Born in 1937 to a cellist and harpist, poet and musician David Meltzer was perhaps destined to a life informed and enchanted by sound. As a child, he performed on the radio and on TV with The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour. This strong musical heritage was only the beginning of Meltzer’s robust creative life.
Meltzer began his literary career in San Francisco, in the heyday of the Beat generation’s artistic community there. Like many Beat poets, he was interested in jazz, but none have established themselves as major figures of both arts or integrated them quite as he did. Throughout his life, in addition to publishing over 40 collections of poetry, he worked as a singer-songwriter and jazz guitarist, and published or edited numerous books and collections of interviews about jazz. In 1958 he recorded an album, Poet With Jazz, which featured him reading his poetry to jazz accompaniment. With his first wife, Tina Meltzer, he was part of the psychedelic folk-rock band the Serpent Power, whose first album was named by Rolling Stone as one of the top 40 albums of the Summer of Love (a list that included the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band).
Music’s influence is evident not just in the breadth of Meltzer’s work but in its synthesis of different creative modes. His poetry is marked by a lushness of language, a jazz-like playfulness balanced with careful attention to detail, and a fascination with the natural world and our human place in it. His poems have the marvelous quality of resonating with sound and rhythm even when they are read silently, as evidenced in this poem, “Breaking Bread,” which appears in his book Greenspeech.
The range of his creative practices and the skill he demonstrated in them is matched by the range of sources from which he drew inspiration. One example of this is Rock Tao, his book of rock poetics that was unfortunately never published, due to the extent of copyright permissions needed for the lyrics it quoted. The book explores and celebrates the sacredness of all music, of all our human efforts to make meaning, drawing from sources as diverse as the Talmud and tarot cards to the Beach Boys and the Lovin’ Spoonful.
This openness to music in all its forms, this hunger for meaning in all its forms, is evident throughout all of Meltzer’s work, but is perhaps exemplified by this quote from his notebook of poetics, The Two-Way Mirror: “Poetry is speech that attempts to be song. It’s a way of rising above speech to create an alternative language whose parts are closer to music. Whose parts are closer to the heart. Whose parts close in on the mind. Whose parts converge and become one. Poetry is musical speech.”
Meltzer passed away in his home in Oakland on December 31, 2016, and is survived by his wife and four children.
All of the images featured in this post are from the David Meltzer Papers. They include material towards books, correspondence, personal ephemera and more, and are available for research.