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Jack Spicer

Christopher W. Alexander :

Looking Back on Spicer: a double-take 


This piece is about eight printed pages long.


Guillaume Apollinaire: More than anything, artists are men [sic] who want to become inhuman.

JS: Ghosts.



There has been a great deal of confusion made by Spicer's claims, both serious and spurious, to a poetic mediumship. The idea of such frequently promulgated out of Spicer's work is itself of or flirts ambiguously with the genuine -- that poets are in the simplest sense receivers of 'messages' from beyond or Outside (the jenseitig on which Spicer insists in the third Vancouver Lecture), spiritual mediums of a qualified Yeatsian order whose work, neither guide nor betrayal, reflects a truth beyond human use or human scrutiny. 'Simplest' here because such an interpretation captures none of the nuance of Spicer's position in making these assertions; only accepts him as authority whose capable aphorisms are the very judgement of the (after) life of poetry, or rejects him as a crank. It is a supernaturalism that ignores the tropological character of his remarks -- belief and disbelief conjoined in them -- just as the opposed, anti-personal view accepts his remarks as mere tropes, ghosts standing in with radio-broadcasts for a willed refusal of the personal, or the very person of the poet. Spicer as post-identity theoretician, whose works are birthed of the world into the world to circulate endlessly; a pre-structural post-structuralist. This position is its own kind of supernaturalism -- invoking the dead poet in support of a nihilistic order that places at its political center the nothingness of persons, their negation within an embraced bureaucracy of 'corporatized' depersonalization -- their mere use. A third position would have Spicer as ideological critic, whose composite rendition of a cultural voice(s), had perhaps at the expense of the personal, becomes the documentary evidence that may indict his age. But to appraise him in this manner is to remake Spicer's work too much in the wake of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and, while not entirely ignoring its peculiar concerns, to elide the particular character of his writing.


      The truth of Spicer's work is something more complex, falling beyond the question of his plainspokenness. For, if Spicer's is a willing refusal of the personal, his duplicity in so refusing is to invoke the pain -- the impossibility -- of being human. Spicer himself is 'not himself'; he exercises a subjective freedom in the negation of the self -- gives himself to poetry, as he tells Allan Joyce. His openness is simultaneously a radical acceptance of tyranny as subjective disappearance, and the real condition of its visibility. The beloved in Spicer is not himself --

                       "Dead on arrival":
You say before he arrives anywhere.
Evacuated as with the poet, he stands only as counter-force to the latter, an opposite pole or contact forced by the pressure of the crowd -- of ghosts or of the damned or of persons, which remain only marginally distinct in the poems. In this relation, perhaps all of Spicer's work could be subsumed to -- becoming the apotheosis of -- that genre of "A Une Passante," of which Benjamin says, "[t]he delight of the city-dweller is not so much love at first sight as love at last sight. The never marks the high point of the encounter, when the poet's passion seems to be frustrated but in reality bursts from him like a flame." What is treated in Baudelaire's poem -- a bourgeois insistence on the subjective encounter as the meaningful unit of the otherwise impersonal crowd -- is taken up as the real content of Spicer's work; who, in acceding to the "essentially inhuman make-up" of the crowd, brings the subject to itself as an element thereof. [1] He pronounces what is secretly expressed in the agency of Baudelaire's first line, "La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait." -- The deafening street around me roared. In this, Spicer's work does not lack passion (humor, friendship, pathos); rather that passion is turned to account, that flame extinguished not in being shied-from or denied (the too-Calvinist Spicer of Duncan's preface to One Night Stand), but in being shown for what it is in the conditions under which it is. Like Hawthorne's Wakefield, he "is excited to something like energy of feeling"; which is feeling and its recognition. That this flame consumes Spicer is evident in that the encounter in his poems is realized in primarily a fearful shape. In the moment of passion the beloved is revealed, impersonal and dead, as what love really desires ("a necessity which is not love but a name") and what it wishes to make itself resemble -- which is what we actually resemble. The subject, legislating freely for itself, becomes a regime of terror -- apprehending the object of its desire such that the subject itself reveals itself as object; desire as mirror. The propriety of readers' speculation on the "Jim" of the poems -- ostensibly James Alexander, Spicer's "muse personified" and one-time object of his affections -- lies both in accepting Spicer as primarily a love poet, and in having absorbed James Herndon's remark:
Did someone mention the fact of the word "Jim" occurring over and over again in Jack's work? Now the things that are for Jim come to an end, it goes on, not ending. That Jim isn't me at all. It isn't even Jim Alexander a lot; it ain't Jimmy Brown or Jim Heurtibise either, although it's some of the latter three. It's a name. Just imagine you write Jim over and over again and in the end it turns out to be Ernie. . . . [2]
"That they have lost the significance of a name is unimportant," Spicer writes in this the last section of A Textbook of Poetry. "Now the things that are for Jim are coming to an end, I see nothing beyond it. Like a false nose where a real nose is lacking. Faceless people."


