Spicer, Jack (Vol. 8)
Spicer, Jack 1925–1965
An American poet, Spicer was a literary associate of Robert Duncan and Allen Ginsberg. He used his personal experiences in his poetry, often in a surreal manner.
"sur-réal-ism, n. (F. surrealisme) Art. A modern movement in art and literature, influenced by Freudianism, purporting to express the subconscious mental activities by presenting images without order or sequence, as in a dream." The method of the surrealists can be useful, the juxtaposition of unrelated images, the discontinuity of thought and language, even if there is no real use of the subconscious. The trappings of surrealism have become almost an affectation of the New York school of poets, but in the work of these poets, as with Spicer, there is usually a conscious shaping and directing of the poem's larger movement, despite discontinuities in the poem surface. Often groups of lines, sections of Spicer's poems, seem to have this kind of unstructured form "presenting images without order or sequence," and in his juxtaposition of images without a clear interrelationship he forces the mind to consider new conceptual directions in the structure of the poem. Surrealism, as it breaks up the sense of movement within the poem, could be considered even anti-poetic, but in his questioning of poetry Spicer still moves as a poet. He uses the method—the sound—of surrealism—the limitless tying together of unlikes that is implicit in surrealist technique—but in the larger outlines of the poem he is still thinking through image to idea. The materials of the poem seem to come from the subconscious, but the structuring of the materials is done by a conscious poetic intelligence…. There is the overhanging sense of the surrealistic, but it is never forced. It is almost an intellectual use of the technique, with strong differences between his imagery and the imagery of a Rimbaud. Rimbaud's intensity comes from the senses, from the touch, feel, color, scene—even in his use of the discontinuous there is an opulence of the senses that Gautier would have responded to, a breathing in at the nostrils of smells, tastes, sensations. (pp. 39-40)
Spicer's surrealism is of the mind, not of the senses, the pragmatic American use of a technique, rather than giving way to its full implications. (p. 41)
Samuel Charters, "Jack Spicer," in his Some Poems/Poets: Studies in American Underground Poetry since 1945, Oyez, 1971, pp. 37-45.
The poetry of Jack Spicer … is an influence on younger poets today for its seeming openness to inner and outer experiences and to the wobble between. Spicer's poetry was anti-academic, rarely boring, but occasionally verbose, and diffuse; he was not a polisher but an utterer, a maker of burlesques as well as lyrics, a drunk, a buffoon. There were rare public appearances outside of some West Coast bars during Spicer's lifetime, the most famous being a reading and lecture at the B.C. Arts Festival in Vancouver the year he died. Though he achieved little fame during his lifetime except among his friends, Spicer met and considered himself a poetic ally of the older Robert Duncan, knew Ginsberg and many others on the San Francisco scene less well….
Spicer had a vocabulary problem. He was seeking to detach himself from academic language, formalist language, the poem as object, to become his own man with his own voice, that studious modernist gay poet's voice which could boast and bray in plain speech that often tipped across the divide into hallucinations. "We make up a different language for poetry," he wrote, "and for the heart—ungrammatical." His poems are full of torn shapes, abrupt laughter….
It's useful to read Spicer's work in sequence, as it is ordered in ["The Collected Books of Jack Spicer"], because he came to think of his poems not as isolated, perfectly engineered machines but as occasions, explorations, "books" of experience expanding the limits of perception through "an infinitely small vocabulary." As Blaser [the editor] points out, Spicer's sense of drama and play was augmented by his seeing the books of poems in serial fashion in an ordinary language reinvested with feeling and experience until "the word's meaning tears at a sense of life, and it is the nature of such tearing that it may lead to rage and terror, as it does throughout Jack's poetry…."
