Field notes of a rooted cosmopolitan
A couple years back I was attending a reading at the Zinc bar in Greenwich Village. After the reading, I went up to one of young poets on the bill to introduce myself and tell her that I enjoyed her work. Jacqueline Waters, the poet in question, thanked me and then looked at me very intently, then inquired: “Joel Lewis. FROM NEW JERSEY?”
I get that a lot. After agreeing to write an intro to a book of poems, the publisher of the press, in responding, opened his email with a hearty “Dear Mr. Jersey Guy.” My poetry appearances in the original Jacket were due, in part, to a kind of low rent exoticism that found favor with the antipodean editor John Tranter, as if I were a character that slipped off the page from William Carlos Williams’s short stories in “Life Along the Passaic River.” much in the manner of archaeologist Tom Baxter walking off the screen in Woody Allen’s “Purple Rose of Cairo.”
Thanks to a series of reality shows set in our Garden State (including my home base Hoboken’s “The Cake Boss” which continues to attract tourists to it’s bakery setting like a secular Lourdes) and our ultra-bellicose Governor Christie’s who seems possessed by the dybbuk called Ralph Kramden, our already poor international reputation is more toxic than one of our 112 Superfund sites (& don’t get me started on our brownfields!).
So where does poetry get involved in this mix? Well, many of us here who work this place believe that our cultural marginality, our imbedded heritage of political bossism and the long history of willful degradation to our environment became the breeding ground for a poetic tradition that is wary of the powerful, their institutions and their polite culture .
It all starts with Philip Freneau who was raised in Monmouth County to a Huguenot family, a graduate of Princeton University (where his roommate was James Madison) and a failed teacher and minister to boot. Freneau went from a nature poet and an occasional writer of anti-British verse to full-blown poet for the Revolutionary cause after spending six brutal weeks aboard a British prison ship after the military vessel he was captaining was seized. Eschewing literary journals and writing in colloquial style he felt appropriate for the genuine democracy of the United States, he chose to place his poems in the newspapers of the day rather than literary journals. Poems such as "Eutaw Springs," "American Liberty," "A Political Litany," "A Midnight Consultation," and "George the Third's Soliloquy," brought him fame as the "Poet of the American Revolution."
Although Huntington Long Island and Brooklyn can rightfully claim some of Walt Whitman’s shade, here in Jersey we have a bridge named after him as well as a service area on the New Jersey Turnpike (most of us here dream about having a service area bearing our name). Whitman’s last twenty years of his life in Camden mark his years as a international celebrity; a period in which he supports himself on his book sales of Leaves of Grass, lecture fees and payments from newspapers and magazines for individual poems and prose pieces. He also buys a home on Mickle Street, the only property he will ever own, as well as a summer home in Laurel Springs whose pastoral comforts he recorded in Specimen Days.
I suppose Jacket2 readers do not need to be told that much about William Carlos Williams – in fact some of you may have actually ventured out to either his home in Rutherford or to Paterson, setting of his epic poem that bears that city’s name, as part of a personal investigative practice. But here are two WCW factoids rarely commented on: 1) he is the first major American poet to drive a car (as an MD, he was of the era when doctors made house calls) and wrote poems from the prospective of a driver-observer and 2) he is the first major American poet whose home language was not English – WCW’s parents spoke Spanish in the household.
Among WCW’s many poetry disciples and young comrades was a young poet from Paterson named Allen Ginsberg. WCW published some of Allen’s letters in Paterson, he wrote forwards to Empty Mirror and, most famously, Howl which collaterally introduced the Doctor to the millions of aspiring beatniks who bought that book across the globe.
Although Ginsberg never lived in NJ after going off to college, he always maintained close ties to his home state. Jersey constantly pops up as a reference point in his work, perhaps culminating in the late poem “Garden State” which was first published in my raggedy magazine AHNOI back in 1980. He was generous to local poets and always found time to come out and read at local colleges and at benefits for our homegrown magazine.
Allen also helped nurture a group of poets whom I have dubbed the “Jersey Beats”. The most of the group is Amiri Baraka, but others include jazz poet Extraordinaire Ray Bremser of Jersey City, Barbara Moraff of Paterson, Candy store owner Hersch Silverman of Bayonne, Jeanine Pommy-Vega of Union City and the now-forgotten George Montgomery, also of Jersey City. Montgomery certainly wins some kind of award for the most interesting day jobs for a poet: pro wrestling and a competitor in the Demolition Derby.
The outsider poetry tradition continued on with Bloomfield’s Joe Ceravolo, whom I was directed to by both Ted Berrigan and Bill Berkson as a young poet and who was part of our North Jersey poetry community in the last years of his life, reading in our reading series and tolerating our evening phone calls after his hard work as a civil engineer.
I published Alfred Starr Hamilton in the anthology of NJ poets I edited for Rutgers University Press in 1990, however our contact was entirely through letters.
The later fate of our great local surrealist was unknown until a student of mine named Lisa Borinsky launched into a great investigative search published as “Send This To the Immune Officer: Found Letters to the Montclair Police Department from Poet Alfred Starr Hamilton, 1959-1985”. Not long after the publication of this book, two former students of Peter Gizzi brought Hamilton back into print with A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind: The Poems of Alfred Starr Hamilton. Sitting in the audience of the packed house at the book’s launch at the Poetry Project, it pleased me no end that this most reclusive of poets – who was too terrified to read in public, lived in a boardinghouse in Montclair and needed the help of others to put together his books – was able to still find an audience of readers.
All of the above stands as a bit of an introduction to my reports from my home state.