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A. D. Winans on Jack Micheline 

     On February 27, 1988 Jack Micheline died from a heart attack while riding a Bart commuter train on his way to visit a friend residing in the East Bay. 



      Micheline was a “street” poet who lived out his life on the fringe of poverty, first in the Bronx neighborhoods of New York where he was born, and later in the city of San Francisco. He saw the Beat generation as a media created myth, which had nothing to do with the creative spirit.  In the early 50's he hung out in Greenwich Village, where he met Langston Hughes, the legendary Harlem poet.  Hughes is quoted as saying he remained in Harlem because he preferred the company of wild men to wild animals and Micheline adopted this motto as his own.  Hughes was but one of many talented poets, writers and musicians whom Micheline associated with during his days in Greenwich Village.

     In 1957 Charlie Mingus awarded Micheline the Revolt in Literature Award, at the Half Note Club, in New York City, which resulted in a life long friendship.  The two would perform together in 1978 at San Francisco’s California Music Hall. While living on Cornelia Street, in the village, Micheline met Robert Cass, the editor and publisher of Climax magazine. Cass was a friend of Jack Kerouac, and gave Micheline his Florida address, where at the time Kerouac was living. Micheline mailed Kerouac his completed manuscript of River of Red Wine and told him that Cass was willing to publish the book, but only if Kerouac agreed to write an introduction. Kerouac liked the manuscript and wrote a glowing introduction. The book was published and later reviewed by Dorothy Parker in Esquire magazine.  

      Micheline and Kerouac became friends and often drank together at Greenwich Village bars.  When I asked him about his relationship with Kerouac, he said:    “Kerouac was a high being.  He had a great spirit.  A man with heart.  He also had a great sense of humor.  It was a great time when I met him; jazz musicians, poets, writers, dancers, actors and painters, all doing their own thing.”

      And although he resisted being identified with the Beat movement, he nevertheless benefited from being associated with the Beats, and was included in Elias Wilkentz’s Beat Scene, and later in Ann Charters Penguin Book Of the Beats.  Both of which helped gain him wider recognition.  

    He was born of Russian-Romanian, Jewish ancestry, under the name of Harvey Martin Silvaer, taking to the road at a young age, working at a variety of odd jobs.  It was during this time that he changed his name, adopting the first name of his hero Jack London and the surname of his mother.  He worked for a short time as a union organizer before devoting his life to poetry and painting.  He was sixty-eight years old at the time of his death and for the last several years of his life suffered from diabetes.

       It has been said that in his younger days he had a "bad boy" persona to him, often taking delight in his outrageous behavior.  He would frequently get drunk and make coarse passes at cultured ladies: "To go into a café and go boom! Boom! Boom! And see some woman spill coffee on her skirt. Is a revolution," he declared to his friend, Fielding Dawson.  Mainstream publishers found his behavior offensive, which probably accounts for why they never published one of the over twenty books he published during his life time, all of them by small press publishers.  His reaction: “I will never get any awards for how to win friends and influence people.  I’m not a politician. I don’t kiss ass.  I don’t play the game by the rules.      

      I was privileged to be his friend for over thirty-five years and have copies of all of his books with the exception of River of Red Wine, which has long been out of print.  If there is such a word as "pure", Micheline can lay claim to it, for poetry has sadly become a business world where public relations and backstabbing have become finely tuned arts.  Micheline wanted no part of that kind of world. He refused to bow down to anyone, choosing to write poetry for the people: hookers, drug addicts, blue-collar workers, the dispossessed, and he did it from deep inside the heart. He boasted that he had never taught a creative writing class, held a residency, received a grant, or sought the favors of the "poetry business boys," whom he regarded as the enemies of poetry. In a 1997 interview I did with him he talked about the futility a poet faces in finding a large publishing house. 


     "I don't want to be published because I wear the same clothes that others wear, or because I have the same ideas. I want respect for my own individuality, but it doesn't workt what way."