I also find great playfulness, humor and tenderness in some of these poems, and very little shamming, or cant. (p. 26)
Jack Spicer's poems are always poised just on the face side of language, dipping all the way over toward that sudden flip, as if an effort were being made through feeling strongly in simple words to sneak up on the event of a man ruminating about something, or celebrating something, without rhetorical formulae, in his own beautiful inept awkwardness. It's that poised ineptitude and awkwardness of the anti-academic teacher, the scholar of linguistics who can't say what he knows in formal language, and has chosen to be naive and look and hear and do. Spicer was not a very happy poet. He was obsessed with possibilities he could only occasionally realize, and too aware of contemporary life to settle for anything less in his work than what he probably could not achieve. He must have been a great spirit. He seems to have been a good teacher. Much of what he wrote sticks with me, and, according to the loving way this volume was edited, he seems to have been a good friend to poetry, and other poets. (p. 28)
Richard Elman, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 23, 1975.
The poems [in Spicer's first book, After Lorca,] were "translations"—the originals of some of which you could find and tag with your Lorca alongside, while others were half or more smudged away, and the rest no Lorca at all, pure Spicer. Through it all, meanwhile, back and forth, flowed tricky perfusions, flipped coins, compromised membranes: between Spanish and English, "real objects" and "the big lie of the personal," one dead poet and one live one. The letters [addressed to Lorca] were especially arresting, thick with the roots of a plain-spoken, strong, and cumulatively elegant aesthetic. A "game"—and here not only were the rules but also the Hall of Fame (Lorca, Yeats, Blake). Had it gone no further, had we been left only with this one strange book and not finally a total of twelve, After Lorca would have made for a spectacular artifact rather than an opus, a reputation. A twist of the poet's beloved lemon in our national drink—and we might have been forever intrigued but ultimately hazy about whether or not we wanted to play.
But there was an opus. Spicer's poems, in fact, got firmer, not slacker, as they went, and though wetting their lips there now and again, did not sit in precious pools or clever ones. How do we take them? We must decide.
Even in a self-conscious century, the fact of which we either embrace or avoid according to our (X-rayed) lights, no contemporary poet seems more art-occupied than Jack Spicer. Or more elusive. What he giveth in self-review he taketh away in a sort of holy thundering shyness that's more Jerome than Francis. What's more, self-consciousness leads also to sorrows, in particular loneliness—who else but me is looking?—and here also Spicer is no more fully satisfying: he's the poet's poet par excellence, no reference points except the very poem, yet he refuses to console us with homilies and buck-up, trade-union sermons. Wonderfully likable in his muscular, no-bullshit manner, and yet in a second he's gone, just as he originally intended. Is it, then, all worth it?
Yes, Spicer is something new and valuable, extremely so. He was the first poet to really believe the tradition that was being contemporaneously forged in American poetry in the 1950s. While others were busily crammed-mouth both with poems and announcements of the new in the making, Spicer was getting down to work, having accepted the clarion simply and at once. This is important to keep in mind. The hortatory, long-strided mode we indistinctly call the Black Mountain movement is eclipsed in subtlety by Spicer ten times over, but he is still of that widened-out mode. Clever, pithy, brilliant, daring as he may be, Spicer was set from the start upon the One Thing, larger-goaled even than Olson and his polis and culture-straddling. Spicer wanted no less than to clear the totals on poetry's machine, to introduce the proper multipliers and dividers. Poem was all; and if so, what we made it from had to be more perdurable, of more lasting and truer clay than we ordinarily contributed. Spicer asked that it only be "objects," real things that the poet, totally subordinate, could "disclose … to make a poem that had no sound in it but the pointing of a finger."… Arguing for collage in poetry, in After Lorca, he says:
But things decay, reason argues. Real things become garbage…. Yes, but the garbage of the real still reaches out into the current world making its objects, in turn, visible—lemon calls to lemon, newspaper to newspaper, boy to boy. As things decay, they bring their equivalents into being.
