Showing posts with label Jack Spicer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jack Spicer. Show all posts

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Friday, July 04, 2014

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Jack Spicer
reading at the Poetry Center
San Francisco
April 11, 1957

Monday, December 01, 2008

Is it unseemly to review a book one has already blurbed? Particularly when the claim made – “one of the most important volumes of poetry published in the past 50 years” – is so extravagant? I’m convinced this statement is completely accurate, and it’s worth noting in addition that My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi & Kevin Killian & just out in time to ask your parents to give it to you for Christmas, is also one of the best, and most enjoyable books of poetry you will ever read as well. It’s well worth finding that desert island in order to give yourself the time to properly spend with this book. You may never want to be rescued.

What makes Vocabulary different from, even better than, the justly famous Collected Books edited by Robin Blaser and published by Black Sparrow in 1975 that took Spicer’s reputation from being a secret shared by maybe two dozen post-avants to that of one of the major New American Poets, on a par with Ginsberg, Creeley, Ashbery, Snyder, Duncan et al, is three things. First, there is a lot of new material here, and not simply that which was later gathered together into One Night Stand. Consider “Homosexuality,” the third poem in the book, written sometime in 1945 or ’46:

Roses that wear roses
Enjoy mirrors.
Roses that wear roses must enjoy
The flowers they are worn by.
Roses that wear roses are dying
With a mirror behind them.
None of us are younger but the roses
Are dying.
Men and women have weddings and funerals
Are conceived and destroyed in a formal
Roses die upon a bed of roses
With mirrors weeping at them.

The argument, which I’ve been known to make myself and which is implicit in the structure of The Collected Books, that Spicer wasn’t writing mature work until he reached the volume After Lorca, the book that leads of The Collected Books, a decade later, is rent asunder by counter-examples such as the poem above. Yes, maybe it’s a little more melodramatic & surreal than Spicer at his best, but the searing love poetry of Language and Book of Magazine Verse is absolutely visible in “Homosexuality.” There is roughly 100 pages of such material in Vocabulary before you reach After Lorca, and while much of that appeared in One Night Stand, gems like the poem above are new. It may be worth noting that when Spicer wrote this poem, the number of male American poets out of the closet consisted of Robert Duncan.

Second, this volume presents the work in chronological order while retaining the structure of Spicer’s mature work, when the book was the unit of composition he pursued – books are indicated in the table of contents in all caps, starting with AFTER LORCA, so that newly discovered texts, such as “Socrates” & “A Poem for Dada Day at the Place, April 1, 1958,” are positioned between A BOOK OF MUSIC & BILLY THE KID. GOLEM and MAP POEMS appear between THE HOLY GRAIL & LANGUAGE. MAP POEMS may not really constitute a book – the title comes from Gizzi & Killian – so much as notes toward the construction of another volume never to be realized by the dying Spicer, but they make sense as a group and are especially interesting positioned where they are, immediately after GOLEM, which I think is unquestionably the most significant of the new works (an edition was published by Granary Books in 1999), found among the papers of the late teacher & labor activist Jim Herndon by his widow Fran – they’d been members of the Spicer Circle as youngsters. This ordering of Spicer’s work shows the degree to which Collected Books really constitutes a “greatest hits” collection – and while it’s true that the greatest hits genuinely are home runs (Spicer would appreciate this metaphor), it makes even greater sense to see them in the context of all these line-drive doubles in the gap.

Third, Gizzi and Killian have been meticulous in their documentation and presentation of these materials. There are notations concerning the poems at the rear of the volume – you can find Spicer at the founding convention of the Mattachine Society, America’s first gay rights organization, there, as well as what amount to tight little essays on many of the major books. There are other poems that Gizzi & Killian have concluded were never finished by Spicer and these are not here, but will appear (yes!) in a later volume.

So what we have here is a 426-page collection of all of Jack Spicer’s poetry contrasted with 267 pages in The Collected Books. The difference is even greater when you consider that Vocabulary uses a slightly smaller font to get more on a page than did Books, which used 10.5-point type & incorporated a 58-page essay by Robin Blaser in order to provide the book with the heft one normally associates with collected editions.

So, yes, this is one of the most important volumes published in the past 50 years. It is hands down the best book published in 2008. And it is one of the most powerful collections of poetry you will ever read. Need I say more?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The city of Boston is filled with frogheaded flies and British policemen. The other day I saw the corpse of Emily Dickinson floating up the Charles River.

Sweet God, it is lonely to be dead. Sweet Good, is there any God to worship? Sweet God, you stand in Boston like a public statue. Sweet God, is there any God to swear love by? Or love it is lonely, is lonely, is lonely to be lonely in Boston.

Now Emily Dickinson is floating down the Charles River like an Indian Princess. Now naked savages are climbing out of all the graveyards. Now the Holy Ghost drips birdshit on the nose of God. Now the whole thing stops. Sweet God, poetry hates Boston.

