subject but blank unrelenting
busted time
no future
suburban expand into past
present nuclear (get it) family
druids Pavlov minutiae
it was Jews w/blues
reds nulled & jolted
Ethel & Julius brains smoke
pyre of shoes or eyeglasses
weeping black G.I.s
open Belsen gates
things are going to look different
when you get outside

Who could better sing of poetry, after Auschwitz? If Adorno had met Meltzer, he might have traded his absolutism for the song that never ends.

History is coiled in the great mind field of this man. Step lightly into his lines and the marvelous fireworks begin. Everything finds its way into his poems:

hey I don't wanna be civilized
don't wanna be tiny-towned into little plastic citizen
pink lucite letter opener & bill-payer bobalink
chirper of microchippy song of complicity
garlic armpit Molly Goldberg
not hairball Reilly lunchpail not
life w/Swedish immigrant mom not
Chayevsky's ghetto pastorals nor E.C.
Menace Vault of Horror Mysterious
Adventures Strange Science, not Mad
"in the presence of comic books
they behave as if drugged" dear Dr.,
Werthem Chuck Berry Johnny B. Goode
Jim Crow "reveal to white masses
Negro qualities which go beyond
the mere ability to laugh & sing & dance
& make music" writes Langston to
gangster nation Montgomery 13
month boycott "there comes a time when
people get tired," tones Martin
"history books will have to pause & say
'there lived a great people -- a black people --
who injected new meaning & dignity into
the veins of civilization" inner city junk
bebop & beyond jones go stone cold dead
sleep deep dreamless nihil no-go

It's some kind of rare that the poet and the man possess similar natures. And just why is David Meltzer a great poet and a great person? Ask anybody who's read him, knows him, and studied with him. Just don't ask him, and don't praise him while he's within earshot, because he'll blush more than he already does.

He'll take it on the page.

All citations from David's Copy: The Selected Poems of David Meltzer (New York: Penguin Books, 2005).


Back     Contents     Next