Saturday, August 15, 2009

Review: The Work of Jack Spicer

Jack Spicer, my vocabulary did this to me: the Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer
edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian
Wesleyan University Press

Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance
Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian
Wesleyan University Press

Reviewed by Richard Canning

Some people are said to create their own good luck. Certainly fifties poet Jack Spicer (1925-65) created his own bad luck; so comprehensively that it is little surprise that his verse should scarcely be known today at all. It was confined even in his lifetime to small-scale publications, themselves limited by the author to distribution in the San Francisco Bay Area alone - excluding, naturally, any bookstores Spicer had taken against. This included the trailblazing hub, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights: ‘Ferlinghetti is a nonsense syllable invented by The Poet’, Spicer deadpanned in the ‘Explanatory Notes’ to a poem by that name.

In their first-rate group biography Poet, Be Like God, Ellingham - who becomes a key player in the ‘San Francisco [formerly Berkeley] Renaissance’ circle about halfway through - and Killian persuasively argue that Spicer’s pre-eminence in poetic performance, creativity and critical judgment in his day, not only marked him as a vital catalyst for others’ work – among them, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Marianne Moore, Allen Ginsberg and Thom Gunn, but above all his peer and gay poetic fellow traveler Robert Duncan, whom Spicer came to describe as a commercial ‘whore’ for seeking to be anthologized. It also stemmed from an especially unclassifiable poetic talent, which simply fell out of currency because it could not be fitted into the dominant collectives or fashions (neither the New York School of Frank O’Hara and followers, nor, for sure, the Beats).

Ginsberg, though almost entirely absent from the San Francisco scene, proved pivotal to the eclipsing of Spicer. His briefish residency in the city in the mid-1950s saw him both pen Howl and, notoriously, give it its first, immediately scandalous and sensational public reading. Spicer, meanwhile, illustrated his knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, by being on an unhappy one-year secondment to the East Coast. (He argued that New York was a ‘primitive’ place with ‘no feeling for nonsense’: ‘Wit is as far as they can go… no one screams in the elevator.’)
Still, they were scarcely fellow travelers anyway. Spicer thought his poems were dictated to him, more or less, by Martian forces, or the guile of the poetical dead. Despite the poems’ intimacy and personal honesty, it reassured him, doubtless, to think of their stemming from beyond himself. He excoriated in verse ‘the big lie of the personal.’ Ginsberg’s embrace of prophetic bombast in particular struck Spicer as unbecoming. Yet, as Ellingham and Killian argue, Howl in a stroke both summarized the San Francisco Renaissance’s countercultural or non-materialist tendencies, and betrayed them. For one thing, Spicer’s fundamentally rational temperament could accept neither the chop-logic of the Beats’ Whitman-inspired all-inclusiveness, nor their celebration of drug use, free love and altered states. Spicer’s ‘Some Notes on Whitman for Allen Joyce’ (1955) is effectively a series of reproaches to the deceased poet for all he lacked or missed: ‘Forgive me Walt Whitman, you whose fine mouth has sucked the cock of the heart of the country for fifty years. You did not ever understand cruelty.’ Himself progressively dependent on brandy to ward off depression, Spicer experienced the loss of one friend and lover after the other to drugs, which he saw as the antithesis of poetry. Howl, meanwhile, he dismissed as ‘crap.’

Ellingham and Killian tease out the ingenuity and originality of Spicer’s verse, as well as the complex nature of his circle’s group dynamics and his – for want of a better term – political manoeuvres (there was rarely anything very ‘politically’ expedient about them). Poet, Be Like God is far from hagiographical. Spicer was capable of terrible anti-Semitism for instance. When reproached for casual remarks of this kind in public, he retorted: ‘Don’t feel bad – this isn’t Auschwitz, you know.’ His bile was at least broadly distributed. To Bob Kaufman, Spicer argued: ‘I’ve heard of professional niggers - but you’re the first amateur.’ Against such moments stand acts of conspicuous principle. Unlike many peers, Spicer refused to sign an oath of loyalty to the American constitution at Berkeley (which included personal renunciations of Communism, amongst other things), effectively exiling himself for a while to the University of Minnesota. Both he and Duncan were brave too in the open, non-idealized expression of gay sexual feeling in their poems (‘Homosexuality is essentially being alone.’ [‘Three Marxist Essays’, 1962])

What of the work? my vocabulary did this to me, impeccably presented and furnished with notes detailing textual variants and original sources, collects all volumes published by Spicer in his lifetime plus a good number of early, freestanding poems. These Spicer would disown as ‘one night stands’; he stressed the need for verse collections to speak within and among themselves: ‘Poems should echo and re-echo against each other. They should create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can.’ (A telling comment, this, given his frequent solitude.) It isn’t complete; Gizzi and Killian plan a further, uncollected volume, taking in the remaining, early poetry and some play-scripts.

But as well as the verse, it includes Spicer’s workshop questionnaire for a poetry course he taught at San Francisco State College, ‘Poetry as Magic’, which hints at the revolutionary teacher he was acclaimed to be by many devotees (though Spicer professed to distrust academic teaching entirely, and claimed not to enjoy participating in it): ‘Write a paragraph about how the fall of Rome affected modern poetry… Invent a dream in which you appear as a poet.’

my vocabulary did this to me – the title may or may not constitute Spicer’s ultimate or penultimate words, as he acknowledged the fact that he was dying in hospital - contains plenty to persuade us of Spicer’s significance. Arthur Rimbaud, Jean Cocteau and Hart Crane are early lodestars, though the example of W. H. Auden perhaps looms largest, in some cadences (‘Poetry, almost blind like a camera/ Is alive in sight only for a second’ [‘Imaginary Elegies I’]), themes (‘Psychoanalysis: an Elegy’) and conceits (‘But when he turned to face me with a kiss/I closed my lying heart against his lips’ [‘Orpheus in Athens’]).

