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Jack Spicer

Rob Wilson
 
Tracking Jack Spicer
"After Jack Spicer":
The Poetics of the Lowghost/Logos --
The "Afterlife" of a US Counter-Poetics

 

 
 

This piece is 1300 words or about three printed pages long.
 

POETRY, if it is any good in the sheer dialogical terms of uncanny otherness, comes from the discourse of the far future. The language of poetry can speak, again and again, the contemporary crisis that is ‘postmodernity.’ That is to say, poetry arises out of and speaks not so much from the liberal-humanistic ego terms of the romantic past, but from within the syntax and diction (discourse) of a post-war, "post-humanist" future as yet unknown and unsaid.
      This US future in Spicer speaks through the "un/American" language of the poet who is not just speaking the voice of himself/herself, but more likely bespeaking (or trying at pains to express) what Barrett Watten (like Fredric Jameson in another, more sublime key) has theorized as the "total syntax" of our social-structural situation. Writing the contemporary, so to speak, from within its language binds and discontinuous bounds.
      The poetry of Jack Spicer is now coming, as it does, after (in the great "afterlife" of) Jack Spicer as such (meaning: the poet, the man of flesh who lurked in subterranean homesick blues of the pre-Kerouac era). The language of Jack Spicer keeps coming from the future as new generations of cultural critics, poets/scholars, and language workers (such as Kevin Killian, Maria Damon, Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, Juliana Spahr, Susan Schultz et al) now rework and represent, and recode the stubborn language of our cultural-material condition and still and yet again can find in Jack Spicer’s various works in poetics a language they can build upon and use to create a more post-expressive, trans-ego poetry. (see note 1) Spicer’s verse remains a poetry, as it were, expressive of the US transnational/translational borderlands and the wilder margins and sub-rosa utterance of an expanding counter-culture that still exists. (see note 2)

 
 
1. For a reading of the struggle by Jack Spicer to counter the romantic national sublime of the US cold war era and the lure of the "whit manic" poetic of Robert Duncan, especially as this struggle with the totality of social language ("total syntax") impinges upon Language Poetry work by exemplary contemporary writers like Ron Silliman, Michael Amnasan, Robert Gluck, David Melnick et al, see the reading I offer in Rob Wilson, American Sublime: The Genealogy of a Poetic Genre (Madison, Wisconsin: Wisconsin UP, 1991), pp. 56-64, p. 19, 32, 42.
 
2. On this work in a more global and post-national context, see the special issue of boundary 2 edited by Charles Bernstein on "world poetics at century’s end" or "99 Poets/1999" (Duke University Press, 1999). On the poetics of "margins" as social space and textual demand, see the work of Maria Damon in cultural poetics and translation.
 
 
      First collected and circulated under the genuinely uncanny editorship of William Spanos (working with the literary-visionary help of Canadian postmodernist, Robert Kroetsch) in the Fall of 1977, the special issue of Jack Spicer’s poetics even now returns from its appearance in boundary 2: an International Journal of Postmodern Literature (Volume VI, No. 1) to do work twenty years later inside the US trans-polity (republic of letters) at a time when the amped-up journal boundary 2: An International Journal of Literature and Culture (edited since 1989 by an ever-expanding international critical collective headed by Paul Bove) is alive and well, kicking and prodding (as in works by Donald Pease and John Beverly) the national belated "US transnational imaginary" of cultural poetics into the more weirdly global/local and postcolonial waters of engaged trenchancy and shared theory/poetics labor. (see note 3) Visionary and brave in his cultural-political conjunctions, like Spicer in some ways, William Spanos was a kind of postmodern and uncanny Charles Olson who saw "the Pacific Man" of the US future coming, and one of his names was not just "Robert Creeley" or "Charles Bernstein" but "Jack Spicer."
 
 
3. Theory and poetics were never fully separated in the pages of boundary 2 from the outset of its "postmodern" vision of literature, culture, and politics. The first essay to appear in boundary 2 was Edward Said’s prescient "Michel Foucault: Exemplary Intellectual;" this was followed up during the 1970s and 1980s with special issues on US poetics that included book-length collections on Robert Duncan, Amiri Baraka, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Nathaniel Tarn, David Antin and Jerome Rothenberg et al. The special issue on "language poetics" edited by Charles Bernstein (first gathered in 1984, but not printed until 1986) was followed by a special issue (edited by Joseph Buttigieg) on the material poetics of Antonio Gramsci. This labor continues: see Paul Bove., ed., Early Postmodernism: Foundational Essays (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995)
 
