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Jack Spicer

Jack Spicer
Excerpt from Vancouver Lecture 3 ( June 17, 1965 )
"Poetry in Process and Book of Magazine Verse"


This piece is 5,200 words or about thirteen printed pages long.
The notes are at the end of the file.


Warren Tallman: Jack, in a lot of his poems, Yeats simply out-and-out explicates and tries to demonstrate that we live in a non-tragic universe. Do you have a sense that the news coming to you is of a non-tragic nature or of a tragic nature, or does that figure at all in your work?
Jack Spicer: "No kid, don't enter here." That's the answer. I don't know if it's tragic or not, but I just know that you better make certain that you don't get in on the things unless you really want to pay the price for them.
WT: Are you speaking there of the poet or what will come to the poet?
Jack Spicer: Well, both. I think that anyone's a fool to become a junkie or a poet.
Q: Why both?
Jack Spicer: Well, it's the same kind of hook really, and it has the same withdrawal symptoms if you ever try it.
Q: How about the fool?
Jack Spicer: Well, the fool is the same thing as the pitcher. There's no question about that. Percival is obviously the same thing as the pitcher that the catcher is getting mad at, but the catcher always strikes out still, although he hit these home runs off of Spahn, which is very easy, incidentally, in case people don't know it. Spahn - you hit home runs off of him or you strike out, even before he played for the Mets, where I hit singles off of him on account of the Mets.(See note 1)
Q: What about the guy who's instructing what should be thrown. You talk about that a lot.


Jack Spicer: You signal. You look to the third base side and see what they tell you to do, and then you signal what kind of pitch, and somebody, especially in Wrigley Field, is out in the scoreboard looking to see the signal, and they're signaling back at the batter.
Jack Spicer
Jack Spicer
photo from the collection of Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian
Q: There's a sort of manager and he has to listen to somebody else?
Jack Spicer: No, the catcher usually tells the pitcher what to pitch and the pitcher will throw off the sign then. I didn't read that "who stole the signs" thing in The Heads of the Town, but essentially the business is that the catcher signals to the pitcher, like, "I would like you to throw an outside fast ball there." You have him 0 and 2 and an outside fast ball he sometimes swings on. So he does something like this with his hands and the pitcher then will go like this, to shake off the sign, and then you give the second thing that you'd like him to do if he doesn't pitch an outside fast ball. And finally, you find, after he's shaken off three or four signs, that he just wants a fast ball to the plate, and so you give him the sign for that, and the guy hits a home run.
      There are some batters like Mays, the catcher doesn't ever say anything about. You just let the pitcher figure out what the hell he should do for Mays because nobody can figure out Mays. But you have a rookie, or even somebody two, three years - say, Jim Ray Hart, a very good example of the Giants - the catcher knows how to pitch for him much better than the pitcher knows and he'll give the sucker pitches for him. For someone like Mays or Ernie Banks, there's no sucker pitch. Either they're in a slump or they aren't, and it doesn't really matter what the hell you do. You might just as well let the pitcher figure the thing out.
Q: The time in the poem, where the batter and the pitcher both knew what the ball was going to do . . . 
Jack Spicer: Spahn and the catcher, yeah.
Q: You work towards that?
Jack Spicer: No. It's the kind of thing which happens with age. I think Spahn and the catcher, who is probably Jim Hegan of Cleveland, according at least to Warren . . .  wasn't it Jim Hegan?
WT: Hegan, it was.
Jack Spicer: Yeah, who must be dead, because he wouldn't appear in the poem otherwise.
      Well, the thing is that after a certain amount of time, you know and life knows what the hell is going to happen pretty much. You can't tell individually the exact second, but Spahn knows when he throws the pitch at you, and you know whether you can hit it or not, and Spahn fools around, you fool around, and you hit three home runs off of him. And you probably don't win any games by doing it, on account of the fact that Spahn pitches you those fast balls at a time when it wouldn't make any difference whether you hit a home run or not. This is getting old.
Q: That's politics.
Jack Spicer: Yeah, it is.
Q: You don't think the poets ever throw away their masks and their bats and go do something else?
Jack Spicer: Well, Rimbaud did. And then came back.
Q: Are you afraid of doing this?
Jack Spicer: Oh, shit, I'm so old that Rimbaud already died before I was my age. In Marseilles, with a vision.
      No, I don't see any point in throwing the bats away particularly. You can sure get pissed off at ways of you striking out, or hitting home runs against a bad opposition, stuff like that.
Q: But you're a poet because you do funny things with bats.
Jack Spicer: I think our baseball thing has gotten all confused.
Dorothy Livesay: Basically, we don't know anything about baseball.
Q: How long do you think it will take to finish that poem, Jack?
Tallman house
The Tallman's house in Vancouver, where this lecture was held, in the front right downstairs room.
photo copyright © George Bowering 1998, 1999
Jack Spicer: As I say, I think it's about half over, so this is just a real prediction which will probably foul up the prediction coming true, but I'd say off-hand from my previous experience, November. But I don't know. I've got stuck on this oil slick right now, and I don't know where to go. And furthermore, I don't want to leave Vancouver. There's that to it - the business of really not wanting to go back to Berkeley and San Francisco, wanting to stay here and not being able to. There's that thing, which gets in the way of any poems which are aimed toward me. It's going to be a rough few months, and I have no idea what will happen to the poems in this time.(See note 2)
Q: Are you actually going through a transition in your writing?
Jack Spicer: I'm going through a transition. In fact, I don't have no job, and I . . . 
Q: No, I mean in your actual writing.
Jack Spicer: Well, if the radio set has three batteries which are gone and one that's still left, that isn't a transition in the radio broadcast. It's a transition in the radio set, namely that you don't have very much power. And these things that happen to you in life are like that. If you're only going on one transistor and you're a four-transistor radio, you're not going to be able to get in the outlying stations very easy. KFI doesn't come in.
Q: How long ago did you write the poem that you read on Sunday night?
Jack Spicer: Was that The Grail?
Ellen Tallman: No, Heads of the Town.
Jack Spicer: Oh, Heads of the Town. I would say that the "Textbook" was written in '62, maybe early '63, something like that.(See note 3)
Q: That was more assumptions and ideas, and the poetry that you read today seemed to be on concrete hooks. For instance, the image of the oil slick.
Jack Spicer: Or the image of the hook, if you remember the line.
Q: Well, I didn't intend to make that reference. See, that's the problem - every time you mention something, you've got it in a poem somewhere.
Jack Spicer: Nice thing about poems, I guess. It scares the shit out of me, too.
DL: It seems to me a different kind of poem from the others. I couldn't get with this the way I was with the others. That may be because a lot of the references are quite alien.
Q: I didn't mean to make it a point of weakness. I'm just wondering whether you're actually in your own mind when you're going through a change of personality or a change of outlook or whatever.