     Micheline didn't attend college.  His University was the streets, where he majored in street smarts.  He wasn't concerned with semantics, or the carefully arranged use of metaphors.  We see this in the following lines from a poem of his titled Real Poem:  


      A real poem is not in a book/    It’s a knockout/     A long shot/     A shot in the mouth/     A crack of the bat/     A lost midget turning into a giant/     A lost soul finding its own way.


     I met Micheline in the late 60's, but didn’t get to know him well until l973, when I was editing and publishing Second Coming (a literary journal). Both Micheline and the late Charles Bukowski became regular contributors.  In 1975 I published a small collection of his poems, Last House in America, and five years later published a collection of his short stories (Skinny Dynamite), which had earlier been published in a German edition


       His death followed that of Allen Ginsberg and Williams Burroughs.  When Ginsberg died, and I wrote a poem about his passing away, Micheline said, “You’re a funny guy.  What do you mean what do we do now?  We go on!”  And go on he did, right up until the very end.  While alive he never received the recognition that Ginsberg or Burroughs received, not even the recognition of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, or Gregory Corso, but the body of work he left behind is considerable, and no doubt will one day earn him his rightful place in Beat history.   As John Tytell, a Beat historian said: 


      "Micheline was an Orphic figure, a poet of urgency and exhortation in the tradition of Jack London and Vachel Lindsey."    And Kerouac praised his poems for their power to illuminate the beauty of the everyday. For his soulful tender rage, and his enormous disappointment with the glut of American materialism.  A self-proclaimed lyrical poet, he frequently drew on old blues and jazz rhythms, infusing the cadence of word music, while paying tribute to the gut reality of the subject matter he wrote about.   


     I asked him what role music played in relation to his poetry.  His response:  "I was born to a poor family in the Bronx.  I think if I had been born into a cultured family, I would have been a composer.  I write the music first, not the words for it. Before I write the poem, I hear the music, the rhythms, and therefore I'm basically a composer, a musician. I can't remember when music wasn't an important part of my life.  Without music there is no life." 


     His poems ring true, because beyond the lines and stanzas flow the energy of life.  His voice was an original one. No one tried to imitate it, as is the case with Bukowski, because it can't be imitated.  Both young and old alike loved him.  Although he exasperated many people with his outspokenness, his real friends saw through this crusty side of him, and focused on his genuine love for the common man and woman. In my interview with him, he said:


     "I never wanted to be a poet.  I still don't want to be a poet.  I just  want to live my life.  The thing is that the working class, given a chance, would relate to poetry, but they have all this football, baseball, and television.  They've never had a chance to see a real poet that relates to them.  What they need are poems that relate to their own way of life.  In America everything is profit motivation. 


     It's the spirit that I relate to.  The church doesn't do the job. Television doesn't do the job. Everything in America is based on greed, the almighty buck and mediocrity."


     He openly spoke out against what he called the “business of poetry.”  Poetry Flash, the icon of the Bay Area poetry scene, ignored him up until the time of his death, when they chose to honor him with the all too familiar obligatory respect shown the dead It came to late and with to little sincerity.


     Ignored by the poetry establishment and to some extent the larger alternative presses, he went about the business of writing, fighting off the bitterness that has overcome so many poets his age.  He survived with the skills of a street fighter.  His words resounding like a hammer on a nail.


     His poems were personal poems; poems from the heart and heartbreak; poems that were questioning, probing, and often accusing, but always truthful.  When you read his poems, you can feel the pain, but also feel the joy and laughter of life.  His poems came from street life experience, not from reading the likes of Charles Olson, Robert Creely, or William Stafford.


       At the age of twelve he happened upon a copy of Studs Lonigan and found eerie comparisons to what he read in the book, and in the cruelty and injustice he encountered in the streets. However, convinced that poets were "sissies", he didn’t take up writing until the age of twenty-four.  When he did begin writing, it was with a desire to find poetry in the everyday happenings of life. He sensed that true poets don't choose poetry, but that poetry chooses them.  That in the end, it is the way you live your life that counts.  


