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The Candy Store Poet

Herschel Silverman, a poet and candy store owner from Bayonne, N.J., was immortalized and befriended by Allen Ginsberg. At 85, the beat goes on.

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Silverman at Hersch’s Beehive in Bayonne, N.J. (Jack Silverman via Facebook)
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When Silverman and I met and chatted recently over lunch, he confessed that Ginsberg did not take well to everything Silverman wrote. “He put some of my work down, and told me to cut the Beatnik schmaltz,” he said, reminiscing about his mentor’s often-repeated demand: “ ‘I want to hear about the Bayonne.’ ” Ginsberg’s directive reaches far beyond the poetry-workshop cliché “write about the things you know.” For the Beats—and especially the loosely allied movement of the Black Mountain poets—the notion of locality was sacred. Quite unlike our contemporary obsession with overpriced heirloom tomatoes, the ’50s and ’60s focus on the “local” became also the focus on all things communal and small-scale, and a way of reaching local folk. To bring poetry back to the streets—as was Ginsberg’s agenda—the streets, too, needed to return into poetry. Perhaps the most well-known inspiration for such thinking came from the poet-medic Williams Carlos Williams, whose epic “Paterson” was named after the New Jersey town where Williams lived and practiced medicine. For Silverman, there was the town of Bayonne, which he depicted often—as in “3/13/74”, a poem in which the poet describes riding to his store in the early hours, dreaming of visiting the Poetry Project on St. Marks Place in New York’s East Village (poetry readings are still often held there), and chanting:

this moment in Bayonne 5:38 am
on westside Bayonne, Avenue A
nearing my hip blue candystore
birds singing
celebrating Day
wind blows same reason,
tonite if all is well
i go to St. Marks,
if too tired and don’t go
I chant alone on bicycle
eastward
and say la vie
la vie
sad la vie
but hope springs eternal
pulse runs sure
i rise from business
earning money
take time to pray
and laugh
and maybe streak in church
in head
an inside-out hasid chanting Krishna,
a sparrow pecks red licorice-stick
on sidewalk amid gum-lumps
in front of store,
i come to halt
and reach for the keys

Hersch Silverman, 2001, in Lincoln, Massachusetts

Hersch Silverman in Lincoln, Mass., 2001. (Jeffrey Weinberg; used with permission of Water Row Press)

In his poem “Television Was a Baby Crawling Toward That Death Chamber,” Ginsberg summoned the image of Silverman in this way: “candystore emperor Hersch Silverman, dreaming of telling the Truth, but his Karma is selling jellybeans & being kind.” Mentioning this to me, Silverman said that he agonized for a long time, trying to understand what exactly Ginsberg meant by this. Clearly it’s not exactly a compliment, but a comment on a certain degree of restraint—or even repression—practiced by Silverman. But perhaps not every poet is meant to bare one’s soul in public; if anything, Ginsberg’s confessional fetish often bordered on all-out exhibitionism, while Silverman’s approach was rooted in a different set of priorities.

Last year, Silverman celebrated his 85th birthday at the famed Bowery Poetry Club in Greenwich Village, along with his fans and friends, as well as family members—children and grandchildren. As he put it to me: “Family is the most important thing. I met some successful but really screwed-up folks, who didn’t really know what it’s all really about. If you stick it out with the kids doing the right thing, kids will support and sustain you spiritually.”

And it wasn’t just his children Silverman had invested in throughout his life. There were also numerous kids who wandered into his candy store for something other than a sugar rush. In recent years, a quarter century after the closing of the Beehive, one of Silverman’s fans created a Facebook group to reminisce about and commemorate the store. Hersch knows about it only by hearsay. He is not on Facebook, nor does he own a computer. He does have an electric typewriter, though, which he uses for all sorts of official matters, as well as correspondence—and, of course, poetry.

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Steph F. says:

Thanks for this profile of a specimen of that rarest of breeds, a well-grounded poet. Selling candy and being kind can lead to some good poetry, and a life well-lived.

Deepest thanks for telling a story that might easily have been forgotten. We desperately need to know about people like Silverman. What a salutary model of a man, a poet and an American Jew who is able to live, in graceful creativity, with paradox and multiplicity.

A very enjoyable portrait of an admirable person.  A poet who has put goodness into the lives of many others is truly admirable. A poet who is devoted to his family and who in turn are devoted to him is also admirable. A poet of rich sensibility and fine lines is also admirable.
Kol Ha-Kavod to Hersch Silverman.

bythecreek says:

“One of the universe’s greatest injustices is that poets, whose minds dwell far beyond the middling realities of the mundane world, have to worry about making a living.”
Nonsense. Why would anyone (who is not beholden to clichés) think people who call themselves poets and/or write the stuff, have, in general or necessarily, minds that dwell far beyond precincts where dwell the minds of all the people who don’t call themselves poets or write the stuff? And why would anyone expect those who write poetry not to have to engage, as others do, in work that the market deems worthy of compensation?

To ask those rhetorical questions is to assert the (Beat, if you must) sacred notion, geographic and in every other way, of locality.

“What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman…” (from Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California”). 

Jack Lavelle says:

What a cool candy store Hersch’s must be – far cooler than my local hangout on Long Island run by one of the angriest Irishmen ever born.

valles says:

Hannity has a candy store??

There once was a man from Bayonne,
Who… Oh never mind.

Leslie Rupley says:

We just saw of show of Ginsberg’s annotated photos at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. There was a great audio of his poetry reading as well. Thought provoking about the poets and their social milieu.

Leslie Rupley

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The Candy Store Poet

Herschel Silverman, a poet and candy store owner from Bayonne, N.J., was immortalized and befriended by Allen Ginsberg. At 85, the beat goes on.

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