Jack Spicer at the Six Gallery

Jack Spicer at the opening of the Six Gallery, San Francisco, Halloween 1954. Photo copyright © Robert Berg, 1954, 1999.


Jack Spicer: As I say, I think that the changes are due to environment and not anything else. I don't feel any real need for a change in attitude for poetry, although I wish I did. It's always exciting when one does. I don't. But just the fact that I leave from San Francisco to Vancouver - this is a change. It's a change in all sorts of things. My bowel movements change. My eating habits change. Everything's changed because I've moved from one place to another. And naturally, the part of me that's receiving poetry changes, too. I have no idea what that means, but I am certainly in a transition period in terms of my life, and that would probably mean in terms of my poetry, too, I would think. It would be logical, although I've sometimes been able to write in the most ghastly times in the world without any static coming through. In general, what happens to you in your life has some reflections in your poetry.
Jamie Reid: I remember when we talked down in San Francisco, and you said that you can write without any static coming through, and while we were talking, I had the feeling - it was funny - that it seemed that your physical body had shut off functioning, and yet your mind was still coming through. Your lips weren't moving, and your eyes weren't moving, but there was still a voice coming through from someplace. It was rather an interesting experience. I remember that.
Jack Spicer: How long ago was that?
JR: This was around March the 20th. We were down at Gino's.
Jack Spicer: Yeah. That was in the middle of the lemon poems, the poems for Poetry. Jim, I must say that it was quite true.
WT: I suppose you've answered this fifteen different times in other ways, but does the thing that's speaking or dictating work through what the poet happens to know?
Jack Spicer: Furniture, yeah.
WT: Say baseball was not an interest of yours. Say hockey was.
Jack Spicer: Or schkertl, which is a Martian sport played on Mars.
WT: Then, what's the connection between that and the that which is speaking or that which is dictating?
Jack Spicer: As I said, if a Martian comes into a room and sees a baby's alphabet blocks, he'll obviously use them to communicate. He won't understand what they're for or anything else. He'll simply rearrange them into an order which makes very good sense Martian-wise, and doesn't too much Earthman-wise, and he'll just use them. No, obviously, baseball is not going to last as long as these poems. If they're good poems they're going to last. But I don't see any of it makes too much difference.
ET: I know what I feel in the last section of the Festival poetry. It's that the cautions and warnings that I so often feel in other poetry - I don't know whether it's there or not, but that's how I feel - aren't there in the last three poems.
Jack Spicer: Yeah. It scares me too.
Poster for 1957 Spicer reading (and others)
Poster advertising a 1957 reading by Spicer, and others. From the collection of Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian.
Q: Why does it scare you? I'm a little bit confused when you say it scares you.
ET: Because it's so open.
Q: What do you mean, open? Open? Open to what?
ET: Vulnerable.
Q: I'm still confused here. Why would you be vulnerable writing this positive kind of poetry? [Laughter and more cross conversation]
Jack Spicer: As somebody said in Stalin's purge trials, when they asked if he murdered his grandmother and raped two nieces and delivered all the plans for the dam to the Nazis and the question went on for a long time, the answer was "You have found the very word."
ET: Sure.
Q: Then let me ask you who are you vulnerable to?
Jack Spicer: Ghosts.
Q: This change of geography - is it important to most poets, and to yourself specifically? Does it bring about this change that Allen has noticed and other people have noticed, the measure and all that?
Jack Spicer: I'd say so. "Gait" is maybe a better word than "measure."
Q: Is it important that the poet get that different gait?
Jack Spicer: No, I don't think it's important to the poem. It certainly makes a difference to the poet, whether he knows it or not.
Q: That's what I meant. Is it important to the poet that he do this, or can the poet remain in the same gait?


