Jack Spicer Spicer, Jack (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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...

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Frank Sadler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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Michael Davidson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter Riley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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