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David Meltzer with fellow poets John Wieners, Philip Lamantia, and Michael McClure, North Beach, 1958. (Copyright ©1958 by Gui de Angulo. Reprinted by permission of City Lights Books.)

If there is a literary genre that defines our 21st century, it’s the manual. Want knowledge? Get step-by-step instructions for anything in the world, from fly fishing to transcendental meditation. Even poetry, which is decidedly more resistant to summaries and instruction than fly fishing, is served up in professionalized writing programs, workshops, and yes, manuals. This is why the recent reissue of David Meltzer’s 1977 classic Two-Way Mirror, a “notebook” on the craft of poetry, is not merely refreshing but momentous. Updated with recent additions, Meltzer’s tome presents a set of poetic reflections, quotes from writers and thinkers from across the ages, disguised writing prompts, and ramblings that, instead of hoisting up organized directives, opens doors, and creates possibilities of profound reflection and good soul-searing fun.

At 78, Meltzer is a master storyteller and—as the youngest member of the groundbreaking Beat poetry circle, onetime rock-star, kabbalist, and a father of four—he surely has stories to tell. Two weeks ago, when I walked into San Francisco’s legendary City Lights bookstore for the Two-Way Mirror publication party, the room was filled with 40 to 50 fans of all ages. “You can read the book yourself,” announced the poet, smirking, to open the event. “I’m here to give you digressions.” Thus he proceeded, reading tidbits and interspersing them with spontaneously remembered personal anecdotes, observations, riffs, quips, and memories. “This book is a primer,” he told his audience, “and I like that word because many of the books I read bemoan endings.”

The publication of the “gift edition” of Meltzer’s manual was timed to coincide with both National Poetry Month and the 60th anniversary of City Lights Publishing, a press established by Meltzer’s colleague and friend Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The 96-year-old publisher, poet, activist, and Beat eminence is revered for having emerged victorious in the landmark trials for free speech and expression after he published Allen Ginsberg. City Lights doesn’t have free-speech battles to fight these days, and yet it remains committed to the outer edges of contemporary poetic experience. As City Lights’ publisher and executive director Elaine Katzenberger pointed out to me, “censorship can take many forms,” and authors remain at risk of having their work marginalized, which, she held, can be a more subtle and perhaps more insidious form of censorship.

Meltzer’s work lives in that margin—it is decidedly not academic and yet is complex and scholarly; it is not instructive but rather instinctive, improvisational, and belonging to the realm of magic shows and incantations. This book, he told the audience at City Lights, like him, is “not linear.”

Even for a poet, Meltzer’s path has been unconventional. As a teenager, he was already well-known and associated with the Beat movement. At 20, he recorded his first jazz poetry album and not long after began performing as a lead singer and guitarist of the folk-rock band Serpent Power. (The band’s album was later listed by Rolling Stone as one of the 40 essential albums from 1967’s “Summer of Love.”) Since then, Meltzer has been deeply involved with fields as diverse as mysticism and politics, music and education.

How does he go about bridging worlds set so far apart from one another? A number of years ago, at another reading, I heard David Meltzer say that jazz is the most utopian of all art forms, because musicians don’t have to know or even like each other to create profoundly moving moments. Perhaps, then, it is his ability of bringing together disparate worlds, at play in a jazz-like fashion, that creates its own kind of magic.

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“The poem is a two-way mirror concealing the page,” writes Meltzer in a brief meditation that inspired his primer’s title. The image is esoteric and yet rooted in popular culture—or pulp writing, to be specific. One may immediately imagine a sweaty suspect pacing in front of a mirror, nervous, knowing he’s being observed by an unseen detective. The latter is sprawled in a half-broken chair, cigarette butt hanging off his lip. Yet, to propose that the suspect is a metaphor for the reader, and the observer is the anonymous, silent page is to make an analogy that belongs in the realm of mysticism. It is an idea drawn from a theology that posits that words and letters have powers concealed, or even disengaged, from their readers. The idea of language as something independent of humanity—something that preceded humanity, because it is divine—is a line of thought that’s resonant with ideas found in medieval kabbalistic writings, including the Zohar, written in 13th-century Spain.

Meltzer’s lifelong engagement with mysticism, as he told me later in his Oakland apartment, started out with a memorable initiation rite. Still in his 20s, Meltzer was working at a small San Francisco bookstore. Poetry legend of the day, public intellectual, and mentor Robert Duncan, wandered into the store. After a while of browsing and hanging out, Duncan suddenly grew furious: He discovered a library book in the store’s bathroom. “This book is very, very important! It must be returned into circulation immediately! People need to read it!” raged Duncan. Curious, Meltzer took the book home. It was Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, his 1941 classic modern exploration of kabbalistic thought across centuries.

