Kathleen Spivack Essay - Critical Essays

Spivack, Kathleen

Spivack, Kathleen 1938–

Ms Spivack is an American poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)

Spivack is wonderful—sensitive, knowledgeable about language and culture, unpretentious, strong. She writes as a woman, but there is none of the shrill or histrionic about it, as seems sometimes to be the case with the new generation of women poets, torn between the cause of Women's Lib and that of human liberation.

Here [are the closing lines of] Ms. Spivack's title poem [of Flying Inland]: …

       Five seagulls, circumflex accents, drift by—
       nothing to speak of in the heaving sky.

It seems beside the point to comment on anything that fine, that splendidly managed and closed. Such quiet and lovely strokes as the final couplet appear throughout the book. And there are risks. A poem about a dead child, called "Kim" [is an example]….

Who besides Ransom has taken that risk and won, as Spivack does? (p. 305)

Anthony Ostroff, in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1974, University of Utah), Summer, 1974.

With a few exceptions, the most satisfying poems in Flying Inland revolve around two cycles, which are perhaps the same: life blossoming out of death and dissolving again into it; consciousness growing into self-consciousness and then resisting or longing for release. (p. 93)

None of the poems in Flying Inland breaks through to joy or (mercifully) "evangelical fervor." Spivak's sense of the miracles and horrors of biological economy often turns whimsical, however, and even rises to delight…. (p. 94)

[My] greatest problem with these poems is the persistent way everything ends up related to the poet's ego. The materials of the poems, the facts, come from a careful watching of inner and outer worlds, but finally one wearies of the assumption that those facts only exist in relation to the poet. Things, thinginess, the micro- and macro-events in this world, are not given the respect they are due…. [In] the great mass of poems presented, the many fine moments have trouble asserting themselves as themselves. (p. 96)

Peter Klappert, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Fall/Winter, 1974.

Kathleen Spivack speaks in the preface to ["The Jane Poems"] about what she thinks goes on in them; "… the use of a persona, Jane, gives me the freedom to move between personal experience and a larger view of contemporary life. Jane is Everywoman…". But how "personal" is the personal experience of Everywoman, especially when something called a "persona" is dragged in?

               Walking in Harvard Square
                 one morning
               under summer skies
               Jane averts her eyes—
               all around her in deep
               Asian bodies lie
               Jane is bare-armed, bleeding
               and she dies
               and dies and dies

Titled "Jane witnesses the destruction of the world," neither the lines nor the title's Yeatsian echo make this Jane convincingly crazy enough. The lack of punctuation, the breathy space between "bare-armed" and "bleeding," the childlike rhymes, are embarrassing rather than universalizing; it is a shame to have "Asian bodies" used in this all-too-poetic way. Or to have Jane-Everywoman stalked by the inevitable "rapist … dropping his sperm on her like bombs." At moments the poems attempt to stand off from self-importance ("I am the universal/Plain Jane"), but one would prefer Kathleen Spivack to have ditched the whole Jane-business and spoken out instead with no more resources than language provides. Granted that these poems were written, as she tells us, in a time of "intense political turmoil," one needs more than the assurance that she really feels that turmoil in order to move from Harvard Square to Asia in a couple of lines. (pp. 36, 38)

William H. Pritchard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 18, 1975.

Kathleen Spivack, whose book, Flying Inland, was rather a stunning first collection, has obviously resolved to sing … bawdy—and tawdry, sordid, powerful—songs in The Jane Poems, her second book. Her "universal/Plain Jane" is "not 'I' but 'Eye'" she explains. And she's also something like Berryman's Henry, clad in jazzy rags, humming the blues for all of us ("all the feisty's gone out of her today;/she loves she wonders if she suffers") and something like Yeats's Crazy Jane, suffering, singing, and enduring…. Raped, beaten, brutalized, abandoned, sickening, aging, dying, Jane becomes the woman-as-victim…. Spivack's lines about her are bitter, angry as a saxophone scream…. [The] poems are sometimes almost too painful to read. As Spivack herself implies, there's a point at which "mainlining headlines" becomes an act of masochism…. But the problem, as she must know, is hers as well as her protagonist's. And its dangers are serious: from masochism the sufferer falls into angry polemics, fist-clenching generalizations…. As Spivack herself realizes, shouts about "the world's pain" won't convey the reality of the suffering—or staunch the blood. (pp. 51-2)

Sandra M. Gilbert, in Poetry (© 1975 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), October, 1975.