Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Baseball provided Spicer with many figures of speech. “The poet,” he wrote, “thinks he is the pitcher. But actually he is the catcher.” People may think they initiate what, in actuality, they only participate in. The ego-strong poet (or person) thinks he is deciding the course of his poem (or his life); in reality language, or life itself, is dictating the course of things, and one can only attend. The poet, Spicer said elsewhere, is a radio, receiving first, and only then transmitting. What he or she receives are messages from all over, messages that are simply “in the air,” and which the poet sits down to sort out whenever he or she writes. While this procedure has affinities with the automatic writing practiced by André Breton and other Surrealists, Spicer did not believe in accepting wholesale whatever was delivered; he believed that one still had to discern between false and true senders and messages.

In “Phonemics,” one sees Spicer’s beliefs embodied in two ways: in the very form of the poem, with its sudden gaps (as though another transmitting station had broken in on one’s radio), its many puns (as though two stations were transmitting and being received simultaneously), and its indecipherable passages (as though heavy static interfered with a message); and in the semantic content, with its warnings of an unreliable, uncommandable, ungovernable universe, its reiterated cautions about distance, and its passages concerning the double role of language as creator and betrayer of human intentions. In “Phonemics,” the dynamics and mechanics of language use are constantly being brought to the foreground, and people are forever appearing to be embedded in these dynamics and mechanics of language, rather than being language’s lords and masters.