Hokku Notebook, by Jack Spicer

We love poetry at Poetry. We especially love poetry that comes over the transom, wrapped in fine ink on paper, accompanied by missives that state: "This is the most important letter you have ever received." This week we're abuzz over Ryan Murphy's latest art press incarnation (The North Beach Yacht Club) and its newly minted Hokku Notebook, by Jack Spicer. Here's a teaser:

Title Page, Hokku Notebook, by Jack Spicer

... And that's all you get. Some things live in print and print alone, so you'll have to do some hunting to find your own (i.e. there is no website). Murphy says, "there is no way to get them but dumb luck word of mouth or to find me, and I generally prefer not to be found. They are simply sent out via USPS into the world haphazardly." His list of careful creations include Ange Mlinko's The Children's Museum (Prefontaine Press), Elizabeth Marie Young's Sonnets (Omahrahu), and Joseph Massey's Within Hours (The Fault Line Press). If the books' elusiveness embitters you, take a cue from Spicer himself. Here's the first poem of this elegant chapbook:

Bitter - ness
People worry more about bitter than they worry about -ness
Worry more about -ness,
Damn you.

Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, caretakers of the Spicer estate, selected this one notebook from among dozens. Spicer's use of the hokku contextualizes his developing work in serial forms; his writing "as an Asian" provokes new questions about the designs behind his alter-ego, "Mary Murphy." See the July/August 2008 issue of Poetry for more of the newly-published Spicer work edited by Gizzi and Killian. Check also Geoffrey O'Brien's article on Spicer (and don't miss the embedded slideshow of Spicer's original books, posters, and photos).

But before you go, see below for a few more looks at the gorgeous books you (probably) won't get. When pressed about his thinking behind these printing projects, Murphy replied, "Ahhh I don't know what the hell I'm doing kid, that's the point."

Hell yes. Chalk one for "-ness" and stuff we don't see enough of.

The Children's Museum, by Ange Mlinko

Sonnets, by Elizabeth Marie Young

Within Hours, by Joseph Massey

Originally Published: November 13th, 2009
  1. November 13, 2009
     Steven Fama

    Those are gorgeous little chapbooks, no doubt about it.\r

    It's worth saying -- because the poetry I'm speaking about is that great -- all the solely authored by Joseph Massey poems in Within Hours, plus many, many more are included in his Areas of Fog (Shearsman, 2009).\r

    And it's also worth saying that while Areas of Fog is not hand-made and super-limited, it is, it really is, a gorgeous book in both design (including cover and page lay-out) and production (sewn wraps).

  2. November 13, 2009
     John Latta

    I made a few remarks about Spicer’s Hokku Notebook here, down under “Of Note.”\r

    John Latta

  3. November 13, 2009


    Down with the pseudo-business people who pretend at being progressing (read City Lights Books) and up with the true marginalized artists of this world - LONG LIVE JACK SPICER!

  4. November 13, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    According to Kevin Killian and Peter Gizzi, as quoted by John Latta, in his post noted above:\r

    "Spicer’s use of the term “hokku” echoes his commitment to the serial form, since the hokku was generally seen as a single component in a longer form, the renga. (In tandem with the poems of the present notebook, Spicer was also working up a serial piece called “Ten Hokkus for Dorrie,” which remains unpublished.)"\r

    I haven't seen the collection, so can't comment on the serial or "linking" nature of the series. But at the risk of parsing too carefully, I thought I'd mention that the "hokku" is the *opening* verse of a (almost always) *collaborative* renga sequence. It is considered to be the most important entry of the poem, and its composition is traditionally reserved for the most experienced and honored of the poets present. \r

    I wonder if one could speculate (again, haven't seen the poems, and they might reveal an obvious serial intent) that Spicer saw his hokkus not as sequential parts of an unfolding quasi-renga authored by himself, but as discrete, opening calls to other poets in his orbit (or of the future) to respond and continue in linking fashion? A gesture or invitation to compositional community, that is, even as he probably suspected each one of the pieces would go on sitting there, expectant, and "autonomous"? \r

    I suppose the validity of the hypothesis would depend on Spicer's having had a somewhat close familiarity with the nomenclature of the renga/haikai/haibun/haiku/senryu tradition, that he was using "hokku" in the strictest sense, which I realize he very possibly wasn't: the terms "hokku" and "haiku" (haiku doesn't fully emerge as a separate genre until the Meiji era) were used fairly interchangeably, I believe, in R.H. Blyth's early four-volume Haiku study, which is what he was probably familiar with. But with Spicer, ever ahead of the curve (or above it), who knows?

