In Memoriam: David Meltzer (1937-2016)

[David Meltzer, left, with Lawrence Ferlinghetti; photo by Garrett Caples]

As if 2016 needed to perpetrate one final outrage on our society, poet, musician, novelist, editor, anthologist, and all-around polymath David Meltzer died early in the morning on December 31, having suffered a debilitating stroke the day after Christmas. He would have been 80 in February. His loss is especially felt here at City Lights, with which he’s been associated since 1961 when he co-edited with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Michael McClure the first issue of the Journal for the Protection of All Beings. David would later publish three projects with City Lights—San Francisco Beat: Talking with the Poets (2001), a book of interviews; When I Was a Poet (2011), a book of poems; and Two-Way Mirror (2015), an expanded reprint of his book of writings on writing poetry—as well as write forewords for Marilyn Buck’s Inside/Out (2012) and Van Morrison’s Lit Up Inside: Selected Lyrics (2014). But this barely hints at the extent of his oeuvre as a writer and multifaceted cultural worker, and David always seemed to land on the coolest presses, like Auerhahn, Oyez, Black Sparrow, Semina. True to form, the productive and protean poet had just completed a new project, guest-editing with Steve Dickison a new issue of their music-oriented mag Shuffle Boil as the seventh issue of Nick Whittington’s Amerarcana.

David was, of course, a legendary figure among the legendary Beat Generation. The youngest poet to appear in Donald Allen’s New American Poetry: 1945-1960 (Grove, 1960), Meltzer was arguably the most vital link between San Francisco’s beat counterculture of the ’50s and its hippy counterculture of the ’60s, through his hosting of the Monday night hootenannies at the Coffee Gallery in North Beach—attracting the likes of Jerry Garcia, David Crosby, and Janis Joplin—as well as his leadership of the psychedelic folk band Serpent Power, which dropped its eponymous debut on Vanguard Records during the Summer of Love. But if you’ll permit me to omit a full rehearsal of his accomplishments—or at least to direct you to such accounts elsewhere—I’d like instead to simply note the magnitude of his death in terms of its impact on the Bay Area poetry community. David’s been part of this community since moving to San Francisco in 1957. His associations among the scene’s renowned practitioners are wide and varied, everyone from Spicer and Duncan to Rexroth and Ginsberg to Wieners and Hirschman to Kyger and di Prima to Berkson and Coolidge. Perhaps even more significantly, he taught writing and literature at New College of California for 30 years, mentoring and influencing hundreds, those officially enrolled as well as those in the school’s wider orbit. I myself was lucky enough to get to know him in 2010 while serving as his editor for When I Was a Poet, and the number of my good friends who have been touched by him in some way—up to and including my fiancée—is almost comically vast, not to mention the circle of more casual acquaintances I only know through David himself.

The death of a friend is frequently lonely, alienating the survivor from the rest of the world not sharing this pain. But David’s death has been a profoundly social experience, in keeping with his own profound sociability. I’ve already been to three or four spontaneous wakes, getting together with friends to chat about him, read his work, and toast his memory, and I’m sure we’re not alone among his network of friends in holding such gatherings in advance of the inevitable official tributes. David seems to lend himself to such convivial mourning. For myself, I found it impossible not to love the man. His personality was such a unique combination of childlike joy and enthusiasm and sagelike wisdom derived from his study of leftist politics, world religion, kabbalah, philosophy, music, and poetry. He had deep reservoirs of self-deprecating and even gallows humor, yet there wasn’t a hint of cynicism in his makeup. He was unfailingly genial and warm. He was always among the first people I’d send a newly drafted essay to and he always had feedback and insights to offer in return. This generosity was hardly unique to me; his living room table always contained a sizable stack of books, chapbooks, photocopies, and printouts awaiting his attention, and the wonder is that he was able to make time to process all this while still attending to his own prolific output. I’m sure I’m not the only one who will miss his concern in such matters.

So much remains to be said about David as a poet, as a writer of essays, as a consummate bricoleur assembling hybrid texts like Two-Way Mirror or anthologies concerning such subjects as birth, death, and jazz. But for now, I’d like to simply extend condolences to his wife Julie Rogers, his three daughters Jenny, Maggie, and Amanda and son Adam from his marriage to his late first wife Tina Meltzer, and his inlaws, grandchildren, and great-grandchild. For them most especially, and for so many of us in the world of poetry, his death leaves an unfillable void in our lives.


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