Jack Spicer

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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. (See also CLC, Vol. 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

Robin Blaser

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

My essay [is] watchful of the context of the poetry and of the composing "real" that is Jack's concern. His ignorance is not one of lack of assurance. He knew the good and size of his work and he had assurance to give away to others. His ignorance seems to have been of the cost of this venture which he turned into a narrative. It is part of his notion that poetry is necessary to the composition or knowledge of the "real" and this drew him into a combat for the context of poetry—that it was an act or event of the real, rather than a discourse true only to itself. He had said early on in conversation with a young poet that one had first to learn to use the I and then to lose it. This becomes an attack on the "subjective aim" and assurance of a whole culture. And it cuts the ground from under a poetry that ceaselessly returns to wrap itself around a personality. It was especially costly to a poet who refused those resolving images of the writer as victim or hero. In the face of this work, both hero and victim are humanisms which do not measure up. In an extreme move to gain what he variously called a dictation, the unknown, an outside, Jack's work contradicts them as resolutions or explanations of anything. They become names rather than acts…. (pp. 271-72)

The poetry of The Collected Books begins in 1957, when that composing factor—the dictation, the unknown, or the outside—enters the work, and Jack began to construct a poetry that was not lyric but narrative. This narrative, he came—"jokingly," he said—to call "the serial poem." It had to hold on to a motivation that was not strictly his own. (p. 273)

Jack's lively and storied language pushes us into a polarity and experienced dialectic with something other than ourselves. It involves a reversal of language into experience, which is not a dialexis between ourselves or a discourse true only to itself, but a broken and reforming language which composes a "real." The doubleness of a man and a world are recovered to operate in the language. Where, so to speak, a public language has closed itself in order to hold a meaning, it becomes less than the composition of meaning. It stops and relegates both the language and its hold on the "real" to the past. The place of language in the social, as a performance of the "real," is displaced to a transparency and becomes an imposition rather than a disclosure…. A reopened language lets the unknown, the Other, the outside in again as a voice in the language. Thus, the reversal is not a reduction, but an openness. The safety of a closed language is gone and its tendency to reduce thought to a reasonableness and definiteness is disturbed. Poetry has always kept the unreasonable voice but it is said to be true only in a poetic discourse and, of course, peripheral to the reason our lives are referred to. Here in the insistence of Jack's outside, an other than the reasonable is said to enter the real. The real doubles in the experience and in the language. The voice arguing the necessity of an outside may strike a reader as odd since the outside, in whatever sense one takes it, is...

(This entire section contains 2286 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

usually assumed. It belongs then to a discourse or to a science. Its placement here as a composing factor in the poem disturbs our sense of a settled relation to language. It does … insist that language is not so simply relational, but rather a knowing, an event in men's lives, as words are important to hold on to whatever it is that composes us.

From After Lorca on, Jack works in a poetry that is a "compound of the visible and the invisible."… This fundamental polarity extends into a space that is not recognized. The movement of Jack's work is to retie language and experience as they are composed in the exchange of visibility and invisibility. Perhaps, it was his knowledge as a professional linguist that brought him to this point in an understanding of a composing "real,"—as a "sense" seems visible and a "nonsense" seems fallen out of the visible or about to enter it. (pp. 275-76)

Jack was not much given to explaining his work, for it seemed to him that was the reader's job as much as his own, but one of his observations draws attention here. "A Textbook of Poetry," he says, takes the divine in relation to the human and The Holy Grail turns this around to take the human in relation to the divine…. As I note here in the essay, the word divine is among the ruins of a discourse, broken in thought and experience into belief and disbelief. In Jack's work, the divine is resituated in a composition where belief and disbelief are composing elements of its meaning. The dictation of the outside brings us up against a number of words that float in and out of a meaning. It is not, for Jack, any ordinary supernaturalism, but literal to a condition that may be called a "polar logic" of experience. A meaning is constantly playing within the poetry because the poetry in its openness is more than a meaning and in the composition less than a meaning. Unfixed. A meaning in the poems is also constantly doubling back to meet the manhood and the ghostly, silver voices of it ("A Textbook"), where death is an interrogation close to the world because it is not ourselves. Death and ghostliness in this work must be seen, not as a choice against life or even a helplessness within it, but as a literal pole, where life is present to a point and then suddenly absent from an articulation. The curious thing about language and experience, which haunts Jack's work, is that they are so immediately reversible….

Jack refused to accept a language for poetry that is a poetic discourse true only to itself and as such, simply another discourse patterned on the language system we have lived in, and though it is heightened, it has remained equally peripheral, an addition to the real. (p. 277)

The darkness, the torn shapes and ghosts of Jack's poems are an admission and they are also an openness, where thought and feeling begin again. They shadow the laughter, the jokes and the naturalness of his language…. He moved from the necessity. His fascination with the "unknown" including the complex experience of the contents of an invisibility led him to emphasize the silence around and between poems. (pp. 278-79)

[In Jack's] books, we begin in an exchange of life and death, visibility and invisibility, known and unknown, human and divine. In the reversal of language into experience, these fold into one another and unfold, composing as voices in our language. They are elemental and also ultimate at either end of a narration…. Jack's discipline of emptying himself in order to allow his language to receive an other than himself may be traced back to his tradition and sources, but he works there independently and fiercely. The discipline is intended to reopen the discourse…. There is a dangerous factor in such work, for it removes the manhood or the image of it, which the settled discourse gathered and held together in a stoppage or finitude that spoke only of himself. (pp. 279-80)

