Review: The Poetry of Jack Spicer By Daniel Katz

By Patrick James Dunagan

jackspicerI first encountered poems by Jack Spicer in Don Allen’s anthology New American Poetry, however, his work didn’t immediately strike my fancy at the time. That wasn’t to happen until some amount of time later while browsing among the library shelves at the University of California in Riverside (during a personal furlough of sorts through some definite Purgatory landscape) when I came across The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, edited by his fellow poet and pal Robin Blaser after Spicer’s early death.

Standing in the aisle puzzling over the first book, After Lorca, with its Introduction clearly written by the ghost (?) of the dead poet, I first caught glimmerings of how vital Spicer’s work would prove to be in relation to my own concerns as a poet, playing a major role in my own conceptions surrounding poetry. At the time, I was looking ahead to graduate school in Poetics at New College in San Francisco and attempting to prepare myself for future study by becoming familiar with all things poetry, most especially concerning those poets whose work immediately appealed to me. In terms of my own reading habits, this has always entailed performing what poet Charles Olson refers to as a “saturation job” of reading EVERYTHING available on any given figure of interest. With Spicer in Riverside, this resulted in my soon finding the back issues of Boundary 2 wherein, among numerous other delights, was the Spicer issue (bound together with the Dickinson issue, portraits of each poet adorning the respective cover) chock full of essays on the work, along with his “plan for a book of Tarot.”

Within a year, I was in San Francisco walking the same streets Spicer had some four decades previous, visiting the same and/or similar North Beach drinking establishments, arguing, cajoling, his poems spilling round in my head. Then Kevin Killian and Lewis Ellingham’s biography Poet Be Like God appeared; almost immediately Spicer’s name started to emerge more and more in classes, bar conversations, and during poetry readings. Poetryworld was quickly discovering, or re-discovering as the case were, the fantastic nooks and crannies of Spicer’s poetic realm filled with his Martians, Spooks, Ghosts, Billy the Kid, baseball, pinball machines, Lorca, and Cocteau imagery.

For a short period of time, it remained possible to find on the shelves at neighborhood bookstores cheap, used copies of The Collected Books, the odd Spicer issue of an earlier magazine, such as Manroot, or the collection One Night Stand and Other Poems. The latter is a comprehensive gathering of the predominately early, solitary Spicer poems not organized into sequential book-length sets of series he came to favor in his mature output and which Blaser honored in his editing of The Collected Books.

Joining in with Poet Be Like God’s interjection of Spicer with a thundering force into the heart of Poetryworld discourse, Peter Gizzi’s The House that Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer further contributed to encouraging the ongoing drone of Spicerian poems, homages, accolades, and inevitable dissertations (Gizzi’s book of the lectures is, in fact, his own dissertation).

I began to hear that Killian and Gizzi had students at work on going through the Spicer archive gathering potential material for a larger Collected Poems, perhaps part of a projected multi-volume set of Spicer material to appear from Wesleyan (publisher of both the biography and lectures). My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer has since appeared and various murmurings over the years indicate there may very well be at least one or two further volumes to appear: a collection of Spicer’s correspondence and/or still more poems together with some plays. Wesleyan has recently kept the attention-pot stirred, releasing After Spicer: Critical Essays edited by John Emil Vincent. For better or worse, Spicer is now worked into the academic labor mill as far as nearly any poet of his generation.

Daniel Katz’s The Poetry of Jack Spicer at first nearly seems more belated than anything, yet gladly that’s proven not to be the case. This is the only existing book-length critical study consisting of a complete overview of Spicer’s body of work. Katz proves himself eminently up for the task. There’s little within Spicer criticism of which he does not manage to at least touch upon, accomplishing a thorough introduction that is not lacking in fresh insight. The bar is set high for future would-be Spicer critics and scholars. While the focus throughout remains scholarly, Katz’s general tone tends towards the conversational (with only occasional brief slides into academic jargon) and he does a highly efficient job filling in biographical detail without besotting his critical lens with heavy quoting of sources or random listing of facts. The result is an impressive condensing of a large amount of information, the offered judgment of which is all spot on.