Jack Spicer

Jack Spicer at the opening of the Six Gallery, San Francisco, Halloween 1954. Photo copyright © Robert Berg, 1954, 1999. Photo courtesy Small Press Traffic in San Francisco - visit them at


Jack Spicer: It's pretty hard to if you're on a different kind of street. I mean, shit, if you're walking down a sandy beach, you obviously aren't going to walk the same way you walk through the Broadway tunnel. There's a different resistance and everything else. That lovely American astronaut that we had playing around in space - he obviously didn't walk the same way he walked down Main Street of his hometown, but at the same time, he was the same person and the same loss of gravity and everything else were possessing him. He had to learn how to walk out in space. But there are different kinds of levels of gravity and Vancouver has a different level than San Francisco does, and it's one I prefer.
DL: It doesn't really matter which.
Jack Spicer: It doesn't matter in the long run. To people who write your biographies it certainly doesn't matter. To these awful English students fifty years from now at UBC or somewhere like that, it won't matter a good goddamn what happened there, but it does matter to the person because the person's a person and not just a poet.
Q: There's one more thing that I wanted to ask you about. Valéry in The Art of Poetry talks about going to a lecture. You brought up the university. He talks about going to a lecture at a university about his own poems, and he said, "I felt very strange because it wasn't me or my poems that they were talking about because I had the memory of all the trials I had gone through to get this down properly, and I felt as if they were talking about a ghost of myself."(See note 4)
Jack Spicer: Yes. As a matter of fact, his poems talk about the ghost of himself ahead of time.
      I think Valéry was sort of playing footsie with the whole thing of being a ghost of himself when he took off for twenty-five years or however many years he took off for, playing hookie. He was really making this an important thing. I don't know. I don't trust him, although he's good.
WT: Jack, a while ago, while I was asking you about that tragic/non-tragic, I was really trying to get to something else, and that is what I sense as a comic dimension in your poems. Do the Martians play tricks on you, or do you play tricks on them? Am I making any sense at all?
Jack Spicer: Yeah. But my answer to playing tricks on the Martians is a poem by Ogden Nash. It's a lovely two-line poem: "When called by a panther / Don't anther."(See note 5)
Q: Well, I was a little confused. Are you concerned right now that the ghosts aren't operating you? Or do you want to be totally operated by the ghosts?
Jack Spicer: I just want to lead a simple life. [Laughter] I mean, the question is sort of ridiculous. I don't know what I want myself, and if I did know what I want, it would be the wrong thing to want.
Q: Now this is what I don't understand. If you know what you want, why is it wrong?
Jack Spicer: Well, on account of the fact that I ain't myself only. I'm a member of the team. And like Ted Williams always knew what he wanted and the Red Sox never did win the pennant. I'm sorry, but let's face it.
George Bowering: Lay off Ted Williams, that's all.
Jack Spicer: He gave that marvelous finger. I was there in Boston when he was giving it. It was a marvelous finger. But he didn't get any hits in front of him or behind him. He still stayed at the plate and took it very easy, and you know, he'd take a base on balls if he wanted a base on balls because he felt he couldn't get a hit, and it wouldn't matter that the Red Sox had a one-run deficit and it was the ninth inning or anything else. He still would take the base on balls and that kind of thing. He was a goddamn lousy team player, which is nice, but I don't really think that it works if you want to win pennants, and I think that I do and my poetry does.
Q: You always talk about yourself and then that very other thing, the ghosts, and I keep wanting to say there must be a position where you don't notice the distinction so much, where that's not what gets you about the two things - that they are one thing.