Jack's oppositions and contrariness look destructive, even despairing, but they tend to bring forward a language that holds. We may read this as an aspect of his sure-footed Americanness—a Puritanism, a Calvinism at the heart of his experience…. [It] is the holding power and what I have called the commotion of his work that I wish to describe. His last work, Book of Magazine Verse, is an example of this. The idea behind the title is an old one with Jack and it is meant to challenge the public place of poetry. The poems were written in order to prove that the magazines for which he wrote them would not publish them. It is a set-up, of course, but that does not spoil the point he is making…. The Book of Magazine Verse is an unfair interrogation of the public place of poetry. The poems of it combine an anger and an affirmation that unravels the real the magazines talk about…. If one follows the contents of the serial narrative in this book and looks back on the field of its composition, the city on a diamond stands there on a Lewis Carroll mountain—a nonsense fundamental to the sense. This duplicity or commotion is remarkable in his thought and it was both terrible and joyous in his life, as a long list of friends, poets, and enemies may testify. He was so alive in the commotion he made around him. The condition of that beginning again in language and meaning is between our manhood, the anthropology of our thought, and everything outside its orders. It is, at times, almost a divestment of the memory of words. Undressed words. Jack shares the profound issue of this divestment in modern poetics, in its lack of wisdom and in its thought and feeling at the edge of a disclosure, with Mallarmé and Artaud.

In the movement of the whole of Jack's work toward the imagination of that city, which remains where he left it, only a possibility, there is also an investment of words. An installation. This is the "spiritual discipline" he says a poem must be—out of the dictation. For this Jack used an Orphic methodology, as if the cosmos or love had fallen into hell. The experience is tropic—in the turn, hell is discovered and the true and the false begin to play. And, unfortunately, as Jack says, the dictation will be true and false …, because as a proposition of an ultimate duplicity in the real itself, the dictation will be wild and playful, a disappearance and an appearance, an invisibility and a visibility exchanging their powers in the heart. The looking into something as it composes in the poem, especially as it is of our own time, is to see what is on the other side, but not separate from this side or its terror…. As these last poems move to an open end,

   The poem begins to mirror itself.        The identity of the poet gets more obvious….

The poems reflect this reversal of language into experience…. In the last poems, the "identity of the poet" returns almost nakedly, driven by the wildness, just at the point where the poet is to disappear from his work. This insistence of the dictation that an outside, an other than ourselves, speaks to us notices first a disappearance or emptying out of a manhood from his language, and then watchfully approaches "a field" including the other and a "topography" that is a folding and unfolding of a real that contains us. Such language may disclose a new manhood and a new visibility along with another courage.

The poet is in the field of his work. He becomes a voice sounded in series that is also another voice, a doubling in the heart of an intelligence. Jack's voice remained to the end outside the paradise or city of its concern because such a city is outside our time or at the edge of it. As his language is open upon an outside, whose meaning disturbs and changes, his poetry becomes a profound interrogation, an operation of language, because it is a meeting. (pp. 283-86)

This is an extraordinary poetry for us to take on. It was, of course, for the most part not taken on at all, though it opened language again and again to the young who drifted across the country to meet Jack at his table in the bar. San Francisco became a loved habit of friends, bars, streets, the Broadway Tunnel, and Aquatic Park…. San Francisco is an odd place. With all the beauty and comfort ot its landscape, it is the end of the land. It seems to be at the edge of something, a gated place, an end which opens again. And so one finds it in Jack's poems where the imagery of the sea carries an openness, strangeness and endlessness. This edge becomes a literal quality of his work.

It is this edginess which leads me to speak of Jack's poetic argument. It involves the place and context of poetry in a composition of the real, which I have already touched upon and now wish to tie down. This argumentativeness about poetics, as it is widely reflected in contemporary poetry, has been dismissed by the criticism as the weakness of poetry talking about itself. The helplessness of poetry mirroring itself. On the contrary, it is indicative of a new consciousness of the power and violence of language, and in Jack's work, it becomes an insistent argument for the performance of the real by way of poetry. (p. 287)

[Jack] was not in the final poetics speaking only of himself. The "disordered devotion towards the real" of the poem … is no naive realism, and what it leads to requires some meditation…. Jack did not, it seems, know how far he had to go. In that emptying out in order to free the language, which is part of his care, he found a discipline which suggests that we are free to think again. (p. 288)

Robin Blaser, "The Practice of Outside," in The Collected Books of Jack Spicer by Jack Spicer, edited by Robin Blaser (copyright © 1975 by the Estate of Jack Spicer), Black Sparrow Press, 1975, pp. 271-329.

Frank Sadler

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

          For the beginning is assuredly           the end—since we know nothing, pure           and simple, beyond           our own complexities….