A luminous, bracing, finally naïve incantation. The equivalents, of course, never really do show; they knock on the door perhaps, but when the poem comes to answer they hide, and he has to fashion them himself in order not to stand dumb at the jamb. Spicer may always have known this—I would surely think he did—but not until the last works did he really give up hoping that the original garbage, set into the poem consciously, dead-seriously, would call up a metaphysical rhyme: an anti-poem, the "thing language" he wanted so hugely being neither an imagism or concretism but an anti-poetry. Spicer, finally, is an anti-poet. (pp. 5-7)
Spicer, by certain lamps, may look more trendily meta- than anti-, which may explain some of whatever audience he has, but not for long. The gradual, opus-long defeat of his own First Principle shows us this, and conversely shores up his triumph…. [For] a poet who embraced a Yeatsian sort of "dictation" that directed him at times to purposely misspell, duplicate poems exactly, shackle not only the literary will but also the emotive one ("you're trying to write a poem on Vietnam and you write a poem about skating in Vermont"), Spicer maintains a balance that's astoundingly sure…. Yet in the end he must hand himself over to a tremendous irony: that a poet who tried so hard to write personality-less poems brings forth one of the language's strongest personalities. That if his poems could never quite point the finger in that "infinitely small vocabulary" he hoped they could lead the way with, he himself did. The world is, alas, perfect, and the poet moves further away from it with each effort. To read these collected books is to watch a fine poet get finer but lose every gain. But the direction remains. It is a moving, exhilarating, and expanding journey. (pp. 7-8)
When personal contacts of the poet's life intrude into the poem, they will be, he declares, "encysted" by the poet—"and the encysted emotion will itself become an object, to be transformed at last into poetry like the waves and the birds." Fancy footwork—but it's crucial: the tension and contradiction of this very point go a long way in highlighting both Spicer's attractiveness as a poet and also one of his major flaws. The personal is made out to be not much better than a germ, yet its appearance is relished for the sake of Spicer's controlling idea, which is leukocytic and wants the workout. The poet's homosexuality is unconcealed, and his poems have drawn a certain cultural nourishment—they cruise, so to speak, ready to "encyst" friends, lovers, and personal contact, at the same time chuting them into a world of objects…. [From] the start it's apparent that Spicer required, to make his poetry work, a gathering: real friends in a bar, real lovers, real gulls on a pier or lemons on a tree. His poems are all "serial," they all are in "books" that are as insulated and close, raucous and definable as a crowd in a North Beach bar. The "I—never seen" is tacitly replaced with a "we"; the poems echo off each other, never lacking for a comforter, illuminator, extricator, foil. They speak best tribally and to the sentimentality of cognoscenti—be they homosexuals, baseball fans, or, best of all poets. Spicer the poet becomes a "character" who makes his point and then fades into the ensuing din. (pp. 10-11)
A Book of Music ("with words by Jack Spicer," 1958) is much better [than the preceding books], less communally narcissistic than the "admonitions" and more direct. It is the first application of the aesthetic only through poems…. But, though striking, it's too sketchy a book. Almost in haste, the poems all take a dying fall—what the reader soon recognizes as a very Spicerian fall, an ironic thump—that here is yet to be completely convincing and seems more willy-nilly than eventual. This eagerness of their aggregate "points" makes the poems slightly too attention-directing to work effectively.
Billy the Kid (also 1958) has Spicer forsaking an investigation of the large for the small: his work will continually jump back and forth between verities we see clearly enough to either accept or try to civilize away (the world, the poem, God, language) and those that are incompletely revealed (mythology). (pp. 12-13)
The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether, dated 1960–61, borrows its title from a Gnostic text, and Robin Blaser, in his afterword, tells us that Spicer thought of this triune work in terms of the classical division: Hell, Purgatory, Paradise—but this, like the title, is concealed and crepuscular, the erudition isn't plaited before our eyes. I can think of no book of American poetry quite like this one. It's Spicer's best work, I'd say, the most rigorous, most dilating, undeterred by any thought of the reader's meekness and caution. Its self-attention is so manifest and unflagging that the superficial sour tastes—the weak jokes, camp silliness, overly with-it lordliness—lie close to the surface, covered only by daring. Yet what he began with, that scorn of the "big lie of the personal" has by this time been thaumaturged and become sublimely beside the point. If there's any triunity about this book, it is in the stripped-down annexing of poetry, poetry, and poetry—divined, discovered, and defined—and nothing else. (pp. 16-17)
