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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.

Jake Marmer
April 02, 2012
Jack Silverman via Facebook
Silverman at Hersch's Beehive in Bayonne, N.J.Jack Silverman via Facebook
Jack Silverman via Facebook
Silverman at Hersch's Beehive in Bayonne, N.J.Jack Silverman via Facebook

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. Poetry—even more than other arts—is a notoriously unprofitable endeavor, and in recent history great poets have spent their weekdays working as dreamy doctors, unlikely insurance salesmen, disaffected journalists—the list goes on. It’s probably safe to assume, however, that among them there was only one candy store owner, and that’s Herschel “Hersch” Silverman, who is turning 86 this year.

In the early 1950s, having just returned from the Navy, Silverman opened Hersch’s Beehive in Bayonne, N.J. While serving he was trained as a cook: a path he chose, as he told me in a phone interview, because, having grown up in a traditional Jewish home, he didn’t want “to eat anything too unkosher,” and he preferred to know what his meals were made of. One day after work, while taking a writing course at the 92nd Street Y, he pulled off the shelf a copy of the Evergreen Review, which contained Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Upon reading this epic poem, jazz-anthem to madness and rebellion, Silverman underwent a profound transformation—he was turned on as a poet.

Silverman wrote to Ginsberg, inviting him to partake of milkshakes and sweet sodas at the candy shop. Miraculously, the maestro responded, and even paid a visit—25 years after the invitation. But during those 25 years, and long after, a friendship filled with correspondence and hangout sessions blossomed. Through Ginsberg, Silverman met and befriended other iconic poets of that circle—Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, and Charles Olson.

The friendships were unlikely: These artists prided themselves on being intellectually-sexually-spiritually disabused bohemians, while Hersch was married, had two children, attended synagogue, celebrated Jewish holidays—and held down the fort daily at the store. What perhaps brought them together was Silverman’s unwavering enthusiasm and dedication to all things counter-cultural. Musician and writer Marshall Allen, in the introduction to Silverman’s book of collected poems, put it this way: “At Hersch’s Beehive, right under the Pepsi clock and portrait of JFK, the names of the Beats … were uttered with the same brightening intensity, and reverence, other people reserve for ballplayers, cartoon characters, television stars, and lawn mowers. Hersch’s Beehive, in reality, radiated a kind of third eye, hip, patriotism if you will, where dissonant howls, sax blaps and angular Monkish grooves were as automatically wholesome, natural and expectable as the national anthem.”

And then there was also Hersch’s poetry. While unmistakably influenced by the Beats, Silverman’s voice is distinct as it intertwines seemingly contradictory concepts of hipness and familial bliss. In a piece titled “Jazz Changes,” dedicated to his wife, Laura Silverman, he writes:

i spoke about changes
wrought on me by her
and I called her
Laura Sylvania
and lit
by thesaurus
and blackberry brandy
which warmed the words
i lapsed into a panic
of breathless lines
changing mid-line
without loss of speed
by means of alliteration
and jazz-beat
i fantasied
surmised metered shoes
and remembered challah
every Saturday
and the taste of Slivovitz
the immediate re
of myself as Van Gogh
painting my couch
(the slip cover)
and the bad madness
of the frenzy of Self
in which I whirled around
the livingroom
glancing sideways
in a full-length mirrors
which appeared in blackness
reflecting a person of worth
an anecdote of Alfred
North Whitehead

There is a common perception of poets as madmen, social rejects, and wild prophetic characters spewing incomprehensible truths. This, of course, was particularly true of the Beats; Hersch, however, did not quite fit the paradigm: Whatever madness he may be referring to in this poem is really at most a tipsy garrulous over-excitement, largely humorous and self-parodying. Neither is it directed toward an opiate-inspired muse or a femme fatale—but rather to his wife. Particularly insightful here is the parenthetical clarification about the slip cover: The careful domesticated specificity of the image is simply endearing.

This is not to say that Silverman’s poetry is all slip covers. Within the same “Jazz Changes” piece, he reaches for higher philosophical notes:

Jazz is the daily statement
an unincorporated
of the condition of
an individual’s soul
in relation
to God

It is well-known that Beats were obsessed with jazz and variously invoked it in their works. What Silverman points to in this segment is not casual invocation, though, but a rather serious theological insight. The word “unincorporated”—an awkward word, really—is more of a riff than a word, a reversal of an all-American concept: that of “corporation” and all things that the corporate culture trickles down to. Much in the same way, jazz—the first truly American music—is built on the ecstatic revelatory improvisation (a “release”), which has turned around notions of the culture defined by industrial sterility and commercialism.

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
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

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.

Jake Marmer is Tablet’s poetry critic. He is the author of Cosmic Diaspora (2020), The Neighbor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Talmud (2012). He has also released two jazz-klezmer-poetry records: Purple Tentacles of Thought and Desire (2020, with Cosmic Diaspora Trio), and Hermeneutic Stomp (2013).