This quotation from [William Carlos Williams's] Paterson suggests one of the basic themes of Jack Spicer's poem "Billy The Kid"—that a poem is the working out of its possibilities. It implicitly suggests that the significance of a poem does not lie in its meaning, as that term is traditionally understood, but rather that the significance of the poem lies in its act of self-creation. This proposition rests on the assertion that a poem is a form of experience in which the moral dimension of life finds its expression in the act of creation, and in no other place. Thus the proper concern of the poet and, consequently, the poem is with poetry itself. And, if, as Williams apparently understood, "the beginning is assuredly / the end" and our knowledge of that "beginning" lies within the recognition of "our own complexities," then the poem becomes a search for the solution to the idea that creation itself may be endless. The exact expression of this concept is found in Spicer's poem "Psychoanalysis: An Elegy" in which the final line reads "I am thinking that a poem could go on forever." The emphasis here is placed on the process of thought as a type of continuing or ongoing genesis for which the poem provides the mechanism by which the creative act may consummate itself. This act of the mind, of thinking itself, finds its expression in this "place" of the poem—"Billy The Kid."

The poem begins "Back where poetry is" in the complexities of the narrator's mind, for it is the mind of the narrator which orders and selects and makes subjective the world of the poem—the poem which we perceive. It is the background out of which all our acts are made known. (p. 15)

We are immediately within a mythic dimension in the mind of the poem's narrator. The subject of the poem is poetry itself, the creative act. The persona sits ostensibly in a room in which a radio announces that Billy is dead. The obvious incongruity between fact and time is obliterated, that is, the present with its various realities—the radio, the summer day, the birds, the absence of New York Jew salesmen, etc.,—is effaced in a type of space-time relativity in which the possibilities of the present exist in the working out of the alternatives of the past. The "frontier" with all its potentialities, both historical and imaginative, as a thing to be explored and mapped out, is presented in terms of the poem, that is, not only in its physical existence as artifact but also in its descriptive process as a poem in which the frontier is a "poem somebody could hide in." Thus, in a sense, the poem becomes its own frontier, its own avant-garde, its own "house" without any "hard corners." The east—as suggested by "no New York Jew salesmen"—is contrasted against the west—the frontier, the sheriff's posse, etc. Further, the east becomes symbolic of tradition in art, of imposed order and form, whereas the west suggests openness and freedom from the intellectual traditions of past art with all its limitations and restrictions on style, structure, theme, and idea.

The poem presents a subjective world in which the reader is faced with the appearance of a rational and logical frame—the radio, the poem as artifact—but which, in the final analysis, is only appearance. The radio serves as a background out of which the world's events impinge upon the consciousness of the narrator. Further, the radio suggests the impersonal and mechanical, the closed world of fact, and is contrasted with the openness of the mind, of the poem, of the imagination. It also suggests that the poem, in a limited sense, will take the form of a news report. Finally, the emphasis in these opening lines is on "Let us fake out a frontier." The word "Let" permits us to escape from the confinement of the objective world, the radio, and permits us to lay out, to devise, the alternate routes we may take to coming to know the frontier, the poem, and consequently, the creative act.

The mythic dimension of the poem, of the death of "Billy The Kid," serves as a device by which the narrator erects a "death notice"—the poem itself, which becomes, in one sense, the gravestone of the historical figure, but which, at the same time, leaves the possibilities for creation open…. The frontier of the poem, of Billy mythically resurrected from the grave—regardless of whether he bears any resemblance to his day-to-day existence in real life—is presented through an imaginative rendering of historical fact in order to preserve the idea, the fiction, of a poem which works toward creating and defining itself—its background out of which the alternatives for continuing creation may take place. Clearly, then, "the beginning is assuredly / the end" and all that remains is to see how the poet works out the poem's ending.

With the second part of the first division of the poem the poet presents us with the possibilities, with the alternate routes, which he may take to render the past into a present that contains the solutions to the poem's complexities. (pp. 16-17)

The remaining parts of the poem each explore the alternate routes in turn but are quickly rejected as the persona of the poem comes to realize that the solution to the "roads going somewhere," to the direction of the poem, lies in the imaginative rendering of the possibilities of things. The narrator's search to try to "recognize his [Billy's] face" is an attempt to understand the face of creation…. Spicer, then, is aware that the success or failure of his poem lies in the way in which he works out the various alternatives that he has set up. And, it is these alternatives or possibilities which will determine and control the shape of the rest of the poem.

In the first part of the poem the emphasis on point-of-view is placed on information being directed toward the narrator by the radio—"The radio that told me…." But with the second part of the poem we move from the "me" of the first part—which establishes a type of controlling point-of-view or voice—to the internalization of that information. The radio acts as a device which links the world outside the room to the world within the room. This movement is paralleled by a shift in the perspective of the narrator from an auditory knowledge of the death of Billy to a visual knowledge of his death provided by the objects of the room itself. These objects in their own turn visually impinge their existence upon the consciousness of the narrator. Thus the movement of the poem, from external distances toward internal realities, parallels the movement of the first stanza in the same sense as the frontier, the horizon, continually recedes from the narrator's vision. All is movement and impression in the first part of the second stanza and the images of the room's objects are presented in a visual potential which furthers the suggestive possibilities of the radio's information. In short, we move from an auditory knowledge of the death of Billy to a visual knowledge of that death. (p. 17)

[The] narrator is not "ever able quite" to capture the creative vision of Billy that is suggested by the objects of the room. Something is missing and incomplete in the reality presented to the narrator's conscious mind as he sees those objects and that something which is missing is nothing less, at this point, than recognition on the part of the narrator that the objects themselves are not the poem but simply the perceptual field which will make his acts significant. (p. 18)

In this poem we are dealing with a reflective intellectual consciousness which contains an empowered imagination. We are informed that Billy's existence is not dependent upon a "memory" of the past or a "binding together" of external objects—"a collage"—in the poem but with the imaginative rendering of the mind as it makes itself known in its exploration of the poem.

