The Aspern Papers... Spicer's, Schwartz's, Kafka's - and yours?

"After Jack Spicer's untimely death at the age of forty in 1965, the contents of his apartment were packed into boxes..." Dunno about you, but I know what would happen to the contents of my place, should it all end up in boxes! Just think how much we owe to the removal and serendipitous rediscovery of what used, not very charmingly, to be called a writer's "remains."

Virgil's never-completed Aeneid was famously preserved against his wishes. Emily Dickinson wanted her letters destroyed, and many were - yet her poems and lots of the letters survived, anyway. And in one of my favorite examples, Robert Philips tells how it's a miracle that Delmore Schwartz's papers were, unlike the poet himself, saved: When D.S. had to leave his N.Y.C. apartment, the landlord hired a moving company to cart them all away. But it turns out that the moving man had liked Schwartz, and used to go drinking with him at the White Horse Tavern - so he didn't trash the boxes, as he'd been told to do. Years later, after Delmore's death, the mover was drinking in another Village bar with a guy who turned out to be Dwight Macdonald's son, and said to him, "Your father's a literary man. Do you think he'd be interested in Delmore Schwartz manuscripts? I've got boxes of them." The answer: Dad would be - because he was Schwartz's literary executor!
And just in the last few days, there's been much media coverage of Franz Kafka's great lost kartons. K. instructed that his papers be burned upon his death, yet his secretary Max Brod chose to ignore this. As it happens, Brod himself had a secretary, Esther Hoffe, who refused all requests for 40 years to examine the never-published Kafka papers he left to her; now that Hoffe has died, the whole world is waiting to see what her daughters will do with whatever the cats, moths, damp, and time's other demons haven't consumed. It's Kafkaesque.
Well, as Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian put it in their introduction to our Jack Spicer portfolio in the July/August issue of Poetry, those boxes of Spicer's work "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." It's from these materials that Gizzi has assembled the selection of poems and letters you'll find in the issue.
Shades of The Aspern Papers... Mark your boxes carefully and choose your executors (and movers) wisely!

Originally Published: July 14th, 2008

Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...

  1. July 14, 2008
     Aaron Fagan

    Lest we forget Helen Vendler's venomous complaint in The New Republic when Alice Quinn's Elizabeth Bishop book, Edgar Alan Poe and the Jukebox, came out. My guess is that, now that we are of the DVD-extra generation, these issues and aspects of privacy are going to be on increasing concern.

  2. July 14, 2008

    I was sort of disappointed that the leading contemporary poetry journal in America spent so much space on a dead 1960s-era poet. There have to be equally worthy living, contemporary poets whose work could be featured at such length.

  3. July 14, 2008
     Don Share

    Daniel, we'll be featuring the work of a contemporary poet in a portfolio of similar length in an upcoming issue, so please stay tuned; and indeed, we very much hope to do more of this.
    But there's contemporary in terms of who's living, and contemporary in terms of whose work is living. Spicer's work and reputation are arguably alive and well today - perhaps the editor of his forthcoming collected poems, poet Peter Gizzi, and others, too, will chime in about that. We felt the discovery of this unpublished work to be of interest to our present-day readers, but not all will agree - Harriet fans will recall Bill Knott's recent response to the Spicer section!

  4. July 14, 2008
     Jennifer S. Flescher

    I don't know -- documentarians and historians have another take on privacy. We learn from history. We learn from details and the almost lost...
    Aren't we bigger than our egos? Our lives -- the facts and stuff of them... the lesser poems. The Anead.
    If someone REALLY wanted something burned, wouldn't he do it himself? Maybe he did choose carefully!

  5. July 14, 2008

    Dan, the only reason Spicer is not alive now is because he died in 1965. If he was 40 then, he would be 83 now, and there are living poets who are older than that.
    And I do think of contemporary as anything from the last half-century or so.
    But what do you have against dead poets anyway? Some of my favorite poets are dead ones.

  6. July 14, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    "the only reason Spicer is not alive now is because he died in 1965"
    this sounds like a line from a Spicer poem, a wonderful tautology.
    Spicer's work is aliver now than ever before -- it's the perfect time to be celebrating it. Does anyone else find it interesting that so many of the best poets whose work is obviously influenced by Spicer are young women? Catherine Wagner & Lisa Jarnot spring immediately to mind, but others would spring too if I had more time. . . .
    I have now officially posted way too many times in one day.

  7. July 15, 2008

    I'm not arguing in any way that Spicer's work is or is not worth reviewing – and maybe another arm of the Foundation could take on the project of evangelizing his poetry – just that perhaps this was not the best use of the space of Poetry Magazine in particular as a venue for contemporary poetry. Spicer is a poet of an era that is a half-century past, regardless of how 'alive' the work continues to be. It is not a portfolio of new translations, nor of work by a living or even recently deceased poet. Or, to put it another way: I find TS Eliot's work to be 'living', and he also died in 1965 – no one, though, would make the case that he should be considered a contemporary poet.
    Again, this isn't about Spicer, just about the choice for Poetry Magazine.

  8. July 15, 2008

    Daniel, if someone discovered some previously unknown material by someone as old and dead as John Clare, say, or Sir Thomas Wyatt, I would expect and appreciate attention from Poetry magazine.

