Jack Spicer often gave his birth date as 1946. This was the year he met Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser.
Melville wrote to Hawthorne "From my twenty-fifth year I date my life." [Letter from Melville to Hawthorne, June 1851, Melville Web Site]. This was the year he began writing.
While Melville was writing Pierre he ate no solid food until sundown. Friends, already doubting his sanity, wondered if he was writing in a state of semi-delirium. [Rogin, 186.]
The lawyer, in Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, remarks that while Bartleby eats only a few ginger cakes a day, "he seemed to gorge himself on my documents . . . there was no pause for digestion" "as if long famishing for something to copy ". [Herman Melville, Bartleby The Scrivener, (Horace Liveright, Inc.,1928), 118.]
Jack Spicer's friends note that he ate very little in the last years of his life. [Ellingham, 723, 987.] This is not surprising as alcoholics tend to lose interest in food. His writing in no way suffered this same dis-interest. From 1962 -1965 (the year of his death) he wrote the books The Holy Grail, Language, and The Book of Magazine Verse. Perhaps he thought that writing and alcohol would nourish his body; but I doubt it. To Allen Joyce he wrote "Giving yourself to poetry is like giving yourself to alcohol - most people can't or are afraid. I've given myself to both." [Letter from Jack Spicer to Allan Joyce, 1956.] I don't think he could help himself.
To be lost in a crowd. Of images, of metaphors (whatever
they were), of words; this is a better surrender. [Spicer, CB, 169.]
Melville ends his tale, Bartleby the Scrivener, with Bartleby starving to death or "living without dining" in the tombs of a prison. [Melville, Bartleby, 154.]
When reading Spicer I feel an aching hollowness in my stomach, and can imagine, for a moment, not needing to eat. This has nothing to do with alcohol. Words are sustenance, but these words are terrifying, bringing me to a state that teeters between a fearful hunger and one which purges me of the longings that bring me to food.
Stranger, I had words for dinner
Stranger, I had words for dinner
Stranger strange do you believe me?
Honestly, I had your heart for supper
Honesty has had your heart for supper
Honesty Honestly are your pain
[Spicer, CB, 132]
These haunting incantations are the first two stanzas of Magic from Homage to Creeley and I do believe that he had words for dinner. (St. Augustine said the sacrament was a "verbum visible.") [Robin Blaser, The Practice of Outside, (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1975), 313. Blaser notes that Jack was fascinated with St Augustine's definition of the sacrament as a visible word.]
Jack's poetry beseeches one to remember the impossibility of disconnection from the body; that the mind/body split is a false one. Jack had a strained relationship to his own body and sexuality; his friends report that he felt he was ugly, and although he was "out" as a gay man, any kind of sexuality was somewhat uncomfortable for him.
We find the body difficult to speak,
The face too hard to hear through,
We find that eyes in kissing stammer
And that heaving groins
Babble like idiots.
[Jack Spicer, One Night Stand and Other Poems,
ed. Don Allen (San Francisco: Grey Fox Press, 1980), 42.]
I was surprised when I found out that Jack was six feet tall and thin. From the few pictures I had seen I imagined him to be of medium height and stocky. He stoops over in the photos, hiding his height. His body is a weight to him. I have a physical reaction to Jack's words which is difficult to articulate, but is something like a joyful sadness that makes my eyes heavy. "A pulse, a quiet lengthening of breath / a slow advance and then the senses fall." [Ibid.,]
I procured a high green folding screen, which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice. And thus in a manner privacy and society were conjoined.
My experience repeatedly taught me that a complete self-surrender to the psycho-automation . . . resulted in the communication of a loftier flow of verbiage.
-Albert Le Baron,
Communicated by William James
The third step in dictated poetry is to try to keep as much of yourself as possible out of the poem.
In 1965, as part of the Vancouver Poetry Festival, Jack delivered three lectures (wonderfully transcribed by Peter Gizzi some thirty years later) in which he was able to articulate his writing processes of dictation and the serial poem; methods which had evolved during the writing of After Lorca.