  5. November 13, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    And actually, now that I think about it: Blyth's study was published in 1949. Assuming Spicer was familiar with the Blyth set, which is a good bet, is it possible his notions of serial composition are sparked in part from his readings in Japanese poetry from the renga tradition?

  6. November 13, 2009
     John Latta

    Kent, \r

    A lovely hypothesis, and call, one supposes, to all of “us” to renga away off the Spicer hokkus. My bet is “the depth of Spicer’s Asian interests” is a fairly shallow pit, hence the Unvert “All the universe is laughing at you.” My sense of Hokku Notebook is that seriality’s something the editors've brought to it. Particularly as some discrete pieces of it were publish’d (in the mythical J) by Spicer himself. My complaint: that the Notebook and “Ten Hokkus for Dorrie” didn’t get put into Gizzi and Killian’s My Vocabulary Did This to Me, the presumed collect’d. Then we could seriously get to work. The Spicer Renga Breakdown.\r


  7. November 13, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    On principles of Japanese linked poetry as a possible partial impulse for Spicer's notions of the serial, important to qualify that the general idea (along with, possibly, the notion of dictation) probably first began to germinate for him around 1947, under impact of Duncan's Medieval Scenes. Not that there aren't antecedent "serial" forms in proto in U.S.: Spring and All would be a big one--but it's with Duncan and Spicer, in the 50s, that the idea first becomes programmatic means of proceeding. \r

    There are important differences between Duncan's and Spicer's attitudes toward the serial, however: Duncan's is unbounded by any form, while the location of Spicer's sense of the series is more "closed," the book as frame. This would be in keeping with the renga, clearly, where semi-discrete though echoing "stanzas" are bound by a unifying body.\r

    Blyth's volumes were quite well known in the poetic community of San Francisco during the early 1950s-- the Beats were reading them avidly. Does anyone know of any connection Spicer might have had with those studies?

  8. November 13, 2009
     Don Share

    Nothing about Blyth in Ellingham & Killian's biography, for what that's worth.

  9. November 13, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Thanks, Don. Yes, I noticed that, too.\r

    Wondering now, also (hmm), about the Spicer/Blaser/Duncan [renga-like?] postcard collaboration "Dialogue of Eastern and Western Poetry," done in 1956, it seems, precisely when Spicer is working on After Lorca, the first of his serial book poems. \r

    I've never seen the "Dialogue" book, which Killian published somewhere and can't find any ordering information for it online. Has anyone out there seen this? What's it like, etc.?

  10. November 13, 2009
     Don Share

    Was it published? If not, "A Dialogue between Eastern Poetry and Western Poetry" resides in the Bancroft Library at Berkeley, & presumably can be consulted there.

  11. November 13, 2009
     Steven Fama

    John and anyone else upset or wondering why this Hokku stuff wasn't in the the Collected Spicer published just last year:\r

    The Collected Spicer said (in prefatory material by the editors) that the book was the first of at least two and I believe up to four (!). As you probably know, lots of early published Spicer poems were not included in that first volume. Kevin Killian about four months ago kindly showed me the typed-up manuscript for Volume 2, at least as of then. there were lots of poems, most previously unpublished to my layperson's (but experienced Spicer reader) eyes. \r

    Wesleyan and everyone else could have had a multi-volumed Spicer collected from the get go, it would seen to me (a la the Stanford Eigner or the UC Press Collected Robert Duncan, if the latter ever comes to actual fruition), or maybe (who knows) made a big (several) hundred page single volume collected (a la the Wesleyan Barbara Guest, also from just last year. \r

    I'm not sure why they are sort of stringing out the Spicer Collected in various, sequenced volumes. It's not as if the first book was threatening to spill out of its binding; it's not particularly large. The world-wary part of me wonders if two (or four) books at 25 bucks each makes more sense in the money way for the press and all making the money -- this book sold, it's in a second printing -- than a single book at 40. \r

    As to the guessing, mostly here by Kent Johnson, as to whether Spicer picked up "hokku" from Blyth, I dunno. But I do know I am going to check my Rexroth 100 poems from the Chinese (published circa 1956) at home tonight, to see if he discusses the form in the prefatory matter. Ol' KR was a major player for all things poetry SF at that time, and was particularly on Spicer's radar.

  12. November 13, 2009
     Don Share

    Excellent points, Steven, about Rexroth (see the bio for a little about this) & about the Collected Poems.

  13. November 13, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Killian refers to editing and introducing the collaboration in his Bancroft talk, and so does Meredith Quartermain in a Jacket article, but I guess I misinterpreted that. Must have been for the manuscripts of it in the archives.

