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Don’t Touch The Poet | Joel Oppenheimer’s New York

Joel Oppenheimer knew cities…actually one in particular…New York City…and to be more specific “New York City below 14th Street”, in that once bohemian enclave of the 60s and 70s where he could do what he did best: be there when it happens and write it down.

Despite his relative obscurity today, Oppenheimer was a legendary figure of the West Village art scene, a Black Mountain College attendee, a regular columnist for the Village Voice, the first director of St. Mark’s Poetry Project on the Lower East Side, and yet still, he never quite received the recognition he felt he deserved in his time, let alone ours.

I came across the off-the-cuff, propulsive energy of Oppenheimer’s “Cities, This City” on UbuWeb from a 1976 reading at St. Mark’s Church. His elegiac affection and tough-talking ambivalence about urban life spoke to my feelings about New York after too many years sprinting a marathon on its hamster wheels with over 8 million other hamsters. And yet, Oppenheimer knew cities are where the magic happens among those other wild-eyed, dreamy hamsters.

Like many artists of the downtown scene, Oppenheimer was a big drinker (boilermakers, keep them coming), known for falling asleep at parties, and spending his best days at the notorious Lion’s Head in Sheridan Square. Oppenheimer loved the Head for its manly camaraderie among its regular patrons who were mostly grizzled writers and journalists. That is unless it got really crowded, then colliding with strangers, he would yell out, “Don’t touch the poet!”

Oppenheimer outside Lion’s Head © Elsa Dorfman

Don’t Touch The Poet is also the name of the superb biography by Lyman Gilmore, which brings Oppenheimer to life in all his idiosyncratic glory (and misery) from his humble beginnings in Yonkers to that brief moment in history where writing poetry for a living in a place like New York City was radical and cool and nearly possible (hell, maybe it still is…). Even the government got in on the act, and in 1966 the US Office of Economic Opportunity gave St. Mark’s Parish a grant to provide programs in the arts for poor, disaffected, inner-city youth.

Despite his self-image of a radical and anarchic artist, in Oppenheimer’s works such The Dutiful Son, The Love Bit, The Woman Poems and Village Voice columns, he wrestled with his own personal failings and timeless humanist themes such the bittersweet consequences of love, and his own deep confusion about romantic and domestic relationships as American culture shifted from its post-war conservatism to the society of the self: what does it mean to be a good son, a good lover, a good father in its throes. All in his signature immediacy and lyrical style influenced by William Carlos Williams’ ideas only in things.

Yet perhaps it was exactly this ambivalence that has denied him recognition, forever on the periphery, of the Black Mountain crowd, the New York poets, the sexual liberation of the 60/70s, political radicalism, etc. Oppenheimer hovered around, but never quit fit in or committed to any particular cause. Even that cushy appointment as the first director of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, the envy of many in the scene, was not perceived as an unequivocal triumph:

At the time when most poets were in one or another small tight groups, I was one of the few who was unconnected and yet know to most of the groups. Allen [St. Mark’s minister] was right. I might not have been the right person for it, but if it had come out of that group it would have been very parochial. I was everybody’s second choice: second best womanizer, second best lush.”

Another theory (though, perhaps less convincing and second best) goes that Oppenheimer’s work is not better known because of his own fear of travel and agoraphobia. He had to be dragged into a car to go to his own wedding during his Black Mountain days and rarely deviated from his daily ritual trek from apartment to Lion’s Head. Oppenheimer was “terrified about anything — airplanes, relationships — and once in, frightened about getting out….” No environment defines this enter/exit syndrome more than the modern city, especially one like New York City. Despite its avowed worldiness and boasts about being not worth leaving, it can also reinforce a kind of ghetto mentality.

By the time of the St. Mark’s reading of “Cities, This City” in 1976, Joel’s second marriage had ended, and he had been sober for six years, having gone cold turkey after being told by doctors he would die from liver cirrhosis if he continued his boozy ways. In the Spring of that year, the grip of New York was loosening. He began traveling more, lecturing and teaching in North Carolina and beyond, away from his Greenwich Village and Lion’s Head perch and the superiority complex of city dwellers:

“there are real people in these small colleges in these small towns…there now seems to be that energy net across the country in strange, small places…sure, i love my city and i won’t take any shit about it from ‘them,’ but maybe now if the right offer came, at least i’d listen, this time. maybe it is possible to do your work someplace else. It never seemed likely before.”

Finally, it did come, and he left New York City for New Hampshire to teach until his death in 1988.

On this 1976 recording at St. Mark’s, Oppenheimer’s voice is at its graceful, sincere and democratic best. As critic Michael Stephens would describe him: “…downtown, formerly from Yonkers, printer’s dirty fingered, rabbinical, beatnik-hipster’s voice…an educated, working-class, American Jew-from New York’s voice, kvetching but not whining, humorous, with as much scat as scatology in it.”

Just don’t touch the poet, man.

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