Jack Spicer at the opening of the 6 Gallery, 1954. Photo by Robert Berg.
When I first discovered Jack Spicer’s poetry in the late 1960s he was already dead, but I had no real way of knowing that. Of all the poets in Donald Allen’s anthology, The New American Poetry—that overwhelming, simultaneously revealed crowd that included Olson, Duncan, O’Hara, Ashbery, Jones, Snyder, Creeley, and so many others—he was the one who did “not like his life written down” but who could be contacted at “The Place.” (I didn’t know that was an artists’ bar in San Francisco; it just sounded like the kind of spot, in the world but not of it, that everyone was hoping to find.) He was the one who had written “Imaginary Elegies,” a poem (or the start of a sequence of poems) utterly different in tone from anything else in the anthology. It sounded like something imparted by the ghost of Hölderlin—“Poetry, almost blind like a camera / Is alive in sight only for a second”—but in a language that could be plain and American enough to provide the basis for a slightly off-center surfing record: “When I praise the sun or any bronze god derived from it / Don’t think I wouldn’t rather praise the very tall blond boy / Who ate all of my potato-chips at the Red Lizard.” It was as otherworldly as a translation of some newly discovered shamanic hymn, and as shiny and clankingly concrete as a kitchen drawer full of spoons: “The moon is God’s big yellow eye remembering / What we have lost or never thought. That’s why / The moon looks raw and ghostly in the dark.”
Before too long I learned that Spicer had died in San Francisco in 1965, of alcoholism, and I began to read more of his work—as much, that is, as could be found. His poetry had been published by small Bay Area presses when it had been published at all, and continued to circulate in hard-to-find chapbooks and doubtful pirated editions. Not until the publication in 1975 of The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, edited by Robin Blaser, did the major part of it become generally available. But there was much more writing still to emerge—other poems, manifestos, handbills, questionnaires, letters, novels, plays, and the elusive “Vancouver lectures”—which, even in incomplete form, had established themselves as an indispensable text for young poets. (The idea that writing poetry was a matter of taking dictation from unseen Martians seemed to make a good deal more sense than the theories of Allen Tate or Cleanth Brooks.) The lectures were finally published in 1998 as The House That Jack Built, edited by Peter Gizzi, the same year that Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian published the indispensable biography Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance.
Now—43 years after Spicer’s death, a longer period than his lifespan—Gizzi and Killian have joined to give us a comprehensive gathering of Spicer’s poetry, My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer. The book offers a great deal of work previously published either marginally or not at all (including a number of serial poems that didn’t make it into The Collected Books), and establishes Spicer as one of the distinct voices of the mid-20th century, beautiful and troubling, weirdly and bitterly funny, and memorable as few poets are. To come back to this work is to realize how tenaciously Spicer’s phrases cling to the mind, whether as bursts of startling clarity or nagging unresolved fragments. To absorb his work early on was to need, at some later point, to be delivered from it, to clear the way for alternative incoming radio signals, even if the only way to do that was to burrow ever deeper into those opaque sentences as if looking for an exit: “They expect everybody to be insane. / This is a poem about the death of John F. Kennedy. . . . Death is not final. Only parking lots.” When, in his epoch-making Language Spicer wrote, "The ground still squirming. The ground still not fixed as I thought it would be in an adult world." he might have been describing the way his own work refuses to settle down into a framed image.
In the ’60s a great many poets were working very hard to break through poetry’s received tonalities and modes of address, but Spicer went at it in a way that undermined even the pieties of the avant-garde. It seemed there were things that only Jack Spicer would put in a poem, and these turned out to be a whole category of syntactical fake-outs and parodistic distortions, deliberately frustrated expectations and mood-changing intrusions. Was that last bit a joke or a prayer, an outburst of self-pity or something more like savage mockery? Or were all these surface skitterings and chasms merely traces of the earthling Jack Spicer being moved around the board by the entity transmitting the message, a message whose unmediated significance would be revealed only in the original Martian? “If this is dictation, it is driving / Me wild.”
Spicer’s sound is finally as naggingly persistent as the surf that haunts his work, as in these lines from “Thing Language”:
This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.