Book cover: The House that Jack Built

Book cover: The House that Jack Built - The collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, edited and with an afterword by Peter Gizzi, Wesleyan University Press, published by the University Press of New England, Hanover and London, ISBN 0-8195-6340-4


Jack Spicer: What you mean is what Warren said, that nobody believes me when I say that there is a distinction. I still believe there is. But I don't think it's a psychological distinction or anything else. I don't think it's something the electroencephalogram would get. I don't think it has anything to do with what's in my skull. I think there's something Outside. I really believe that, and I haven't noticed anyone really, in all of these people who come here, who did seem to believe that I believed it, but I do.
      And I don't care if you don't. It doesn't matter a good goddamn to me. But I just want to say for the record that I do believe it, that there is something Jenseits that has nothing to do with me whatsoever, and this I believe.(See note 6)
WT: Jack, in part I think it's not disbelief. It's that, as you very well know, poetry in Vancouver has been very much centered on the handling of the language as prior and then what comes in as following on that handling. Whereas yours seems to reverse that. I think that's where the static and the confusion is.
Q: It's the coming through, the idea of a message always to be received, but it can be thought of as just an event occurring, which is also a transmission between two things.
Jack Spicer: Yes, but then that comes down to "happenings" - that kind of thing that art galleries call. And you beat apart a piano like in Six Gallery, and you say that's a happening.(See note 7) Well, shit, that's just beating on a piano.
Q: But when you write a poem and you say, ah, there's something coming through in that poem, I'd read that poem and I'd just say there's something really happening. I feel very different when I read this poem than when I read other poems. And I don't see it as a message transmitted via that poem.
Jack Spicer: The messages don't come through that way. Certainly, for these poems I read tonight I've only gotten two or three things from them as messages to me. "No kid, don't enter here" is about the only thing which is absolutely clear and has told me something about what I should and shouldn't do in my life and so forth. And the lemon poem still is very, very difficult for me.
      In the poem on Eliot's death, which is really about the death of Churchill - it was written because of that, and Eliot came in on Suspicion afterwards with a capital S in the poem. That was just before I left for Canada. Churchill had just about died then, or had died. And it was the first time - not the first time he died - the first time I came to Canada.
      But the things don't come through very fast, and it's quite true that you don't get messages like, "arrive tomorrow at 7:30, plane so-and-so" and so forth and so on. It doesn't come like that, obviously. But they do come as messages nonetheless. And not just for having pleasure, which was the thing that the guy probably misunderstood the other night - that pleasure was the thing about poetry. It isn't. It has to do with messages. But they come through awfully unclear and you don't really know when you're even delivering them whether the person you send the telegram to is going to sock you in the eye or give you a quarter tip.
ET: At what point did you allow these messages to take over or start happening in your poetry?
Jack Spicer

