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Jack Spicer
My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer,
edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian
reviewed by
Mark Terrill
465 pp. Wesleyan University Press: USD$35. ISBN 978-0-8195-6887-8 cloth.

This review is about 9 printed pages long. It is copyright © Mark Terrill and Jacket magazine 2009.
See our [»»] copyright notice.

Remaking the Real


Jack Spicer’s permanent confrontation and entanglement with poetry and language remains a singular occurrence in the wider realm of the New American Poetry which burgeoned in post-WWII America. Spicer was born in Hollywood in 1925 and eventually moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to attend UC Berkeley, where he met Robert Duncan and Robert Blaser, two other gay poets, in 1946; the year which Spicer referred to as his “real” birthday. Together the three of them became what was known as the Berkeley Renaissance (not to be confused with the San Francisco Renaissance, which followed soon after). Spicer was also one of the founders of the Six Gallery in San Francisco, where Allen Ginsberg first read Howl in 1955 and ostensibly ushered in the Beat Generation.

Section 2

But Spicer had no truck and little patience with the Beats, the Formalists, the Black Mountaineers, the New York School or any other schools or factions; Ginsberg he found too self-serving, Frank O’Hara too superficial, and Ferlinghetti became a target of Spicer’s poetic mischievousness: “Be bop de beep / they are asleep.” While the West Coast Beats were looking further west, especially at Zen Buddhism, and new forms of consciousness expansion, Spicer and his cohorts were looking in the opposite direction, at older models of European High Romanticism (hence the “renaissance”), albeit through the refracting prism of the Pound-Williams-Olson nexus.


Spicer spoke frequently about “the fix” in which language and society found themselves, and his project was in part aimed at breaking this fix, freeing poetry and poetics from the clutches of Yeats and Eliot and the New Criticism, the dominant modes and models of the time. Spicer’s goal was to “de-rhetorize” poetry and to get beyond “the big lie of the personal.” Spicer opted instead for a poetics of dictation, whereby the “I” and authorial presence were subordinated by a rigorous focus on the nature and materiality of language, qualifying Spicer as a sort of proto-language poet.


The notion of poetry-by-dictation was nothing new (Yeats, Rilke, Blake and others had been there before, and even Kerouac, who insisted that On the Road was dictated to him by “The Holy Ghost”), but the 20th century metaphorical nomenclature that Spicer chose to describe his particular poetics was altogether new; insisting that he received his poems from the “Outside,” transmitted by “Martians” or “ghosts” and comparing the poet to a radio, simultaneously functioning as a receiver and transmitter. The poet’s language, vocabulary, knowledge and personal imagery were what Spicer referred to as the poet’s “furniture,” which was then arranged accordingly by the “Martians” or “spooks”; the more languages and knowledge available to the poet the more furniture there was at the disposal of the voices from “outside.” But this did not automatically give any advantages to older or more experienced poets; on the contrary, younger, inexperienced and less educated poets had far less furniture to get in the way. As Spicer says in After Lorca, “A really perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary.”


Spicer’s “outside” was more than just a metaphor; being a gay poet in the midst of the gray-flannel conformism and red-menace McCarthyism of the 1950’s and constantly at loggerheads with academia (while simultaneously learning his living from it as a professional linguist and teacher), Spicer knew the true meaning of “outside.” Spicer’s refusal to sign the Loyalty Oath as an employee of the University of California resulted in him quitting his job and relocating to the University of Minnesota for a two-year stint before returning to the S.F. Bay Area in 1952.


Spicer was also heavily involved in the Mattachine Society, an early gay liberation organization with offices in Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco and Berkeley. Spicer became learned in the ways of organizing, overseeing committees, writing mission statements and serving as a delegate to conventions. Unfortunately his fervor was interpreted as over-zealousness by his superiors and a conservative backlash eventually resulted in his resignation. But Spicer came away from the experience with a hands-on education in the workings of politics, which were then subsumed into his own anarchist principles and thinking, which in turn influenced his own definition of the concept of “community.”