This 1956 poem by Jack Spicer, which first appeared in The Poker, no. 5, in the winter of 2005, is taking on something of a promiscuous history. It appears in the current issue of The Massachusetts Review, devoted to GLBT writing, and is reprinted, with credit to the Mass Review, in the current edition of Harpers (subscription definitely required). Both, being School of Quietude haunts, fail to credit The Poker.

One can only imagine what Jack Spicer would have made of an appearance in Harpers, at least once he’d stopped puking his guts out. The cosmic joke at the heart of Book of Magazine Verse, the volume that was in press when Spicer died at the age of 40 in 1965, is that none of the magazines for which this diffident, supremely geo-centric author “wrote” his poems would ever have deigned to print them.

Not only did Spicer proleptically assume automatic rejection by The St. Louis Sporting News (now just The Sporting News) and Down Beat, two publications that didn’t (and still don’t) normally print poetry, but also by Ramparts, the SF-based Catholic theological journal that, in the 1960s, transformed itself into a radical antiwar publication (Mother Jones is a pretty direct descendent of Ramparts), Poetry – which by 1965 was regularly publishing Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley &, most pointedly from Spicer’s perspective, Robert Duncan – and The Nation (whose poetry editor at the time, Denise Levertov, Spicer despised as she did him¹), but even an emergent post-avant mimeo rag such as Vancouver’s Tish and the apparently non-existent Vancouver Festival.

Spicer was very protective of his outsider status. He would allow his mimeo magazine J to be distributed as far east as Berkeley, but no further. To discover that you had sent a contributor’s copy to New York or Boston was to be banned from its pages forever after. While he did live & work in both Boston & Minneapolis for short periods, the poem above is pretty typical for the respect which Spicer showed them.

In the past several months, tho, works by Spicer have turned up in both Poetry and The Nation, part of the run-up to the publication next  month of My Vocabulary Did This To Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, edited by Kevin Killian and Peter Gizzi. Having seen the manuscript at different stages of editing, I can say without hesitation that this is one of the great books of the 20th and of the 21st centuries. Gizzi & Killian have done a tremendous job.

Still, it is very strange to see Jack Spicer’s poetry turn up in places where it never would have done so in his own lifetime.²


Today’s Philadelphia Inquirer has a feature on the city’s Car Share program entitled – in 80-point type on the front of the Magazine section of the paper – “Drive, They Said.” Is this the largest print in which an allusion to Robert Creeley has ever appeared? And who at the Inky besides editor John Timpane & book reviewer Carlin Romano will even recognize it as such?


¹ Spicer appears to have seen her as a homophobic bluenose, an enemy of poetry. She seems to have seen him as a racist alcoholic. The fact that, in the mid-1960s, she was still something of an acolyte of Robert Duncan’s certainly did not help.

² I believe Spicer did send his poems both to Poetry and The Nation, both of which, true to his expectations, rejected them.

Friday, February 07, 2003

There is never a word nor syllable nor the slightest scratch upon the paper in any of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Drafts that has not been thoroughly vetted through the mind &imagination of the poet. So when I find indeterminacy & surplus in her texts, I know that they haven’t gotten there by accident, that even when it appears “meaningless,” it means something.

I was reading “Draft 2: She” this morning, which is replete with such effects. A case in point:

Dabbles the blankie down
do throw foo foo
dles the arror
of eros the error of arrows
each little spoil and spill
all during pieces fly apart.
Splatting crumb bits there and there.
Feed ‘n’ wipe. Woo woo petunia
to get the fail of it
large small specks each naming
yellow surface
green bites
Red elbow kicks an orange tangerine.

If my HTML skills were up to it – they aren’t – I might offer some even more extreme examples: there are are twelves places in this eight-page poem in which DuPlessis offers alternative word choices typed almost literally atop one another, as in “the mother/the monster” or “hurl/hole/hurt.” But, as DuPlessis herself notes in the passage quoted above, “large small specks each naming.” Just because these uses of alternatives & of baby talk don’t resolve to traditional denotations does not make them unmeaningful. Woo woo petunia!

The question here is what. At one level, “She” is about gendering the family & the intricacies of mother-daughter roles. At another, it’s about the acculturation of the child into the world of adult roles & values & systems, language foremost among them. It’s precisely in the use of language that cannot be resolved into normative concepts of meaning that I most hear the world as it was viewed by Louis Althusser, the late French political philosopher, at least in his saner moments.

Althusser’s observation was the world replicated itself through two systems – repressessive state apparatuses (RSAs) and ideological state apparatuses (ISAs). We are, all of us, only too familiar with RSAs, which include everything from stop signs to the Justice Deparment (even when it’s not in the hands of a maniacal neo-fascist like John Ashcroft) to the version our government is about to visit on the people of Iraq. ISAs are more numerous, more complex, more subtle & ultimately more powerful. The church, family, popular media, even poetry, generally fall in the Althusserian scheme onto the side of ISAs.

I should say something about ideology here, which in the Althusserian model is only incidentally about being a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian or a Green, or even about being “for” or “against” capitalism. Rather, as Althusser saw it, ideology is that which calls your name & by which & through which you recognize yourself. As such, it is precisely a subconscious process, exactly the level on which the material signifiers of language operate.

