Sunday, September 03, 2006
Jack Spicer’s Best Seller, Trout Fishing in America
Another day, another example of my ignorance. On the recommendation of a student, I picked up Trout Fishing in America. That someone eighteen years old would even know about the book was my first surprise. Even though I’d never read any of his stuff, Richard Brautigan was a low-level iconic figure for me, one of those symbols floating around from my pre-adolescence, like macramé or communes. To put it bluntly, I thought he was a hippy.
The bigger surprise came when I read the dedication page: “To Jack Spicer and Ron Loewinsohn.” Loewinsohn wasn’t the surprise. I’d known of him at Berkeley, that he’d been a teenaged San Francisco scene poet, but had gone on to get a Ph.D. (what must it be like to have your collected poems published while in graduate school?) and get a grown-up job, joined the tweed jacket and silk tie crew. Though I’d only read his novel Magnetic Field(s), which compared favorably to the Kundera that was so popular when I was in college, I had no idea about his poetry. I just assumed he was a Beatnik. And I’m a sloppy enough thinker to accommodate hippies and Beatniks within the same prejudice.
But Spicer? Why was he there, the anti-Beatnik, anti-Ferlinghetti? How could the acidic Spicer be associated w/any noodly, wet hippy stuff?
If I had been paying better attention, none of this would have been a surpise.
If I had read Poet Be Like God more carefully, I would have already known about this relation to Brautigan. He makes many references in the biography, and there is a good account of Spicer’s importance for the book:
Spicer admired Brautigan’s poetry and had published it in J [the mimeographed poetry journal Spicer edited]….Brautigan was wrestling through the writing of his first “novel,” which became Trout Fishing in America. He brought it to Spicer page by page, and the two men revised it as though it were a long serial poem….Loewinsohn speculated on the reasons for the double dedication. “Me, I think it was just friendship; and Jack, editing, help, whatever he did. Jack was absolutely fascinated with Trout Fishing, and spent a lot of time with Richard talking about it….Anytime you get [could] get Richard to accept criticism [was] an unbelievable accomplishment. He [was] so defensive, and so guarded; and Jack was able to get him to make changes. Whatever he did he deserved some sort of Henry Kissinger award.”
Trout Fishing, with its disjointed episodes (short chapters of one to six pages that change location & time sequence haphazardly), fits well with Spicer’s project of the serial poem. & calling it a poem helps get around the oddness of calling it a novel. & it is poetic. For example, the chapter “Sea, Sea Rider” (the brazen pun would have appealed to Spicer’s broad humor) begins,
The man who owned the bookstore was not magic. He was not a three-legged crow on the dandelion side of the mountain.
He was, of course, a Jew, a retired merchant seaman who had been torpedoed in the North Atlantic and floated there day after day until death did not want him. He had a young wife, a heart attack, a Volkswagen and a home in Marin County. He liked the works of George Orwell, Richard Aldington and Edmund Wilson.
He learned about life at sixteen, first from Dostoevsky and then from the whores of New Orleans.
The bookstore was a parking lot for used graveyards. Thousands of graveyards were parked in rows like cars. Most of the books were out of print, and no one wanted to read them any more and the people who had read the books had died or forgotten about them, but through the organic process of music the books had become virgins again. They wore their ancient copyrights like new maidenheads.
I went to the bookstore in the afternoons after I got off work, during that terrible year of 1959.
In addition to the free use of metaphor and the wild fancies, there is a lyric fluidity to the best sentences in Trout Fishing, but in contrast to the surrealist flourishes, the lyricism is sober, restrained (“They wore their ancient copyrights like new maidenheads”), in the way Spicer’s diction and syntax is restrained, matter-of-fact, even severe.
The combination of the fanciful and the actual (most of the material in the book is directly autobiographical, drawing on Brautigan’s childhood in Tacoma, Eugene, and Great Falls, his travels in the back country of Idaho, and his boulevardiering around San Francisco, and especially Washington Square Park) is an appealing feature of Trout Fishing, especially when compared a more abstract, simpler work like In Watermelon Sugar.
In a similar way, Spicer’s poetry often brings concrete narrative details into his highly imaginative constructs, such as how the “Fake Novel of Arthur Rimbaud” (from Heads of the Town Down to the Aether) yokes bits of Rimbaud’s life to metaphoric constructions such as the “dead letter office” that collects all poems never written.
