Walking into his mid-town Bayonne home earlier in June was like walking back through time - a house in which the post World War II era still lived, wood work and high ceilings, part of an era of hope that has long faded from popular culture. In some ways, the house and the poet are the same, each carrying with them a legacy of a grand past, each of them holding in heart the dreams and aspirations that were so much a part of Bayonne and the wider world during their youth.
Surrounded by books and poetry, music and art, Silverman has become in his elder years one of the last remaining living Beat poets.
Something of a Renaissance man, Silverman is painter, poet and once a hopeful news reporter, and yet locally name is mostly associated with his luncheonette affectionately called "Herschel's Beehive" where he almost 30 years connected with the citizens of Bayonne, winning the affection of generations.
Although Silverman, 78, retired in 1984, he had not been idle, writing, reading and publishing poetry - and recently published a collection of selected poems called "Lift Off," that covers samples of his poetry from 1961 to 2001.
A self-declared jazz poet (post beat avant garde experimental free jazz poet, as he describes it), Silverman -- during the height of the Beat movement - was associated with such poets and writers as Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olsen and Jack Kerouac. He became a fixture of the New York City reading circle. Over the last five decades, Silverman has published hundreds of poems in literary journals and numerous chapbooks.
Yet for all of his connection with the avant garde Silverman never played the role of "artist." Along with his wife Laura, daughter Elaine and son Jack, Silverman worked seven days a week from dawn to dusk, serving kids from Bayonne High School and workers from various Bayonne factories coffee, newspapers and lunch - and in his "spare time" he wrote and published.
``The Beehive'' was located on Avenue A across the street from Bayonne High School. Students frequently came to his store after school. Silverman wearing his usual blue apron greeted them with grins and talk about jazz. His store radio always played jazz
Silverman is very fond of the high school and his ability to communicate with the kids. He became one of the schools athletics biggest supporters, giving them pet talks, posting reports of their wins on his walls, along with the schedule of their games. He also attended as many games as he could. And the school is very fond of him, naming him consultant for the Bayonne High School Poetry Club, where he established the Bruno Tarzia Memorial Award. Herschel still gives scholarships to graduating seniors that excel in poetry
At night, after the floors were swept and counters cleaned, Silverman settled down to discuss literature and write. Despite this work schedule, Silverman managed to publish numerous chapbooks of verse as well as keep himself busy on the reading circuit.
Occasionally, he even wrote about the kids, such as one of the sadder moments in his poetry when he authored "I'll weep for you," a poem about Stanley Kopcinski, a student from Bayonne High that used to come into his store regularly before enlisting in the United States Marines. Kopcinski was the first Bayonne resident to be killed in Vietnam.
In 1986 - after running the Beehive for 34 years - Silverman retired to become a full time poet. Two years later, his wife Laura died, although her gentle spirit seems to float through his house, as if recalled constantly by his talk and his thoughts. During that time, he has served in numerous roles, including guest editor, public speaker, published poet, with live performances with a variety of musicians.
He received local recognition. He has received the New Jersey Council of the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. Over the years, he has had a close relationship with Mayor Dennis Collins and Mayor Joseph Doria. Silverman was a charter member of the Mayor's Advisory Commission on Parks and Recreation and worked on the surveying parks and planning athletic complex and ice skating rink. In 1998, he was asked to read a poem when Joseph Doria was inaugurated as Mayor. The poem apparently still hangs on the wall of the mayor's office.
In fact, a children's book called The Candy Store Man by Jonathan London and illustrated by Kevin O'Malley was written about Silverman's life as a store owner.
On the road at an early age
Although his family roots extend back to Russia from which his grand parents emigrated in 1880, Silverman was born in California, but orphaned by age seven, and brought back east from San Diego by train in the company of an aunt and uncle to be raised in Jersey City to where his grandparents had originally settled.
The train ride would later inspire a book of poems called "Nite Train."
Silverman said even at a young age, he was looking for a way to express himself, and was steered towards writing when his fifth grade teacher read a story of the class.