For all of the unquestionable pleasures of the Lacanian & for the ways in which, say, a Carla Harryman might make use of a Kristeva, my sense has been that with the notable (& almost sole) exception of Nick Piombino, the unconscious in writing has been given short shrift at best by my own generation of poets. Most of the effects of a text such as Clark Coolidge’s The Maintains or Polaroid occur at the subconscious level or else can be described in the matter-of-fact language of feature analysis, a close reading of surface devices that never actually gets to what occurs elsewhere when one reads. At one level, I think one could much the same about Lee Ann Brown or Quincy Troupe or even Billy Collins. But, at another, the absence of such critique seems especially galling in the case of poets whose work actively eschews normative expository, figurative or narrative frames.

When I think of the poets of the New American generation, three in particular seem to have made active reference to, or use of, psychoanalysis in any form: Charles Olson, Robert Duncan & Robert Bly. Duncan, in good part because of H.D.’s influence, made active &, I think, relatively effective use of Freud, although now that I put those words to screen, I realize that I cannot fully articulate what I mean by that. Olson poured Jungian analysis into his vast grab-bag of intellectual discourses that he might call upon, but, while the spectre of Jung has sometimes been raised to suggest a reason & underlying cohesion for the great & wonderful mess that is Maximus, Olson’s own approach has always struck me as remarkably unsystematic, forever opportunistic, & as indebted as much to Mao as to the Vienna gang.

Bly? Well, it rhymes with sigh. Invoking Jung in a very different light & yoking it first to bad translations of the especially narrow swath he cut through the surrealists & later to the Iron John one-man comic philosopher shtick, Bly went a long way toward making psychoanlysis, Jungian or Freudian, off-limits to a younger generation of poets unable to suppress their snickering.

Bly was one of a generation of poets who was raised initially within the framework of the old New England formalist tradition, but who in the 1950s rebelled against its even then moribund dynamics. Including W.S. Merwin, James Wright & Adrienne Rich in addition to Bly, these poets did not turn automatically to the growing alternative of the New Americans*, but rather struck off in a new direction, which for the male poets among them meant a version of surrealism and, at least for Bly & Merwin, a turn toward European influences.

For a brief moment in the early 1960s, Bly in particular made an attempt to forge a synthesis with some of the next generation of New Americans, most notably Robert Kelly, whose interest in all matters occult took him through Jung, and Jerome Rothenberg, whose interest in ethnopoetics took him far closer to native roots than the pancho that was Bly’s omnipresent clothing accessory during that decade. The “deep image” movement didn’t last long. I’ve written before of how Kelly’s interest in the alternative wisdom traditions helped to cut him off from some of the younger & more secular poets who would come up around langpo. The figuration given to the unconscious in the work of some of the poets around first Caterpillar & later Sulfur, especially that offered by Clayton Eshleman, only furthered to steer the next generation of poets, already deeply suspicious of figuration itself, in the opposite direction.

One of the great ironies in this is that the unconscious is to analysis what birds are to ornithology, and it’s the unconscious processing of poetry that’s of interest here more than the extrapolation of intellectual systems. It has long seemed to me that the New American who most directly raised the issue of the unconscious in his poetry was not Olson or Duncan, who tended more to talk about it, but Jack Spicer. Spicer’s use of contradiction & overdetermination is unparalleled in his generation & tugs continually at the ways in which we utilize & experience just such phenomena, not merely mentally but in day-to-day life.

It’s interesting in this regard that there really was no such thing as a second generation San Francisco renaissance. Spicer’s early death in 1965, preceded by the decline of his health due to drinking, set his own circle adrift, with significant portions ending up in Vancouver & even, in the presence of Larry Fagin, in New York. The poets who most deeply reflected Duncan’s influence – David Bromige, Michael Palmer, Aaron Shurin, David Melnick – seem to have worked with him serially. Duncan’s imperiousness & his public battles with Spicer in their later years made it even less likely that anything cohesive might arise out of such a problematic context.  

So when Rachel Blau DuPlessis roars out “Woo woo petunia,” I sense her taking up something that has lain untouched for some time in writing – not that it isn’t present, say, in the work of Frank O’Hara or any of another 100 poets you could name, but rather that it exists there unaddressed, not unlike the alcoholic uncle at the end of the couch nobody quite mentions. And I wonder if poets such as Coolidge (or even, for that matter, myself) have felt safer precisely because a discussion of the unconscious has been off the table for so many decades, as if we could venture into this territory knowing that no critical frames existed that could be usefully employed, precisely because they had been blocked by the use of the discourses (Freud, Jung, but as read by Bly or Duncan) that had been there previously. Like Grenier’s use of the literally subliminal in his scrawl works, DuPlessis gives us a writing in places – it’s not the only thing she’s up to here, just the one that I’m intrigued with today – that can only be forever beyond the rational. At one level, it’s a demand, a demand that we come to understand exactly what it means.

Woo woo petunia

* Although Rich’s pivotal poem “Diving into the Wreck,” made its first appearance in Clayton Eshleman’s Caterpillar.