He believed that a poem comes from the Outside; the poet is a vehicle to bring out the poem. The better the poem the less it has to do with the poet. The poet should suppress his/her will, like the self-surrender which allows the psycho-automation to take over in the cases of automatic writing which so intrigued William James. The poet must empty him/herself so as to escape "the big lie of the personal." [Spicer, CB.] The Martian or the spook, Jack's main metaphors for this Outside, would direct the furniture (the language) in the poet's room, which would, in fact could only include, what that poet knew, but the trick was that "the poem would say what you need to say, not what you want to say." [Peter Gizzi, The House that Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, (Hanover: University Press of New England/Wesleyan University Press, 1998), 6.]
The Grail is the opposite of poetry
Fills us up instead of using us as a cup the dead drink from.
[Spicer, CB, 188.]
Jack's dictation can remind one of Bartleby or echo the experiences reported in James' Essays in Psychical Research and it can obviously be traced back to Blake and Yeats; but it is also completely his own. His vocabulary of spooks and Martians has kept him on the margins of the academy, in effect sifting out those whom I think Jack would see as imposing a language not fit for poetry. This is not to say that he didn't have a critical voice (see his article on the Emily Dickinson manuscripts*) or that dictation was a ruse. In the third Vancouver Lecture he says "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 believe it, but I do." [Gizzi, 134.] This was his way of getting at writing, and as sharp a wit as Jack had, he was deadly serious about poetry. In the last letter in After Lorca he writes "It was a game made out of summer and freedom and a need for poetry that would be more than the expression of my hates and desires. It was a game like Yeats' spooks or Blake's sexless seraphim." [Spicer, CB, 51.]
* [In the Spring of 1956 Jack got a job in the rare books section of the Boston Public Library. He was working on Emily Dickinson's manuscripts and mentions it enthusiastically in several letters. He wrote one article on the manuscripts, published in the Boston Public Library Quarterly (1956), which evidences an interest in textual scholarship. On an amusing note in a letter to Allan Joyce he writes "At present I'm working on Emily Dickinson. Her handwriting is bad and I do not believe she was a lesbian."]
Once a week, for the last ten years of his life, Jack would go over to Berkeley to play bridge. The other players report that he would sometimes cry in frustration during a game. [Ellingham, 640.] Jack didn't want to play bridge with casual players and he didn't want to play poetry with those who weren't serious about it. The rules could be rigid but as Jack said "rules and cheating are conceptually of equal importance for the poet."[Gizzi, 103.]
A poet who writes through the experience of dictation will write poems that scare him. Spicer in a letter to Graham MacIntosh writes "fear is a natural force, like electricity which can either spread terror and destroy, in the form of lightning, or can be channeled into high tension wires and used to make toast." Fear, used in the right way, is productive. Melville knew how to scare himself and I imagine he lived for this state. This is how he wanted to write. The pressures of economics, of trying to write books that would sell in the bedeviled market, sometimes interrupted. In a letter to Hawthorne he says "What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, -- it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the final product is a hash, and all my books are botches."[Letter from Melville to Hawthorne June 1851, Melville Web Site] After completing Moby-Dick he writes another letter to Hawthorne. This time he says "I have written a wicked book and feel as spotless as the lamb." [Rogin, 143.] Moby-Dick was a failure in Melville's own time but it was true to him.
It seems an inconsistency to assert an unconditional democracy in all things, and yet confess a dislike to all mankind -- in the mass. But not so.
-Melville in a June 1851 letter to Hawthorne
"The public be damned," by which he did not mean that they did not matter or he wanted to be crucified by them, but that really he did not have a word to say to them.