  14. November 13, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    >But I do know I am going to check my Rexroth 100 poems from the Chinese (published circa 1956) at home tonight, to see if he discusses the form in the prefatory matter.\r

    That would be great if there is some reference there, but the renga is Japanese, not Chinese. Maybe check KR's Japanese translations, while you're at it. My son has all my Rexroth books!

  15. November 13, 2009
     Steven Fama

    Ah, Kent, you are right, I put Chinese when I meant Japanese -- quite embarrassing. I'll check Rexroth's 100 Poems from the Japanese tonight. \r

    Speaking of Rexroth and Spicer: it might be recalled that I blasted the editors and publisher of the Collected Spicer when it was first published, because the editorial comments regarding Spicer's poem/faux elegy to Rexroth (first published in the book) totally swung and missed, in a huge way, in that the editors failed to notice that the poem was a world-class even vicious swipe at Rexroth, and was modeled in part on Rexroth's "Thou Shalt Not kill," not "Howl," as the editorial notes had put it.\r

    To the everlasting credit of Peter Gizzi, Kevin Killian, and Wesleyan, this screwed up editorial matter was largely fixed in the book's second printing. I understand it was technically something of a challenge to fix, so maybe it's doubly great that they undertook to get it right (though because of limitations of space, the entirety of the ugly back story with Rexroth and Spicer (which I'd recounted in my critique) couldn't be included).

  16. November 13, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Here's a note of interest:\r

    Cor van den Heuvel, poet, critic, and anthologist, is one of the originating and long central figures in the very large American haiku community. With Slam, it is surely the biggest poetry "movement" in the country--I used to publish in the haiku magazines, back in the 80s and 90s, so I know something about it. But I can't say I knew the following. Here's what van den Heuvel's bio says at the Simply Haiku website:\r

    >Van den Heuvel discovered haiku in San Francisco in 1958 when he overheard Gary Snyder talking about short poems at a Sunday gathering of the Robert Duncan/Jack Spicer poetry group in North Beach. \r

    Spicer at the origins of the American haiku movement!

  17. November 13, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Sorry for all these comments, but I guess I've got a bee in my bonnet. Here we go, someone else sensing the link, if you'll pardon the pun. This from an essay by Philip Rowland, in Modern Haiku, the most important journal in the English-speaking haiku world:\r

    >This idea of the significant “linking together of poems” to create meaning in poetry is one I want to follow up, with particular reference to haiku and other short poetry. Arguably, the emphasis upon linking is of special relevance to haiku, a genre that not only lends itself to the composition of renku, or linked verse, but can itself can be seen as “the world’s shortest poetic form” and “the world’s longest poem,” as Kacian has put it, referring to the “far-ranging community” of haiku poets and haiku moments over the centuries. [7] A similar open-endedness can be said to apply in the context of poetry more broadly. From Hejinian’s introduction again:\r

    As the poet Jack Spicer once said, in a frequently quoted letter to Robin Blaser, “The trick naturally is what [Robert] Duncan learned years ago and tried to teach us‐‰–‐‰not to search for the perfect poem but to let your way of writing of the moment go along its own paths, explore and retreat but never be fully realized (confined) within the boundaries of one poem.… There is really no single poem.” “Poems should echo and reecho against each other,” he continued. “They should create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can.”

  18. November 13, 2009

    Is it worth noting that a renga is not a sequence of 17-syllable units, but an alternation of 17-syllable units and 14-syllable units? Rexroth, in his introduction to "100 Poems for the Japanese," correctly identifies this quality of renga; he also states that his opinion of haiku differs from mainstream Japanese literary opinion in that he is not a particular fan of haiku.

  19. November 13, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Finally, the horse\r
    is dead. Throw away your sticks\r
    or find another.

  20. November 14, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    >Is it worth noting that a renga is not a sequence of 17-syllable units, but an alternation of 17-syllable units and 14-syllable units?\r

    That is the case, yes. Though in the 1960s and 70s there were some "avant-garde" renga groups that emerged in Japan. One was called OARS, and they largely ignored syllable count, much as certain 20th century haiku tendencies did (Ogiwara Seisensui's Soun being the most famous). In any case, Spicer's hokku are in no way concerned with syllable count. Again, maybe imagined as opening hokku to "correspondents" for renga-to-be? Such an idea would be quite in keeping with Spicer's notions of poetry, correspondence, community, of course.