No one listens to poetry. The ocean
Does not mean to be listened to
It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
One listens to poetry.
As with the ocean, anything at all can wash up in it: Orpheus, Dante, Little Orphan Annie, Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans,” a German postage stamp, a Monopoly board, sleigh bells, cabbages, pieces of “the city that we create in our bartalk or in our fuss and fury about each other”—and, of course, recurrently, radios and seagulls and baseball and ghosts. And as with the ocean, the things, by the time they wash up, have had their specifics eroded enough by wave motion to seem as impersonal as the rocks and shells at the water’s edge. Or, in the alternately spectral and abrasive phraseology of The Holy Grail:
A noise in the head of the prince. Something in God-language.
In spite of all this horseshit, this uncomfortable music.
The book’s title, My Vocabulary Did This to Me, derives from a sentence uttered by Spicer to Robin Blaser as he lay dying in San Francisco General Hospital, and it anchors Spicer’s poetry firmly to the circumstances of his short and ultimately self-destructive life. It could be argued that such a title is inappropriate for a poet so unwilling to have “his life written down,” and so alert to the ways in which poetry could be corrupted by “the big lie of the personal.” But it is unlikely that many readers henceforth will be able to approach Spicer’s work without an awareness of the history that impinges on it. As a member, with Blaser and Robert Duncan, of the so-called Berkeley Renaissance of the late ’40s, a young activist who refused to take a loyalty oath at Berkeley and later worked for the pioneering gay liberation group the Mattachine Society, and a writer thoroughly enmeshed with the San Francisco poetry world of the 1960s, he will inevitably be read in terms of his friendships and loves, his allegiances and quarrels.
He will be read also—especially in light of his pervasive influence on so many subsequent poets—in terms of theories about the nature of poetry and the processes by which it gets written. Spicer’s own notions, propounded in the Vancouver lectures and elsewhere—on dictation, the serial poem, the relation of politics to poetry—hover around his actual poetry, at times threatening to turn the poetry into a footnote to the ideas, a possibility that Spicer neatly foreshadowed in the poem-and-commentary structure of “Homage to Creeley” in The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether, where the parodistic academic footnotes are agonistically tied to the poems on which they comment, as in: “An obvious attempt of The Poet to bring The Poem to a close. Its failure is obvious.” Spicer had a deep enough academic training to make his mistrust of the academy—what he called “the English Department of the spirit”—all the more convincing.
Yet he began himself as the kind of scholar-poet who thrives in a community of learning, steeping himself while at Berkeley in the medieval studies whose reverberations pervade his work all the way up through The Holy Grail; researching Native American history and (in conjunction with Harry Smith) American folk music; undergoing the training in linguistics that informs his poetry’s self-consciousness about language’s mechanisms. All this laid the groundwork for the allusiveness that makes his poetry, with its ceaseless puns, cross-references, echoes, and frequently and deliberately mangled citations, a candidate for endless annotation. In a previously unpublished poem included here (“Birdland, California”), he even makes a direct address to the future student of his work:
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.
That glumly asserted isolation was probably one of the things that made Spicer a perversely appealing figure in the ’60s, at a moment when so many poets were aiming at a note of collective transcendent ecstasy that left little room for personal inadequacies. Even then, knowing nothing of Spicer’s life but what he chose to convey in his poems, it was clear that he wasn’t a man for be-ins and love-ins—he was too mordantly melancholy, too suspicious of others’ motives, to qualify for a lovefest or an aesthetic free-for-all. The life that mattered to him was a microcosm in which the elusive secret orders and hierarchies of the poetry world—the poetry world as defined by Spicer, Duncan, Blaser, and those who gathered around them—ultimately became the basis for magical contestations and rancorous reversals of loyalty.
Governed by ritualistic routines—playing pinball in bars, listening to ball games on the radio, retiring each afternoon to Aquatic Park, where he held court before a shifting band of poetic acolytes—Spicer made himself increasingly marginal in an already marginal community. Even Robert Duncan finally distanced himself, writing: “The idea of Spicer is preferable to the actual presence.” Spicer’s concerted effort to prevent the distribution of his books beyond the Bay Area was only the most notorious indication of contrarian pride. Let others make public figures of themselves; he would let his poetry do that work in its own time. Even amid the slow suicide of his drinking life, he did not waver in his occult sense of poetry as something worth living and dying for.
