Charles Bukowski – who should know – called John Thomas, “The best unread poet in America. He is the invisible genius of American poetry.”
Thomas, in true Beat fashion, seemed to care not about fame. For him, the creative process of writing the poem or the essay was sufficient in itself. The work didn’t have to be reviewed in the New York Times to gain validation.
He quit writing poetry for 15 years, until 1983, when the love of his life, Philomene Long, inspired him to begin again. Much of his writing for the rest of his life had either a direct, or indirect, connection with his wife. Books in which Thomas appears are collaborations with Long, including Bukowski in the Bathtub, The Ghosts of Venice West, and The Book of Sleep. An exception is Feeding the Animal, published by Lummox Press in 2001, which is all John Thomas poetry.
Thomas was a descendent of Meriwether Lewis, of Lewis and Clark fame. And like his ancestor, Thomas was an explorer in his own right, but of intellectual pursuits. As an explorer, he traveled far from his beginnings in Baltimore and his stint as a cryptographer in the Air Force (he lost his security clearance by developing a friendship with the poet, Ezra Pound, who was in jail for treason). He then became a programmer for UNIVAC, one of the world’s first computers. Fired in 1959 for growing a beard, Thomas ended his association with the corporate world, and hitchhiked to Venice.
In Venice, Thomas declared himself a poet and found work as the cook and manager at Venice’s first coffee house, The Gas House, on the Ocean Front at Market Street. He collected donations and provided up to two meals a day, free of charge, to poets and artists who made up the growing Beat community (They also got a free room at the misnamed Grand Hotel on Market Street, later destroyed by the city of L.A.).
After the Gas House closed, Thomas, who had fallen in with other now-famous poets including Stuart Perkoff, Tony Scibella, Frankie Rios, and Jimmy Ryan Morris, hung out at the Venice West Expresso Cafe and the Potpourri coffee house, both on Dudley Ave. Later, Thomas developed a close friendship with Charles Bukowski, who went on to become not just a well-known poet, but a cultural idol to many.
Without a doubt, the most significant person in Thomas’ life was Philomene Long, the Poet Laureate of Venice. They met after a reading by Long at the old Venice Jail in 1983, and were together for the next 19 years. Most of that time was spent at the Ellison Apartments at 15 Paloma Ave. #31, whose cramped quarters and view of the ocean, became a topic of many of their poems. John Thomas died on March 29, 2002 at age 71, and Philomene Long died on August 21, 2007. They are interred side by side at Holy Cross Cemetery. On their marker are some lines from one of his poems: Our Life: The One Secret that Surprises Death.
Even the barrel of my pen
is full of the ghosts of uncouth poets.
In case you wondered,
they are the wild kidney. They are
the bitter crackling sound I hear
when Philomene brushes her hair.
In case you wondered,
they are the small transparent parasols
all of us stroll beneath.
Excerpt from The Ghosts of the Poets
reproduced on the Venice Poetry Wall, west of Ocean Front Walk at Horizon Avenue.