The Poem

“Phonemics” is in serial form; it consists of six related poems, varying in length between eleven and twenty lines. The title alludes to the study of language sounds, and it helps bring to the foreground the materiality of language in this poem as in other works of Jack Spicer.

Spicer was a professional linguist, and “Phonemics” is one of seven such serial poems in a 1965 book entitled Language. The book jacket of Language consists of the title page from an issue of a linguistics journal of the same name, an issue that contains Spicer’s sole professional publication. Obviously, the poet wanted to remind his readers that poems, whatever their sentiments, consist of language, that the words one uses govern the way one thinks, and that the ways that one’s culture provides for putting words together delineate the boundaries of what it is possible to “say” with words.

It would be misleading to term this a first-person poem, for three of the six sections do not contain the word “I.” The form of address is rather that of a lecturer who is being objective concerning a situation. That said, however, it should be noted that the voice remains thoroughly idiosyncratic, completely identifiable as Spicer’s idiolect, so that even though the first-person pronoun, in either subjective or objective case, seldom occurs, the presence of a single speaker can be felt throughout—the presence, as the poet and critic Ron...

(The entire section is 555 words.)

Forms and Devices

The free-verse sections—poems in their own right, really, which make up the poem “Phonemics”—are united by a number of qualities found throughout. In the first place, their sentence structure is unorthodox: Many of the sentences are actually sentence fragments; phrases are left dangling, unattended by the normal considerations of verb or subject; there is considerable underpunctuation and heavy reliance upon ellipses; quotations are interpolated without attribution; words are broken into their phonemic parts with total disregard for customary procedures. All these violations are deliberate and serve again to highlight the language; the awkwardness and out-of-the-ordinary quality they lend to the writing are calculated to remind the reader that language has a primary, privileged role in one’s thinking about reality, and indeed in the creation of that reality.

These sentences and sentence ruins often comment upon one another, so that the progression through a Spicer poem is less linear than crablike or sideways. Take, for example, the following passage:

Wake up one warm morning. See the sea in the distance.Die Ferne, waterBecause mainly it is not land. A hot day tooThe shreads of fog have already vaporizedHave gone back where they came from. There may be a...

(The entire section is 533 words.)