Sunday, August 14, 2005
An Advertisement for Jack Spicer
Another note on surrealism. (What? Can a series contain such gaps? Why, this post touches on that very question. “It coheres all right”!)
Folks should read Jack Spicer. Who, you say? One third of the Berkeley Renaissance (whose brand-name got stolen by the Big Media Superstar Beats in San Francisco), along with the better known Robert Duncan (but how much better known?) and the even less well-known Robin Blaser, Spicer has a lot to offer an academic audience.
He is very interesting biographically. Not just gay, but a member of the Mattachine Society, which is to say, very cutting edge. Refused to sign the Loyalty Oath at UC in 1950, which is to say again, very cutting edge, and it lost him his TAship, & he didn’t really have any other way to make a living, so his politics had a concrete dimension.
But in back of all this good stuff, there’s also a good deal of nastiness. Letters and associate’s accounts reveal racist tendencies (a nice way to put it), and he was one of the all-time drunks. Drinking yourself dead by forty takes some amount of talent.
& in between those poles, he was also super-obsessed with baseball and sports in general, a rare trait in an avant-garde poet.
All in all, a very complicated character, which means, lots of stuff for investigation and argument.
His main work is compact. & for those of us who lack the stamina of true scholars, this is a good thing. (How pleasant of Mr. Eliot to leave us a small volume of Collected Poems.) His mature work takes up 260 or so pages of The Collected Books. Any remaining extent poems are collected in a thin volume, One Night Stand & Other Poems. There’s a short (actually, unfinished) detective novel, Tower of Babel. The collected lectures, The House That Jack Built, have the biggest word count of any of these, but they are mostly Q & A sessions, which is to say, many of the words aren’t his. All in all, it takes up less than a foot on your bookshelf. (If you can get them on your bookshelf. Whether or not these books will get back in print or stay there, that’s another issue.)
Though his work is hermetic, and though there isn’t a lot of scholarship to fall back on, there are a number of hermeneutic aids available. Blaser’s substantial essay at the back of Collected Books is a great help. Blaser has as smart and as strong a poetic sensibility Duncan’s, but is much more sympathetic to Spicer’s work. The recently published lectures give a more direct account of Spicer’s practice. And there is also the biography, Poet Be Like God, a rambling series of anecdotes that captures the social scene behind the poems (very important in this case) and gives your referents for all the names of the beloved scattered through the poems.
Now, in my previous post on the subject, there was a sense of antagonism between the hermetic and hermeneutic. It’s a fraught situation: inside vs. outside, writer vs. critic, a lone book besieged by armies of readers. But with Collected Books, we have that nicest of features, an internal hermeneutic device, and one placed in that most convenient of places, at the beginning, with the first book, “After Lorca.” This poem, or series of poems, or serial poem, marks the turn in Spicer’s career, a turn from working on poems as individual objects, and a turn toward what Blaser called the “practice of the Outside.” Spicer calls it taking “dictation” from “Martians” (in other words, the muse system). Despite all the difficulty of the later work, “After Lorca” presents an intermediate step, something that makes it easier for the reader, a bridge from something already known (the writing of Garcia Lorca) to something new. The poem even includes direct prose explanations of the work, in the form of correspondence between Spicer and a twenty-years dead Francisco Garcia Lorca.
Spicer’s short career divides into two parts. For ten years he writes, as does just about every poet who ever was, individual poems. He came to refer to these as “one night stands,” quickies, as it were, with the Muse. In 1956, he switched strategies and started to write what he called “books” or “serial poems.” The Collected Books of Jack Spicer gathers the work of the second phase.The division between the two phases turns on a radical change in Spicer’s poetics. He starts claiming that “[t]here is no such thing as a single poem” and “[a] book isn’t a collection of poems.” Rather than a quick fling, each book represents an extended relationship with the Muse, going out with her (him? It? (Are Martians male or female?)) for a couple of weeks, maybe months, then breaking up, only to get back together in a couple of months for another violent round.
Blaser, a co-developer and fellow practitioner of this technique, describes it as a kind of narrative:
I’m interested in a particular kind of narrative—what Jack Spicer and I agreed to call in our own work the serial poem—this is a narrative which refuses to adopt an imposed story line, and completes itself only in the sequence of poems, if, in fact, a reader insists upon a definition of completion which is separate from the activity of the poems themselves. The poems tend to act as a sequence of energies which run out when so much of a tale is told. I like to describe this in Ovidian terms, as a carmen perpetuam, a continuous song in which the fragmented subject matter is only apparently disconnected.