"I thought I was going to become a newspaper reporter," he said.
He read library books religiously, and the sports pages of local newspapers. He was a big New York Yankee fan. He even wrote a poem to Joe DiMaggio, sent it to Mel Allen, the Yankee announcer at the time, and received a nice letter back.
"Joe wasn't just a great batter, but he had a great arm, too, and he could fly around the bases when he got a hit," Silverman said. "I listened to all the games on the radio.
Studying poetry in school was something of a chore since teachers tended to present it like other subjects, testing people in it, which turned Silverman off. So he tended to write stories and even wrote a 17 page story he called a novel at the time. One of his stories was published in the school year book.
He achieved a dream of becoming a reporter when he served as company correspondent for the navy news letter in boot camp. Silverman served in World War II as a cook, then was called up again in 1952 for the Korean War.
While he wanted to continue his writing career after he got out of the navy, he knew he had to make a living, and this lack of time to write long works influence the direction of his writing. He began to condense his language, and developed a style of writing that he later realized was a kind of free verse. He took up workshop, and though he encountered the more conventional styles of writers like Robert Frost and Marianne Moore - who were also involved in the reading series at the time, the experience opened up a gate inside of Silverman.
Then, he found an issue of Evergreen Magazine that covered the revolutionary reading of Howl and other Beat works in San Francisco a short time earlier.
Silverman was mesmerized, and hugely influenced, his work suddenly taking on a life beyond the conventional poetry that he had learned in workshops and at school.
He claims he was influenced by The Bible, Imagists, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, New Orleans Jazz, Samuel Becket, The blues, Big Ban swing, bebop, avant free jazz.
And publishers began to ask to publish his poems, too, and he found his work in publications such as Nomad and Damascus Road. In Europe, and often in the same issue as Günter Grass, William Burroughs and other writers who became the cutting edge of an emerging literary movement.
Writing was a struggle for him, despite the supposed Beat trend that claimed it should flow. He continued to attend workshops where he perfected his craft. After while, he went on spree writing that has lasted most of his life. Silverman published his first book, "The Krishna Poems" in 1970. His 1997 book, "Sparrow in the Supermarket" was chosen by the Small Press Review as their pick for the summer that year.
In 1999, Silverman was included in "The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry," along with other greats such as Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Amiri Baraka, William Carlos Williams and other.
His connection to the Beat poets
Silverman first learned about Ginsberg in a New York Times article around 1956 that talked about the famous San Francisco reading of the poem "Howl." Silverman immediately wrote Ginsberg and invited him to come over and have some malteds and talk about poetry.
Ginsberg did write back and said he was leaving for Europe, but would stop by if he got the chance.
From 1956 into 1958, Silverman and Ginsberg wrote to each other - Ginsberg was living in Paris in what has become known as The Beat Hotel - and in his letters gave Silverman pointers, and Silverman sometimes sent money to help support Ginsberg and fellow Beat poet, Gregory Corso. Silverman eventually got a grant from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts in order to publish the letters he and Ginsberg exchanged over the years.
Silverman, who is a wealth of information about The Beats, said he recently discovered that Neil Cassidy - the inspiration for the main character in Jack Kerouac's novel "On The Road, actually lived in Bayonne for a short time on W 47th.
When Ginsberg returned from Europe in 1958 they got together, and Silverman got to meet all of the important Beats who would become legends.
But it took Ginsberg 22 years to get to Bayonne.
Ginsberg visited Silverman's store in May 1979, after reading Williams Carlos Day in Paterson. Silverman and Ginsberg drove into Bayonne together."
"When we passed St. Henry's Church, Allen was very impressed," Silverman recalled.
When they got to the candy store, bundles of newspapers waited to be carried in, a chore Silverman usually did himself, but on this day, two of the great poets of the Beat Generation, carried them into the store together. He remembers Ginsburg looking over pictures of Bayonne Silverman had mounted along the walls of his store.
In a poem of his own Ginsberg later called Silverman "a candy store emperor who dreams of telling the truth."
Contact Al Sullivan at email@example.com