-Jack Spicer in A Textbook of Poetry
In a 1949 essay, "The Poet and Poetry" Jack Spicer asked "Why is nobody here? Who is listening to us? . . . If we were actors or singers or cartoonists of the same relative talent a sizable percentage of the students of this University [UC Berkeley] would recognize our names and be familiar with our work." [Spicer, One Night Stand, 90.] This question of who is listening to poetry is a refrain which sounds throughout the body of his work. His hope for a public had disappeared by 1964 when he wrote these lines:
No one listens to poetry. The Ocean
Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
Or crash of water, It means
[Spicer, CB, 217 quoted in Charles Bernstein,
Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, Oxford, May 1998.]
Here he despairs the lack of an audience which is capable of what Charles Bernstein calls "close listening": a listening which hears the tones and stresses of the poem, a listening which demands to hear the poem out loud, a listening which is an understanding. Robin Blaser said of Jack that "he did not think he was in charge of, but that he was among things." [Ellingham, 901.] Understanding not as a domination but an entrance. Listening to bring the Outside in.
Melville's first two novels Typee and Omoo gained him a significant public and some financial success. He imagined that he would be able to make a living as a writer. But this was not the case. Almost all of his later books, including Moby Dick, Pierre, and The Confidence Man, were critical and financial failures during his lifetime. "Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter", he prophesied in a letter to Hawthorne while in the midst of composing Moby-Dick. [letter from Mellvile to Hawthorne, June 1851, Melville Web Site]
Bartleby, with his precise and haunting "I prefer not to", refuses to copy anymore. Imagine if he had said "I won't" or just "no" how wrong it would have been. The passivity of "I prefer not to" is absolutely impenetrable. Bartleby will not assume the rightful place of a worker. Melville will not write "the other way". Bartleby refuses to work, yet also refuses to leave the work place. He will not accept the split between work and home which was taking shape along with the market economy, that same market which Melville's father had been unable to negotiate; dying bankrupt and mad after a series of failed business attempts. Bartleby dies too, by preferring not to participate in society.
PUBLISH OR PERISH
Jack Spicer published all of his poetry in the public domain; he refused to copyright any of his work. [Admonitions was copyrighted - but against Spicer's will.] If someone wanted a copy of his magazine J he/she could send a dollar and a letter. If Jack liked the letter he would send a copy of the magazine. Open Space, the next magazine he was involved with, was not allowed out of the Bay Area. He did not want to participate in the market which forced poets to sell out to what he called "the bosses" [Gizzi, 153] and he wanted those readers he did have to be as serious about poetry as he was.
"There is a grand truth about Nathaniel Hawthorne. He says No! in thunder; but the devil himself can not make him say yes. For all men who say yes, lie". [letter from Mellvile to Hawthorne, April 1851, Melville Web Site] Melville wrote these admiring words in an 1851 letter to Hawthorne. To say no was to remain true to oneself, to write what one needed to write. To say yes was to buy into the lie of the market that dictated public taste. Those who said no "would cross the frontiers into Eternity with nothing but a carpet bag". [Ibid.] Those who said yes would "never get through the Custom House". In 1852 Melville Published Pierre. It was another critical and financial failure. No one was listening.
In 1965, just weeks before his death, Jack gave a last lecture at Berkeley. The subject was poetry and politics. Sixteen years had past since his first Berkeley Symposium "The Poet and Poetry". The grant which had kept him employed doing linguistic research had dried up and he had been out of a job for six months. He knew well the difficulties a professional linguist who was a poet and alcoholic faced in finding a job. He was paid $100.00 to give the lecture. He acknowledged that economics will always force the issue. "You're going to sell out eventually. You have to, just for economic reasons. But when you sell out, know exactly what your peaches cost: know exactly what is the price you can sell out for" he advises the young poets in the audience.
Melville saw Hawthorne for the last time in November of 1856. He had just completed The Confidence Man which would be the last novel he would publish in his lifetime. Melville, on his way to visit The Holy Land, told Hawthorne that he had "pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated." After his return to America he worked as an inspector in the New York Custom House. He never traveled again and, except for Billy Budd, only wrote poetry which he self-published.