      Thus, the threatening element in the work -- its threat is palpable -- is not so much the disappearance of the poet or the beloved, but their objective appearance, always in a shape that recognizes them as empty or empties them; and the objects of the world along with them: the movement between, e.g., Alias at the edge of a little river, attempting to reason with Billy The Kid ("No river / wants to trap men. There ain't no malice in it."), and the close of the poem:

I was never real. Alias was never real.
Or that big cotton tree or the ground.
Or the little river.
The choice, if such it may be termed, is between malice and "No river," or both; subjective tyranny gives way to objective non-entity as reified consciousness. Proposing his negation as subject -- the actual condition of personhood pre-disposed as a necessary half-truth -- Spicer's work shows us both that condition and ourselves as we really are (are not). In this, his work surpasses the neo-romantic lyric with which it may be allied (his debt to Rilke is acknowledged), the linguistic traces of the will of the superior disclosed as the condition of writing, which the latter imputes only as completed fact. Spicer is wracked with his angels where Rilke's tower apparently unperturbed.



The difficulty of Spicer's poetics, in 1965 as now, has been the apparent contradiction between this motif of subjective negation and the radically social nature of Spicer's poetry. Beyond his explicit preoccupation with 'community,' -- evident in all of his lectures and even his earliest statement of poetics -- there is compounded with the poems' obliquity a definitive sense of address, even among those pieces that lack a specific dedication, directed argument, or attack. [3] His use of collective pronouns, of the imperative mode, the sudden, conversational directness of his statements ("Whatever belongs in the circle is in the circle") mark the poems formally as allocutionary; a rhetoric borne out concretely by the 'coterie' emphasis of the poems' composition and circulation, as in the Admonitions manuscript, which found its completion not in publication as a book, but in having been presented over time to its dedicatees at the Sunday Meetings. [4] Similarly, Russell Fitzgerald, Spicer's lover, confided to his acquaintance the novelist Nick Diaman that the series Fifteen False Propositions Against God had been found nailed to his apartment door after his relationship with Spicer had ended badly; that it came subsequently to be published in Beatitude no. 3 (as "Fifteen False Propositions About God") would seem almost beside the point, except as its appearance may coincide with that of rival Bob Kaufman's "Abominist Manifesto" in the same forum. [5]


      At some level, much of Spicer's work exhibits similar effects, which amount to a failure of distance in the composition, collapsing the immediate, subjective social relation with what should else be its object or the object of exchange, the finished poem. Spicer's work does not exist primarily as montage, even the textual montage implied by his useful parody of other writers and cultural goods; rather the poems, declining to reflect on the world mimetically or to comment on social relations, take for themselves the role of the social relation, of which they would otherwise be the pretext. Yet if Spicer's poems locate themselves socially, that is, if his 'formal' innovation accounts for itself (now retrospectively) at the level of its lost phenomenal moment, the utopian communis loca of the poetry is contravened in that the relations expressed, finding themselves mere markers of the phenomenal, find also their truth as mere markers; like Spicer himself, who "eliminates" himself in the writing, the subjective material of his relationships is seen for the mediated objectivity it represents. Such is the case almost from the moment of the poems' composition; and beyond the violence done to them by history or its absence stands Spicer's immitigable turning away from the positive statement his address would imply. In effect, as with the denial of the subject, whose freedom is contradicted in the choice made, the charge of the work comes with the denial of the social relation, perceived as false but recognized as true. Hence Joanne Kyger's appraisal of "For Kids" as "obscure late-night writing," which discovers of the Admonitions manuscript that its poems are of a threatening cast without ever having been legible as warnings. [6] They do not live even in the moment of their composition. Nevertheless, this paradox reaches its apex in the publication-at-large of Spicer's work, whose meaning is qualitatively altered in its re-situation; flattening the poems from a series of social negotiations to a reified object-in-itself, a completed act whose social impetus -- the poems as discourse situated between specific persons, however obscurely -- is rendered largely illegible. The work comes to be exaggerated as a highly subjective form estranged from the subjective by its approach to the uniformity of mass production -- analogous to the hastily-made and formulaic (formalistic) serial film of Spicer's childhood the 1930s and 40s -- in the serial poem as book. The poems' address, deprived of the constellation by which it has been shaped, becomes foremost a series of names: titles of poems or dedications by whose directedness the communitarian ideal is assumed and also unmasked -- experience of community underwritten by its own demise. Despite his legendary ambivalence about publication -- now jealous of fame, now burning his books on the floor of City Lights -- this is not an element Spicer himself chose to explore in his work; rather it comes, as it were, après la lettre, as the historical confirmation of what for us now must be taken as the very premise of his work. It is in the half-light of this condition that the poems find their historical truth, publication bringing that work formally into line with the judgement it feared and which it had already itself pronounced. What is developed in Spicer's poetry, as it were a photographic negative, is a moment of real participation that seems with its publication to collapse into reified consciousness; yet as with the 'essentially inhuman' crowd of Baudelaire's fourmillante cité (whose best representative may indeed be Poe's Man of the Crowd), this reified consciousness is the truth of the former moment which, seen at last in print, comes to the fore.



