Listening to Poetry
Jack Spicer’s My Vocabulary Did This to Me
November 1, 2008
Nov 1, 2008
10 Min read time
Toward the end of his short life, Jack Spicer began to relax some of his purist principles about the publication and circulation of his poetry. In 1964, impoverished and unable to hold down a job, he consented to allow Lawrence Ferlinghetti to sell his books at City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, officially ending his long-standing boycott of a local institution he dismissed as a mere tourist destination. “I still think I was right and poets don’t really need a middleman and a middleman fucks up poetry,” he explained in a letter to Robert Duncan, “but the number of things that are right and not possible is as infinite as God’s mercy.” A firm believer in poetry’s capacity to foment active, local, living communities of dissent, Spicer regarded most trade publications, anthologies, and national literary outlets as middlemen who converted poetry into a commercial currency. The sacramental sharing of poetry among fellow poets should occur at street level, he believed, in the form of readings, evenings at the bar, and ephemeral publications to be passed around by hand: Spicer polemically forbade that his poetry be sent beyond the Bay Area, and he ridiculed institutions like Poetry magazine for fostering ignominious societies. As a result of the combative magnetism of his personality and the groundbreaking character of his poetry, Spicer attracted a community of Bay Area poets who were as devoted to him as they were occasionally wary of his power. “It seems to me you want a world small enough so that wherever you spit you’ll hit something, a world you can control,” Stan Persky once wrote to his friend.
Spicer died in 1965 at the early age of forty—no longer able, it would seem, to control the world in which his poems circulated. Still, the first generation of Spicer editors remained consistent with many of his wishes. Spicer’s work was first collected posthumously and in small journals such as Manroot and Caterpillar. Then, in 1975, Black Sparrow’s landmark edition The Collected Books of Jack Spicer—intended “for Jack’s friends” according to editor Robin Blaser—honored another of Spicer’s wishes: that his early work, which he had famously disowned, be considered separately, if at all, from the serial poems begun in 1957 with the composition of the breakthrough After Lorca. When an assortment of pre-Lorca poems appeared in 1980 in the aptly titled collection One Night Stand and Other Poems, editor Donald Allen recalled these provocative instructions from Spicer’s letter to Blaser, first printed in the book Admonitions: “So don’t send the box of old poetry to Don Allen. Burn it or rather open it with Don and cry over the possible books that were buried in it . . . all incomplete, all abortive, because I thought, like all abortionists, that what is not perfect had no real right to live.”
Twenty-eight years later, the long-awaited publication of My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer honors the “right to live” of all of Spicer’s poetry, by collecting both early and later work, along with a substantial number of poems exhumed from Spicer’s private notebooks, which Blaser and Spicer’s brother Holt donated to the University of California, Berkeley’s Bancroft Library in 2004. As a measure of our historical distance from Spicer’s personality, a new generation of editors, the poets Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, moves beyond the Spicer “legend” in order to present the full range of his poetry to readers both familiar and unfamiliar with his work. Although the ghost of Spicer may look upon the new book with severe ambivalence, it is hard to overestimate the importance of a volume that brings his work back into print with such a generous and surprising selection of poems. Spicer’s reputation as a pioneer of the New American Poetry has been acknowledged increasingly ever since his death, in evident defiance of his pessimistic assessment that “No / One listens to poetry.” Among certain circles the familiarity of this sentence alone, like Auden’s line that poetry makes nothing happen, demonstrates the currency that Spicer has achieved both because of and in spite of himself.
Gizzi and Killian’s precisely restored chronological arrangement of poems disrupts the synoptic aura of Blaser’s original assemblage of twelve discrete books in favor of an authoritative timeline that charts the course of Spicer’s development. Grouped into two major sections with After Lorca as the dividing line, My Vocabulary selects from early poems to create an illuminating context for the later serial work. Although it is possible to quibble with some of the omissions—one searches in vain for the modernist experiment “The Bridge Game” as well as the satirical protest against the Berkeley English Department, “The Trojan Wars Renewed: A Capitulation or The Dunkiad”—Spicer aficionados will be placated to learn that the balance of his poems will appear in a second volume from the University of Wesleyan Press. In fact, Wesleyan is slated to bring out four Spicer volumes altogether, including a book of letters as well as an updated version of Spicer’s lectures and essays, currently available as The House That Jack Built, also edited by Gizzi and published by Wesleyan in 1998.
Some of the earliest poems in My Vocabulary recall that Spicer grew up during the academic climate of the 1940s, when American poetry was still dominated by the prosodies of Yeats and Eliot. As an apprentice poet, Spicer was trying to balance this inheritance with his more intuitive affinities with Rimbaud, Lorca, and a poetics of destructive surrealist violence. “Watching a TV Boxing Match in October,” written in Minnesota in the early ’50s, offers evidence of an unformed poet practicing his pentameter chops within a normative rhetorical stance:
Within the focus of a crowded screen
The boxers face each other. They pretend
That man can counterpunch real enemies.
They hit each other til the very end.
Over a decade later, Spicer has fashioned a very different, sentence-based tactic in “Sporting Life” from Language (1964):
The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a
And those messages (God would not damn them) do not even
know they are champions.
The jabs of Spicer’s later poetry inflict themselves upon the page in an agonistic series of reversals. Rather than simply report on the action of the fight, here the poet has become his own drunken prizefighter (and his own counter-punching enemy) as well as the medium by which his defeat gets broadcast.
