The page of Propper, Dan, English biography

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Propper, Dan
(1937–2003)
 

Biography

Daniel T. "Danny" Propper (1937-2003).

Propper was born in Coney Island Hospital on April 13, 1937. Two major influences converge in the career of Dan Propper: the New York jazz scene of the 1950s and the Beat stylistic revolt, especially as it was evidenced in Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems (1956). The most important thing in Propper's early life was jazz. From the early 1950s on, though, Propper was already a member of another kind of scene, and Birdland and the Five Spot, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and Dizzie Gillespie in a sense provided his college education. An amateur altosaxophonist himself, Propper got a job in 1957 with Decca Records, not as a musician but as an assistant sales promoter. He studied with Stanley Kunitz at the New School for Social Research; Kunitz advised him to drop out, and Propper never looked back. He did maintain a friendly correspondence with Kunitz for many years after, sending him poems and signing them, "Your grateful student, Danny." His published work includes three volumes of poetry'the Fable of the Final Hour (Energy Press, 1958); The Tale of the Amazing Tramp (Cherry Valley Editions, 1977); and For Kerouac in Heaven (Energy Press, 1980)? along with some translations of Pablo Neruda. He also published scads of poems in as many lit mags? Evergreen Review, Invisible City, Coldspring Journal, Longhouse,and Hunger, to name just a few. But for Propper, publication was incidental to being a poet; he was most emphatically not a self-promoter, which made him closer to the pure spirit of being "Beat" than many a beatnik of greater renown. He once intimated to this writer that he had a "gang of stuff" squirreled away in notebooks and loose papers; among his effects at the time of his death was a briefcase full of unpublished poems, which is now in the possession of his son.

A self-described "quasi recluse," Propper had been an elder statesman of Woodstock's lively poetry scene since the early 1990s. Prior to that, as a sales rep for Decca Records, a sometime teamster, and an "amazing tramp," he made the late "50s-early "60s Beat scenes in New York City, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Denver. Back then, in the heyday of the hipster coffeehouse, Propper, who described his poetry in a 1991 Woodstock Times interview as being in the "bebop Hebraic long-line romantic surrealist" mode, recited his poems, on several memorable occasions, to the accompaniment of Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet, or Thelonious Monk's piano and Roy Haynes's drums. His "Fable of the Final Hour," a wildly cinematic long poem featuring apocalyptic cartoon imagery, was published in Seymour Krim's landmark 1960 anthology, The Beats, and subsequently enjoyed great popularity among declamatory performers at poetry readings from New York's East Village to San Francisco's North Beach.

"He was one of the smartest men I've ever met," said Dean Schambach, the dean of Woodstock's open-reading emcees. "His knowledge was encyclopedic; he knew jazz backwards and forwards, knew it cold. He'd come to the readings and make so many rich observations. He sometimes had a cruel sense of humor, because he was so bright, but he could be sweet and tender and innocent, too."

And, like so many of his peers, he could be self-destructive. In Propper's early years his vice of choice was Benzedrine; it was the decades of heavy smoking, however, that cut his set short. Several friends related how, a couple of years ago, following lung surgery, he prevailed upon his buddy, the late Bob Dacey, to stop for a carton of cigarettes on his way home from the hospital. Yet Propper accepted himself as he was, much as he always accepted others as they were, and never pissed or moaned about the repercussions of his bad habits. Indeed, because he never complained, many of those close to him had no idea how sick he was over the last few years.

"I learned so much from him," said Myrna Hilton, his "New York Times puzzle buddy" and a fast friend over the last 10 years. "His words, his passion at live readings, often brought the audience to a frenzy, begging for more."

In the fable of his own final hour, Propper chose to pooh-pooh a bed at the hospital and opted to die peacefully at home. Shortly after his death, a dozen or so of his friends and his son, Willie, gathered at his cabin in the woods. They spread his ashes over the property, saving some for a favored fishing hole in Jersey, and took turns standing on the stump of a newly hewn tree, offering praise to the poet and the man. Last Saturday, recalling the ceremony, Willie said, "I look forward to catching five-pound flounders with him in heaven."

It would certainly speak well of the Creator if, in addition to those flounders, Danny Propper could spend eternity catching jazz in celestial bistros, sitting at a table near the stage and digging his beloved Monk, Diz, Bud, and Charlie Parker, and every once in an endless while stepping up to the mic himself, to blow. 

(Editor of this page: P. T.)

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