Prose from Poetry Magazine


by Peter Gizzi
After Jack Spicer's untimely death at the age of forty in 1965, the contents of his apartment were packed into boxes. Spicer's close friend and fellow poet Robin Blaser stored these effects along with his own archive until he donated them to the University of California at Berkeley's Bancroft Library in 2004. These boxes became, in effect, a time capsule, containing Spicer's prescriptions, paperback books, unopened mail, student papers, a calling card, artwork, and other miscellany along with notebooks and manuscript pages.

The poems and prose gathered here are collected from this archive and are all previously unpublished. They will appear in My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press this fall.

"'Any fool can get into an ocean . . . '" was written circa 1946 during Spicer's undergraduate days at UC Berkeley; it spoofs on Robert Frost's edict that "any fool can get into a poem, but it takes a poet to get out of one."

A self-proclaimed anarchist, Spicer found his academic career stalled after he refused to sign the Loyalty Oath of 1950, a provision of the Sloan-Levering Act that required all California state employees (even graduate teaching assistants at Berkeley) to swear loyalty to the US. As a result, Spicer left Berkeley to continue his graduate work at the University of Minnesota in 1950-52. Spicer's petition against the oath was found, handwritten, in one of his Berkeley notebooks. He was twenty-four at the time.

"A Second Train Song for Gary" and the attending "[Letter to Gary Bottone]" were written while Spicer was living in Minneapolis. Bottone was a young man Spicer met at a Berkeley party in the summer of 1951. Temporarily home among friends, Spicer fell in love with him quickly, and once he returned to Minnesota Bottone's absence made the heart grow fonder. "Younger, less bohemian, less literary and less 'experienced' than any of Jack's Berkeley friends" (as he described himself in a 1984 letter to Lew Ellingham quoted in Poet Be Like God), Bottone elicited a number of tender love poems and letters from Spicer, but the relationship petered out when they were both living in the same place. The letter references another sort of loyalty oath, one to which Spicer ultimately gave his life.

"'Imagine Lucifer . . . '" was written in Boston in 1956 when Spicer was working for a time at the Rare Book Room of the Boston Public Library. It was found in the third of five notebooks Spicer used while writing his proto-serial work "The Unvert Manifesto and Other Papers Found in the Rare Book Room of the Boston Public Library in the Handwriting of Oliver Charming. By S."

The final two pieces were written in San Francisco: "A Poem For Dada Day At The Place April 1, 1958" and five poems from the longer serial work Helen: A Revision. This latter work was found in a notebook and was written around the time of the inception of his book Heads of the Town Up to the Aether. Spicer's Helen poem, raw and energetic, was written as his friend Robert Duncan was working on what we now call his "H.D. Book," for which he solicited Spicer's input. Spicer's "Revision" might be imagined equally as a tribute to Duncan's and H.D.'s work on Helen and as a riposte or correction to their romantic visions.

This is not Spicer's first encounter with Poetry. He tried to place his first sustained attempt at a longer series early on, sending Poetry editor Henry Rago his first four "Imaginary Elegies" in 1957. The poems were rejected, though they later gained national recognition—praised by Marianne Moore, no less—in Donald Allen's influential 1960 anthology The New American Poetry. At the end of his life, as conceptually-oriented as ever, Spicer hit upon the idea of sending out new work to a comically wide variety of US magazines, including a few (St. Louis Sporting News, Ramparts, Downbeat) not previously known for their commitment to poetry. Again Rago took a pass, this time on Spicer's "Six Poems for Poetry Chicago," which would appear in Spicer's posthumously published Book of Magazine Verse (1966). In the forty-plus years since Spicer's death, his influence and reputation have grown steadily, and it is our pleasure to introduce these "new" poems to the readers of Poetry.

Peter Gizzi & Kevin Killian
Originally Published: July 1, 2008


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This prose originally appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

July/August 2008


 Peter  Gizzi


Educated at New York University, Brown University, and the State University of New York at Buffalo, poet Peter Gizzi is the author of several collections of poetry, including Threshold Songs (2011), The Outernationale (2007), and Artificial Heart (1998). Influenced by Ezra Pound, the Beats, and John Ashbery, Gizzi uses both narrative and lyrical gestures to engage and question distance and light in his search for the unmapped. . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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