The prose paragraphs [in Homage to Creeley] are not only a wizardly half-light image of the Hell motif ("Hell is where we place ourselves when we wish to look upward"), but also a running meditation on the very reality of the consciously recalcitrant poems. They are their ghosts, and own a second, eerie sight; sometimes trivial, always compensatory for corners and impossible fits. When the poems act up anticly, changed dictationally in composition, the ghost-answers are cool and unflustered; when the poems speak in the terrifyingly final rhythms of children's verse (and a pleasure it is to watch Spicer's brilliant perception of the nursery rhyme, that most supremely closed of all poetic forms, used as a wedge to open up his own), the "explanations" aerate them. What comes through so strongly here is a sense of the poet having calibrated his entire intellectual and sensible voice; then coming away so gracefully with its pattern. Assurance, a poet's most deadly affliction, is Spicer's pair of shears—with it he snips, pins, trims, refuses to make the poem a cenotaph. Preferring balsa to granite, he puts together mock-ups, and mock-ups are investigatory. Is this what a poem is? Statements made? Questions? Or perhaps questions-that are answers-that are questions again? Where should the poet step in? Assuming the ghost persona, Spicer might brazen out "Not anywhere," yet his written answer is more like: In the flow, helpless, the poet as turnstile, listening for echoes. Spicer has finally succeeded here in making his poetic a poetry. (p. 19)
Of all the books, it is perhaps Language (1964) that has received the widest recognition. A linguist by training …, Spicer came to the focus with lumbering ease, the abdicated, passed-beyond expert. Which may possibly account for the book's more than usual acceptance: poets often exhibit a continuing, tinkerer's fascination with formal linguistics; and Spicer, lopping off technical corners as he goes in order to make the thing fly, was articulating—most of the time brilliantly—a well-historied grounding for poetry that no other 1965 ideology (or ideolect) was providing. Poetry, said Williams, was "a small (or large) machine made out of words," and this book is a Spicerian assent, parsed down to the cogs. In sections titled Transformations, Morpheics, Phonemics, and Graphemics, each building-block is subjected to manifold tossings before being dropped into the poem's capacious bag. (p. 23)
[One] suspects [in Language] that the serial poem has failed, that its parameters are abused in weariness, that Spicer cleaves to it out of loyalty and nothing else. The "idea" of the book constricts more than frees. The "big lie of the personal" is flogged weakly by weary reportage, some of the poems play to the grandstand, there's a nervousness, stuffiness, and brilliance that never melds.
But Book of Magazine Verse (published, next, in 1966) recoups. It is a posthumous volume, Spicer exiting in glory. In seven sequences of extraordinary poems, the social edginess has become an almost fearsome clarity. Real objects, the lemon of lemonness he began with, have turned, in these last powerful works, into skin: all and only what we can see—
It's the shape of the lemon, I guess that causes
ovalness, it's rind. This is where my love,
The garbage Spicer proposed be set into the poem minus all personalization ("As things decay they bring their equivalents into being") hasn't obliged. Strong hides have resisted the pinnings. It was no more than the sentimentality that bruised the earlier poems to think they could be, no more than a terrified dream…. The love is patently Christian, though undeclared. Desperate and futile love—a crowning correspondence to the poem's. In this last book, Spicer has become as careful with the two as a man transporting beakers of acid. The erotic poems here are his best: hard, smooth, ungassy, the loved ones honored by not simultaneously being made objects—that's a priori. (pp. 26-7)
The last ten poems were meant for Downbeat, the jazz magazine…. [The] poems have wonderful things to say about California and our romantic sixties fetishism for guerillas. But more than anything they are about Spicer himself, much as the final Cantos are a totting-up of Pound…. The towel seems thrown in, thrown to those who from beginning to end have been closest at hand: other poets. In the very final poem, [to Allen Ginsberg, the] … tone tells all. It didn't work, the collage didn't stick, things remained stubbornly, goldenly discrete, and there was an absence of answers. The moon, at the end of his life, comes to Spicer not directed to by the poem but on television, watching the astronauts…. (pp. 29-30)
Rose Feld, "Lowghost to Lowghost," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring/Summer, 1976, pp. 5-30.