Saturday, October 06, 2007

Herschel Baron: Poet and Activist 

The news has just reached me that Herschel Baron died on October 1st of lung cancer. The last time I saw him was on a bus going down Chestnut Street. He had tubes in his nose, and he was very unstable on his feet. I was on my way to see Frank Sherlock at Jefferson hospital and it was a day or two after we had learned his diagnosis was meningitis. Herschel couldn't see very well, but he recognized my voice. When I told him about Frank he told me a story about someone he knew who had died of meningitis years ago. My mind wasn't exactly focused on what Herschel was saying so that's about all I remember, except that as he stood to get off at his stop he told me to take care of myself and that he hoped my friend would be okay.

That was nice, those parting words, now that I'm thinking about them. We didn't always have nice words between us over the years. In 1984 when I first met him he was very involved with New Formalist poet friends of his who were being published in QRL (Quarterly Review of Literature). Herschel had a way of talking to me like he needed to teach me something, saying things like, "If you're not in QRL you're not worth being read," charming things like that. Looking back I feel fortunate to have been raised by a hotheaded mother and if I didn't like what I read then that was that.

There was one amazing incident I witnessed in the 1980s where I discovered who he was and what he had been through in this world while at a reading for the victims of MOVE. Herschel was one of the readers, and he made a big deal about the taping of the reading, demanding to not be taped. Some people were annoyed that he was making such a fuss. I asked Gil Ott why Herschel was doing this. Gil told me how Herschel had lost his job back in the 50s at RCA in Camden because he and other labor organizers were called into Senator McCarthy's hearings and were accused of being communists. Herschel's life was very difficult for some time after that, out of work, painted red, tossed aside. It's something he never got over, so it seems when I think about how he reacted to that taping of the MOVE event in the 80s, yelling, "THEY JUST BURNED DOWN A WHOLE BLOCK OF THE CITY AND YOU TRUST THESE PEOPLE TO NOT COME AFTER YOU!? YOU PEOPLE ARE NAIVE ABOUT HOW THIS WORLD WORKS!" He had been very brave as a young man, stuck his neck out to help make the world better for all his fellow workers. It was sad to see how haunted he remained by the witch hunt he and his friends had endured. And although Herschel and I never saw eye-to-eye on poetry, ever, I had a lot of respect for the suffering he had gone through to help change the world.

Over the last few years I would see Herschel on Chestnut Street waiting for a bus and we would talk, and it was always good, though he was worried about his health, and before that worried about his wife's health. Once in a while he would ask me if I still saw this poet, or that poet. He brought up Scott Norman at one point. In particular the famous reading at Jimmy Tyoon's old place The Middle East (I don't know what it's called now), where Scott pulled a knife on Daniel Kiener in the middle of Daniel's poem about Israel needing to defend the homeland. Herschel, and Etheridge Knight, and Lamont Steptoe, Bob Small, and a whole lot of others were there, in fact I'm pretty sure it was Jerome Rothenberg who tackled Scott, but maybe I'm wrong about that. But Daniel was reading in his normal fashion, screaming, throwing his fists up and down, his long, long white beard flying all over the place. Scott jumped over a chair and lunged at him with a knife. It was just a small knife, but still, it was a knife. While Scott was being restrained, screaming about freeing the Palestinians with his face pushed into the floor, Herschel took his pipe out of his mouth and started yelling, "WHY ARE POETS SO GOD DAMNED CRAZY ALL THE TIME!? CAN'T WE EVER GET ALONG!? IT'S CRAZY HOW WE ACT! CRAZY! CRAZY! CRAZY!" There was a lot of that kind of drama back then, every week it seemed there was some new drama.

Even though Herschel was always trying to get me to understand the genius of David Slavitt and other New Formalists, he had a healthy respect for Allen Ginsberg. When Ginsberg read at the Painted Bride Arts Center one of the people who clapped the loudest was Herschel. Ginsberg did a brilliant reading of Sunflower Sutra, and it was so good that I have always hoped it was taped. Anyway, I remember Herschel telling Ginsberg how we need more brave poets like him, something like that, and Ginsberg gave him the Buddhist prayer hands and nod and smile.

Herschel was a cranky, fierce old guy, even back in 1984 when I was just 18 he was old and fierce. While he was intolerant of poetry he didn't like, I admire that he always let you know what he liked and didn't like. You never had to second guess Herschel. He had no time for games because he took his poetry seriously. And if you took it seriously as well, even if you didn't agree with him, he enjoyed the opportunity to tell you how wrong you were. In his own way I think that he valued those who valued poetry, no matter what kind of poetry. I'll think of him on Chestnut Street.

Rest in peace,

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