Thursday, April 16, 2009


Jack Spicer heard voices. “The poet is a radio,” he declared in one of his late poems, picking up transmissions from some “thing from Outside”, which he sometimes called a ghost or even a Martian. Often these voices were sinister and threatening, as in the poem “Magic”, which begins, “Strange, I had words for dinner,” and ends “Stranger, I had bones for dinner.” This in itself picks up on a pun (“Po-etery”) from a previous poem, but it spooked Spicer. “When ‘Magic’ came I was terrified,” he admitted. The voices came best of all when he was drunk. “Giving yourself to poetry,” he announced, “is like giving yourself to alcohol – most people can’t or are afraid. I’ve given myself to both.” Before he died from alcohol poisoning at the age of 40 in 1965, his last words to his friend Robin Blaser were: “My vocabulary did this to me. Your love will let you go on.”

Wesleyan University Press have done much to rehabilitate Spicer. They gave us the troubled, unlikable figure that stumbles through Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance (1998) by Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian, seemingly hell-bent on alienating everyone around him. It is a detailed and compelling portrait that never quite accounts for the humour and charm of the poems. Wesleyan also published the four lectures that Spicer gave shortly before his death as The House That Jack Built (1998), edited by the poet Peter Gizzi. Now Gizzi and Killian have teamed up to produce My Vocabulary Did This to Me, a definitive, one-volume introduction to Spicer’s work. It should ensure that Spicer is once again regarded as a major figure in the post-war San Francisco poetry scene.

Although the early poems are interesting and cast light on Spicer’s later development, it is the San Francisco section of this book, the serial poems beginning with After Lorca (1957), that really matters. Here we see Spicer developing his own unique tone: a halting lyricism, tinged with loneliness and ambivalence towards poetry itself. This mature style is probably best exemplified by the haunting, pessimistic poem that begins the “Thing Language” section of Language (1964).

This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.
No one listens to poetry. The ocean
Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
Or crash of water. It means
Is bread and butter
Pepper and salt. The death
That young men hope for. Aimlessly
It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
One listens to poetry.

Spicer is also a master of the throwaway opening. “Heros eat soup like anyone else” is how one poem starts, while another begins

Any fool can get into an ocean
But it takes a Goddess
To get out of one.

Spicer has sometimes been regarded as a satellite of Robert Duncan, his fellow poet in the so-called San Francisco Renaissance. The Spicer-Duncan relationship was painful and provocative, and Spicer has been described as Caliban to Duncan’s more urbane Prospero. Certainly, Spicer knew how to curse, dropping the occasional “Fuck / You” or “Screw you” into his verse. Both were open-form poets, Spicer conceding that Duncan was the better craftsman. Yet he also observed that “Robert became a whore”, because he sought publication and networked. “Damn it all, Robert Duncan, there is only one bordello,” he mocks in “Dover Beach”, a good example of his taste for literary allusions and borrowings.

Spicer was deeply conflicted about making money from poetry (a problem few poets are forced to wrestle with today, admittedly). Fiercely regional, and living most of his life in the Bay Area, he regarded the publicity-seeking Beat poets as enemies on his turf and refused to prostitute his art by selling his small-press published books in the City Lights Bookstore (until the very end of his life, when he was desperate for the cash). “Number one, don’t sell out as a poet,” he insisted in the last of his lectures. My Vocabulary Did This to Me includes the recently discovered poem “Golem” (1962), in which Spicer accuses the Greek poet Pindar of being “a publicity man for some princes”, putting a postmodern spin on the poet’s dilemma

The very words I write
Do not purify. Are fixed in the
language evolved by thousands
of generations of these princes –
used mainly for commerce

Spicer’s mature poems – especially Language (he was a researcher in linguistics at UC Berkeley) and Book of Magazine Verse (1965), which perversely consists of poems composed for magazines that had rejected his poems – proved an important inspiration for a younger generation of Language poets. His work anticipated a new attitude to language as no longer a means of self-expression but a vast, impersonal inherited network of signs that speaks through us. Yet Spicer’s last poems only point the way, emphasising the materiality of language and the loss of the poet’s ego through dictation from Outside; they do not deliberately court unreadability like some Language poetry. Spicer’s verse resists assimilation into the mainstream and is uncompromising, but for all his talk of expunging the ego it remains deeply personal. As Gizzi and Killian point out in their introduction, Spicer was interested in “the blurring of letters and poems”, a poetics of “correspondence”, and many of his poems take the form of urgent and arresting arguments with lovers, ex-lovers and friends. A Spicer poem often begins with a lyrical statement and ends in anger, as if reflecting his own yearning for conversation and a companionship that never comes or never stays for long.

There is an essential melancholy in Spicer’s work. “Loneliness is necessary for pure poetry,” he says in After Lorca, an attitude undoubtedly informed by his sexuality. “Homosexuality is essentially being alone,” he declares in the poem “Three Marxist Essays”. If a poem, to borrow William Carlos Williams’s phrase, is a machine made out of words, and the poet, following Spicer’s lead, is a machine receiving voices from Outside, there would seem to be little space left for human experience. Yet in the poem “Sporting Life” Spicer seems to acknowledge the limitations of his carefully cultivated machine aesthetic, observing that “The trouble with comparing a poet with a radio is that radios / don’t develop scar tissue.”

No comments: