When I Was a Poet: Life and Work of David Meltzer

MeltzerIf San Francisco poetry has its own Zelig, a figure who seems to pop up and blend in with all the scene’s different incarnations, then it must be David Meltzer, who turned 78 this past Tuesday. Meltzer moved to San Francisco from Los Angeles in the 1950s and wound up in a circle of writers and artists that had formed around Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer, two key figures in what’s known as the “San Francisco Renaissance.” This in turn led to his inclusion in Grove Press’s groundbreaking 1960 anthology, The New American Poetry 1945-1960, edited by Donald Allen, which also included work by Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, and many others–all obscure figures at the time.

Meltzer also hung around with poets like Kenneth Rexroth and City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, sharing bills with them at venues like the Cellar where they read their poems to live jazz accompaniment. This latter group facilitated the evolution of the “Renaissance” into the Beats, which later leaked or was assimilated into the water supply of popular culture as the hippie movement of the 1960s.

Even so, Meltzer didn’t fail to find a foothold in the Summer of Love with his psychedelic rock band, The Serpent Power, whose self-titled 1967 album is now considered by eminent rock critic Robert Christgau to be one of the essential records of that period.



After his time spent as guitar player for the Serpent Power, Meltzer continued to write poems and participate in the Bay Area poetry culture, giving readings and teaching writing workshops at the New College of California.

WhenIwasApoetAlthough Meltzer has enjoyed a long association with Ferlinghetti and City Lights–he conducted and edited an excellent collection of in-depth interviews with Beat-era poets for us some years back–and has published work with a number of independent and major trade presses over the years, his first volume of poems with City Lights didn’t come out until 2011. This was When I Was a Poet, the sixtieth volume in City Lights’ famous Pocket Poets SeriesWhen I Was a Poet begins with the titular poem, “a short long poem,” in the words of the book’s editor Garrett Caples, “that has the sweep of a vintage Bob Dylan epic but with a nimble, angular swing”:

When I was a Poet
I was an Acrobat
a Tightrope Walker
keeping balance
in my slippers
on a wire above
Grand Canyon
Inferno Vertigo
Oh I did prance the death-defying dance
whereas now
death defines each second
of awaking

… Perhaps one can see hints here of the blind commissioner with his hand tied to the tightrope walker in Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” but the keen edge of social satire is blunted by the second stanza, when we realize the poet is talking about himself in old age. Other poems in When I Was a Poet, some written and collected over a period of decades, attempt a hopeful shoring of fragments against the ruins of age. Take, for instance, “French Broom”:

Others balance by
Kneeling to pray
I allow them their poem
This is mine
A patchwork poem
Dream flesh sewn to
Flesh of wounds whose edges
Cut against the mouth
Don’t turn away.
My blood mixes with plaster
Sealing the poem together.

TwoWayMirrorNEWIn May 2015, City Lights will bring out its second Meltzer title with Two-Way Mirror: A Poetry Notebook, a classic guide to poetry and poetics that was originally published by Oyez Press in 1977. Newly expanded and including a foreword by Meltzer and a new back section, Two-Way Mirror will be bound as a deluxe hardcover edition.

In the tradition of great writing guides by poets, like John Hollander’s classic Rhyme’s Reason or Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, that show without telling and use verse to explain verse, Meltzer’s volume guides students with a light touch while also insisting on the difficulty and the critical difference of the poet’s task:

A singer performs words.

So does a poet.

But there’s a big difference between the poem on the page and the poem in the air.

What is it?


The poem performs on the page.

The page is the space a poem lives within.

Air is the space a song lives within.

A poem is not a song.

A poem is not a song even though it has its own music and rhythm and can, if you care to do it, be set to music and then sung like a song.

A poem written on the page is not a song. A song is a lyric on a piece of music-paper that is meant to be sung.

A poem is on the page, not in the air.

An artist who paints pictures is not a movie director.

A painter is not a photographer.

A poet writes poems.

Poetry is not television. A song-writer writes lyrics for music.


Bob Dylan, Cole Porter, Chuck Berry, Noel Coward, Randy Newman, Lorenz Hart, Hank Williams, Ira Gershwin, etc. are not poets even though they have written lyrics that come close.

So you might scratch the above comparison to Bob Dylan. In any case, the lesson takes on poetic form in order to amount to what it’s talking about: no song would be so comfortable with the work of abstraction or definition; but no instruction manual would employ so much repetition, condensed thought, or conscious rhythmic variation.

Meltzer deserves much more recognition for the role he’s played in American poetry as a writer, teacher, and performer. Including Two-Way Mirror  as part of the catalog for our sixtieth anniversary this year, City Lights is proud to preserve it in circulation for future generations who have much to learn from this “hidden adept,” as former San Francisco Poet Laureate Diane di Prima calls Meltzer, “one of the secret treasures on our planet. Great poet, musician, comic; mystic unsurpassed, performer with few peers.”

To sign up for an alert when Two-Way Mirror comes out, go here. For more on David Meltzer and his upcoming tour dates, stay tuned to citylights.com or his official site, Meltzerville.

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