The work not renounced by Spicer opens with After Lorca (1957) - a collection of translations, part-translations and pseudo-translations (in fact, original poems by Spicer) of the Granadan author’s writings, then much less familiar to English readers than now. Federico Garcia Lorca himself finds himself surprised to be introducing Spicer from beyond the grave. ‘The dead are notoriously hard to satisfy,’ “Lorca” writes. In a sense, though, Spicer considered all poetry to constitute, in its deployment of language and thus inevitable compromise with literary and lexical traditions and forerunners, ‘an argument between the dead and the living,’ as he would later term it.

Admonitions (1957) features a set of poems dedicated to acquaintances. The intensity and frustration of one blighted love affair – with aspiring painter Russell FitzGerald – is beautifully transposed into a brief, enigmatic lyric:

For Russ

You’d think it would all be
Pretty simple
This tree will never grow. This bush
Has no branches. No
I love you. Yet.
I wonder how our mouths will look in twenty five years
When we saw yet.

Others can feel almost retributive. One, to an ex- who spurned Spicer, ‘For Mac’, begins: ‘A dead starfish on a beach/ He has five branches/ Representing the five senses/ Representing the jokes we did not tell each other…’ and closes: ‘And love/ Is like nothing I can imagine.’

As Poet, Be Like God argues, 1960’s The Heads of the Two Up to the Aether is Spicer’s most substantial volume, though for some the startling contemporary rewrites of the Gawain myth and others in The Holy Grail (1962) may most deserve study: ‘Lancelot fucked Gwenivere only four times. /He fucked Elaine twenty times/ At least. She had a child and died from it.’ (‘The Book of Lancelot’)

The Heads… was inspired by an aspiring poet, James Alexander, who pitched himself to his senior as a Rimbaud to Spicer’s Verlaine. This collection innovates by splitting Spicer’s poetical ‘I’ from himself as author, editor or literary “self”. At the outset, the latter announces, as part of an ongoing set of ‘Explanatory Notes’ to the poems: ‘To begin with, I could have slept with all of the people in the poems. It is not as difficult as the poet makes it.’ Spicer could be very funny. Inspiration for this bifurcation may have come from Rimbaud’s infamous line ‘Je est un autre’ (‘I is another’). The effect is tantalizingly self-dramatizing and self-aware. One fine poem, ‘Several Years’ Love’, invokes both Shakespeare’s Sonnet 144 (‘Two loves I have of comfort and despair’) and – surely? - Alfred Douglas’s queer apologia ‘Two Loves’ (1892), with its famous summative quotation: ‘I am the love that dares not speak its name’:

Two loves I had. One rang a bell
Connected on both sides with hell

The other’d written me a letter
In which he said I’d written better

They pushed their cocks in many places
And I’m not certain of their faces
Or which I kissed or which I didn’t
Or which of both of them I hadn’t.

Spicer’s notes to this poem mischievously read:

‘The two loves are the pain The Poet had. I do not think a doorbell could be extended from one of them to the other. The letter, naturally (as will become more apparent in the conquest of Algeria or outer space) was written to somebody else.

The cocks want to be sure of themselves.’

The figure of Orpheus, poetic prototype, parades through all Spicer’s work. He is displaced, however, in the second section of The Heads of the Two Up to the Aether – entitled ‘A Fake Novel about the Life of Arthur Rimbaud’ – by the teenage French prodigy himself, as caught, perhaps, in that famously haughty photograph:

They said he was nineteen; he had been kissed
So many times his face was frozen closed.
His eyes would watch the lovers walking past
His lips would sing and nothing else would move.

(‘Chapter IV: Rimbaud’)

‘Love’, found in 1962’s A Red Wheelbarrow, once again circumnavigates this essential theme, but from Spicer’s own perspective. Just as he could complain of being ‘trapped inside my own vocabulary’, he here figures love, apparently well-meaning, descending to the helpless and vulnerable, and inflicting further helplessness and vulnerability: as in the myth of Prometheus, whose liver was eaten out nightly by Zeus, in the form of an eagle:

Tender as an eagle it swoops down
Washing all our faces with its rough tongue.
Chained to a rock and in that rock, naked,
All of the faces.

A poem in Golem (1962) concerning the death of an unnamed poet, foreshadowed not only Spicer’s own demise three years on, but, bathetically, the sense of diminishing returns surrounding his poetic oeuvre, its influence, circulation and recognition:

He died from killing himself.
His public mask was broken
He no longer had a public mask.
People retrieved his poems
from wastebaskets. They had
Long hearts.
Oh, what a pain and shame was
his passing.
People returned to their
Business somewhat saddened.

Gizzi, Killian and the tiny Wesleyan University Press are to be thanked for the substantial and vital act of retrieval evidenced in my vocabulary did this to me, a book which could, and should, reshape everyone’s conception of the pinnacles of post-war American poetry for good.

Richard Canning teaches at Sheffield University, where he can be contacted. He most recently edited Between Men 2: Original Fiction by Today’s Best Gay Writers (New York: Alyson, 2009). Canning’s brief life of E.M. Forster (London: Hesperus Press) and edited collection 50 Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read (New York: Alyson) are forthcoming later this year. A brief life of Walt Whitman (London: Hesperus Press) follows in 2010.



At 6:21 PM, Blogger Colin said...

Thanks for this. Really great review of a fabulous book.


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