Blaser’s fuses narrative and lyric here in an interesting way, but comes dangerously close to repeating Coleridge’s distinction between organic and mechanic form. He nearly betrays a key feature of the work. As Blaser explains in “The Practice of Outside,” the genius of the serial poem lies not within but without. While organic form realizes a principle innate to the poem, Blaser & Spicer’s serial poetry reaches for something exterior. In an explanatory letter addressed to Blaser and included in “Admonitions,” the second of the collected books, Spicer hints at one possible identity for this exterior thing:
The trick naturally is what Duncan learned years ago and tried to teach us—not to search for the perfect poem but to let your way of writing of the moment go along its own paths, explore and retreat but never be fully realized (confined) within the boundaries of one poem. This is where we were wrong and he was right, but he complicated things by saying there is no such thing as good or bad poetry. There is—but not in relation to a single poem. There is really no single poem.
(An aside: I have no idea how this particular argument over whether poetry can be good or bad went. I can guess: someone told me that Coleridge says somewhere that there’s no such thing as bad poetry. Adorno says something similar, the idea being that a good poem is a poem, is accomplished enough to count as an artifact, & a bad one doesn’t even count.)
So these collected “books” are a dozen serial poems, arranged in chronological order. Of course these serial poems consist of a series of individual poems, each with their individual title and blank space on the paper before the beginning and after the end. Neither Spicer nor Blaser nor Duncan ever stopped writing poems.
Imagine two poles, one being poems, that is, manifest artifacts, and the other being poetry, that is, the never-manifested essence(?ideal?energy?spirit?). Any poet is working somewhere between these two poles, probably closer to one than the other. Spicer (along with Blaser & Duncan & the whole school of Olson) drives toward the latter.
(Consider this as a possible dust-up for the comments section: the distinction between poems vs. poetry is a much more productive line of attack on the same problem folks are trying to get at when they make the ultimately sterile distinction between formal vs. free verse.)
(& the idea that poetry consists of a manifest written artifact somehow pointing toward an unmanifestable content will be taken up again in my entry for the Literary Wittgenstein exposition.)
Of course it ain’t easy to get at something that won’t make itself manifest. Spicer goes at it figuratively, with talk of the Muse. Perhaps no poet since the ancients takes the idea of a muse so seriously. Spicer speaks à la Yeats of taking “dictation” from “ghosts” and “Martians.” He arranges his writing practices to make himself receptive: relying on impulse, never revising, drinking lots. He develops techniques for disabling his will.
Which makes “After Lorca,” the first of his “books,” peculiar to me, because it offers several features that help get the reader across to this new kind of writing. They are the kind of things that would seem to be deliberate efforts to help the reader, like the transitional sentences that I try to teach my students to write. But what are these features?
First, the poems themselves. As Garcia Lorca himself explains in an introductory letter,
these poems are not translations. In even the most literal of them Mr. Spicer seems to derive pleasure in inserting or substituting one or two words which completely change the mood and often meaning of the poem as I had written it. More often he takes one of my poems and adjoins to half of it another half of his own, giving rather the effect of an unwilling centaur. (Modesty forbids me to speculate which end of the animal is mine.)
And almost half the poems are emulations of Garcia Lorca, written by Spicer. But even these are not straightforward. As Garcia Lorca explains,
I have further complicated the problem (with malice aforethought I must admit) by sending Mr. Spicer several poems written after my death which he also translated and included here. Even the most faithful student of my work will be hard put to decide what is and what is not Garcia Lorca as, indeed, he would if he were to look into my present resting place.
Just as the transition sentence links the theme of one paragraph to the theme of the next, “After Lorca” links Garcia Lorca’s poetry to Spicer’s. (Think of a new band playing covers.) Which reminds us how traditions, canons, etc. are hermeneutic devices, heuristics. In this case, helping the reader from already known (or better known) work to new, unfamiliar work. Garcia Lorca also works as a figure for the Outside. Translation becomes an in-spiriting, even to the point of dictation.