Spicer accepted that the poet’s job is to write not what he thinks he wants to write but what the poem insists that he write, which might turn out to be precisely what the poet didn’t want to write, some bald impermissible statement like “Nothing / Deserves to live.” It was a process that required “trying to distinguish between you and the poem.” His faithfulness to this notion led him to include the lines that other poets leave out, the stammers and interruptions, the irretrievable false starts (“I dreamed last night— / This is false in any poem”), the embarrassing cackles and groans from the sidelines. The odd effect of this was to make his work seem more and more like a form of realism, a voyage among real mental events. This was not to be confused with automatic writing. The poet Jack Spicer with all his exquisite sense of craft and literary heritage, his unshakeable conception of what a perfect poem might look like, was part of the equation—but not the full equation. There were other forces at work, those Martians for whom “Jack Spicer” was finally merely a character in a Jack Spicer poem, at times almost a cartoonish character, with his obsessions laid out like a private collection of fetish objects. (“The familiar objects are almost a bedroom.”)
The craft was indeed exquisite, and achieved early on. The “Imaginary Elegies” that I had read in The New American Poetry had been begun as early as 1948, when Spicer was a 23-year-old grad student at Berkeley. These remain poems of singular power, written out of a vatic sublimity he would not recapture. They are romantic odes that might be part of another body of work—an imaginary body of work lost in the archives of some pre-Zoroastrian avant-garde: “God feeds on God.” And then: “God is gone. God is gone.” He would write other wonderful poems in the late ’40s and early ’50s, poems that in this volume are given their proper sequential place: “Orpheus in Hell,” “Psychoanalysis: An Elegy,” “A Poem to the Reader of the Poem,” and the magnificent “Song for Bird and Myself,” virtually neoclassical in its regard for structural decorum all the way up to the indelible sign-off:
This is the end of the poem.
You can start laughing, you bastards. This is
The end of the poem.
In 1957 came After Lorca and the inception of the final “serial” phase of Spicer’s work. Henceforth he would think in terms of books rather than individual poems: “Poems should echo and re-echo against each other. They should create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can” (Admonitions). With its mix of Lorca translations and Spicerian near-pastiches, its juxtaposition of poems and letters (not to mention Lorca’s own introduction, with its proviso: “The dead are notoriously hard to satisfy”), After Lorcawas a paradoxical, hybrid object that opened the door to unanswerable questions about what personal identity and self-expression might mean. The letters were fully as eloquent as the poems—on what basis one might distinguish between them is one of the unanswerable questions they posed—and nowhere more so than in Spicer’s definition of the kind of collage he wanted to make:
I would like to make poems out of real objects. The lemon to be a lemon that the reader could cut or squeeze or taste—a real lemon like a newspaper in a collage is a real newspaper. . . . The imagination pictures the real. I would like to point to the real, disclose it, to make a poem that has no sound in it but the pointing of a finger.
Nothing comes closer than this to the heart of Spicer’s poetry, founded as it was on the desire for an impossible reconciliation between language and the real: “The real poetry is beyond us, beyond them, breaking like glue” (“A Textbook of Poetry”). He continually, and with a growing sense of urgency and turmoil, contemplated a breakthrough that can exist only in the form of the poem.
In his final poems, collected in Language and A Book of Magazine Verse, the turmoil is palpable. Moods of rage and disruption wash in like the surf. But an ineffaceable music is always present, a music that a few years earlier in Billy the Kid(1958) had sounded with absolute clarity, using something like that “infinitely small vocabulary” that Spicer attributed to the perfect poem:
So the heart breaks
Into small shadows
Almost so random
They are meaningless
Like a diamond
Has at the center of it a diamond
Or a rock
Love asks its bare question—
I can no more remember
What brought me here
Than bone answers bone in the arm
Or shadow sees shadow—
Deathward we ride in the boat
Like someone canoeing
In a small lake
Where at either end
There are nothing but pine-branches—
Deathward we ride in the boat
Broken-hearted or broken-bodied
The choice is real. The diamond. I