  21. November 14, 2009
     Steven Fama

    Okay, I've re-read Rexroth's ten or so page Introduction to his 100 Poems from the Japanese (New Directions, 1957).\r

    In that Introduction, Rexroth in discussing various forms of Japanese poetry uses the terms (italics his) "haiku (hokku)."\r

    I hereby assert that Spicer picked up the term "hokku" not from Blyth but from Rexroth's Introduction. Rexroth was HUGE, even while not entirely loved or liked (to say the least). There's plenty of evidence of that.

  22. November 14, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    >I hereby assert that Spicer picked up the term “hokku” not from Blyth but from Rexroth’s Introduction.\r

    Entirely possible, Steve. Though my hunch is that Spicer would have known of the Blyth books, as well. They were "huge" at the time, too, favorite reading for the Beats hanging around SF back then. There were also studies of haiku floating around at the time (with some discussion of renga) by Harold G. Henderson, Kenneth Yasuda, and D.T. Suzuki. So there was much available. The first edition of the Rexroth was in 1955; the intro contains only a passing reference to renga-- Rexroth seems more or less oblivious to its importance in the Japanese tradition, but no one can blame him for that, given the time. Donald Keene gives it a bit more importance in his groundbreaking 1955 anthology, Introduction to Japanese Literature, which Spicer might have known about. Hiroaki Sato, Earl Miner, and other scholars have shown since how central the renga was, and how haiku as an autonomous form emerged from it (from the "hokku," that is, the opening entry in the collaborative sequence). Still looking around...

  23. November 14, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    And some fascinating oral history here on haiku and the Spicer circle, circa 1958.\r



  24. November 14, 2009

    Fred Sasaki says: "We love poetry at Poetry."\r

    I will submit that "Poetry" doesn't love poetry enough; that the mag only recognizes as poetry what its editors can specielly call poetry according to what they are familiar with and the standards for judging which they are prejudiced by.\r

    Are you really prepared to say that "Poetry" loves poetry sui generis?\r


  25. November 14, 2009
     Don Share

    I love poetry sui generis, sure.

  26. November 15, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Not to suggest any kind of linear relations, just some ghostly links that seem possibly interesting: \r

    Hiroaki Sato wrote today to remind me that Sergei Eisenstein was importantly impacted by renga/haikai aesthetics in his development of montage as theory and technique (Russian knowledge of Japanese poetry was far more advanced than it was in the West at the time). Stan Brakhage was deeply influenced by Eisenstein. Brakhage (and Kenneth Anger-- also impacted by Eisenstein) and Robert Duncan were very close in the early and mid-50s and were in active conversation on matters pertaining to poetry and film at the time (I don't know how close relations were between Spicer and Brakhage). Notions of serial composition are being developed by Duncan, Spicer, and Blaser during this period-- notions that bear strong correspondence to principles of Japanese linked poetry and the effects of cinematic montage. Spicer does a linked poetry project in collaboration with Blaser in 1956, called "A Dialogue between Eastern Poetry and Western Poetry." He publishes After Lorca in 1957, and from then on rejects any notion of the poem as closed or in isolation, advocating instead a poetics of serial unfolding, no poem or entry alone or discrete, each echoing--via various modes of linking--with the ones around it. A number of his formulations about this bear uncanny similarity to renga/haikai poetic principles. Sometime in 1958 [?] he begins writing his "hokku," no doubt partly under the influence of Snyder's discussion and reading of haiku at meetings of the Spicer circle. Cor van den Heuvel, perhaps the key figure in the development of the American haiku movement, has his first introduction to the form at these meetings.

  27. November 15, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    >Spicer does a linked poetry project in collaboration with Blaser in 1956, called “A Dialogue between Eastern Poetry and Western Poetry.”\r

    About ten seconds after sending my above comment (talk about links and correspondences!) I got a very nice email from Kevin Killian, with the text of the above collaboration attached. I've only had a chance to glance at it-- it's more an exchange of quick prose observations (similar to some of the work done by the a-g renga group OARS, in Japan!) and Duncan participates, as well. Kevin mentions that the title refers to East-West U.S. poetry poles of the time (Cooked and Raw), not to Asia and the West. This is apparent right from the start of the text (though hard to think the title didn't occur to the poets as something of a pun, given the keen new curiosity in Asian poetry bubbling on the West Coast (not sure if Spicer and Blaser were still in Boston when they did this, or back in SF). The interesting thing to me is the focused act of collaboration itself, something rather novel in U.S. poetry at the time. It IS an example of linked writing between poets...\r

    Warm thanks to Kevin Killian for sending the text along!