With the beginning of the third part of the poem the narrator makes the final leap from having things imposed upon his consciousness from outside to the complete and total internalization of the idea of "Billy" as a poem about poetry….

Thus in the first two stanzas of "Billy The Kid" we fluctuate between the world of external reality and the world of the imagination. Each swing inward moves us deeper and deeper into the life of the imagination until, in the third part, the narrator finds himself completely submerged in the creative process. (p. 19)

[The narrator] must, in essence, struggle with the discipline of completing his act—the poem as it presents itself. Thus the narrator is forced to explore the significance of Billy before he can come to understand the meaning of his own creative act.

The final stanza of the poem results in the unification of the various themes in the poem with the narrator having travelled the various routes presented at the beginning of the poem as the possibilities of things, and in so doing the narrator has looked back in time and become a reflective intellectual consciousness….

With these final lines the perspective of the poem has changed once again. The poem began in the present and presented the possibilities of the past as alternatives that must be worked out in order that the present may exist. The tense changes from the present to the past—"And there was the desert"—brings us to the understanding that the poem has set up a mechanism by which it, the poem, "could go on forever." Spicer's line "In spite of your death notices," which is given as a type of aside, suggests that though the poem comes to its end it contains the potential for endless growth, for endless creation. Thus the penultimate line "There is honey in the groin" asserts the mythic vitality of the poem as a source for creation itself. (p. 21)

Frank Sadler, "The Frontier in Jack Spicer's 'Billy the Kid'," in Concerning Poetry (copyright © 1976, Western Washington University), Vol. 9, No. 2, Fall, 1976, pp. 15-21.

Michael Davidson

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Spicer taught a version of antinomianism which encouraged learning through opposition and confrontation…. [He] wanted, through his poetry, to defamiliarize language, to "spook" words into new contexts for which the criteria of truthfulness were not at issue. (p. 105)

Language cannot fill that absence which the poet feels between God and himself; it cannot replace one absence with another. It can only record its own coming-to-be, its own incarnation, in the poem. Spicer's Logos is presented as a dictated message which comes from that absolute gulf between man and God.

The work of Spicer's in which this dictation makes its first appearance is Heads of the Town up to the Aether, a book which explores ideas of incarnation and absence as central themes. It is based loosely on a tripartite structure which Spicer compares to Dante's Divine Comedy. The similarity between the two works, while not immediately apparent, occurs through the theme of descent. A poet and his ghostly guide enter the underworld to hear the sad tales of those lost souls who are separated from the world. By recording (dictating) the voices of dead poets, heroes, companions, and mythical figures, Dante revives them and gives them a voice. This voice, for Spicer, is the true Logos.

Spicer's underworld is no farther away than the corner bar, and the language he hears blaring out of the juke box or in the conversations and arguments of friends and enemies is no less "divine" a comedy than Dante's. Heads of the Town records this possessed and playful language before it has been assimilated into a coherent, central voice. Spicer's task of dictation is a necessary step in eliminating the central poetic ego that wants to express itself—that is, one that assumes a continuity of itself with a world. By presenting random voices without a narrative frame or objective correlative, Spicer gives the poem a kind of autonomy. Instead of "showing" a world, it records its own process of trying to speak. This is the incarnation which forms the book's central theme, a trying-to-speak by a voice that has been separated from a body. (pp. 105-06)

Spicer's views on dictation are complex, mainly because he refused to use conventional modes of literary discourse while debunking those modes…. (p. 106)

To state Spicer's poetics briefly … we have to understand certain rules of the game. For him, poets are ghosts, mediums, fakes, radios, and Martians through which the poem is filtered from an endistanced, detached source. This source is totally disinterested in who receives the poem. The poet cannot understand its motives (although he suffers its wrath). Since he does not generate the poem himself, the poet's creative process involves an emptying-out of what Olson called "the lyrical interference of the ego."

Receiving the poem is a matter of being "open" to words as substantial entities, not as a tissue of images, metaphors, or rhetorical gambits which will provide discrete "pictures" of the real. Rather than seek appropriate words to express the inner life, Spicer demands a censorship of the mediating ego…. Words, then, are not tokens to be exchanged for experience, nor are they imbued with special, magical properties. Words are "counters," "simple particles," or building blocks, moved by the poet according to his received message. (pp. 106-07)

"Things do not connect, they correspond," Spicer [said]. The poem must enact the real, create a dynamic structure that doesn't rely on the imagination of the poet. (pp. 107-08)

Spicer's refusal of the mimetic produces a fragmented style which invariably circles around the failure of language in the face of human crisis. Against the mimetic he poses an operational language which puns, jokes, and plays with itself (rather than with meanings). The pun is Spicer's supreme "word" since, by evoking several meanings at once, it dissolves hard and fast semantic contexts. By playing between meanings, it comes alive, follows processes of metamorphosis and change evident in lemons, planets, and humans. This is the domain of what Spicer called "The Real," where words suffer duplicity and change, where the ground of semantic assurance is continually broken down. The uncertainty of language in this condition is called "Hell" throughout Heads of the Town, a place where the poet finds himself while chasing meaning as permanence, as transcendence.

