back toJacket2

This piece is about 7 printed pages long. It is copyright © Kevin Killian and Jacket magazine 2009. See our [»»] Copyright notice. The Internet address of this page is

Kevin Killian

Jack Spicer’s Secret

Paragraph 1

1999: Peter Gizzi turns up evidence of the high school friendship between two boys at Fairfax High School, Los Angeles County, early 1940s. One was Jack Spicer, later to invent a new kind of poetry in Boston, San Francisco and Vancouver in the late 1950s and 60s. The other, Allen Sherman, chose a different career, first creating the significant 50’s TV game show “I’ve Got a Secret” and then releasing a series of LPs of comedy material in the 1960s, which made him one of the top recording stars in the US, beginning with My Son the Folksinger and culminating as the single, “A Letter from Camp/Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” becomes the #1 record in America during the winter of 1963. In supplying Yiddish and Borscht-Belt lyrics to ‘America’s best-loved melodies,’ Sherman seemed to be insisting, to the point of subversion, that everything American is at bottom a Jewish invention of the Jews — the real Americans after all.


I see a kinship between the two entertainers. While Sherman’s “I’ve Got a Secret” offered millions of TV viewers the intimacy and thrill of strangers confessing innocuous tidbits of their personal lives, Spicer was translating Lorca, “Can I tell you the secret of springtime?” Two or three guests would arrive per episode, each would whisper a secret into Garry Moore’s ear, and then a panel of four celebrities would dig in and guess. Only yes or no questions were permitted. “Is your secret connected to your height?” “No.” A “no” answer produced a buzz and the guest with a secret got handed a 20 dollar bill. There were some amazing episodes out there, one fashion designer showed a cigarette pack (the show was sponsored by Winston) but who would guess that Brigitte Bardot’s entire bikini was folded into it? No one ever got on TV and announced, “My secret is that I am a Communist” or “My secret is, I am a homosexual.” What is it about secrets and the Cold War period? Why indeed is “secret” one of the words that pop up most often in The New American Poetry? (Olson, Ginsberg, Wieners, O’Hara, etc.)


Allen Sherman’s use of folk, pop, semi-classical and Tin Pan Alley standards seems a zillion miles away from Spicer’s use of the same material, but both stem from their common fascination with “people’s music” of the 1930s and 1940s when, under a relaxed political oligarchy, American folk music became, briefly, seen as authentic to the point of chic. Spicer’s own parodies of folk and country music reveal a poetry at once open to the utmost in irony and stylization and yet queerly sympathetic to its populist aims.


We know that Spicer’s poetry, from the very beginning, was filled with allusions to and appropriations from a wide variety of folk sources. Lew Ellingham and I have traced this back to his father’s life among the Industrial Workers of the World, fighting the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, dreaming that he saw Joe Hill, etc., in a pre-war past remote, pristine and untouchable. A sacred heritage to Spicer, but one almost too good to be true. We also know that, from the beginning, Spicer had a keen appreciation of parody and pastiche, and managed to use these modes in a variety of ways throughout a long career. As an undergraduate he sliced and diced two of his heroes Lewis Carroll and Yeats, into a mashup he called “The Slaying of the Jabberwock, By W.B. Yeats.”


This is a violent land, avid of breath;
Here borogroves are clinging, wave to wave,
Gyre on gyre, whirling on toward death
In breathless fire while the toves outgrabe.
My paper-pasted Jabberwock’s on show
Beware, and shun that whole outrageous batch,
The pale-green jub-jub bird that cannot crow,
The slyly parasitic bandersnatch.
O stand in uffish thought that you may watch
This land, these burbling monsters, put to play.
The Jabberwock will set his jaw a notch
And vaguely chew Cuchulain for a day.
Observe me slay these animals; my hand
Is sanguined with confetti from their wounds.
Though I have brought no peace to Ireland
This rite will transubstantiate its grounds.


I propose a reading of four of Spicer’s final books The Holy Grail, Golem, Language, and Book of Magazine Verse, which, stripped of their appropriations from folk music, would consist of a lacy valentine of words which, when lifted, would collapse around the reader’s fingers. It is almost as though the remaining material, the original material, is so much filigree, a net of words without the fish. At random I look at a few pages of The Holy Grail (1962). “The Book of Galahad” is built around Woody Guthrie’s “Ranger’s Command,” perhaps an obscure song today.