The favored milieu of Spicer and his “circle” (which at times included, among others, Philip K. Dick and Richard Brautigan, who dedicated his Trout Fishing in America to Spicer) were the bars of San Francisco’s North Beach, where Spicer held court at his regular table in Gino and Carlo’s on Green Street, or around the corner on Grant Street at The Place, where he emceed “Blabbermouth Night,” a sort of free-for-all Dadaist forerunner of the poetry slam, encouraging young poets in the ways of improvisational poetry and performance. On Sundays Spicer could be found at the foot of Columbus Avenue in nearby Aquatic Park, with his books, notebook and newspapers, huddled over his transistor radio listening to a baseball game.


There were regular Sunday afternoon gatherings and readings in various friends’ apartments or at Aquatic park, and in the spring of 1957, Spicer led a workshop entitled “Poetry as Magic,” in the San Francisco Public Library. Those who were accepted and attended included such diverse poets and writers as Helen Adam, George Stanley, Ebbe Borregaard, Robert Duncan, Jack Gilbert and others. To qualify for attendance one had to answer a questionnaire written by Spicer, with such questions as: “What animal do you most resemble?” “What insect do you most resemble?” “What star do you most resemble?” “Write the funniest joke that you know.”


Myth, magic, metaphor, puns, ghosts, cybernetics and even baseball were all fodder for Spicer’s poetic project and experiments with compositional methods, in which he wove together the high and low, the sophisticated and the commonplace, into a dense web of poetic imagery. His collage-like technique resembled at times the work of his West Coast contemporaries, the visual artists Bruce Conner, Wallace Berman and George Herms, whose assemblages of “California Funk” were made of whatever was at hand; be it junk, fragments of pop culture or snippets of the divine.


At times cryptic, at times beguiling, Spicer’s poetry is delivered in an imperative voice laced with a contrariness that borders on cynicism, but not without its trenchant humor. The poems are gnarly and knotty, with no smooth edges and consistently direct in their uncompromising tone and delivery. And although his language was for the most part idiomatic and almost “street” in its nature, culled in part from the bars and baseball games that he attended, his sources were orphic, oracular and erudite. Spicer was extremely well-read, his self-education ongoing, and although his private library was limited at best, the wide-ranging variety of his interests were present even in those few volumes, which included paperback mystery stories, a Skeat, books on philosophy and history, chess and bridge, and Cassirer’s The Renaissance Philosophy of Man.


Until now those interested in Spicer’s poetry had to rely on the out-of-print Collected Books published by Black Sparrow in 1975, which began with After Lorca, the first of Spicer’s “serial poems,” all the way up to Spicer’s last book, the Book of Magazine Verse, which consisted of poems written explicitly for “Establishment” magazines that Spicer knew would be certain to reject those very poems, including The St. Louis Sporting News and Downbeat, which didn’t even publish poetry. Ironically, within the last few years some of those poems have since been published in the very magazines for which they were originally intended (Poetry and The Nation). The Collected Books, edited by Robin Blaser, included only the twelve books published by various small local presses, as well as the “Imaginary Elegies I-VI” and a few other early poems, the “Poetry as Magic Workshop” Questionnaire, and a lengthy, comprehensive, (albeit at times bewildering) essay by Blaser entitled “The Practice of Outside.”


With this new edition of selected poems, editors Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian have also included a wide selection of Spicer’s earlier work, which they have divided into four sub-sections; Berkeley Renaissance (1945-1950), Minnesota Poems (1950-1952), Berkeley / San Francisco (1952-1955), and New York / Boston (1955-1956). These earlier poems, which pre-date the serial poems and “composition by book” that began with After Lorca, were later referred to by Spicer as his “one night stands,” and many of these poems were previously in a collection entitled One Night Stands & Other Poems edited and published by Don Allen (which included a lengthy introduction by Robert Duncan). The inclusion of this large selection of early work probably would have angered Spicer, who instructed Robin Blaser by means of a letter in his book, Admonitions:


      So don’t send the box of old poetry to Don Allen. Burn it or rather open it with Don and cry over all the possible books that were buried in it — the Songs Against Apollo, the Gallery of Gorgeous Gods, the Drinking Songs — all incomplete, all abortive because I thought, like all abortionists, that what is not perfect had no real right to live.
      Things fit together. We knew that — it is the principle of magic. Two inconsequential things can combine together to become a consequence. This is true of poems too. A poem is never to be judged by itself alone. A poem is never by itself alone.