[This "Hell"] is chronicled in the story of Orpheus. In Spicer's version the poet finds himself pursuing beauty, all the while confronting cryptic messages in its place…. The attempt to locate the beautiful in words results in failure….

The words that exist in Hell are ghosts or "low-ghosts," as Spicer likes to call them. They are "low" in the way a shaggy-dog story is low humor, and they are "low" by existing BE-low a hovering meaning, a displaced immanence. (p. 108)

The small group of poets in San Francisco who were associated with [Spicer] constituted a gathering of sectarian adepts who argued against the orthodoxies of a poetry conceived according to New Critical principles and English Department curricula. The spells, Martian talk, fake translations, and encoded messages carried in magazines like Open Space and J were designed to appropriate power over a world of monolithic structures. It is within this synthesis of poetics and theology, the contention of doctrines, orthodoxies, and heresies, that Heads of the Town up to the Aether was conceived. (p. 109)

Much of the difficulty encountered in reading the [first section, "Homage to Creeley,"] is due to the ambiguity of transitions. It is the most compact and discontinuous of the three books; the syntactic term is brief and the fragmentation more prevalent. Spicer follows each word or phrase as an entity separate from some governing semantic context. By dismantling conventional transitions and organic links, Spicer fulfills one aspect of his poetic realism by disclosing the objectivity (and vulnerability) of language. He makes "a poem that has no sound in it but the pointing of a finger."… (p. 117)

The "Homage to Creeley" contains a Hell of disjunctive voices and false connections. Upon this chaos Spicer projects a Purgatory out of the idea of biography. "A Fake Novel about the Life of Rimbaud" is not an attempt to write either a novel or a biography but to explore the idea of a life based upon the world of meanings which Rimbaud helped to invent. Spicer does this through a mis-writing or fake translation of Rimbaud's biography and of Les Illuminations, but if the reader goes to these works to find sources, he will be disappointed. Rimbaud is addressed as a living presence, a poet who continues to exert an influence…. (p. 119)

[Both Spicer and Rimbaud] distrusted the world of established aesthetics, preferring the immediacy of childhood experience and popular culture…. It is not the world of a studied innocence but of a sincere belief in the power of childhood imagination.

"A Fake Novel" carries over this affection for the naïve and popular by turning Rimbaud's life into an adventure story, a myth, a mystery…. The adventure depends upon our willingness to participate in Spicer's sense of the mysterious and strange; the reader becomes a member of a secret society who has pledged his faith to that code which holds it together. Scary stories, magical incantations, baseball lore, word games, and oaths operate to create the atmosphere of Tom Sawyer's gang…. (pp. 119-20)

Rimbaud is clearly one of the gang, true to the spirit of youthfulness and to the agonies and excesses encountered while outgrowing it. It is this boys' club context in which Rimbaud ("One of us") must be seen….

Rather than translate Rimbaud, Spicer imitates his compositional mode by writing an imaginary biography based on incidents in the poet's life. He seems to say that what we know as Rimbaud is not the series of events which comprised his life but, rather, the poems made out of those experiences. The poet becomes a dimension of his own incarnation in language. (p. 120)

The "Fake Novel" explores the contingencies of poetry and history (or of the poet and his biography). For a poet to exist there must be readers who inhabit history—a history different from Rimbaud's, perhaps, but one dependent on him for having made history what it is. When Spicer says, "Poe predicted the Civil War," he means that Poe helped to create a world in language out of which the Civil War emerged. Every event is contingent upon other events; the poet as "antenna of the race" is the mediator of those events. It is this sense of the interconnectedness of historical moments that allows Spicer to make rather grand claims: "If Rimbaud had died there in the cabbage patch before we imagined he existed there would be no history."… We can only "imagine" him from the perspective of his having affected us, of our already having assimilated him into our present discourse.

If all events are contingent, there is no room for division or chance. Rimbaud and President Buchanan, by occupying the same historical dates, become close comrades; one receives poet messages and the other "invents" the U.S. Post Office. They correspond as messengers in the service of language just as a dead poet like Lorca becomes a contemporary through Spicer's letters to him. Historical events are necessary, not arbitrary; they occur by a design which can never be apparent to the eye and which only certain figures (poets, for example) can make out: "It has all been anticipated, there isn't any more for you to do."… (p. 122)

The Rimbaud "novel" operates on several levels: biography, fictive biography, fake novel, translation, history, allegory of Purgatory. Each level distances us from that literal condition of Rimbaud's life, a life that seemed a fiction even to Rimbaud. This amalgamation of levels produces a "collage of the real."… (p. 124)

Surrealism provides a … basis for the third section, "A Textbook of Poetry." As an extension of developments out of Rimbaud and Symbolism, Surrealism provides its own doctrines of correspondence, transcription, and dictation, and is linked to Spicer's ongoing concern with incarnation…. (p. 125)

Why "Textbook"? Spicer's continual antagonist is the university English teacher committed to New Critical methods of interpretation…. Spicer wants, by his title, to force a reading of the poem as a methodology, to erase the distinction between text and interpretation (as he had done in the Creeley section), and to eliminate the hierarchy of student and teacher which the textbook institutionalizes. (p. 126)

Perhaps a more basic reason for considering the final section as a textbook stems from Spicer's commitment to the idea of poetry as poetics. His work invariably centers on aspects of poetry and poetic theory as well as on processes of reception, translation, and dictation. He does not eschew content but recognizes the reflexive and problematic nature of its relation to language. For this reason "A Textbook of Poetry" provides both the literal occasion and the theory behind it, not as two separate levels but as a dialogue between two contending voices.