Come all of you cowboys all over this land
I’ll sing you the law of the Ranger’s command.
To hold a six-shooter and never to run
As long as there’s bullets in both of your guns.
I met a fair maiden whose name I don’t know
I asked her to the round-up with me would she go.
She said she’d go with me to the cold round-up
And drink that hard liquor from a cold bitter cup.
We started for the round-up in the fall of the year
Expecting to get there with a herd of fat steer.
When the rustlers broke on us in the dead hour of night
She rose from her warm bed a battle to fight.
She rose from her warm bed with a gun in each hand
Saying, “Come all you cowboys, and fight for your land.”
Come all of you cowboys, and don’t ever run
As long as there’s bullets in both of your guns.

                     (The Holy Grail, The Book of Galahad #4):

To drink that hard liquor from the cold bitter cup.
I’ll tell you the story. Galahad, bastard son of Elaine
Was the only one allowed to find it. Found it in such a way that the dead stayed dead, the waste land stayed a waste land. There were no shoots from the briers or elm trees.
I’ll teach you to love the Ranger Command
To hold a six-shooter and never to run
The brier and elm, not being human endure
The long walk down somebody’s half-dream. Terrible.


See how the “shoots” of Guthrie’s “six shooter” turn into the shoots of briers and elm trees, like a spell reversing the effects of the Industrial Revolution. In such a way the traditional ballad “The Wreck of the Old 97,” turns “Ten Poems for Downbeat,” Spicer’s final sequence, into a politicized elegy for the speed, falsity, and tragedy of modern life as revealed in its poetry (or vice versa).


“It’s a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to
Danville, declension on a three mile grade.” In either case
collision course. You either pick up the music or you don’t.”

                              (Spicer, Ten Poems for Downbeat #4)


If we know much about these songs today, it’s because Bob Dylan was playing and singing them, reviving them you might say, at the very moment Spicer’s ghosts were churning them out of his memory. Coincidence? As usual, the explanation goes back, back, back to an earlier period of Spicer’s life, when, as a young grad student at Berkeley, he aided Harry Smith in compiling the Anthology of American Folk Music, running from record store to record store seeking out the brittle old 78s, privately recorded for the most part, of the 1920s, where these musicians first laid down their visions of the “old, weird America” that was Smith’s (and Spicer’s) legacy. In the early 1950s, when this anthology was released, it had the same kind of impact on the music world as The New American Poetry did among poets a decade later — funny to think of Spicer as being at the center of both anthologies, which served him so differently, and funny to think of the sixties as bearing the fruit of two such different efforts.


That’s it Frog, better hit the road, farewell
That’s it frog, better hit the road, goodbye
That’s it frog, better hit the road
You ain’t no frog, you’re a horny toad
Goodbye, farewell, adios.

                            (Froggy Went A-Courtin’, traditional)

That’s it Clyde, better hit the road farewell
That’s it Clyde better hit the road
You’re not a frog you’re a horny toad. Goodbye, farewell,
The beach reaching its ultimate instant. A path over the sand.
And the toadfrog growing enormous in the shadow of fogged-in
waters. The Lady of the Lakes. Monstrous.
This is not the end because like a distant bullet
A ship comes up. I don’t see anybody on it. I am Merlin
imprisoned in a branch of the Grail Castle.

                              (Jack Spicer, The Holy Grail [written 1962, published 1964])


Allen Sherman, who died in the mid 1970s, left a memoir, A Gift of Laughter, which alas contains no mention of Spicer but which fills us in on the background of their association, and the urge to parody which dominated his creative life from the very beginning. This urge to parody is linked, in Sherman’s text, to the curiosity which led to the birth of “I’ve Got a Secret”. We think that the present-day mania for confession, the “Jerry Springer” show and people trampling each other down to get on TV and tell the nation all their most shameful secrets, is a strictly 1990s thing, but in A Gift of Laughter, Sherman reveals that thousands of people wrote to the Goodson-Todman Productions, confessing to all kinds of things, from incest to murder, in the hopes of getting picked to face the celebrity panel: Garry Moore, Bill Cullen, Jayne Meadows, Betsy Palmer, Henry Morgan, Bess Myerson. In the background we hear the madness of Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts.