If Katz fails to explore some areas, it is usually due to the fact that these remain either elements of Spicerian lore, rather than the nuts and bolts of his poetics, and there is a lack of thorough-going material available to draw upon for reference, or else it simply doesn’t pertain to his own argument and he’s unable to locate footing for a proper engagement with it here. This is where Katz’s book, at times, serves more as an introductory overview rather than as engaging original criticism in its own right. He makes no mention of Spicer’s interest in the Tarot, for instance. There is also little discussion of Spicer’s bioregional interests — his San Francisco-centric ideals get only passing reference, readers are directed elsewhere in footnotes.

Katz seems intent more on reading Spicer less as a California poet consumed by his own personal occult world in favor of just generally as a poet. He also makes no mention of California poet Robinson Jeffers, with whom Gizzi handily draws several corollaries to Spicer in his afterword to the Lectures. There’s no cause to feel that Katz is intentionally side-lining the occult or the politics of the local from Spicerian scholarship, only that these interests did not find a place within his own tackling of Spicer as a subject. Certainly, there are frequent openings where Katz leaves opportunity for further scholarship to explore these and other areas. At no point does it feel as if he’s refusing their relevance.

In his Coda, Katz describes how, in the late 1950s, Spicer rather surprisingly began “compiling a manuscript for a projected ‘selected poems,’” detailing this unlikely seeming enterprise:

…many of the poems from A Book of Music figure in it. This means that well after the rousing letter to Blaser in Admonitions excoriating the individual lyric, Spicer was still seriously putting together a collection of them, and refusing to abandon a project whose inadequacy he himself had so passionately argued. One has to imagine that an ultimate commitment to the “book,” perhaps solidified by Billy The Kid, is what prevented the “selected poems” from ever seeing the light of day, but in the wake of Admonitions it’s hard to see how Spicer could have continued to work on such a project without serious misgivings and a bad sense of faith.

It’s also possible that such a gathering on Spicer’s part was very much a competitive gut reaction to publication of his pal Robert Duncan’s own Selected Poems by City Lights, which appeared in 1959. Either way, the fact that Spicer ever assembled such a manuscript does extend as well as complicate the poet-figure with which so much of Spicer lore has left emblazoned in the imagination.

Katz quotes the following unpublished poem, titled “Poet” or “A Portrait,” which Spicer placed at the end of this “selected poems.”

He knocks upon our doors un-
As if the only test
Were some way of being right
That a poem can give one

A clear moment of The Poem announcing that The Poet, in fact at the time of writing, is but a somewhat hapless observer to subsequent events. It is also simultaneously rather hair-raisingly reminiscent of the Spicer poet peer with whom his work shares the borrowing of Cowboy Western motifs, along with a bitingly humorous sardonic outlook — namely the poet, Ed Dorn. The first appearance of the Gunslinger character central to Dorn’s later epic, Gunslinger, occurs in Dorn’s “An idle visitation” wherein those “slender leather encased hands / folded casually / to make his knock, / will show you his map. / There is your domain.”

Although Dorn’s poem is written nearly a decade later, while he’s in residence in England, he was in fact living in San Francisco during the late 1950s. Spicer had already written Billy the Kid and he went on to write the only latterly discovered “Map Poems.” It’s alluring to attempt to hear in this “lost to the archive” poem a distant echo of what might just be the conversation “in the air” around North Beach bars of the 1950s having filtered its way from Spicer’s lips to Dorn’s ear, eventually laying some elemental features within the grid-work upon which Gunslinger would partly work out its formation.

For a long while, the buzz around Spicer has been loud, often approaching the distinct feeling of being a fad. Several elements of the work (overlapping even when at apparent odds with one another) contribute to the likeliness of such a possibility: his homosexuality, his anarchistic point of view, the belatedness of any sort of mainstream publication, the linguistics (which was his “profession” if he is to be seen as having one) at work/play in his poems, alcoholism, and the deceptively simple seeming breaks of his line often combined with a lightness of colloquial diction. There’s much that it’s deceptively easy “to get,” process, incorporate, and write back to in response. Indeed, “correspondence” appears as a key device, repeatedly manifesting as both fascination and a tool with which Spicer interacts, encouraging endless possible connections indiscriminately merging: past/present/future, imagination/reality, dead/living, magic/science, reader/poet, poem/poet. But in the end, Spicer courts us as he abuses us. Dangling a dangerous game just within reach, tempting a following that he’d mockingly scorn. Be wary.

The Poetry of Jack Spicer
By Daniel Katz
Edinburgh University Press
ISBN 978-0-7486-4549-7

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