 
      The Jack Spicer special issue of boundary 2 circulated as a surprise blockbuster of discursive postmodernity back then; reading this archive of poetics, I would suggest, can still do some new work as refunctioned in cross-genre works by Ron Silliman. Kevin Killian, Juliana Spahr. Peter Gizzi et al that better update, dialogize, and recontextualize the specific and exacting poetic labors of Spicer into our own mixed-blessing moment of transnational contemporaneity.
      For Jack Spicer has wrought, with singular purpose and cold unflinching wit, an un-American poetics, one filled with (ill)liberal piety, and forever working against (un)official verse culture of Poetry Magazine verse and the English Department of the soul and the writing workshop formula of what gets published as prize verse.
      "Jack Spicer lives!" reads the metropolitan subway sign at the Ashby Station in Berkeley, and that can only mean Jack the man and his language live on as poetry. This continues to be so, even more so now as we head towards 2000 than in the Reagan-era poetics of suburbia and conformity that reigned in the 1970s and 1980s, at least on the surface of the culture.
      This poetics "after Jack Spicer" demands an ever-renewed attention and anti-liberal bravery: that is why the language machinery of Jack Spicer circulates (in its specific afterlife) and is engaged with by various writers and sites as ‘poetry’ that lives on in the future we have headed into as post-nuclear present. Indeed, Jack Spicer’s poetry keeps coming from out of the future and remains as strange and as challenging as it was in the Bay Area in the 1940s and 1950s when Spicer went on singularly refiguring and deforming (into his own "language" mix) the mixed-language poetics of everyone from Josephine Miles and Willie Mays to William Butler Yeats, Wallace Stevens, and Frederico Garcia Lorca. Thereby challenging the reign of the "new critical" poem in its reified pastoral idealism and sleepy ideological blindness to the contexts and codes of material/spiritual existence inside (and beyond) the US-driven cold war.
      For the poetry of ‘Jack Spicer after Jack Spicer’ (as it is with the cultural-material poetics/theory of ‘Marx after Marx’ or ‘Gramsci after Gramsci’) keeps coming from the language of the future, speaking from outside the normative apparatus of official verse culture and what Spicer once called the "English Departments of the spirit." (see note 4) Sites of institutional dullness that in their new formal deadliness had ignored him then (Jo surely did not, nor did Thom Parkinson) and will try to mock, repress, and castigate him now. "Who the hell is Jack Spicer?" is the question university and commercial presses in the US still ask, as if nobody but fringe poets have ever heard of Jack Spicer. No jeremiad-like gloom-and-doom rage can change this NYRB condition, or so it now seems.
 
 
4. Spicer was not just thinking then of Wheeler Hall at UC Berkeley where he had worked with a beloved mentor Josephine Miles, as I was to do in the later decade of the 1970s, as we sought to support an eclectic openness of west-coast poetics from David Melnick and Morgan Wines to David Henderson and Rochelle Nameroff in the Berkeley Poetry Review which we founded in 1973.
 
 
      The specific gnosis that is US poetry is-- seemingly forever-- located elsewhere and otherwise. Antinomian and uncanny to the core, Jack Spicer never longed to be the national US Poet Laureate of, say, Poetry magazine-culture, but sought instead to emerge, to write, and to work inside the "lowghost" poetics of some small press enclaves (like White Rabbit Press) and sub-popular culture (for him: baseball, the Tarot deck, the "counter-punching radio," SF bars as enclaves of otherness) and to bespeak the anti-logos of desiccated (deconstructive, post-theological, trans-mystical) poetics.
      Spicer created a language of poetry, rigorous and wild at once, speaking for and as this post-poetic "language" of the collective over-soul comes from "the Outside" (heard or witnessed as speaking through the "Martian" muse, after the translational language of "Lorca," through the voices of the radio, in everyday films like Orpheus descending into the apparatus of cinema and so on). From 1947 to 1977 to 1997, he was writing the poetry of the future along one spectacular line of flight into immortality and oblivion.
      As a caustic joke going around the bars and web sites of SF and Buffalo in 1999 puts it, "I knew Jack Spicer, and you’re no Jack Spicer." Jack Spicer was Jack Spicer, and there is no need for a second mimic one, although the labor of his counter-poetics and language-work daily continue. Recently published Wesleyan University Press books on the communal biography and experimental poetics of Jack Spicer by Kevin Killian and Peter Gizzi, as I have suggested here, can serve us as a small yet important sign that the collective work at and upon the troubled spirit of US poetry and critical- transnational cultural poetics continues to emerge in its own ‘afterlife.’ (see note 5) And by works such as this one on Jack Spicer, published in Jacket or Tinfish cyberspace oceans, we can even now begin to pay heed and hear the mockery and wry hopefulness of the Spicer plea, "No one listens to poetry"-- except us, here now as in the future of our language bliss.
 
 
5. Kevin Killian’s co-authored biography of Jack Spicer from Wesleyan University Press (1998) as well as Peter Gizzi’s collection of Spicer’s unpublished lectures and tapes with the same press suggest that even the "official verse culture" of the USA is coming around to recognize and to canonize (as it were) the importance of Jack Spicer in his "afterlife" as a great American poet of the westward and wayward poetics. The respect for and commentary on Spicer’s work never disappeared, of course; it just took place in the underworld and enclaves of US counter-poetics in "language" works by Ron Silliman, Maria Damon, and Michael Davidson et al throughout the 1980s and beyond.
 
 

 
Rob Wilson and rainbowRob Wilson has published poems and reviews in various journals since 1979. He is a western Connecticut native who was educated at the University of California at Berkeley, where he was founding editor of the Berkeley Poetry Review.
      His works of poetry and cultural criticism include Waking In Seoul (1988); American Sublime (1991); Asia/Pacific as Space of Cultural Production (1995); Global/Local: Cultural Production and the Transnational Imaginary (1996); and Reimagining the American Pacific: From ‘South Pacific’ to Bamboo Ridge and Beyond (forthcoming with Duke University Press in Spring, 2000)
      He is at work on two collections of poetry: Ananda Air: American Pacific Lines of Flight; and Automat: Un/American Poetics, and still plays basketball, pool, and meditates (and prays), each day, in the great void of being and creative bliss. As Jack Kerouac put it in Dharma Bums, "Equally holy, equally to be loved, equally a coming Buddha!"
 
You can read Seven Tourist Sonnets by Rob Wilson, with photos by the poet, set in Hawaii, in this issue of Jacket.

 

 

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