In the same vein, the new edition encourages us to sample “Orpheus After Eurydice” from the late 1940s—
Drink wine, I sang, drink cold red wine.
Grow liquid, spread yourself.
O bruise yourself, intoxicate yourself,
You want to web the rivers of the world.
You want to glue the tides together with yourself
—as preparation for the more jack-knifing disjunctions of the previously unpublished “Birdland, California” from a decade later:
An embarrassed Orpheus
With a heavy Eurydice in his arms
What I mean is can a poem ever
Take accidentals for its ultimates?
It is now October 5th (or 6th)
Can discover the correct date
(The Yankees used seven pitchers
That will tell you the day)
I was lonelier than you are now (or will be)
October something, 1956.
Here Spicer grabs the bystander by the collar, breaking the composure of the conventional lyric frame to create a dialogic experience that seems directed at real readers. Much of the power of Spicer’s mature work derives from the sense that the poems are not idealized portraits of “man quarreling with himself” (Yeats), but are in fact quarrels and conversations with living people extended from actual occasions, as in the opening lines of the previously unpublished “A Poem for Dada Day at The Place, April 1, 1955”: “Darling, / The difference between Dada and barbarism / Is the difference between an abortion and a wet dream.”
George Santayana once mourned the decline of “the power of idealization” in what he called, referring primarily to Walt Whitman, “the poetry of barbarism.” Spicer extends the barbaric American tradition by forsaking an aesthetics of eternal forms for an embrace of the ephemeral that is more real for being aggressively immediate. To this end, My Vocabulary includes a series of fourteen letters, written from Spicer to his then-lover James Alexander, which Spicer had delivered as poems at the now infamous Sunday Gatherings in North Beach in the late 1950s. (Here we might recall that Spicer had been among the first of Emily Dickinson’s readers to observe that her letters are often indistinguishable from her poetry.) The seminal books After Lorca and Admonitions are themselves interleaved with epistolary correspondences written both “for” and “to” Spicer’s friends and sparring partners. Rather than offering mere “shreds and patches” in poems that fail to “grasp of the whole of reality” (Santayana’s disapproving assessment of Whitman), Spicer’s embrace of the partial, the hand-canceled, and the random dispatch of the wet dream serves to elevate the shreds of the real as inherently constitutive of the ideal.
Among the many extraterrestrial diamonds drilled loose from the notebooks by Gizzi and Killian are several series from the early ’60s. “Map Poems” offers five pieces written in correspondence with California road maps. “Helen: A Revision” is a far more substantial series composed during the period when Robert Duncan was at work on The H.D. Book. Spicer’s own complex response to the Helen myth—suspicious, tender, vulgar, lyrical, in the end expressing intense poverty of spirit—worships the idea of a beauty that is barely extant, yet forever between us:
Nothing is known about Helen but her voice
Strange glittering sparks
Lighting no fires but what is reechoed
Rechorded, set on the icy sea.
All history is one, as all the North Pole is one
Magnetic, music to play with, ice
That has had to do with vision
And each one of us, naked.
Against the Prospero-esque fluencies of Duncan, Spicer is a sibling of Caliban, child of Sycorax. He does not possess the creative powers that Prospero knows, but counts himself among the creatures of the earth, knowing well the limitations in what his language can effect. (“My profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.”) The recently discovered series “Golem” gives a vivid sense of Spicer’s belief that to be human is to live under fixed and hostile conditions:
Give up. The Delphic oracle was
Fixed by the Persians. Pindar
Was a publicity man for some
For a couple of wrestlers and cash,
Does not purify.
The very words I write
Do not purify. Are fixed in the
language evolved by thousands
of generations of these princes—
used mainly for commerce
Wrestler Plato tried to make
them all into stars. Stars
are not what they are.
Coining a phrase our words are
Jewish folklore about the golem provides a fitting image for Spicer’s conception of the primitive poet: made out of clay, the golem is an awkward sub-human servant deprived of speech. In some modern versions of the myth, the unruly golem-servant abuses what powers he has developed, becoming so dangerous that his precarious life must be swiftly ended. Spicer took an excruciated delight in the paradoxes of being highly cultivated, but barbaric; influential, but powerless; called upon, but expendable. As if to celebrate any such poet’s tenuous, highly marginalized indentured servitude, in his final work, the posthumously entitled Book of Magazine Verse, Spicer composed poems for specific journals and magazines that he knew would reject the submissions outright—in demonstration of the inalterable “fix” upon golems and poets alike.
It is a marker of our moment, however, that Spicer’s first two targeted venues, Poetry and The Nation, have both published poems by him in 2008 (Gizzi’s first motion as the new poetry editor at The Nation was to print Spicer’s “Two Poems for The Nation” last January). At a moment when an emerging generation of poets is struggling anew with the balance between writing and being written, between the constraints of infinite possibility and those freedoms permitted by “the fix,” My Vocabulary arrives as an uncompromising and wholly necessary gift, replete with the most riveting poetry, shot through with the pathos of a man whose austerity is more haunting now than ever.
He died from killing himself.
His public mask was broken
He no longer had a public mask.
People retrieved his poems
from wastebaskets. They had
Oh, what a pain and shame was
People returned to their
business somewhat saddened.
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November 01, 2008
10 Min read time