Second, there are the letters, an introductory letter from Garcia Lorca to Spicer, and scattered between poems a half-dozen letters from Spicer to Garcia Lorca. This device, the explanatory letter, appears in the first two books of Collected Books, “After Lorca” and “Admonitions.” Again the sense of transition. In the first letter in “Admonitions,” Spicer explains his explanations:
Some time ago I would have thought that writing notes on particular poems would either be a confession that the poems were totally inadequate (a sort of patch put on a leaky tire) or an equally humiliating confession that the writer was more intestested in the terrestrial mechanics of criticism than the celestial mechanics of poetry—in either case that the effort belonged to the garage or stable rather than to the Muse.
But after these early misgivings, Spicer decides that “Muses […] are patient with truth and commentary as long as it doesn’t get into the poem […] they whisper (if you let yourself really hear them), ‘Talk all you want, baby, but then let’s go to bed.’” The Muse is patient with our attempts at explanation, as long as we keep track of priorities. Sex is better than talking. (Sometimes? Ideally?) But talking can get you to sex. How do these letters help us get to the poems?
One way is by theatricalizing the poem’s relation to the Outside. By “theatricalize” I mean taking an abstraction and casting it as a human drama. Not a high drama. Perhaps a romantic comedy. In the form of a correspondence. & as w/much of Spicer at his best, it has a dash of the comic. Take the opening of Garcia Lorca’s letter: “Frankly, I was quite surprised when Mr. Spicer asked me to write an introduction to this volume. My reaction to the manuscript he sent me (and to the series of letters that are now part of it) was and is fundamentally unsympathetic.” (& this small comedy continues. An online listing for a copy of the original “After Lorca” chapbook lists an introduction by Francisco Garcia Lorca. Is this false advertising?) As for drama, there is the choice of an antagonistic (in a friendly way) collaborator. Garcia Lorca complains of Spicer’s epistolary importunance:
The letters are another problem. When Mr. Spicer began sending them to me a few months ago, I recognized immediately the “programmatic letter"—the letter one poet writes another not in any effort to communicate with him, but rather as a young man whispers his secrets to a scarecrow, knowing that his young lady is in the distance listening. The young lady in this case may be a Muse, but the scarecrow nevertheless quite naturally resents the confidences. The reader, who is not party to this singular tryst, may be amused by what he overhears.
In a most polite gesture, Garcia Lorca defuses his antagonism by confessing, “The dead are notoriously hard to please.” This figure of the dead, the dead with ghostly presence, is central. Garcia Lorca is not the Muse; he is a role model. Spicer, in his letters, throws his lot in with the dead. He says that the correspondence is between “dead men,” that the best poet is a “dead man.” The dead make the best poets because they are “very patient.” & patience is the key to writing poetry. Poetry is patient, receptive to the outside. Prose is impatient:
A mad man is talking to himself in the room next to mine. He speaks in prose. Presently I shall go to a bar and there one or two poets will speak to me and I to them and we will try to destroy each other or attract each other or even listen to each other and nothing will happen because we will be speaking in prose. I will go home, drunken and dissatisfied, and sleep—and my dreams will be prose. Even the subconscious is not patient enough for poetry.
(Here’s a possible preview for the upcoming Wittgenstein event: perhaps one way LW’s writing is poetic is his patience. The man certainly couldn’t be accused of publishing in haste. But I am crossing wires here.)
But what is this talk of talking with the dead? Is it serious? Consider the opening line from Summa Lyrica I posted before: “The function of poetry is to obtain for everybody one kind of success at the limits of the autonomy of the will.” Death being one kind of such limit. But what kind of success is the poem? Spicer isn’t really dead (yet). He isn’t really communicating with Garcia Lorca. But the poems, they are real:
This is the last letter. The connection between us, which had been fading away with the summer, is now finally broken. I turn in anger and dissatisfaction to the things of my life and you return, a disembodied but contagious spirit, to the printed page. It is over, this intimate communion with the ghost of Garcia Lorca, and I wonder now how it was ever able to happen.
It was a game, I shout to myself. A game. There are no angels, ghosts, or even shadows. It was a game made out of summer and freedom and a need for poetry that would be more than an expression of my hatreds and desires. It was a game like Yeats’ spooks or Blake’s sexless seraphim.
