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The Candy Store Poet.

One of the universe's greatest injustices is that poets, whose minds dwell far beyond the middling realities of the mundane world, have to worry about making a living. Poetryeven more than other artsis a notoriously unprofitable endeavor, and in recent history great poets have spent their weekdays working as dreamy doctors, unlikely insurance salesmen, disaffected journaliststhe list goes on. It's probably safe to assume, however, that among them there was only one candy store owner, and that's Herschel "Hersch" Silverman, who is turning 86 this year.

In the early 1950s, having just returned from the Navy, Silverman opened Hersch's Beehive in Bayonne, N.J. While serving he was trained as a cook: a path he chose, as he told me in a phone interview, because, having grown up in a traditional Jewish home, he didn't want "to eat anything too unkosher," and he preferred to know what his meals were made of. One day after work, while taking a writing course at the 92nd Street Y, he pulled off the shelf a copy of the Evergreen Review, which contained Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." Upon reading this epic poem, jazz-anthem to madness and rebellion, Silverman underwent a profound transformationhe was turned on as a poet.

Silverman wrote to Ginsberg, inviting him to partake of milkshakes and sweet sodas at the candy shop. Miraculously, the maestro responded, and even paid a visit25 years after the invitation. But during those 25 years, and long after, a friendship filled with correspondence and hangout sessions blossomed. Through Ginsberg, Silverman met and befriended other iconic poets of that circleJack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, and Charles Olson.

The friendships were unlikely: These artists prided themselves on being intellectually-sexually-spiritually disabused bohemians, while Hersch was married, had two children, attended synagogue, celebrated Jewish holidaysand held down the fort daily at the store. What perhaps brought them together was Silverman's unwavering enthusiasm and dedication to all things counter-cultural. Musician and writer Marshall Allen, in the introduction to Silverman's book of collected poems, put it this way: "At Hersch's Beehive, right under the Pepsi clock and portrait of JFK, the names of the Beats were uttered with the same brightening intensity, and reverence, other people reserve for ballplayers, cartoon characters, television stars, and lawn mowers. Hersch's Beehive, in reality, radiated a kind of third eye, hip, patriotism if you will, where dissonant howls, sax blaps and angular Monkish grooves were as automatically wholesome, natural and expectable as the national anthem."

And then there was also Hersch's poetry. While unmistakably influenced by the Beats, Silverman's voice is distinct as it intertwines seemingly contradictory concepts of hipness and familial bliss. In a piece titled "Jazz Changes," dedicated to his wife, Laura Silverman, he writes:

i spoke about changes wrought on me by her lite and I called her Laura Sylvania           and lit by thesaurus and blackberry brandy which warmed the words i lapsed into a panic of breathless lines changing mid-line without loss of speed by means of alliteration and jazz-beat i fantasied surmised metered shoes and remembered challah every Saturday and the taste of Slivovitz the immediate re               action of myself as Van Gogh painting my couch             (the slip cover) and the bad madness of the frenzy of Self in which I whirled around the livingroom glancing sideways in a full-length mirrors which appeared in blackness reflecting a person of worth an anecdote of Alfred North Whitehead

There is a common perception of poets as madmen, social rejects, and wild prophetic characters spewing incomprehensible truths. This, of course, was particularly true of the Beats; Hersch, however, did not quite fit the paradigm: Whatever madness he may be referring to in this poem is really at most a tipsy garrulous over-excitement, largely humorous and self-parodying. Neither is it directed toward an opiate-inspired muse or a femme fatalebut rather to his wife. Particularly insightful here is the parenthetical clarification about the slip cover: The careful domesticated specificity of the image is simply endearing.

This is not to say that Silverman's poetry is all slip covers. Within the same "Jazz Changes" piece, he reaches for higher philosophical notes:

Jazz is the daily statement an unincorporated         release of the condition of an individual's soul             in relation     to God

It is well-known that Beats were obsessed with jazz and variously invoked it in their works. What Silverman points to in this segment is not casual invocation, though, but a rather serious theological insight. The word "unincorporated"an awkward word, reallyis more of a riff than a word, a reversal of an all-American concept: that of "corporation" and all things that the corporate culture trickles down to. Much in the same way, jazzthe first truly American musicis built on the ecstatic revelatory improvisation (a "release"), which has turned around notions of the culture defined by industrial sterility and commercialism.

Continue reading: 'The Beatnik schmaltz'
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Title Annotation:Herschel Silverman
Author:Marmer, Jake
Publication:Tablet Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 2, 2012
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