He knew that the only thing a poet can truly call his own is integrity and he knew even more that if you sell this intangible asset that you will have sold your soul to the devil.  Walking the streets of the Village and Harlem he inherited the richness of the culture, especially the culture of black jazz musicians.  He was drawn to the warmth and humor of the black poets and musicians whom he encountered, and was truly at home in the passionate web of Harlem's after-hours jazz clubs  Here was a poet who had been friends with the likes of James T Farrel and William Saroyan, and developed a dynamic reading style that left the audience calling for an encore.


      As a young poet in Greenwich Village he identified himself with the street poet, Maxwell Bodenheim, and became friends with Eddie Balchowsky, a classical pianist who had lost his arm in the Spanish War, and had gone on to become a visual artist.  Balchowsky walked Micheline through the alleys of New York, pointing out things that Micheline had never noticed before.  "Balchowsky gave me my eyes," said Micheline, explaining that Balchowsky had told him that, "Before you can see you must first rid yourself of the misconceptions that ordinary people accept without question."   


     In my interview with him he described Greenwich Village as a poor, working class Italian neighborhood where the rent was cheap, and the people poor, but the center of artistic expression, a place where people were at ease relating to each other.


     He eventually grew tired of the New York Village scene and left for San Francisco, where he was quickly accepted in North Beach circles. He described the post-Beat North beach community as a place where there was a great openness to create, in contrast to the closer knit brotherhood that existed in Greenwich Village, at the height of the Beat era.  He said of North Beach:


      “Poetry was everywhere.  We drank a lot.  Every day Bob Kaufman and I read our poems. It isn't part of history, but I was arrested for pissing on top of a police car, the same day that Kaufman was arrested outside the Co-Existence Bagel Shop.  We were taken down to the Kearney Street police station, and thrown in the drunk tank, where they beat Kaufman up, and they beat me up too.”      If he screamed poet too often and too loud perhaps it was because the literary establishment ignored him. Only in San Francisco was he afforded some degree of respect, although a few years before his death he appeared on the "Late Night With Conan O’Brien" Show, where he read a poem, “Chicken Soup.” 


     We don't know much about his years growing up as a child.  We do know he was born premature; a six month, two pound-six ounce baby, who had to fight for survival, even as he did in later life.   By his own admission he described himself as a "shy and dreamy" boy, who grew up in the poor section of the Bronx, born to parents who fought like "cats and dogs." 


     In his writings he describes his mother as a religious woman, who cried a lot, but who possessed a heart of gold.  He paints a portrait of his father as a bitter postal worker, who seldom smiled, after losing everything he owned in the 1929 stock market crash.He said

as a kid he felt lost in crowds, preferring to walk the streets alone, "Looking at the lights in the neighborhood houses," or walking to the Bronx Park, which was miles from his home.  It was here at the park that he was able to find a semblance of peace, listening to the waterfall rushing down the Bronx River.  It was a welcome refuge away from his parents fighting.   He said of those early years, "I always seemed to be on edge, nervous and self-conscious   He was forced by his mother to regularly go to the Synagogue and take Hebrew lessons.  Carrying his Hebrew books under his arms, on his way home from school, he often was forced to defend himself from neighborhood Catholic boys who would lay in wait for him. He said of those early Bronx neighborhood days that it was not easy being a Jew and that he did not know what to believe, or who to believe in.   "I did not know my mother, my brother, or my father.  No one seemed real.  Everyone seemed to be acting a part in a play."

      His first encounter with a young girl took place at a playground, where she allowed him to kiss her, only to pull away and laugh, “I don’t want you.  You’re a dirty Jew.” 

He would relate in a short story that the girl later told her boyfriend that he had tried to rape her. The boyfriend and four of his friends ambushed him on his way home from school and administered a terrible beating.  In the short story he talks about coming home after the beating and how his mother tended his wounds and tried to console him.  