At the same time that Spicer seeks to escape a poetics of intentionalism and immanence, he also questions a theology of presence whereby Christ, as Logos, replaces an original divine purpose. In this last and paradisaical section of his trilogy, the idea of incarnation is questioned again and again…. Incarnation becomes a metaphor for poetic dictation, the making-real of a jumbled message. Spicer distrusts the idea of Christ (or the poem) as an allegory of man's experience projected upon a benevolent purpose; this is when theology and poetics become "fixed" by the subjective ideal. Spicer sees Christ not as a "person" but as a "personification," a metaphor, something which links dissimilar objects. It is not the equation that interests him but rather the distance that separates each term, that gap which has been called "desire for savior." The absence of God, the insufficiency of his incarnation in human form, leaves the poet in his role as Orphic translator warning the faithful of their own self-delusions…. (p. 127)

If language becomes both subject and object, divinity and mediator, the fixities of temporality and spatiality also become qualified…. What remains are oppositions, differences, interstices, erasures. Spicer cannot provide an adequate image for a ghost or for God. He can only be truthful to the play of his language, and this refusal of a unitary meaning provides the energetic wordplay and syntactic irregularity in his work. Words take on a magical, evocative power which astonish the poet…. (p. 128)

The language of the game comes as though in a foreign language which the poet mimics ("Esstoneish") in his attempt to reach a true language ("Etonnez moi"). Spicer elsewhere describes this as a Martian language which speaks through the poet but uses the speech patterns, memories, and phenomena of the poet's own life…. (pp. 128-29)

The spatial metaphor by which God exists "above" and Man "below" is, for Spicer, a fiction which we cling to in order to give form to a sense of helplessness…. Spicer's Civitas Dei is an image of community, a city towards which each proposition of community strives … and fails. This is the "Town" of the book's title, filled with individuals who "are angry at their differences" and who "use separate words" to explain beliefs. Spicer wants to unite word and belief, dead and living, through a radical redefinition: "The city redefined becomes a church. A movement of poetry. Not merely a system of belief but their beliefs and their hearts living together."… It was this unification which Spicer saw possible in the new poetry emerging in San Francisco during the fifties, a poetry which was not based on the university textbook but which arose out of the struggles and contentions present in the city itself. (p. 129)

The theme of incarnation is not only a spiritual exercise. It is a problem in Spicer's poetics of dictation, which seeks to concretize an endlessly distanced voice. At its base is the problem of desire, an ontology of absence, which finds thematic application in the search for Eurydice, the attempt to create a poetic "life" for Rimbaud, and, in this third chapter, the synthesis of Christ with the lover.

Throughout the book Spicer refers to "Jim" as the personal recipient of his poem—as though the book itself were a long, encoded letter. Indeed, the letter becomes the poet's major form of address throughout his poetry. It is an utterance totally specific, written to someone who will read his life in it: "Each one of them [letters] is a mirror, dedicated to the person that I particularly want to look into it. But mirrors can be arranged. The frightening hall of mirrors in a fun house is universal beyond each particular reflection."…

The arrangement of mirrors or poems to reflect a private message is one further stage of Spicer's theme of incarnation. He wants to establish a special dialogue between himself and the other. His poetics of dictation is a way of reaching out to that absolutely specific person who is as absent to the poem as is God. Spicer, by addressing "Jim," makes him an accomplice and entangles the rest of us in a private confession. To make the word human, he cannot deal in universals; by making words private, he gives them autonomy and allows them to "speak" to man…. (p. 130)

[For] Spicer, incarnation does not imply a symbolic resolution or leap of faith. His radical Calvinism refused any assurance of election and left him subservient to "What the words choose to say."

It is difficult to bridge the gap between the two opposite poles of his thought: the word as mute object and the word as self-determining organism; private reference and public poetry; immanence of God in language and absence of God in the world; a demand for privacy and an awareness of the futility of privacy. "A Textbook of Poetry," by keeping a dualism alive and unresolved, teaches by example. Its theme, like that of After Lorca, is the making-real of poetic language, the incarnation of an alien voice that has been lost to us. The key lies in the common words which we substitute for what we don't know; the same word which refers to the lover (Him) also refers to Christ in Spicer's arrangement. By this duplicity, he redefines the sacred-secular dichotomy as one universe or, more appropriately, one city…. (pp. 130-31)

The multiple frames created by [Spicer's] disorderly "Textbook" bring the word into its own domain as language, not as a sign which the poet can use to replace specific instances: "Seeking experience for specific instances, drawing upon the pulp of the brain and the legs and the arms and the motion of the poet, making him see things that can be conveyed through their words."… It is a difficult education that this textbook proposes. (p. 131)

Michael Davidson, "Incarnations of Jack Spicer: 'Heads of the Town up to the Aether'," in boundary 2 (copyright © boundary 2, 1977), Vol. VI, No. 1, Fall, 1977, pp. 103-34.