Yet it was there. The poems are there [….] What is real, I suppose, will endure. Poe’s mechanical chessplayer was not less a miracle for having a man inside it, and when the man departed, the games it had played were no less beautiful. The analogy is false, of course, but it holds both a promise and a warning for each of us.
“A need for poetry that would be more than an expression of my hatreds and desires”: I would lean on “need.” Some writers have deeper needs than others, deeper even than the need to escape the personal. It doesn’t make their writing better, but it does make it different. & different is good, as Professor Cat-in-the-Hat might say.
Lawrence, an excellent post! I have nothing much to add, except to recommend Nathaniel Mackey’s work. His “novels”—a trilogy of one-sided letters from an experimental jazz musician to “The Angel of Dust”—and his ongoing serial poems are probably the best current exploration of the Duncan-Spicer moment (looking backward to Pound as well as to Olson). *Bedouin Hornbook* and *Whatsaid Serif* are gorgeous.
Three more reasons for academics to check out Spicer:
* He’s an interesting case of time-delayed literary reputation and influence. (He cited Emily Dickinson more than any other 19th century poet.)
* His work is unique, beautiful, and doesn’t rely on offputting “poetic” diction. He and Frank O’Hara were the two great early masters of a high but not snobbish American idiom, and Spicer is much terser. He should be easier for most students to enjoy than someone like, say, Duncan. The humor helps, too.
* His lectures are models of inspiring humility.
Spicer’s been a poet’s poet for a long while now, but I can’t see any reason to leave him out of the classroom. (Except, of course, unavailability, since Black Sparrow Press didn’t try to find a home for his book before closing up shop.)
Okay, how about tacking back the other way: I am also interested in how Spicer would be difficult to teach. He has fewer chatty set-pieces compared to O’Hara, so it’s harder to anthologize him. & some of the difficult stuff would be what I most would want to present. For example, the first section of the “Textbook of Poetry”:
“Surrealism is the business of poets who cannot benefit by surrealism. It was the first appearance of the Logos that said, ‘The public be damned,’ by which he did not mean that they did not matter or he wanted to be crucified by them, but that really he did not have a word to say to them. This was surrealism.
“But even the business of ignoring the public is the business of the poet and not the surrealism of the poet. The surrealism of the poet could not write words.
“To be lost in the crowd. Of images, of metaphors (whatever they were, of words; this is the better surrender. Of the poet lost in the crowd of them. Finally.”
As I said in the Kafka post, I could work on paraphrasing some point out of this, & I would want to do that, but then there’d be something missing.
How do you get a student to surrender w/out a gun?
I’ve only taught Spicer once, but what I did was to set him up in relationship to Charles Bernstein’s hilarious and bitchy essay on water imagery in New Yorker poetry. In a contemporary American poetry class, students will enjoy Bernstein’s satire of normative lyric poetry, even if (like me) they also like that poetry.
By introducing the idea of “magazine poetry” and by looking at some examples of (stereo)typical New Yorker poetry past and present, we could then get into some material from Spicer’s *Book of Magazine Verse*. What does it mean to write “magazine verse”? What is stake in Spicer’s take on this “genre”? Also, what are the conventions of “non-conventional” or “anti-conventional” poetry? Part of the power of Bernstein’s essay is the idea that only “conventional” poetry has conventions. But getting students to pinpoint and codify that sorts of conventions Spicer and other experimental poets use can be a fun exercize (even getting them to write parodies or imitations of Spicer—or getting them to re-write Robert Lowell poems from Spicer’s POV and vice versa).
Not sure if that helps.
Sounds great Luther. I am most fascinated, in “A Book of Magazine Verse” with “Four Poems for the Saint Louis Sporting News.” For those w/out a copy, here is the fourth:
God is a big white baseball that has nothing to do but go in a curve or a straight line. I studied geometry in high school and know that this is true.
Given these facts the pitcher, the batter, and the catcher all look pretty silly. No Hail Marys
Are going to get you out of a position with the bases loaded and no outs, or when you’re 0 and 2, or when the ball bounces out to the screen wildly. Off seasons
I often thought of praying to him but could not stand the thought of that big, white, round, omnipotent bastard.
Yet he’s there. As the game follows rules he makes them.
I was not the only one who felt these things.