  9. July 15, 2008
     Don Share

    While we're on the subject of literary pyromania, here's another example. Navtej Sarna, in the July 4th edition of the TLS tells the story that "Kipling ... once declared that no one was going to make a monkey out of him after his death." Unlike some of the folks I listed above, though, Kipling succeeded in the destruction of thousands of his letters, and after his death his widow kept the project alive, even purchasing correspondence to him so that she could burn it! As Sarna points out, she did let an edited version of his unfinished biography to be published: it was called (truth in advertising?): Something of Myself. Many readers will not feel that much has been lost in Kipling's case, evidently; as Sarna put it, "When everything else has been forgotten, Kipling will surely still be remembered as the great author of Kim."
    In the same issue, by contrast, there's a review of a book on the WWI poet Isaac Rosenberg. Much of his life's work - poems and paintings - seem to be lost forever; reviewer Peter Parker says that "one officer under whom Rosenberg served admitted to throwing away the poems he had been given: 'they meant nothing to me.'"
    Even Rosenberg's grave is empty.

  10. July 15, 2008
     Zachary Bos

    Are Clare and Wyatt to be compared to Spicer because they are all dead, or because their influence on later poets has been equivalently immense? I agree with Dan not in complaining about the publication of this batch of Spicer material -- I don't think Dan has a problem with seeing Poetry publishing poets -- but in his assertion that Poetry should devote no less energy to publishing contemporary (i.e. writing) authors as it does to ones of historical significance. It is a more difficult thing, though, to guess who will turn out to have been as worthy of our attention as Spicer has. But then, and I put this to Dan as much as anyone, is the Spicer portfolio displacing a more contemporary poet, or, diversifying the categories of content which the magazine publishes? Contemporary poetry, portfolios of poets-past/passed, translations, letters, conversations, so it goes. I can easily endorse such an expansion. But I can't concede to arguments that Spicer is a contemporary poet; simply isn't the case.

  11. July 15, 2008

    Geez, it's their first retro feature in ages, cut 'em slack. Can't they be permitted to "make it new" every now and then? If they do one (fairly brief) Spicer portfolio, it hardly displaces the contemporary work they publish every single month.

  12. July 15, 2008
     Ange Mlinko

    I'm going to play Don's part and offer a quote --
    "Literature can be an endless resource of forms of thought and beauty that the dead have left us. The vast possibilities of literature as the gift of the dead are some compensation for the unknowable, yet irreducibly literal fact of individual death and its resistance to meaning."
    -- Susan Stewart, from this interview:

  13. July 15, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    I don't get the "hey, he's dead, why are you publishing him" thing at all, but once I worked for a literary journal whose editor would ask prospective interns what poet they'd like to see published in the magazine if they had free rein, & the person said "Yeats."

  14. July 15, 2008
     Zachary Bos

    In a way, all literature is eternally contemporary; it's the enduring quality which defines the literary as distinct from the, say, journalistic (Ken Goldsmith's defiance, on this blog and elsewhere, of edurance notwithstanding). The dispute here might be between that artful use of the term, and the more conventional and circumscribed use. Spicer is great, great that Poetry published him; but he isn't contemporary, except in the former, figurative sense I set out above. Let this conciliatory pedantry be considered slack, cut.

  15. July 16, 2008
     Don Share

    Here's a true story: at the last AWP, Poetry gave away issues of the magazine, an audio CD, a DVD, etc. ... as well as some little buttons that had Marianne Moore's "I, too, dislike it" on them. (Not to be confused with the tote bags from elsewhere that misquoted her: "I, too, like it.")
    A guy came up to our table, took some copies of the most recent issue, and then... picking up a button, asked me, "Hey, who said that?" I explained about Moore's poem, and he said, "Wow, was she ever in your magazine?" I proudly said yes, after which this pleasant fellow (who identified himself as a high-school teacher) said, "You should have her in your magazine again!"

  16. July 18, 2008
     david shapiro

    Thank you, Don, for knowing what I was once told about the Zohar from a student of Scholem,
    Matti Meged: the mystical hero is always alive and dead at the same time. Sounds like...
    Hegel's Dante. Someone at Columbia once asked me if I "liked' Dante. I was
    speechless and asked back. The professor said: I think it's an ego trip. I said: Yes...but he invented
    the ego, plunging as Hegel writes, the real into the unreal.
    John Forbes, sweet Australian poet, also alive and dead, wrote a poem in which he meets O"Hara and sees that Frank is writing though dead. "WHat a guy."
    I was asked once by Richard Kostelanetz on a street in Soho who was my favorite poet. This was twenty years ago.
    I said Perhaps Wallace Stevens. He said: But Stevens is dead. I said, proleptic remark, But not for me. He's not dead for me. Nor Cezanne, nor Watteau.
    Dead contempooraries was the sick label given by one encyclopedia to poets too
    'earlytdead to be disposed. Many are disappeared while living and writing intently.
    But even Marx was intrigued: why do poems and scuptures last? Duchamp said they didn't,
    they often died. But Marx was thinking of the sting of Balzac, conservatibve, dead, and
    more full of analysis of late capital than so many others seemingly alive.
    I had not thought death had undone so many. Kalidasa, Basho, Rimbaud (and Michael
    McClure once added Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow)--are they dead now?
    Who tried to kill Frank O"Hara ? with their shrivlled arrows? Alive like Joe
    Hill Frank said: You thought they kjlled me? what? with their shrievelled
    arrows? Who let him in? The joking genius Djinn. Who tried to keep him out?
    X Y and Z the lout(s). Who tried to kill Frank O"Hasra?
    He died and can write, as well.