Jack Spicer
From the collection of Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian
Jack Spicer: It happened about halfway through when I was writing After Lorca, when the letters to Lorca started coming and being dictated and the poems, instead of being translations, were dictated. Then I sort of knew what was happening. And when the final thing happened, in the poem, the business of the last letter, I really knew that there was something moving it. Before, I never did. I just had the big thing of you writing poems and isn't that great, and they were sometimes great, sometimes good at least. But after that I never really had any ambitions to do anything else.
DL: The first Sunday when you spoke, you were asked whether this message was important to your life. My impression was that you said no. And you were asked was it important to other people hearing it, and again you said no.
Jack Spicer: What I'm trying to say is that when I say "not important," it is the kind of thing that - you want a job, you want a million dollars, you want someone to sleep with - no. That doesn't help a bit. It is important to your life in the sense that you live your life not just as a human being but as something more than a human being, and I don't know how much it is. In terms of biography, I doubt if poems that you write or poems that you read by others really change the course of, or the flow of events, of things. But at the same time they do in a fundamental way.
It's again like music. It doesn't really mean a goddamn thing, and yet it does. It's this kind of halfway into reality and halfway out of it that does seem to me important - at least important enough to be hooked with as one is hooked with poetry.
Q: Here's another question, Jack. Are you writing with any special purpose or purposes when you're doing that? I'll give an analogy. Yeats tried to define his metaphysical system in his own mind, and let's say Eliot tried to clarify religion.
Jack Spicer: No. Yeats did not try to define his metaphysical system in his own mind. The spooks told him, "We have given you metaphors to write your poetry with" and he was . . . 
Q: He tried to understand them, didn't he?
Jack Spicer: Sure he did. Yeats was completely uninterested in the long run in what the metaphors really meant because there was no point in his trying to understand it. And Yeats occasionally would face things. Well, "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen" is, to my idea, just about the best poem he ever wrote, and he faced these things with bitterness and all of that, but things came through that were just completely wild to the political poem he was trying to write. And he just left it alone, and he didn't revise "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen" at all.
      I don't know. Take "Among School Children," where he talks about it himself - his business of being the "smiling public man" versus the business of the "Ledaean body, bent" and so forth. He faced the thing and it ends up in a chestnut tree, which is about the only place you can end up in. I mean, it is a kind of a growth, and a growth between two things, ground and a tree, or whatever the hell it is. You have to get your roots firmly in the ground first. Put your feet on the ground first. Money doesn't grow on trees. You know, I don't like the dance image, but there is a kind of dance.
Q: I beg your pardon.
Jack Spicer: I say I don't like the dance image which always occurs when you try to figure out where the poet is doing things, and it's like a dance, maybe, of the Indian fakir on hot coals, but it ain't very much like a dance that I'd like to dance of choice. It is a kind of a thing where you go between one thing and another, I guess as trees grow roots, and the smiling public man is the same thing as the chestnut tree, the "great-rooted blossomer."
Q: Let's put it this way. Fifty years from now, what would you expect an English student to get out of your poetry?
Jack Spicer: Term papers. [Laughter]


You can link directly to Peter Gizzi's Afterword

      ¶ 1 - The baseball players to whom Spicer refers in this section of the lecture are:
      Willie Mays (nicknamed "Say Hey") played for the Giants his whole career (1951-1957 in New York and 1958-1972 for San Francisco). As Spicer suggests in Lecture 2, he was known for his crowd-pleasing antics, such as taking off his cap and facing the crowd every time he got to first base (Dark, 76).
      Jim Ray Hart was a third baseman for the Giants from 1964 to 1972. Spicer called him "Dr. Strangeglove." As a rookie, he hit his first home run off Warren Spahn in April 1964. Also in that season Willie Mays replaced him at third base after Hart was hit in the head by a ball and hospitalized, bounced out of the box. Hart seems to be the rookie in the second poem for the St. Louis Sporting News: "Somebody so young being so cagy, I / Got three home-runs off Warren Spahn but both of us understood where the ball was (or wasn't) going to go. You / Are a deceit and when you get to the age of thirty (and I live to see it) you're / Going to be knocked out of the box, / Baby" (Book of Magazine Verse, 257).
      Warren Spahn pitched most of his career for Boston (1942-1952) and Milwaukee (1953-1964). He played for both New York and San Francisco in 1965, the year he retired.
      Jim Hegan was a catcher for Cleveland. He played for San Francisco in 1959 and retired in 1960.
      Ted Williams (nicknamed the "Splendid Splinter," "Thumper," and "The Kid") was a legendary batter and outfielder for Boston, 1939-1960.
      ¶ 2 - The sentiments expressed here are evidence of Spicer's inner turmoil. He dies exactly two months later - long before November.
      ¶ 3 - Heads of the Town Up To The Æther was written in 1960-1961 and published in 1962.
      ¶ 4 - Paul Valéry writes that reading "what has been written about you is as nothing to the peculiar sensation of hearing yourself commented on at the University in front of the blackboard, just like a dead author . . . I felt as though I were my own shadow" (Valéry, 141-142).
      ¶ 5 - In Nash's collected poems, Verse from 1929 On, "The Panther" has six lines (Nash, 97).
      ¶ 6 - Jenseits or Jenerseits is German for the "other world."
      ¶ 7 - Spicer was one of the "six" of the Six Gallery. It was the site of the public inauguration of the Beat generation with Allen Ginsberg's reading of "Howl" in 1955. Of the event Spicer refers to, Rebecca Solnit writes: "The Six Gallery died with a bang in November of 1957. Pianist and sculptor Ed Taylor organized what might have been called a Happening if it had happened back East, though he called it 'Collective Expressionism.' A participant cut off Taylor's tie to launch the event, then six poets read their work simultaneously while someone shouted 'the horses are off and running.' Everyone then demolished the gallery's decrepit piano with axes, blow torches, and sledgehammers"(72).


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