In 1949 Jack had asked the questions "Why is nobody here? Who is listening?" In 1965 when a member of the Berkeley audience asked "What about the poet and his audience?" Jack replied:
I just don't believe that there is an audience for poems. There's an audience obviously for poets . . . But for poems, it seems to me that you're lucky if you get two or three people within a five year period who understand any of your poems. It seems to me that the only reason for writing poetry is because poetry is sort of forced through the poet and is just there . . . What I'm trying to say is that I don't really think that a poet can have any effect whatsoever on society. [Ibid., 162.]
Politics and poetry are completely separate issues. It is important to realize that Jack was not an apathetic man. In his student days he had been involved in anarchist clubs. In 1950 while a Teaching Assistant at Berkeley he refused to sign a loyalty oath which included an anti-communist clause. He was openly gay in a time when it was not common to be "out" but in the same way that he strove to keep the personal out of his poetry he did not believe that poetry was a venue for political protest. A poem was bound to fail if one had a message in mind. If one wanted to write a protest a letter to the editor or a congressman was more useful then a bad poem. [Ibid., 14. Jack says in Lecture 1 "If you want to write a letter to the editor, then the thing to do is to write a letter to the editor as far as I can see. and it doesn't seem to me that's what poetry is for."]
Michael Paul Rogin, in his book Subversive Genealogy, unravels the tangled threads of Melville's family tree and the politics of Melville's time which are embedded in Melville's texts. "Melville was particularly sensitive to the American crisis because of the political importance of his clan and the political history of his family. . . A study of Melville's fiction, and of the society refracted through it, must also be a history of Melville's family, and of the writer's relation to his kin". [Rogin, IX.] This was the furniture in Melville's room. This is not to say that Melville wrote through dictation, that was Jack's writing process, but I believe an Outside drove Melville too. He was writing in a time when the rapidly expanding market was innundating a wild landscape with a commerce that could tell lies. To make the invisible visible was also an attempt to see through this cover.
In the second Vancouver lecture an audience member says "You seem to equate passivity with unconscious skill". Jack answers "No, I don't. Passivity is not the same thing as clearing one's mind." [Gizzi, 79.] Jack uses a colloquial vocabulary, but his poetics and his politics, if I'm right to name them so, are complex. I don't think he would disagree with the 70s maxim that the personal is political, but he would surely disagree that art should be made out of it.
Hate and love are clarifications enough of themselves, do not
belong in poetry, embarrass the reader and the poet, lack
[Spicer, CB, 88.]
In an era of identity politics Jack Spicer is an interesting figure to consider. It is not that the personal and political never entered his poetry, or that he even believed it was possible to completely empty oneself, it is the subtle distinction between letting a poem happen and making a poem happen which is his important message to the artist.
The poet wants to take up all the marbles and put them in
his pocket. Wants marbles. Where the poem is like winning the
Jack insisted on the separation of the individual in society from the poet. That is not that the poet was of another superior class, but that the poet, solely a receiver, was separate from himself. An individual in society acts within a political system. A poet takes dictation and he doesn't always like what he hears. They are the same person but the individual lives in his time and the writer leaves us his text.
Melville ends Bartleby the Scrivener with "one little item of rumor . . . Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington, from which he had been suddenly removed by a change in administration. [Melville, Bartleby, 154.] " Melville had begun his writing career with financial and critical success. This success had been "suddenly removed by a change" in the fickle affection of his critics and public. "Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?" [Ibid., 155.] Melville had no idea that his own letters would not be sent to the Dead Letter Office to be burned, that in fact his letters would immortalize him, but he never stopped writing; even when he thought no one was listening.
Jack's A Fake Novel about the Life of Arthur Rimbaud begins in The Dead Letter Office. "You can't close the door. It is in the future." Melville told Jack. [Spicer, CB, 149.] American literary history forced Jack to look east, even if it was only to locate himself west.
So to me by an immediate revelation.