We distinguish Spicer’s use of folk material from the practice of, say, Lorine Niedecker by how, in general at any rate, Niedecker’s respect for the roots such material represented to her shines through at every turn, whereas Spicer revels in its meaninglessness. His combination of quotes from legend, song, pop tune, hymn, martial music, bawdy joke song, and nursery rhyme is fairly distinctive, irreverent, off-kilter and then sometimes suddenly on it. As I’ve written elsewhere, I don’t want to make Spicer easier to understand; I want to complicate him. In Spicer’s “Fifteen False Propositions Against God” the tune of the Southern traditional “Mockingbird” unites the poem in a chilling, eerie, powerful threnody about consequence and faith. But that’s an exception — that shows Spicer leaning closer to Niedeckerian clarity than usual. I believe that Spicer’s use of folk song material is only rarely the straightforward homage to the “authentic” that it has sometimes been seen to be. There’s a playing with that sense, almost a camp use of the love and reverence given to this material at this time by people like Alan Lomax, Ruth Crawford, Aaron Copland, and Charles Seeger. As we know, camp works both ways, it in turns dissociates the writer from the sentiment he essays, and also creates a double bond of owing and receiving. Then, too, as many have pointed out, the folk material itself was so very strange, and surreal, that it would have appealed to Spicer as pure nonsense, outside the lexical systems: even a song as apparently romantic and straightforward as “Oh Susanna!” has the internal contradictions of a Lewis Carroll: “it rained all night the day I left, the weather it was dry; the sun so hot, I froze to death, Suzanna don’t you cry.” And with something of the same lateral swerve Bob Dylan’s use of traditional music left the Left, strictly speaking to slide likewise into the surrealist inspirations of Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) and Bringin’ It All Back Home (1965).


1942: Spicer and Allen Sherman suspended from Fairfax High School — then a school with a largely Jewish population — for singing the Nazi anthem, “Deutchsland Uber Alles” to the tune of Bizet’s “Habanera,” from Carmen — marching through the locker room of Fairfax High singing this song, but singing it with a twist, matching the lyrics of one song with the music of another, and Spicer, in later years given to anti-Semitic jokes and snarky remarks, defending himself by claiming that Sherman had put him up to it. If a Jew does it, it can’t be anti-Semitic? 1949: Spicer’s KPFA Berkeley folk music show cancelled after listeners complain that the folk music he’s presenting every week is not pure… he and his cronies are making up their own verses. Listeners conversely complain that the music is too authentic (thus, most likely, Communist-inspired). June 1952, “I’ve Got a Secret” premieres on CBS and becomes the top quiz show of the next 15 years until it ends its run in April 1967. 1959, Robert Zimmerman changes his name, just as Allen Siegel had changed his ten years before, as each prepare to enter “show business.” 1962: Spicer and Bob Dylan both re-writing “The Ranger’s Command,” Spicer writing The Holy Grail and Dylan “The Times, They Are a-Changing.” “The order is rapidly fading… And the first one now will later be last, for the times they are a-changin.”


Maybe the best way to summon up what I see in the 60s production of both Allen Sherman and Jack Spicer would be to turn to their analogues in the visual arts of the period. This is when pop art made its splash, when Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were encrusting their paintings with discolored American flags, with roughly detailed maps of the USA, with ribbons, targets, stars and stripes, tire tracks — a glamorous yet threadbare Americana empty as a broken vessel, and yet still strangely rich with meaning and allusion. When Larry Rivers painted Washington crossing the Delaware, through a thick fog of paint and acrylic, dimly seen, when the emblematic electric chairs of Andy Warhol, in the grainy black and white of Weegee photographs, announced a shocking revisionism. We can see how the patriotic appeal of these American symbols persist despite or because of the degradation they are subjected to; how queer artists put into coded encryptions not only their sexuality but their claim to being, after having been rejected as anti-American for so many years, indeed the true Americans. “I can’t stand to see them shimmering in the impossible music of the Star Spangled Banner. No/ One accepts this system better than poets. Their hurts healed for a few dollars./ Hunt/ The right animals. I can’t. The poetry/ of the absurd comes through San Francisco television. Directly connected with moon rockets.”

Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that all material in Jacket magazine is copyright © Jacket magazine and the individual authors and copyright owners 1997–2010; it is made available here without charge for personal use only, and it may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose.