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Jack Spicer

Kristin Prevallet  

Jack Spicer’s Hell  
in "Homage to Creeley"  


In Hell, Blake found himself in a printing house and "saw the method in which knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation"(Erdman, 40). In hell Jack Spicer found the way in which knowledge is transmitted to poets, and scared himself, and all of his friends. Through the Heads of the Town runs "the business of the pathway down into Hell and the methods of communication"(HJB, 19). Spicer said that "Homage to Creeley / Explanatory Notes" -- the first poetic composition in the 3-part book The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether -- is analogous with Dante’s "Inferno." No wise Virgil, it is Orpheus, Eurydice, and Heurtebise -- those dysfunctional guides -- upon whom Spicer relies as he forges ahead into this strange poetic concoction.

Hell is not a landscape, and love is not a sentiment. Both are words, first and foremost, that drive the poems through the rhymes and puns they catalyze. The poems are a machine that turns the poet inside out in his effort to hear transmissions which will take him from one place to another. Hell is not a place, but a flaming billboard where the words H-E-L-L appear for the rhyme, and go along for the ride.


Two loves I had. One rang a bell
Connected on both sides with hell
The other’d written me a letter
In which he said I’ve written better


Bells in hell are not little ringing machines on Christmas trees that sparkle and go "ding ding" whenever an angel gets his wings. Bells in hell make "rrrr" sounds and are held on both sides by ex-lovers whose confident cocks and kisses "are the pain The Poet had" (CB, 118, 139). Lovers are not partners in crime but in hell, where the talk of angels is a howl, and crocodiles cry perpetual tears that "are our blankets" -- except that the note informs us that the blankets are really sleeping bags. So a metaphor that began with a bell and the sweetness of a blanket of tears is mutated into a sleeping bag of crocodiles.

"In hell it is difficult to tell people from other people" (CB, 123). People in hell are reflected against mirrors which are not doors between life and death, but are obstacles between nonsense and meaning. Spicer’s mirrors "reflect, deflect, cover, hide, and baffle," writes Peter Gizzi. The possibility of sense is "thwarted as an artificial system of sign-meaning which we must undo in order to expose the ultimate randomness of history, perception, or even the intimate ground of love (HJB, 217). The "metrical coldness of love" that proves the poem will go on; the fate of the bride who lost her bridegroom because of a rhyme; the words that cannot help but "turn mysteriously against those who use them" (CB, 129, 126, 125) are all diversions, tricks, and gestures that are jesters in disguise. In hell, like in the poems, there are no people -- only their names, their re-mythologized stories, and their ghosts.

"A hell of meaning" wrote Robin Blaser to describe the poem-parts of Homage to Creeley, which sit above a line separating them from the explanatory notes below. "The Orphic explanatory note to the poem makes it clear that in the telling, the voice of the poem is a ghostly other and outside of meaning (CB, 281)." The poem is separated from its explanation, and the line between them is a mirror that separates the two. Like lovers, the poem and the note are two halves of one whole. The poem is Eurydice, in the hell-land of ghosts, and the "Orphic note" -- like the notes played from Orpheus’ lyre -- is what brings her (the poem) back to the surface, to real time, and meaning.


Whispers --
Eurydice’s head is missing
Whispers --
Get out of hell --
This is definitely a warning to Orpheus which
he does not understand -- being an asshole. This
is too bad because there would have been just as much
poetry if he had understood it.


Sometimes, however there is no distinguishing between the note and the poem -- they steer each other into another space, and the car goes off the road. The note plays cacophonies and they argue, insult and contradict each other.


She isn’t real
She isn’t pure
Aside from that
Her teeth are poor
Tragedy has exact limits that Hell cannot
enclose. This spoils the trip of The Poet and
The Poem through Hell and is the point
at which they both protest.


"With those gloves you’ll pass through mirrors as if they were water," Heurtebise instructed Orpheus in Cocteau’s play Orpheus, "lead with your hands!" Madame Death had forgotten her rubber gloves in Eurydice’s bedroom while struggling to work the electrical apparatus that gives her the power to alter her victim’s position in space -- thus bringing those doomed to die immediately within her reach. "We’re on one-wave-seven and one-zone-seven-twelve. Set the control dial on four. If I call for more current turn it up to five, but no further," she instructed. Death’s assistant explains that the process is like spearing fish. "If you aim straight at the fish, you’ll never hit it." (O, 122-123).

The poem is like spearing fish. A poem that sets intentionally out to seduce someone might send them away screaming. A poem that gives itself over to the dictating "outside" isn’t concerned with conventions of sense or ideas speared and articulated.(HJB, 16) The source of the poem, its precise location in the "outside" is evasive, and fraught with "pretty powerful juju" that is "not to be messed with" (HJB, 27). Spicer resorted to analogies, and called his sources Martians. He equated their method of transmission with a radio. He said that writing a poem was like Martians coming in and re-arrange the furniture in a room. He defined furniture as "what you know" -- but he never defined the room. He was clear that the poet himself was not the machine that was connected to these "outside" sources. The poet may have access to transmissions, but unlike Mme. Death, he has no apparatus to facilitate the touch, the contact between one world and another. Spicer said that the poet is not a "beautiful machine which manufactured the current for itself"; nor is the poet a "perpetual motion machine of emotion" that dies when the "poet’s heart broke or was burned on the beach like Shelly’s"(HJB, 5). The poet is the receiver and his only job is to clean the room so that when the Martians come in, they are free to start their rearranging. What is important is "just cleaning things up so that the invaders, the things which are parasitical on you and create poems, can come in"(HJB, 30).

Homage to Creeley is a poem dictated by Martians and radios, and the whole composition is a room crammed with furniture: "Nursery rhymes, spells and incantations, folk and pop music, medieval riddles, bardic incantations, drinking songs, state directions, radio jingles" are some of the pieces recognized by Kevin Killian and Lew Ellingham (PLG, 189). But no matter how many sources there are, precisely pinpointing any one of them is almost impossible. The sources have been eaten alive.

Spicer defines the poem as a parasite which invades language (HJB, 9). Language itself, along with sources, structures, and forms are paralyzed into the poem’s ever-expanding "goop." The poem sucks in the sources, and mutates them into new life forms. Resonance of rhyme, snippets of folk songs, lines from jingles, and shreds of prayers all come through into the poem, giving it depth. Its depth goes as far as hell, and it is up to the sources, manifest in the notes, to bring it back up again. The poem is a life form that cannot survive on its own -- its sources, whatever they may be, are what feed and give it form.

Homage to Creeley -- with its myriad of puns that are reflected in mirrors that echo different parts of different poems, its metamorphic leaps and metaphoric jumps -- is a poem that never ends. Its span is terrifying, its sources disturbing, its sentiment appalling, and its form, alien. Spicer killed his entire team, on their way up from hell, in a bus crash for the sake of a rhyme: "I mean his lyre / soured up his lyre / Everything on fire." Where must Spicer be now, after putting Orpheus, Heurtebise, Eurydice and Dante through such an ordeal? "The car is still traveling. It runs through the kingdoms of the dead picking up millions of passengers" (CB, 133).

Kristin Prevallet Kristin Prevallet's most recent chapbook, Selections from The Parasite Poems (Barque Press, 1999), is based on the structure of Jack Spicer's Homage to Creeley. A sample of these poems is located at She wrote an introduction and edited a selection of poems and collages for an upcoming book on Helen Adam.
CB=The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, edited by Robin Blaser (Black Sparrow, 1975).
PLG=Poet Be Like God:Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance by Kevin Killian and Lew Ellingham (Wesleyan University Press, 1998).
HJB=The House that Jack Built: The Collected Lectures ofJack Spicer edited by Peter Gizzi (Wesleyan University Press, 1998).
O= "Orpheus" in The Infernal Machine and Other Plays by John Cocteau, (New Directions, 1963).


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