-Anne Hutchinson at her trial
It is a kind of social superstition to suppose that to be truly friendly one must be saying friendly words all the time any more than be doing friendly deeds continually; - true friendliness, like true religion, being in a sort independent of works.
-Melville in The Confidence Man
The Word before Whom all of us are Witless.
The Antinomian controversy, which very briefly summarized was the distinction between a covenant of grace and a covenant of works, can be found throughout Melville's work. A covenant of grace allows anyone direct access to divine grace. One simply knows one is saved, but one cannot achieve it through acts or works. A covenant of works allows one to masquerade as a saved person and lends itself to a market economy, the fostering of capitalism, and to a commodity fetishism which allows an object to represent human attributes. [Charles Sellers in The Market Revolution writes "antinomianism asserted the subsistence world's commitment to communal love against the market's competitive ethic."] In a society based on works a person can gain the public's confidence through his clothes. On the stage of the Fidele Melville's Confidence Man changes character by changing his clothes. Michael Rogin writes:
Men are not what they seem on the Fidele, but that is not because
they have true selves hidden under their clothing. There are only
the costumes with no one inside. Clothes have lost their
connection to a self, even to a hidden one revealed by the clues
A covenant of grace is Hawthorne saying "No! in thunder".
A covenant of works is writing "the other way".
A covenant of grace as opposed to a covenant of works could also be a metaphor for Jack's poetics. A person is saved by an act of divine grace. It has nothing to do with the person. The recognition of God's message or entrance is her only role. Listening. Much like the poet who is a receiver of dictation from an Outside. (I make no claims that Jack's Outside was God.) There are, of course, differences. "Against pride in 'works' Cotton set the true measure of the saint. He was 'Meek in Spirit & Merciful, and Mourning for Sin'." [David D. Hall, ed., The Antinomian Controversy, 1636-1638, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990.), 16.] Jack said of dictation "it takes a tremendous amount of patience" but "it doesn't take humility, since I've never seen a humble poet." [Gizzi, 14.] I assume being saved was a good thing but being a receiver of poetry wasn't necessarily so. The Outside was not a superior entity. Jack compared dictation to being "a host to this parasite" and warned that "this Martian, this ghost, whatever the hell it is, may be just as dumb in its own way as you are". [Gizzi, 15.]
During her trial Anne Hutchinson said "Having seen him which is invisible I fear not what man can do unto me." [Hall, 338.] Taken out of context this can sound quite frightening, as if it was laughable to fear men after having seen the horror of the invisible. This inversion is closer to the concept of Religion and God which Melville and Jack both struggled with. Hawthorne, who I believe was one of Melville's few true loves, wrote about Melville:
(he) will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists -- and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before -- in wandering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try do one or the other.
[Hawthorne's Journal, Melville Web Site]
As for Jack, it could not have been easy to be a gay man with Calvinist inclinations. In an early poem The Chess Game :
"Give us this day our daily doubt.
And forgive us our love as we forgive thy hatred."
[Spicer, One Night Stand, 4.]
and in 1965:
I often thought of praying to him but could not stand the
thought of that big, white, round, omnipotent bastard.
Yet he's there. As the game follows rules he makes them.
I was not the only one who felt these things.
[Spicer, CB, 258.]
AND THEY ALL WENT OUT TO SEA
calenture -- A kind of delirium known to affect sailors. It often results in drowning, because of the delusion that the sea is the field.
-from the notes of The Confidence Man
This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.
-Jack Spicer from Thing Language
The ocean as a field is an extension of land. We thought we could walk on water, but no, we had to build boats. Charles Olson was "interested in a Melville who was long-eyed enough to understand the Pacific as part of our geography, another west, prefigured in the Plains, antithetical." [Charles Olson, Call Me Ishmael, (San Francisco: City Light Books, 1947), 13.] Let me tell you something about Jack; I don't think he could swim. I have no proof, have seen no mention of this. I know he liked to look at the young men in their swim suits "a boy in a blue bathing suit that I have watched as casually as a tree" [Spicer, CB, 34.] and somehow I also know that he could not swim. The ocean was his edge. Where language could fall into. Melville's perilous sea was his other life, away from his family. Antithetical. Another west. Jack was west and he too recognized the ocean as part of his landscape. He had never been a sailor like Melville but he knew the delirium of the ocean. "The ocean humiliating in its disguises." I could never say enough about Jack's ocean or Melville's sea.