Freud, in his book on jokes, outlined a form of chiasmus integral to the working of a certain class of jokes, whose logic is to replace an undesirable statement with it opposite, effectively qualified to give the meaning of the unwanted principle. This is fundamentally sympathetic with the movement of Spicer's poetry, which becomes the amor fati by which it may be recognized: his embrace of ghostly nonexistence as secretly the embrace of what is merely existent.
      Finally then -- a joke, like a pumpkin on wet Halloween, that Jack Spicer could flicker into:

Frederick the Great heard of a preacher in Silesia who had the reputation of being in contact with spirits. He sent for the man and received him, grimly putting to him the question: "Can you conjure up spirits?" The man, frightened for his life by the king's serious aspect, was silent for a time; finally the reply came: "At your Majesty's command. But they don't come."



[1] Baudelaire's influence on Spicer is indisputable; however, it is worth noting -- as Benjamin notes -- that this theme of the passerby surfaces too among the early poems of Stefan George. For Spicer's interest in George, vid. Ellingham/Killian, 19-20 and 217ff.

[2] James and Fran Herndon, Everything As Expected, n.p. This passage is included in commentary on Fran's collage "King Football" -- and with the collage is reproduced in this issue of Jacket. Jim Heurtibise was the winner of the 1962 Indianapolis 500. The Ernie is Ernie Davis, mentioned in preceding commentary on "Collage for Jimmy Brown": "We called him Jimmy in those days. It was a big year for him. Something bothered me about it, though, and later on I figured out what it was. The main photo . . . aint [sic] of Jimmy Brown at all. It is Ernie Davis. Ernie was another Syracuse running back. . . . When I announced my mundane discovery, Fran and Jack were delighted. It proved that they were on the right track."

[3] Argument with Robert Duncan takes especial prominence; the work also encompasses similar if less developed treatment of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, and others. Vid. Ellingham/Killian 206ff for their account of Lament for the Makers in its relation to Duncan.

[4] For reference to the Sunday Meetings, cf. Ellingham/Killian 106ff et passim; the focus of the selection reproduced in this issue of Jacket. The Admonitions manuscript was published following Spicer's death, first in Manroot no. 10 (1974-1975) and as a book by Adventures in Poetry (NYC, 1974), and finally in The Collected Books. See "Works Consulted" for full bibliographic references.

[5] Ellingham/Killian 138-39 and preceding. Given the rarity and expense of early issues of Beatitude, I have been unable to ascertain the chronological relation between Spicer's and Kaufman's respective pieces.

[6] Ellingham/Killian 122-23. The recently-rediscovered "For Kids" was Spicer's Admonition to Joanne Kyger; in this passage, Ellingham and Killian relate the circumstances of its composition and discuss other poems in the series.


Works Consulted for this piece

Theodor W. Adorno. Aesthetic Theory. tr. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

--. The Jargon of Authenticity. trs. Knut Tarnowski and Fredric Will. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.

--. "Looking Back on Surrealism." In The Idea of the Modern in Literature and the Arts. ed. Irving Howe. New York: Horizon Press, 1967.

Charles Baudelaire. Les Fleurs du Mal. Stockholm: Jan Forlag, 1944.

Walter Benjamin. Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. tr. Harry Zohn. New York: Verso, 1992.

Robin Blaser. "The Practice of Outside" in The Collected Books of Jack Spicer. ed. Robin Blaser. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1975.

Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian. Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1998. Portions reprinted in this issue of Jacket, no. 7.

Sigmund Freud. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. tr. James Strachey. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1960.

James Herndon. Everything as Expected. San Francisco, 1973. Portions reprinted in this issue of Jacket, no. 7.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1946.

Rainer Maria Rilke. The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. tr. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Jack Spicer. "Admonitions" in Manroot no. 10 (Late Fall 1974 / Winter 1975) 109-118.

--. Admonitions. New York City: Adventures in Poetry, 1974.

--. The Collected Books of Jack Spicer. ed. Robin Blaser. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1975.

--. The House that Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer. ed. Peter Gizzi. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1998. Portions reprinted in this issue of Jacket, no. 7. I have found Gizzi's introductions to the respective lectures and his extended critical Afterword most useful.


Chris W.Alexander
Christopher W. Alexander lives in Buffalo, New York, where he is studying in the doctoral program in English at SUNY Buffalo. He is the editor of nominative press/neue gedichte and acting moderator of the Poetics List.


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