Now the backcountry topos of Trout Fishing would be alien to Spicer. Car camping and fishing are some of the last things one could imagine Jack doing. He was through & through a city boy. But it’s possible that Brautigan’s tales of life in the poverty of the Pacific Northwest would have topical appeal to Spicer. There could be a connection to what could be called the culture of the Anthology of American Folk Music, a nostalgia for the pre-technological past, but a nostalgia thoroughly mediated by technology and mass culture. Some examples of the latter in Trout Fishing would be Kool-Aid, Deanna Durbin (at one point a young Brautigan mistakes the partially frozen Missouri River for her) & of course the cars that he is either hitch-hiking in or driving up logging roads to get to the creeks.
Spicer had a show on Berkeley’s KPFA for a spell in 1949-1950. He played what they called old-timey music, ad-libbing alternative lyrics (whose colorfulness eventually got him fired). One of his recurrent guests was Harry Smith, who would go on to compile the Anthology.
In contrast to the seeming authenticity of poverty and bait fishing, there is also a sophisticated, playful self-consciousness to the book, a post-modern meta-level, as it were. Trout Fishing in America appears as a character within its own chapters, for example, writing and receiving correspondence that is transcribed in the novel. The cover of the book, a photograph of the Ben Franklin statue in North Beach’s Washington Square Park, is topic within the book. The book cover and the park become interchangeable within the story, so that Brautigan can take his daughter to play in the book cover’s sandbox, where she meets Trout Fishing in America Shorty, an avatar from Nelson Algren’s Walk on the Wild Side.
This kind of self-consciousness, the working through the project of the poem as a theme of the poem, is a hallmark of Spicer’s later writing. (And a post-modern cliché as well? It’s only a cliché if it’s done lamely.) One imagines that part of the book would have had a great appeal to Jack, that he would have, as its editor, encouraged Brautigan in that direction.
But the biggest shock I felt, upon reading Spicer’s name on the dedication page, came from thinking how many other people had read it there as well. Trout Fishing has sold lots & lots and has been translated often and sold around the world. How many tens of thousands of people, people how have no idea who Spicer is, have no idea of his poetry, have read his name, if only once. To little avail, as far as Spicer’s popularity is concerned.
P.S. Do not allow my maladroit rhetorical gestures to leave you with the impression that I am not very much pro-hippy. I revere much of the wet, noodly stuff.
I’ve never understood the focus on hippiedom, whether it takes the form of professed dislike of anything associated with it or repeated admission that there’s something OK about it. Can’t people just get over their generational anti-hippie rebellion already?
That’s something to work on, Rich.
Lamb The lead singer of this fairly obscure group started by reciting poetry in SF coffeehouses. I would very much call her “beat”. You had all the retro and Americana groups:Charlatans, Dan Hicks, Joy of Cooking, Tracy Nelson, Grateful Dead, Robert Crumb. You had of course Neal Casady and Ken Kesey. You had Tom Robbins and Thomas Pynchon in the Northwest somewhere. I am trying to avoid LA, but there is Bukowski writing for underground newspapers. I am not well informed about the beats.
Most of the iconic figures of the late 60s SF umm Fillmore scene were born 1935-45. I don’t know if it would be worthwhile to try a serious study of the relationship of beats to hippies/psych, if it hasn’t already been done to death, but I certainly recognize a nexus. Did Janis Joplin and Grace Slick (born Palo Alto;att Univ of Miami) bring the blues to the SF folk scene?
I will try to find some Spicer.
Lawrence, let me rephrase that for greater content. I tend to, rightly or wrongly, interpret all contemporary comments from hipsters characterizing hippies as having approximately the same content as “Man, my parents are so square” if said in 1972. But did you intend some additional meaning? You refer to hippy stuff twice as being “wet, noodly”; is this reduceable to a stylistic description that could be applied to works that you don’t already know are linked to the hippie and/or beatnik eras? Is Whitman, say, wet and noodly?
"Wet, noodly” was a sloppy shorthand. Upon being called on it, I’m having a hard time identifying the exact referent. Something like enthusiasm. For example, an interest in pop music, with its higher affect content, as a legitimate art form, as a way to make the world better. The stuff Bob talks about above. I would consider this wet in comparison to the High Modernist’s dry, more ironic relation to popular culture.
bob, Pseudopodium‘s a great place to start. Speaking of, where is Ray, anyhow? I thought his Spicer-antennae would’ve caught this already.
"Speaking of, where is Ray, anyhow?”
I found Ray long before I discovered the rest of you, long before I was a blog addict, with search engines seeded with “James Joyce” and “Samuel Delany”. The lost him, rediscovered with a CT link, lost and regained here. He is now on my blogroll. I do remember him abandoning(?) the Valve, both times.
I enthusiastically accept Lawrence’s categorization above. Why not? I don’t think I have time for much Spicer and modern poetry. They are large and I am slow.
Speaking of, where is Ray, anyhow?
