The beat continues | www.splicetoday.com
Lithic Press, in Fruita, Colorado, has been quietly publishing lost and found and forgotten texts by lesser-known Beats and San Francisco Renaissance poets over the past few years. More recently, they uncovered some kind of “lost” text by a poet most people outside of California haven’t heard of: David Meltzer, who died in 2016. His book, tao rocka long-running collage essay, captures the San Francisco music and poetry scene in the mid-1960s. Editor Patrick James Dunagan wrote an introduction and included an afterword by Marina Lazzara, Meltzer’s second wife, who survives him. tao rock was never published during Meltzer’s lifetime, apparently.
I had never heard of Meltzer before that, although he published many books of poetry and fiction from the 1960s until 2011. The only anthology in which I ever heard of him being published was the famous Don Allen. The New American Poetry. Yet he had a thriving poetic life in San Francisco for decades. According to Dunagan and Lazzara, Meltzer knew many of San Francisco’s older Beat and Renaissance poets, such as Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Rexroth, and was friends with next-generation poets like Jack Spicer. He was also a musician and played in bands amidst the burgeoning rock scene centered in San Francisco, friends with, for example, Janis Joplin and David Crosby. He was a “connector” between these two worlds.
Meltzer, along with his first wife, Tina Meltzer, formed a psychedelic band called The Serpent Power around this time, with an album of their own. Rolling Calculation‘s Top 40 in 1968. But, according to Lazzara and Dunagan, he became disenchanted with the rock scene and quit to devote himself to poetry. He eventually became a professor at the New College of California, where he taught for the rest of his life. And he remained active on the San Francisco poetry scene. tao rockwhich he wrote in 1965, alludes to his discomfort with the world of rock:
Fire: Vietnam’s Burning Buddhist Monks; Giacometti, the sculptor – “But the thing, suicide, that really fascinates me is burning yourself alive. That would be something. Fire renews what it destroys. The Burning Man Alive With Fire (David Schmuck) runs up a hill to escape his pain and embrace his spirit. DH Lawrence, the emblem of his tuberculosis fever. The fire transforms flesh meat into fragile ashes, lightening the heavy mass of the body into particles carried by the wind or slowly eaten away by the earth.
Suicides by fire are increasingly common in America. Yesterday a Marine set himself on fire because he was deeply unhappy with Marine doctrine and training. A few months ago, an elderly lady in Detroit flared up outraged by the American war effort in Vietnam.
Speech as fire; art as fire. The heat of the flame as cleansing power. Fire as a baptismal rite.
It’s from the beginning of part 2 of tao rock, an unusually long piece of Meltzer’s writing. Much of the book is made up of bits of outside text. Here, most interestingly, is his own summary of incidents I had never heard of. I’ll take my word for it that they arrived. tao rock is a historical document, recounting forgotten news. His interpretation seems strange: that he glorifies the idea of immolation, takes the tragic lives of real people and turns them into inspiration for poetry. It was not sustainable.
Even Dunagan admits that tao rock is not easy to read, calling it “a rather erratic beast of text”. It’s a messy collage of stuff heard on local rock radio stations, flyers and overheard conversations. And it can be an assault on the eyes, if not the ears, with verbatim transcriptions of magazine advertisements. Here is a representative piece:
Watch them grow their own hair
Live in your room!
Yes, imagine, you can even give them haircuts! You can actually have the fabulous Beatles growing up in your very own room!…
Try this amazing new
DINGY TEETH IN BRIGHT WHITE
Try this new, amazing
PLAY GUITAR IN 7 DAYS
tao rock can serve as a historical document, but reading so many advertisements can be difficult. When Meltzer writes his own words and ideas, he engages. But sometimes the text is not clear whether it is Meltzer or Meltzer borrowing from another text. I’m sure he wanted the reading experience to be like that. The softer bits of text are excerpts from rock songs popular at the time, like those by the Rolling Stones or Donovan (he never quotes the Beatles or Dylan). Meltzer is most interesting when we receive his criticism or testimonial. Like this glimpse of the Beat Generation and seemingly lost potential. Remember this is written in 1965:
Ten years ago the poets almost had it.
The image of the Beat Generation was the necessary bogeyman-placebo of the public: poets eventually embrace fame only to question it and ultimately reject it.
It’s a singer’s world today. Tired of talking (or used to it), people want to be sung to them, to have the world renamed and reorganized by singers and their songs.
I see a little dig at Ginsberg here, maybe, and who didn’t question it or dismiss it at all. Meltzer is correct that for a brief period the poets Beats and San Francisco Renaissance had the ear and the eye of the public in the late 1950s. But then along came the Beatles and Dylan: people could get their poetry in a more accessible, albeit simplified, form. Meltzer at this point had not left the music scene – perhaps it is in fact he who explains Whyhe’s part of the music scene, but his discomfort with fame seems to collide with his love of poetry, though he doesn’t seem to realize it yet.
“Tao” is the Classical Chinese term for “the way” or “the way”, as in the Tao Te Ching (Where Dao Of Jingor the Daodejing) which gained popularity around this time, in different translations. I don’t see this long-form collage essay as “The Path of Rock” nor “The Way of Rock” – another title might have helped focus this text. Although it reads like Meltzer’s subconscious path outsideRock.
Dunagan sees the books as a continuation, in style, of John Dos Passos’ style of “media-inundated America”. I also see it as the forerunner of Joan Didion’s book of essays on collages Advance to Bethlehemalthough I don’t think she ever read tao rock. Didion chronicled the fall of the hippie movement in 1968. Meltzer’s tao rock alludes to those things to come: reading it, this world doesn’t seem to last, that’s what Didion captured. And why Meltzer came out.