my vocabulary did this to me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, Jack Spicer (Peter Gizzi and Kevin Kellian eds.). Wesleyan University Press. 510pp, $35.00.
(continued from page 1)
Now, let’s move to the West Coast and what’s been happening.
Who knows what Jack Spicer would have been capable of had he lived as long as Ashbery. Unfortunately, he died at the age of 40 from acute alcoholism. Poets.org provides the following bio:
Jack Spicer was born John Lester Spicer on January 30, 1925, in Los Angeles. While [at the University of California at] Berkeley, Spicer became involved in liberal politics and the local literary scene, particularly the group centered around Kenneth Rexroth. He quickly met other poets, including Robin Blaser and Robert Duncan, with whom he became close. Duncan, who according to the poet Leonard Wolf was the “most ‘out’ man that ever lived,” inspired the more timid Spicer to embrace his sexuality. The two poets, along with Blaser, were inventors of their own myth, humorously naming their culture and poetics the “Berkeley Renaissance.” Later in life, Spicer would refer to the year he made these new friends, 1946, as the year of his birth.
Spicer left Berkeley after losing his teaching assistantship in the linguistics department for his refusal to sign a Loyalty Oath, a provision of the Sloan-Levering Act that required all California state employees in 1950 to swear their loyalty to the United States. He briefly moved to Minnesota where a sympathetic professor helped him get a job in linguistics.
In 1953, he was hired as the head of the new humanities department at the California School of Fine Arts, a job that eventually brought Spicer to San Francisco. His role at CSFA connected him with a burgeoning arts community, and on Halloween in 1954, Spicer and five painter friends opened the “6″ Gallery.
During this same time, Spicer developed his practice of “poetry as dictation” and began to transcribe the poems that would become his first collection, After Lorca, which was published in 1957. He defined the poet as a “radio” able to collect transmission from the “invisible world,” as opposed to believing that poetry was driven by a poet’s voice and will.
Over the next few years, many followers were attracted to Spicer and the lyric beauty and formal invention of his work. This group, which became known as the “Spicer Circle,” met in North Beach bars and San Francisco parks to discuss poetry and life. In 1960, much of his group left North Beach to pursue disparate interests and Spicer responded to the loss by drinking even more heavily. His increasing depression and alcoholism began to destroy even his closest friendships. Spicer collapsed into a coma in his building elevator on the last day of July 1965. He died on August 17 in the poverty ward of San Francisco General Hospital.
In the introduction to my vocabulary did this to me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, written by both editors, Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, the opening paragraph provides an excellent summation of Spicer:
In 1965, when Jack Spicer wrote “get those words out of your mouth and into your heart,” he voiced an imperative to both poet and reader addressing the perilous honesty that the lived life of the poem demands. This admonition is startling coming from a poet who claimed that his poems originated outside himself, who insisted that a poet was no more than a radio transmitting messages; a poet who confessed an almost monkish practice of dictation, from “Martians” no less, who rejected what he called “the big lie of the personal”; and yet in the process he created one of the most indelible and enduring voices in American poetry. This voice, and its appeal, are [sic] all the more notable since Spicer was never fully embraced within either the official culture or counter-culture of his period. Still, in the past forty years, Spicer had a broad and lasting effect on a diverse range of writers nationally and internationally; his impact on contemporary writing will undoubtedly be felt for generations to come.
Spicer, and the San Francisco Renaissance he inspired, operating out of the same North Beach area of San Francisco that the Beats called home, was overshadowed both by the Beat Movement and the New York School. It did, however, have a significant influence in Canada as a result of Spicer attending at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and delivering a series of lectures which were collected into the well-known The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer. The San Francisco Renaissance has, as well, become well-known through the book Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance. (Both books were published in 1998.) The fame of the Beats fuelled an antipathy toward them on Spicer’s part, and what was probably particularly galling to him was that they had gained notoriety in 1955 at the famous “6″ Gallery reading, the venue that Spicer had cofounded, where Allen Ginsberg did his first reading of “Howl.”
An early poem that shows the exquisite beauty, the rhythmic control that Spicer could attain is “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Landscape”:
Watch sunset fall upon that beach as others did. The waves
Curved and unspent like cautious scythes, like evening harvesters.
Feel sorrow for the land like others did. Each eating tide,
Each sigh of relief, each sunset-dinner, pulls the earth-crop, falls
A little fuller; makes the sand-grain fall
A little shorter, leaner. Leaves the earth
A breathless future harvest.
He can also be quite humorous, as he is in “One Night Stand”:
Listen, you silk-hearted bastard,
I said in the bar last night,
You wear those dream clothes
Like a swan out of water.
Listen, you wool-feathered bastard,
My name, just for the record, is Leda.
How differently Ashbery would have handled this classic number. Spicer takes half a page; Ashbery would have taken half a book with room left over. Which the better?
It is these classic myths that enamor Spicer, at least, early in his poetic career. There is a touch of Yeats present in his poetry as well. Several poems were inspired by Orpheus and in “Orpheus’ Song To Apollo”, he writes:
You, Apollo, have yoked your horse
To the wrong sun.
You have picked the wrong flower,
Breaking a branch of impossible
You have found thorns and have postulated a rose.