After that banana peel into the manhole exit, my writing went into traction. Recently I’ve started posting again, though, including a number of entries I might have tried crossposting here back in the day, and so if you got bored waiting for updates, take a look and get bored with what’s new instead! Also, I just finished Fors Clavigera, which should liberate some blog/zine reading time.
I continue to catch up with The Valve on weekends. And although I haven’t had any comments to make, I’ll take this opportunity to say the place seems calmer since I left. Partly that’s the new authors. It may also partly be that a sense of responsibility skewed my vision toward the dire. (That’s a common enough emotional dynamic for those of us who turn to aestheticism or hedonism for philosophical relief, and would help explain why I reacted so sercon-ly to Adam Roberts’s Contra hoaxes.)
Don’t have anything worthwhile to add to Lawrence’s post, either. But to continue in a worthless vein:
Thank you for the pointer, Lawrence. I also had no intention of picking up any Richard Brautigan again, for very much the same anti-hippie / anti-beat reason. I also would have been surprised by the dedication despite having read Poet Be Like God. I’ll give the book a try; it may be to hitchhiking backpack novels what Donald Barthelme was to high-mainstream fabulists: the Good One.
I dropped my “Jack Spicer in science fiction and fantasy” piece, so nothing going there.
It’s true Spicer wasn’t exactly a John Muir type, but I do think of his work sometimes when I’m in a green space close by an urban center. There are a lot of those in the Bay Area.
Rich, I don’t want to bogart the thread by explaining why I sometimes toss around the word “hippies”, and although you say you’ve never understood it, it sounds like that means really you just don’t want to hear it any more so there’s no point anyway. The germane point in this context is that Spicer would have hated the ascendence of hippie culture. He was the Mean Mr. Mustard of the Berkeley Renaissance. He believed in magic, but his magic was pinball and baseball and bars, not horoscopes and tarot and communes. He even wrote unkind things about Allen Ginsberg.
Ray, I really do think it’s more towards the not understanding side—not that there could be such a thing as a hippie sensibility or mode or culture, but that people seem to like perfectly well things that would be considered “hippie” in other contexts even if they profess to dislike everything hippie. For instance, to take Luther’s example of an opposition between hippie sensibility and high Modernism, what was T.S. Eliot’s playing with Sanscrit and rampant intertextual reference/quotation and so on? If someone had done that as a hippie, it seems like it would be condemned as part of the hippie thing.
Thanks for clarifying, Rich. It’s true that what’s going on with this prejudice (as with most prejudices) isn’t simple (but isn’t fascinating, either). As it happens, I’ve had occasion to think a bit about it over the decades, and when I get a chance this weekend I’ll try to put something in writing & email it to you & Lawrence. Advance reminder, though, that a bigot’s self-analysis is usually of little-or-negative social value. (Which is why I don’t want to load the Brautigan post down with one.)
Reply to Mr. White above:
I believe Pynchon was only in the Northwest from 60-62, working in the Seattle area. He relocated to Mexico City for a bit, but from Crying of Lot 49 up through Gravity’s Rainbow he lived in Los Angeles (this fact slipping through in references in both books). There are reports that he’d often vacation to hang out with friends in Berkeley and New York City during this period as well.
Richard Brautigan was on the fringes of the Hippie Movement when there was still grit in the mix - The Diggers of San Francisco, for example - and the participants didn’t yet consider themselves Hippies (the eventually derogatory term was another coinage, like Beatnik, I believe, of Chronicle Columnist Herb Caen)
As the author of the most comprehensive PhD on Brautigan (The Fiction of Richard Brautigan: Regionalism, Nationalism, Transnationalism, Cambridge: 2002) - soon to be a monograph - I naturally consider him to be vastly underrated - as is Spicer himself.
Unlike Spicer, who languished (at times through his own masochism) in the penumbral shadow cast by Ginsberg et al, Brautigan suffered from what might be termed a deluge of saccharine adoration - the benefits of which (can you say groupie?) were often outweighed by the dismal delights of fans who, hand on heart, told him that he ranked alongside “Rod McKuen and the Beatles” in their poetic inspirations.
Trout Fishing in America is the masterpiece(though his less well known work is also masterly in parts)- a gem of a book to sneak onto the end of your shelf of Moby Dick, Hawthorne, Whitman, Twain, Dickenson and Faulkner. Postmodern it is, from back when the postmodern was known as “The New Fiction” (check out Richard Walsh’s excellent monograph on the subject) - too early yet for cliche to have set in. But TFIA is conscious, (like Gaddis, Gass, Pynchon, Barth, Bartheme) of the proto-postmodernity of English commonplace or potage texts, (viz. Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy; Isaac Walton’s Compleat Angler).
Damn that’s a cunning book.