WHY WE LOVE A WRITER
I have not meant to make out Jack or Melville as heroes. They are both only men. And besides "Heroes eat soup like any one else". [Ibid., 220.]
Though Jack never found the public he first imagined he was always at the center of a community based on poetry. A poem needed an audience and he found his at the bar. We read for a sense of that same community. Melville, after his communication with Hawthorne ended and his books continued to fail, turned inward towards the text. Olson said Melville "read to write". [Olson, 14.] Susan Howe notes "Melville read with a pencil in hand. Marks he made in the margins of his books are often a conversation with the dead." [Susan Howe, The Nonconformists Memorial, (New York: New Directions Books, 1993), 89.]
Blaser, in his beautiful essay about Jack and his work, The Practice of Outside, writes "The flowing life of that work drank him up and left us with the text to face. This, I think, is the key to our care. The work without the author." [Blaser, 304.]
A writer is a person who delivers a text. Jack was clear about the distinction. I began with his poems and they led me to Jack. Not the alive Jack, who probably wouldn't have talked to me if I'd joined his table at The Place, but still Jack. I love his poems, his well-read insistence on a plain vocabulary, his contradictions, his despair and his wonderful humor. Without the poems he left (and those who made sure they were preserved) I never would have met Jack. I have never seen any of Melville's actual archives but I have read Jack's letters, and seen some of his manuscripts, and this strange invasion that I have been allowed is what has made me imagine I know him, made me call him Jack. Of course there is a difference between really knowing someone and knowing them through their work. One of the things I find so moving about The Practice of Outside is the way Blaser was able to look underneath 20 years of difficult friendship, a friendship which was full of the "hatereds and desires" Jack wanted to keep out of his poetry, and "face the text". I do love Jack, but I'm glad I never met him.
A Jack is a fool is a knave is a rogue is a confidence man. This is in the dictionary. [The American College Dictionary, (New York: Random House, 1947), 674.] There is an affinity between Melville and Jack. Two outsiders who wrote from the Outside.
Melville's family thought writing was making him go mad. His marriage does not seem to have been a happy one, and his wife came close to leaving him, but on his death certificate under profession she wrote "writer". [Raymond Weaver, Introduction to the Shorter Novels of Herman Melville, (Horace Liveright, Inc.,1928), viii.] A final recognition. As if she knew in death he would find his public.
On Jack's death certificate it says he died of alcoholism. Robin Blaser says Jack died of poetry. Jack said "I have given myself over to both".
The Sporting Life
The trouble with comparing a poet with a radio is that radios
don't develop scar-tissue. The tubes burn out, or with a
transistor, which most souls are, the battery or diagram
burns out replaceable or not replaceable, but not like that
punchdrunk fighter in the bar. The poet
Takes too many messages. The right to the ear that floored him
in New Jersey. The right to say that he stood six rounds with
Then they sell beer or go on sporting commissions, or, if the
scar tissue is too heavy, demonstrate in a bar where the
invisible champions might not have hit him. Too many of
The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a
counter punching radio.
And those messages (God would not damn them) do not even
know they were champions.
[Spicer, CB, 218.]
AN END NOTE
My spell check program said that Spicer should be Spacer, Duncan should be Dunce, and Ishmael should be fishmeal. Jack, is that you?
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I left so much out. I didn't really get at you at all. The way your contrariness folds in on itself to implode into something so much larger. Oh Jack it's just that sometimes I don't listen hard enough. But I suppose you expected it, that the "eternal privacy of words" is the scary truth about communication: that really we are so rarely understood.