Spicer’s poems cannot be explicated on their own. They must be considered within the context of those that came before and those that follow, for certain motifs are created that inform the series. For example, the rose is a recurrent motif that appears to imply a homosexual lover. It is difficult to know here whether Spicer has recreated himself as Apollo and is admonishing himself for the folly of falling for someone completely unsuitable or whether he is Orpheus and is attempting to warn another away.
These then are the poems of the Berkeley Renaissance (1945-1950). We are now delivered to the Minnesota poems (1950-1952), during which period Spicer wrote a few forgettable poems in which he attempted to create new forms but the poems fell flat.
The return to Berkeley in 1952 inspired Spicer to write “A Postscript to the Berkeley Renaissance,” an extremely elegant poem which, at points, recalls Shakespeare:
What have I lost? When shall I start to sing
A loud and idiotic song that makes
The heart rise frightened into poetry
Like birds disturbed?
Spicer hated his short time in New York and Boston, particularly Boston, feelings he made abundantly clear in the final stanza of “The city of Boston . . .”:
Now Emily Dickinson is floating down the Charles River like an Indian princess. Now naked savages are climbing out of all the graveyards. Now the Holy Ghost drips birdshit on the nose of God. Now the whole thing stops. Sweet God, poetry hates Boston.
One must read this poem with a mind to the prevailing times of still rampant ignorance and racism, written as it was in the mid-50s. Not to be an apologist for Spicer, still, given the tenor of the times, there was probably little thought one way or another in using the phrase “naked savages.” But it was here that Spicer came into his own, that he began to explore the long poem. Hear this section from the middle of “Song for Bird and Myself”:
I knew there would be butterflies
For butterflies represent the lost soul
Represent the way the wind wanders
Represent the bodies
We only clasp in the middle of a poem.
See, the stars have faded.
There are only butterflies.
The terrible sound of their wings moving.
The poem isn’t over.
It will be left to the reader to discover the pleasure of unverts and the metasexual and to discover the sentence “It is as if Gertrude Stein and Ralph Waldo Emerson had gone to bed together with Jean Cocteau holding the vaseline” in Spicer’s Dada masterpiece “The Unvert Manifesto . . . ” which concluded his New York/Boston period.
After Lorca was published in 1957 together with an introduction by Federico Garcia Lorca. The word deceased should have been appended in parenthesis. Supposedly a translation of poems by Lorca, although Lorca (deceased) does apologize for having provided Spicer with some poems (newly written poems following his demise), this book greatly extended the definition of a translation. It also allowed Spicer to write from a Dadaist perspective, something which he was quite adept at, as can be seen in “Ballad of the Shadowy Pigeon”:
On the branches of laurel
Saw two shadowy pigeons.
One of them was the sun
The other the moon.
Little neighbours, I asked them,
Where am I buried?
In my tail, said the sun.
In my craw, said the moon.
The second paragraph serves as a refrain.
Spicer released A Book of Music in 1958 in which he experimented with a number of different styles, some derived from the Beats, some from Black Mountain. “Duet for a Chair and a Table” is of the latter but uniquely his:
The sound of words as they fall from our mouths
Is less important
And yet that chair
this little table
take their place
Almost as a kind of music
Words make them name
Makes the table grumble
In the same year, Spicer published his first serial poem, Billy the Kid, which opens with the line “The radio that told me about the death of Billy the Kid,” and ends, ten sections later, with “Billy the kid / I love you / Billy the kid . . . ”
In part 7, on p. 211, of Letters to James Alexander (1958-1959), Spicer sets out his procedure for writing a serial poem, something which would dominate his poetic time from that point onward and the procedure for which he would elaborate much more in his Vancouver lectures captured in The House That Jack Built.
I don’t like poetry either. I read a new poem last Wednesday and nobody said much of anything and I asked why and Duncan said it was because it was a very good Jack Spicer poem and I threw the poem in the garbage sack not tearing the poem because it was a very good Jack Spicer poem. The watch was ticking on my wrist all the time and was not a Jack Spicer wristwatch and would never be a Jack Spicer wristwatch and that should be the way with the poems.
It’s rather like a medium (a real medium) who gets a spirit, call her Little Eva, to control her. Pretty soon, after a few sessions, she’ll get to know what Little Eva is going to say and start saying it for her. Then it’s no longer a seance but fakery and time to change spooks.
Dada would continue to inform his poetry, as can be seen in “A Fake Novel About The Life of Arthur Rimbaud”:
There was a dead-letter office in every French village or town or city the size of Paris. There still is. Rimbaud was born in the Charlieville postoffice. He was a big child.
Apollinaire used to play golf while other people were shooting machine guns. Big butterflies tried to liberate him from the liberal mineded. But Rimbaud crawled to the page that lifted him up from his nephews.
Comparing the poetry of Ashbery to that of Spicer, the thing that immediately reveals itself is that Ashbery’s poetry was informed by Surrealism while Spicer’s was by Dada. Interestingly, both poets were attracted to the long poem but approached that perihelion via much different orbits. While each has established his own unique approach to writing, each has become his own sun, exerting a strong gravitational pull that has attracted numerous asteroids/followers.
John Herbert Cunningham’s criticism has appeared in many places, including Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, Arc, Antigonish Review, and the Rain Taxi Review of Books.
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