  28. November 15, 2009
     Colin Ward

    Editors publishing the best poetry, as they understand the term? I'm shocked! Has Foetry been apprised of this scandal?\r


  29. November 15, 2009

    Fascinating links, Kent -- thanks. Montage and linked poetry -- the connection never would have occurred to me! Great stuff.\r

    The phrase, "a poetics of serial unfolding, no poem or entry alone or discrete, each echoing–via various modes of linking–with the ones around it," reminds me of "Leaves of Grass," which, if I remember correctly, Rexroth (him again!) identified as the model for the American long poem tradition. I'm sure others had made that identification before, but Rexroth's specific formulation struck me as true, the long poem as rhapsodic philosophical reverie, in which definition he included his own long poems.

  30. November 15, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    From Hiroaki Sato, who's been very generous back-channel with commentary on this issue (as most in the poetry world know, Sato is one of the leading translators and scholars of Japanese poetry, editor [with Burton Watson] of the great anthology From the Country of Eight Islands and author of the small classic, One Hundred Frogs: From Renga to Haiku in English, among many other works):\r

    >What Blyth called "the first of this series," Haiku: Eastern Culture(published in 1949), has a complete set of renku presented and explicated (pp. 126-144), with the caveat, "I think few could make head or tail of this composite poem; it is much worse than Blake's prophetic\r
    books" (p. 134).<\r

    Spicer, Duncan, and Blaser, undoubtedly, would have cherished the frustrated comment at the end! "Renku," by the way, is a retroactive term for renga or (later) haikai; Shiki used it (disparagingly) as part of his campaign to establish haiku as a separate genre and it stuck. \r

    As Blyth himself explained, "hokku" --even when presented as "standalone" pieces in anthologies or haibun prose up to the time of Shiki in late 19th century-- were always regarded as head verses of an existing or potential renga/haikai. It's in this sense that I wondered in a comment above about Spicer's conception of his "Hokku": Did he think of the group as linked, or did he perhaps think of them in the more classic sense, as opening gestures to his circle (or gestures to poets to come), against a ghosted backdrop of collaborative "unfolding." I have no idea, but the possibility of the latter, given what was floating around at the time, doesn't seem totally far-fetched.

  31. November 15, 2009
     Steven Fama

    I read the interview with Cor van den Heuvel. He doesn't really say, definitively, that haiku was discussed by Snyder when both were in the apartment with Spicer and others. He's uncertain about it (what he does remember clearly is that short poems were read and talked about). \r

    Anyway, it's not as if the form was some great mystery up to that point. There's been mention here already of the Rexroth and Blyth books, from 1957 and 1949 respectively, and if you look at the bibliography in Rexroth's 100 Poems from the Japanese there are listed therein many published sources from which a diligent poet could have become familiar with haiku / hokku and other traditional Japanese poetic forms. \r

    And another thing -- I'm very glad to read what Kevin Killian thinks about some of this, but would greatly prefer to get it straight from him, not filtered via someone else. Which is to say, lace your boots up Kevin, and get in here!

  32. November 15, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    You're right, Steven. I was thinking about a previous bio note, at van den Heuvel's Amazon page, where he says the following, more directly tracing his long career in haiku back to the Spicer circle. Well, memory is fickle, I guess. But here's what he says there. Pretty clear, in any case, given van den Heuvel's absolutely central role in the development of the American haiku movement, that Spicer and Co. must be seen as having an important, if unintentional, connection to its history:\r

    >One day, at a local newsstand, I picked up a copy of the second issue of the Evergreen Review featuring the poetry and prose of the San Francisco “Rennaisance.” I was so impressed by the works of such writers as Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and Jack Kerouac that I decided to go west and see and hear this phenomenon at first hand. Quitting my job, I moved to the West Coast in the spring of 1958 and lived for the next six or seven months in a small residential hotel, the Sunny Hotel, on Bush Street, just around the corner from the Dragon Gate entrance to San Francisco’s Chinatown, where Grant Avenue leads to North Beach.\r
    After meeting the poet George Stanley in The Place, a bar in North Beach where poets hung out, I was invited to attend the regular poets’ gatherings presided over by Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer that were at that time being held in Stanley’s house on Telegraph Hill. It was at one of these meetings that I first heard about a kind of poetry that would influence me for the rest of my life: Gary Snyder, just back from his first stay in Japan, mentioned haiku during a discussion he was having with another poet, Harold Dull, about short poems.

  33. November 16, 2009
     Joelle Biele

    Hi Fred, these books look gorgeous! I'm unbelievably curious right now, probably more so because I know it is going to be very, very hard to find one! I found an interview with Murphy at openlooppress.org and his work as a book designer and poet--his visual way of thinking about space and language--sounds fascinating--also the overlap/intersections of some of the things he mentions--Sorrentino's Orangery and Schwitters-- Thanks!