     "I went to my room and cried. Tears and torment poured out of my head.  It was a hell of a world.  There had to be a place somewhere where it wasn't hell, where fear didn't choke you like a knife, where you wouldn't have to hide in your own skin and swear at the Bastard earth."


     The one fond memory of his childhood was that of his grandfather, Louie Lipinsky, whose wife one day kicked him out of the house and told him never to come back.  In poems and in conversations he recalled how his grandfather would search in garbage cans for newspapers and bring him home the “funnies.”


     “He would always find clean funnies to bring to me.  He would tell me, “Son, learn to laugh.  Life is cruel. The most spiritual people in America were the Indians and we wiped them out.”


     To learn how to laugh was a message he never forgot. A message that helped see him though many a hard time.   He began a long trek across America; recording in his notebook everything he saw and heard, even at the age of seventeen serving a stint in the Army Medical Corps. By the time he was nineteen, he found himself in Israel.  Then it was back to the United States, where he worked at a variety of odd jobs while traveling Jack Kerouac's, On The Road.


       He spent a short time in Chicago, writing from a cheap $6 a week hotel room, describing himself as a possessed man, who slept little, as he wandered the streets at all hours "mumbling to myself and counting empty beer cans." But his best creative years were in Greenwich Village and San Francisco.  He saw the poet as a revolutionary whose purpose in life is to free people from the slavery of stifling jobs and relationships.  It was his belief that the poet's job was to live poems and set a fearless example for others. In this his philosophy differed from Charles Bukowski, who saw nothing holy in poetry, seeing it as a job no different from a carpenter or plumber.  The two men became close friends. They drank together at Bukowski’s pad.  He told me how John Martin (Black Sparrow Press) would come over to Bukowski's apartment and leave him a parcel of art supplies, so that Bukowski could create drawings, which he used to promote his books.  He said that legions of people would drop by the apartment, begging him to write introductions to their books.   


     “I guess everyone wanted a piece of him in those days, he said.  I liked him.  We went to the track together, a few times. He was very vulnerable, but he changed, like everyone does after they become famous.  He had to protect himself, that's understandable.  He had a magic there and it carried over to his writing.”


      The love relationship between the two men is evident from a July 16, 1973 letter Bukowski wrote me:      "Micheline is all right---he's one-third bull shit, but he's got a special divinity and a special strength.  More often than not---he says the good things—in speech and poem.  I like the way his poems roll and flow. His poems are total feelings beating their heads on barroom floors.  I can't think of anyone who has more and who has been neglected more.   Going over all the people I've ever known, he comes closer to the utmost divinity, the soothsayer, the gambler, the burning of stinking buckskin than any man I've ever known.” 


     It doesn’t get much better than this, but Micheline could try the patience of the best of men.  Like the time he visited Bukowski in Los Angeles, arriving at his doorstep unannounced, and carrying with him a stack of paintings and poems.  After a day at the races and a night of heavy drinking, Bukowski said he allowed him to sleep overnight on his sofa.  According to Bukowski, he sensed Micheline might vomit, and placed a wastebasket near his head, telling him that if he had to vomit, to vomit in the wastebasket. According to Bukowski he drove Micheline to the airport, and upon returning home, he discovered that Micheline had thrown-up, completely missing the wastebasket, and had wiped the mess up with a magazine that Bukowski had been published in.


     It was incidents like this that tried the patience of many a friend, but it was hard for his real friends to stay angry with him.  It’s true he could be loud and abrasive, but there is no denying that he was always honest, even if it meant hurting your feelings. 


     He never denied that in his younger days he had been a wild spirit. One of his favorite sayings was, "To be a poet is to be mad."


