The Poem

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555

“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.

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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 Silliman has remarked, of a felt absence.

“Phonemics,” in common with much other poetry by Spicer, examines, poetically rather than academically, the matter of distance—its role in communication, the ways in which speaking or writing causes it to be felt and discerned between would-be communicants. “The lips/ Are never quite as far away as when you kiss,” he writes, offering a paradox that can exemplify this condition. The double role that lips play—kissing and speaking—in human interaction also informs the following lines from the ensuing section:

Tough lips that cannot quite make the sounds of loveThe languageHas so misshaped them.

For Spicer, the struggle to be authentic involves a deep mistrust, if not a downright rejection, of any language that convention assigns to various duties. Those clichés predict behavior, whereas love requires freshness, the use of inventive and playful language, spontaneity—the kind of use that this poem embodies, with an irregularity which is that of life and not the predictable pattern of death.

People are always looking for shortcuts, Spicer implies, but true love has a course that is not only rough but also lengthy:

On the tele-phone (distant sound) you sounded no distant than  if you were talking to me in San Francisco on the telephone  or in a bar or in a room. LongDistance calls. They break soundInto electrical impulses and put it back again. Like the long  telesexual route to the brain or the even longer teleerotic  route to the heart. The numbers dialed badly| The  connection faint.

It might not be too much of an exaggeration or a simplification to say of Spicer that he wrote antipoetry and was against love—love, at least, as commonly lived (and voiced) by those around him. It should be added, however, that he took those positions for what he perceived to be the good of poetry and of love.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 533

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 whale  in this ocean.Empty fragments, like the shards of pots found in some  Mesopotamian expedition. Found but not put together. The  unstableUniverse has distance but not much else.No one’s weather or room to breathe in.

This, the second section of “Phonemics” in its entirety, illustrates a number of the devices referred to above. Intrusion of the scholarly sounding “Die Ferne,” German for “distance,” may also occur to the poet because it contains the English word “far” half hidden in it; Spicer interrupts what had been promising to be a bland beginning—just the kind of “poetic” language he abhorred, with the heavy alliteration of the first sentence, the platitudinous rhyming of “sea” and “see”—with a pedantic-sounding footnote, which he follows with a second academic pun, “main”: another word for sea, half buried in “mainly.” The poem then loops back to further landscape evocation, quite accurately characterizing the conditions of that portion of Northern California in which Spicer lived, and quite neutral in tone—although the lack of punctuation at the end of lines 3 and 4 sends a characteristic signal, as does the apparent afterthought qualifying the fog, a phrase more often applied to unwanted visitors. The speculative assertion that ensues concerning the possible whale leads only to a sentence apparently summarizing the poem thus far, although it might, at the same time, refer to the poet’s feelings about the depicted scene.

While “Found but not put together” lacks explicit signs of value, there is a suggestion in the context of “Phonemics” and Language that it is a good thing to leave such shards “as is” and not to try to force or contrive unity, not to glue things back together. The poem itself partakes of this condition of shards incompletely welded to one another. It does so, Spicer implies, because reality is also shardlike rather than unified, and because the poem owes a debt to reality, if only by creating what one calls the real out of our words.

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