This of course is not a parody of the poems that appear in the Sporting News, because, by the time Spicer writes this, there are no longer poems in newspapers. So it’s different than what Bernstein is doing in his essay. Spicer was offering the Sporting News (from what I understand, he really did submit the poems to them) a new possibility, was showing them an untapped potential in their own publication.
I think there’s a big difference in the kind of lessons Spicer and Bernstein are offering to their targets. This is a gross oversimplification (to the point of distortion, & probably wrong, & certainly maudlin) but I’d say it’s the difference between love and hatred. Not that I’d do away w/hatred. Thre are plenty of things I hate. But antagonism has a lot of pitfalls. It’s okay to become the thing you love, but when you become the thing you hate, that’s trouble, right? & it’s hard not to become the thing you hate, for example, it seems difficult for subversive poets not to become professors.
Thanks for introducing me to a poet I didn’t know about. He seems like an interesting cat.
(Trapped however, in a dog’s body.)
I found this poem of Spicer’s online, and thought I would pass it along:
A Red Wheelbarrow
Rest and look at this goddamned wheelbarrow. Whatever
It is. Dogs and crocodiles, sunlamps. Not
For their significance.
For their significant. For being human
The signs escape you. You, who aren’t very bright
Are a signal for them. Not,
I mean, the dogs and crocodiles, sunlamps. Not
See, another cover! & more of his humor: “look at this goddamned wheelbarrow.” Who has not read the original & at some point thought that? For all his lack of sympathy with “the public,” Spicer has a strong sympathy for the reader.
Another question: how do poems think? In other words, what’s the difference between this poem & an essay about reading “The Red Wheelbarrow”?
Lawrence asks, “how do poems think?”
And I think that’s an excellent question, one that really gets us beyond all that “meaning” and “intention” and “reference” business and to the heart of the matter. Poems are like little (or big) thinking machines. They are set in motion by an artist, but they seem to continue thinking even when the writer and the reader aren’t around. And then we turn back to that poem one day and it’s thought even further than we had thought the last time we read it. It’s not “we” who have thought more; it’s the poem.
All that, and the poem Amardeep gave us pretty much seems to put together all the problems and paradoxes of the philosophy of language in the 20th century—in 8 lines and with far more humor. (Note: the punchline is “The cat is on the mat.")
Isn’t it nigh impossible to get his books, though?
I’ve been seraching for quite some time to for any book of his at all\the collected books, pretty much in vane.
True, I don’t live in the US, so the searching is mostly by proxy and on-line, but still.
Peli, the major work is collected into the one-volume *Collected Books of Jack Spicer*, put out by Black Sparrow Press. Apparently, BSP went out of business, and I could find no information on-line about another press picking up the Spicer book. (I was also stunned to learn that my copy of the *Collected*, which I bought at a Barnes and Nobles a few years ago, now goes for $50.00 used on Amazon.com!)
You can find some of his material in the SUNY Buffalo electronic poetry project, put together under Charles Bernstein’s supervision:
Yeah, reading his work in SUNY Buffalo is exactly the reason I started searching for his books. Thanks, though.
And I think the press that published his lectures has plans to put his collected books out in 2007, or something a long these lines.
After a long life devoted to literature, the Black Sparrow publisher comfortably retired by selling off Black Sparrow’s extremely lucrative rights to Charles Bukowski. This was understandable and wise. Unfortunately, the rest of the line-up was orphaned. And particularly unfortunate timing for Spicer’s posthumous career, given the interest stirred by the recent biography and lecture collection.
A complete works is underway but, as Peli, indicates, it’ll be a while. I saw the editors a few weeks ago, but didn’t think of asking whether a nice compact reprint of the “Collected Books” (a very different and simpler thing from a complete works) was being planned any time soon—I’ll write them this weekend.
Ahem. Better information (better than gossip, anyway) on the Black Sparrow situation can be found at:
Ignore everything about the first paragraph of my previous comment except “unfortunate timing”.
To follow up: Kevin Killian (co-editor of the upcoming Spicer, with Peter Gizzi) tells me that their current plan is to have Volume I of the complete works contain all the finished books of poetry—perfect for classes and most personal collections—with Spicer’s previously uncollected plays, poetry, and prose coming later. Happy days ahead!
Do you know of a target release-date?
the poesy biz is 95% lies, as Bukowski, who would have knocked a Spicer out with one jab, well knew
Comment deleted. (Some kind of transmission problem: someone meant to talk about logic but ended up puking epithets. I’m sure they’ll fix the glitch.)