In the early 1970s, Meltzer’s interest in Jewish mysticism led him to start Tree, a literary journal and small press dedicated to contemporary exploration of kabbalah and esoteric Jewish works. In unearthing ancient, previously untranslated work and generating new discourse on so unusual a subject matter, Meltzer proved to be ahead of his time. This engagement with mysticism permeates all of his writing, from poetry to poetics, from jazz to politics. It is central to the Two-Way Mirror as well. At one point the author describes the classic model of Jewish exegesis, known as “PARDES” or the four levels of interpretation, and shows how this model can be applied to writing and reading poetry. Other times, the reference is a bit more veiled but no less powerful:

We are talking, but not together.
To speak together would mean the same voice, the same
words, while we both move mouths together against the
air of a room.
We are talking about God.
You say it is an energy, it is manifest in light.
When I think of energy, I think of Niagara Falls whose
energy is manifest in electricity which lights the lights above
our heads.
You say God is a word we clothe the invisible with. We
dress what we cannot see in words.
Does the invisible speak to you?
No. It speaks through you.
Now I know the secret of words.

What sort of a God is he describing here, and what does it have to do with poetry? Is it an argument with another text, or another voice within a self? It certainly seems like one voice is more rational. But what does the other voice, the narrator, mean when he says the “invisible … speaks through you”? Perhaps it is something related to the idea of improvisation, to the sacredness of writing, the moment it is brought upon the page—or the sacredness of poetic thought itself.

I asked him: “But how can one seriously engage in mystical ideas, while remaining a skeptic?” Being “skeptical means there’s humor,” he replied, “and I’d rather stay on the side of humor. I mistrust belief.” I prodded: “But what’s there to trust?” He answered: “The moment, and accumulation of tidbits of some knowing. And also it’s more of an outreach than a hoarding … here, eat!”

Meltzer’s mysticism is never drunk on its own relevance. The humor is the protective, critical edge that safeguards one’s freedom of thought and imagination. When Meltzer signed his book for me, he drew a face with a few Hebrew letters near it. As I struggled to decipher one of the letters, he pointed out: “Ohr, light … with an arthritic reish at the end.”

David Meltzer performing in 2006. (© Kai Shuman via Flickr)

But it is more than humor alone that sets Meltzer’s writing apart. Something else became clear, as I listened to him read the sparse lines from Two-Way Mirror at the City Lights bookstore. Meltzer is a performer; as masterful with his voice and presence as ever. Reading—or rather, performing—his observations about poetry, Meltzer used the same cadence, the same voice reserved, normally, for poetry itself. When critics analyze poetry, they end up writing, as expected, criticism. When poets analyze poetry, however, the results are poetry. Poetry itself is not divorced from scholarship and thought; it is, rather, an alternative.

In a series of poems from the late 1960s, Meltzer explores the Jewish myth of the golem—a ghastly human-like being brought to life through incantation: “This poem is an alternative to a golem. … The Jew in me is the ghost in me, hiding under the stairways.” These are puzzling, difficult lines. To create an identity—inflexible, boxed in the notion of a self, marked by community-defined parameters—all too often is like creating a clunky golem. But to conceive of one’s creative spirit as a fugitive, hidden, indefinable quintessence—call it a poem, a ghost, a Jew—is to offer oneself an alternative. As Meltzer writes in the Two-Way Mirror, “poem is perhaps the highest verbal form of communication.”

In the 1980s, when Tikkun magazine started up, Meltzer was invited to be one of its poetry editors. “After about three months,” he told me, “and these manuscripts about my Yiddishe mama, or my grandma, and oh, the Holocaust—sentimentality, an artificial nostalgia, quest for linkage to an earlier identity—I deflected. Or defected. It was too easy and banal. Third-generation Americans dreaming about fiddlers on the roof.” Meltzer’s own book-long meditation on the nature of poetry, full of quotes, distractions, and quips, is an attempt to bypass such banality and invoke something expansive enough to be genuine. Yet, if I had to pin down what it is that the book did for me, as a writer and reader, I’d have to contend that it was more than just about the text itself, but rather the whole experience that surrounded the reading, culminating in the encounter with the poet himself.

As I sat in a café a few doors down from City Lights, a line from the book kept resounding in my head: “Losing faith is losing language.” A response came to mind:

“losing faith is losing language”
says David Meltzer
and: “the ritual means as long
as the words mean”
what I see
is that loss of faith
is
a language
each unlinked chain of meaning
a letter
of some unsounded alphabet, new glyph
laid across the erogenous zone
of writhing emptiness

Is it possible to teach the craft of poetry? Or is it more of an initiation, earned? Or is it all about being in the right place at the right time? After all, no poetic revolution of colossal magnitude seems to have occurred since the 1950 and ’60s. I asked Meltzer what it was about the Beat generation that allowed for it to happen. After a brief silence, as we both pondered, someone outside sneezed. It was a zesty, hearty, and prolonged sneeze that resonated all the way up the block. Meltzer immediately responded: “Gezuntheit! … I thought that was the answer to your question … from above! Or something.”

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