Peter Riley

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The Holy Grail is the summation of Jack Spicer's explorations into perception-as-love; it is a complete phenomenology of purpose which culminates his attention to the poetic act in all his previous books. (p. 163)

[In The Holy Grail we find] a more direct engagement with experience, and … a total language generated on the spot, without recourse to prosaic modes of reference and mimicry. It no longer works through a negative to reach the positive. Also, as Spicer's principal struggle with the throes of metaphorical language, it reaches the just and ultimate extension of lyric in the forms of romance or drama…. The Holy Grail seems to clinch the entire question of perception/love as exploratory (questing) journey, and to reveal its ultimate structure as essentially a seven-fold construct. (pp. 164-65)

[Spicer said] he wrote The Holy Grail from poem to poem, deliberately striving to forget one poem before proceeding to the next, and never holding anything in reserve, which means never foreseeing the future course or making allowances for it. This book's foremost structural leap, of taking the former concept of the serial poem and refolding it seven times into a series of serial poems forming one book (which Heads did only by negating the former concept into prose), was something he didn't (he said) decide to do. He was writing a book about Gawain, and then found he was going on to Percival, and so on through the series of personages. And yet this multiplication of the serial poem is what gains for the book its advance towards the mode of Spicer's last two books. By operating with a field of reference (Arthurian romance) rather than a singular obsessive figure (Billy the Kid, Rimbaud, etc.), it shifted towards his final ability to operate a book beyond obsession or preoccupation altogether, and to produce the complete book without any external defining or colouring factors, which he first did with Language.

Given this method of writing we should be surprised if there is any linear coherence at all. What we might expect would be a collection of poems, unified only in terms of colouration, by being all written at about the same time with the author's then current preoccupations (in this case Arthurian romance). Narrative is the last thing to be expected. Spicer also didn't count, or number, the poems as he wrote, but only stopped each "Book," and the whole book, when he felt he had reached a termination and for no other reason. Yet when he had finished he had a book of seven Books, each Book containing seven poems. This is a sign of the measure of symmetry and cohesion which did emerge. (pp. 165-66)

Any perception of the book's final coherence is … dependent upon our ability to read the poem as a total enactment rather than as statement or scene. If we read The Holy Grail as a dramatic genre … we can only get so far…. (p. 167)

But the reader is spurred on by a sense (of obscure origin) that there must be a complete coherence (as the knights know there must be a Grail, though they don't see it)…. [For instance, sometimes the reader loses the fight to comprehend], just as the knights lose their fights and their quests fail (or win them, and their quests still fail). The reader can only tackle … obscure lines by immersing himself in them and, as it were, believing them absolutely…. (pp. 167-68)

[The complete statement is in the first poem of "The Book of Gawain"]. The emphasis is on Gawain's failure, but all the quests fail—as an essay on purpose and achievement the book must be an essay on failure. (p. 170)

Really we are not dealing with a set of fictional personae, but rather a series of textual acts. Each questor is projected as the author's pre-occupation in the writing of that particular Book and thus as his engagement with a particular stance towards the real at that point. The full poetic act is to pass through all of these and reach the last Book, for no new leverage can apply until the present one is exhausted. The 7-fold structure is, apparently, what emerges when you do this. And hovering over the whole thing like The Grail itself is the unity of the entire set of Books, which consists in their not being repetitive but successive, so that the 7-fold act of completion is quite miraculously re-engendered in the movement from Book to Book. (p. 171)

["The Book of Lancelot"] is the last of the Books of The Holy Grail to treat the quest directly as journey-towards-an-object, and Lancelot is its last hero (except for Galahad, and that is a different matter)…. The Grail can no longer be envisaged as a "thing" at all, a singular object or an object-like enclosure (a cup). (p. 176)

["The Book of Gwenivere" is about] an anti-love quest, a hate quest, an anti-Grail quest and an anti-quest quest. (p. 177)

Spicer compares that mental adventure which is the Grail quest to the flight of a bullet: at the outset there is an assurance which sets the questor (apparently) straight towards his objective, but gravity and resistance force him into a downward curve and he returns to earth (another failed quest). Gwenivere is this pull earthward, and it seems that this reluctance, which is associated with forms of love, is a permanent condition of the quest, there from the start (the "morning"). But if that pull back is gravitational, it is thereby also itself the medium of physical engagement which makes movement possible—ascent uses gravity. A balance among gravitation, momentum, and motive force is suggested as the conditional of the perfect quest, but it is also apparent that no person has sufficient impetus to achieve the infinite curve, the orbit itself. (p. 180)

["The Book of Merlin"] has been called a political poem more than once, as indeed it is, but if that is understood in the usual sense it becomes very difficult to work out who is on whose side in what conflict and a confusion remains….

Spicer handles this by a paradox of two extremes of inner and outer. Merlin was a magician, magus, and prophet. He advised the court like a political theorist, but he also prophesied the Grail quests and manufactured their initiation by magic. He thus not only bore an overview of the entire social mundus, he also set in motion the reach beyond it which destroyed it. But at the height of his career he became infatuated with a fay, who lured him into an underground cave and imprisoned him there forever…. Spicer renders this narrative into a simultaneity—Merlin is both imprisoned and prophesying at the same time. So there is this paradoxical situation: politics as the attempt to view the world as if from above or outside it, and the speaker shut up in a hole in the ground. The world is viewed from outer space and from underground. (p. 181)

What Galahad [in "The Book of Galahad"] achieves is simply success itself—he is a successful person. Nothing holds him back: no Gwenivere distracts him because he is "pure" … and not in the least subject to guilt, doubts, conscience, or any inhibiting factor—he has no real flesh…. And he is a totally integral personality, not split or "fooled" like the others…. And he does not exist….