Sorry, Peli, no firm dates yet.
Thanks, Lawrence. Seem to be a lot of those network problems lately....
Speaking of altercations between drunks, I am fascinated by a moment in the biography, Poet Be Like God, when some night on Green Street in SF Spicer enters into a “drunken argument, a ‘yelling spree,’ with the equally drunk Alan Watts.” When I was young, the local public radio stations were always playing, late at night, when all the impressionable kids were listening, these lectures by Watts. & he’d tell me to do things like turn all the thoughts in my head into clouds. It was quite maddening. I found the lectures appalling and fascinating at the same time. Only upon his death did I learn he was a drinker.
That argument (which I hope took place on the sidewalk: the magical world of drunkenness is the walking around world) is a lost moment in the secret history of the New Age.
I am a fan of Spicer ever since I pulled The Books of Jack Spicer off the shelf of a university library and gazed in and noted the spaces. Maybe only fifteen years later did I begin to read him.
Question: recently I read Cid Corman’s essay, The Structure of Poetic Rhythms in relation to an oral poetry, and he mentions, “the structure of a poem is essentially serial.” This essay was originally published in 1955. I wonder if Spicer knew this essay, or who came up with the term serial poem first?
Jack Spicer is a pedophile. His poem, “Eternuement” on page 57 in the book, “My Vocabulary Did This to Me” promotes molesting young girls. I cannot believe anyone would praise this man or his writings.
The line is:
“There is a beautiful world in a little girl’s body.
When I poke my fingers into her I can see it.”
This is a travesty and cannot be taken any other way than sexual molestation of a child. Shame on anyone who praises this horrible man.
In answer to “Marion”: First, we should quote the entire poem, not merely the opening two lines:
There is a beautiful world in a little girl’s body.
When I poke my fingers into her I can see it.
Or when the absurdity of the postman
Or the snow that won’t stay still on the ground
Or the queers with painted noses that walk together in the Bois
Or the birds
When I poke my fingers into them I can see it
When I poke my fingers into them I can see it.
Is Jack Spicer a pedophile? Is it true that the couplet “cannot be taken any other way than sexual molestation of a child”? The title of the poem mixes the French word for “Eternity” with the French word for “nude”: “nue.” Perhaps a suggestion of an eternal quality of the naked body? Spicer sometimes specializes in strange repetitions—in one famous poem, “Magic,” the repetition of the word “strange.” In this case, whole lines are repeated. Again: Is Spicer a pedophile? Is the poem in any way autobiographical? One can’t help thinking that, given Spicer’s sexual orientation, he would be more likely to be interested in little boys than in little girls! But leaving aside such a question, and remembering that My Vocabulary Did This to Me asserts that “Eternuement” was one of Spicer’s personal favorites, what can be made of it? I think that the poem is edgy and deliberately so. The second line is ambiguous. Does he mean that he literally pokes his fingers into a little girl’s body? (Of course if the speaker were a doctor that would not be a problem.) In the last two lines “poke my fingers into them” is clearly metaphorical: he means “when I consider them,” “when I think about them.” The poem situates us between the possibly shocking revelation of the second line and the assuringly metaphorical status of the last two. Spicer is not making a horrifying confession about himself: he is playing with language. “My vocabulary did this to me.” Crucify Spicer if you must, but crucify him for poetry, not for pedophilia.
I was surprised to see that comment attributed to me. The administrator somehow switched comments. My comment is attributed to Lawrence LaRiviere White. I would never hae said that about Spicer in a million years. I am a huge fan of Spicer and the name of that library whose shelf I pulled Spicer’s book off is Aldrich library at Ohio University. I agree with your comment. Yes, “poke” as in “poke your nose into.” BTW, my book on Spicer, “Jack Spicer: Poet As Crystal Radio Set” is forthcoming from Atropos Press. I must go over the galley proofs now. Bye.
Dear Administrator, I got the response to Marion’s comment from Jack Foley, so I hope Mr. Foley does not think that I subscribe to that malapropism of Marion’s view. I don’t think any person, and not necessarily only gay, would think that all homosexuals are pedophiles. The bio. of Spicer does not in the least imply Spicer was interested in minors, male or female.