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–
Can­nily
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

Patrick James DunaganPatrick James Duna­gan lives in San Fran­cisco and works in Glee­son library @ USF. His lat­est books are “There Are Peo­ple Who Think That Painter’s Shouldn’t Talk”: A GUSTONBOOK (Post Apollo 2011) and Das Gedichtete (Ugly Duck­ling forth­com­ing 2013). Other things are appear­ing or expected with: 1913 A Jour­nal of Forms, Amer­i­can Book Review, Amer­ar­cana, Bright Pink Mos­quito, Dusie, Greet­ings, House Organ, HTML­giant, Life­and­deatho­famer­i­canci­ties, Lightning’d Press house mag, New Pages, Rain Taxi, The Rum­pus, Sham­poo, Switch­back, and The Volta.

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