     One evening in New York, after leaving a literary party, he found himself dancing up West Eighth Street, on his way to the Cedar Tavern, when two cops attempted to arrest him for being drunk and disorderly.  He wrestled the two officers to the ground, suffering cuts and bruises, and in the scuffle bit one of the officer's on the nose.  He was taken to the emergency room where a doctor who by chance had heard him read at a local pub attended him. The doctor told the officers that while Micheline was drunk there were nothing else wrong with him.  But the two police officers believed he was a mental case and had him committed to Bellevue Hospital for 72 hours observation. 


       In a short story he recalled his stay on Ward Nine  (the violent ward) as a place for the damned and there is little doubt that he found a wealth of writing material from his short incarcerations in jail and from his experience in the mental ward.  In another short story he recalls a man named Doc, who from his wheelchair at Bellevue made regular rounds to the other patients, and of a skinny patient named Moe who moved his fingers up and down on an imaginary saxophone. These were the kind of people he would later write about.  After his release from Bellevue he walked the streets back down to the East side, "spitting into the darkness of death," vowing that life must encourage more life  "I drank, wept, and pissed and created in the darkness of a world which seemed bent on destroying itself through its ignorance, fear, greed, insensitivity, and futility of its existence." 


     After moving from New York to San Francisco he was again arrested, this time by the San Francisco Police, outside the Co- Existence Bagel Shop.  He was charged with indecent exposure, for pissing in public, and taken downtown to the Hall of Justice, where he was forced to spend the night in the drunk tank.  The next morning he appeared before a judge and listened to the charges being read:  "Urinating on the corner of Grant and Green." 


     When he showed no shame the judge became outraged and ordered him sent to County Hospital for mental observation.  When he next appeared before the judge, he tells us that he swallowed his pride, and apologized to the judge, who gave him a ten-day suspended sentence.  When later confronted by a North Beach regular who asked him where he had been, he said, “I just took a long piss in this glory called civilization.”


      He remained a wild man well into the 80s, when he became ill with diabetes and was forced to give up drinking. It had to have hurt him not to receive the recognition afforded other Beat poets, and he didn't make it any easier on himself by offending those in a position to help him. He would have one believe the slights he received from the literary establishment didn't hurt him, but I know better.


     In his last years his fight with diabetes had taken a toll on him.  He looked all his age and then some, but he was still indomitable, giving readings and presenting art shows throughout the city.


     Sharing a cup of coffee with him, a few short months before his death, I looked out the window of the café, and saw two punk rocker types strolling by.  It reminded me of the time a group of punk rockers had come to one of his readings, intent on hooting him down, but who in the end found themselves wildly clapping their appreciation.   No one, but no one, could turn around an audience like he could.


     One of his proudest accomplishments was winning a literary prize presented to him in 1982 by the author Ken Keasey, given to him for the “best” live performance at the Naropa Institute. It was a night where he made the elite (Ginsberg, Burroughs, Waldman) pale in comparison.  The prize, a bottle of scotch!


It’s sad that his enemies could not concentrate on his poems and ignore their personal dislike of him.  For the strength of his work far outweighed any human weakness.  His poems are total feelings charging at you from the bullring, where life and death become one, and where the winner too often is the one with a corrupt soul. He was

 to many the reincarnated voice of Walt Whitman...a poet who understood Kerouac's mad genius...a writer who refused to include an SASE with his work.  He was the ultimate nonconformist. He lived by the credo that to be a poet in America is to be an outlaw.  His poems were his six guns, never backing down from anyone or anything.  


      The steps move the heart/    The heart fuels the eye/    The mirror of the brain/   Listen to the rhythm of your breath/    This is how rare poems are written/    Not with words but with strange notes/   That moves the pen on the page/  This is the eye of the storm/ The earthquake, /  God's gift to nature/   Immortality.”      


       On November 18, 2003 my three-year battle to have a street in North Beach renamed after him became a reality.  With the help of the President of the Board of Supervisors (Matt Gonzalez) the city of San Francisco re-named Pardee Alley, Jack Micheline Place.  He now joins such noted Beat poets and writers as Bob Kaufman, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Rexroth, and Jack Kerouac, whose names grace North Beach streets and alleys.           


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