There is a strange effect here, as Galahad does achieve what all the others were striving towards (or against). We have witnessed so many noble failures in this seemingly impossible quest after an undefinable goal, which has seemed to figure forth the whole purpose of existence…. In a work of self-confident idealism we might expect a series of failures such as this to lead to a final solution which embodies the author's view of the perfect.

Against this we have the view of Galahad which Spicer throws at us in poem 3: "an SS officer." (p. 183)

Galahad is the semblance of a policeman—he is the office without the person, or an image of success and acquiescence put out on TV soap-ads which corresponds to no reality. No policeman or SS officer or anything actually is this direct and victorious soul within a vacuum.

This finally rescues The Grail from attainability—it must now be seen not as achievement but as distance itself. Earlier it had seemed to be a reachable point on the horizon, but when we got to that edge it turned into a new landscape every time. It is no longer desirable, possible, or even conceivable to attain it, and this extends a blessing back to all the other "failures," making them successes, as the only possible fruits of their quests. Galahad cannot "really" have achieved The Grail because he did not fail, and failure has become an essential feature of the Grail quests. (p. 184)

Spicer is no longer saying (as he had in all his previous books) that this is as far as he can go, as he senses the burning out of the book's defining obsessions; he is saying that this is as far as there is to go, and that marks the approach of the end of the language of connectivity. Metaphor is reduced to a unity—there is only one. The book's language reaches its own limit. That limit, a stasis at the uttermost reach, is really the experience and crisis of the Gala-had Book, along with the fears of engendering harm in reaching away from the known. Yet The Grail remains, and this cannot be the end because The Grail is to-go-further or to-have-somewhere-further-to-go-to….

The immense release and optimism of poem 7 are only possible because Galahad's quest is revealed as essentially an incompletion—not falling short, but lacking gravity, curvature, or fall itself. (p. 185)

[If "The Book of the Death of Arthur"] is the book of return and failure, certain things might be expected to follow which largely don't. And actually I do think it's impressive the way this Book doesn't just take off from the last poem of "Galahad" into "return" as a series of descents back to a newly bright normality. It doesn't need to—the renewal of the everyday is a constant science of the whole book in the tension of every line. (pp. 185-86)

In Spicer's last three books (of which The Holy Grail is the first) it seems … as if the whole point of the sequentiality is only to be able to arrive at [the] final question of the nature of evil, and that is perhaps the point at which the metaphorical poet passes out of the condition of extended lyric into a poetry of literalness and narrative extent. (pp. 186-87)

Spicer's theology, then, comes to the contemplation of a fault in the world, and Arthur's book considers the reality of that in a succession of quite violently disparate constructs…. (p. 187)

Throughout the book The Grail has attracted momentary definitions from the various quests towards it, but in the end the question as to what The Grail "is" always defeats itself…. In terms of text, The Grail might at first be thought of as metaphor itself—the ultimate singular metaphor which connects everything together. But a "hole" between things is not a connection; it is the channel in which connection or metaphor might operate—it is distance. (p. 188)

In these final comprehensions of The Grail, it is not exactly (or not only) a gap of distance to be traversed—it is a distance which can only be traversed by a completely new medium of progression, so that it necessitates a change (as from life to death) of the whole person, or his replacement. This is what happens at the end of each Book, as each "death" passes the quest on to the next questor…. This could mean that The Grail is achieved, but only in that transit (in the gaps between the Books)—its achievement consists of that transition, which is not itself an act but a precondition (and postcondition) of act. The Grail is the distance between contingent spheres.

Within these considerations could lie the whole point of Spicer's poetic method. He insists that each act must be absolutely complete, otherwise it cannot verge on the totally good (The Grail), which is the transition over to the future act (not necessarily the self's future act). Each act (each poem) becomes complete by having the courage to tackle the objective of that moment of presence, whatever it is, and that is a matter largely of what will block further progress if it is not tackled. The poem fights it, and whether it wins or loses, passes beyond that edge-experience to a new place, which always bears a polarity in time of complete newness co-present with complete return. That polarity is another, different, edge, and if that is reached it will lead to the next new act naturally, and not to repetition.

This procedure rescues metaphorical poetry from condoning evil because evil is essentially an incompletion within a completable sphere of action—not a thing of its own at all, but a failure of good. Human incompletion of this kind is thus sharply distinguished from natural process, which has its own incompletion, or fault, only as a form of boundary between its entities.

Nowhere before The Holy Grail is the realization of this analysis of human purpose so complete. The book is a conclusion which passed Spicer on to a severe transition. When he set out again, the mental basis of the book's existence had changed, from a field of preoccupation to an actually obtaining condition of immediate event. And this bore him on to his next true field, which was language itself. (p. 189)

Peter Riley, "The Narratives of 'The Holy Grail'," in boundary 2 (copyright © boundary 2, 1977), Vol. VI, No. 1, Fall, 1977, pp. 163-89.




Spicer, Jack (Vol. 8)