It is in these early poems that we can see Spicer experimenting, testing the waters, and gradually forming what will become his own unique poetics. We can see Spicer in the process of breaking out of the stricture of European formalism and modernism that had been his early influences, while simultaneously trying to come to grips with his own sexuality. Many poems address the trials and tribulations of various relationships that Spicer was having at the time, and some could even be considered “love” poems, such as the tender “Train Song for Gary” and “Second Train Song for Gary,” written while Spicer was unhappily stranded in remote Minnesota.


Train Song for Gary

The trains move quietly upon
The tracks outside like animals
I hear them every night.

And sometimes I can almost see
Their glittering unhurried eyes
Move out of sight.

I think that on the day I leave
This town of quiet houses they
Will sound their horns.

I think that then that burning herd
Will turn and follow me towards you
Like unicorns.


There are also several previously unpublished prose poems, including excerpts from the “Phases of the Moon” series, which was one of Spicer’s first serial poems. Spicer’s concept of the serial poem was partly influenced by the serial music of Berio and Boulez, as well the radio and movie serials of his childhood. Eventually — with a few exceptions (see below)—the serial poem became a mainstay in Spicer’s methodology. Other previously unpublished early poems include “They Murdered You: An Elegy on the Death of Kenneth Rexroth,” which is in part a parody of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. Spicer’s announcement of Rexroth’s death was quite premature; Rexroth outlived Spicer by 17 years.


In these early poems we also see the first mentions of Yeats and Martians; Oz and the Holy Ghost; Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson; all important touchstones for Spicer’s development and prescient of the poetics which he would eventually articulate in his breakthrough book After Lorca. Many of Spicer’s most-often quoted lines and epigrams are taken from After Lorca, which consists of a fictional epistolary dialogue with the dead Lorca along with Spicer’s translations, renderings and spin-offs of Lorca’s poetry. It was one of these same letters to Lorca that Spicer gave to Don Allen for inclusion in the “Statements on Poetics” section at the back of The New American Poetry. In two of those letters Spicer basically sums up his entire poetics, while throwing down the gauntlet at the feet of the old guard. The letters defy paraphrasing and are best read in their entirety:


Dear Lorca,

      When I translate one of your poems and I come across a word I do not understand, I always guess at their meanings. I am inevitably right. A really perfect poem (no one has written one) could be perfectly translated by a person who did not know one word of the language it was written in. A really perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary.
      It is very difficult. We want to transfer the immediate object, the immediate emotion to the poem — and yet the immediate always has hundreds of its own words clinging to it, short-lived and tenacious as barnacles. And it is wrong to scrape them off and substitute others. A poet is a time mechanic not an embalmer. The words around the immediate shrivel and decay like flesh around the body. No mummy-sheet of tradition can be used to stop the process. Objects, words must be led across time not preserved against it.
      I yell “shit” down a cliff at an ocean. Even in my lifetime the immediacy of that word will fade. It will be dead as “Alas.” But if I put the real cliff and the real ocean into the poem, the word “Shit” will ride along with them, travel the time-machine until cliffs and oceans disappear.
      Most of my friends like words too well. They set them under the blinding light of the poem and try to extract every possible connotation from each of them, every temporary pun, every direct or indirect connection — as if a word could become an object by mere addition of consequences. Others pick up words from the street, from their bars, from their offices and display them proudly in their poems as if they were shouting, “See what I have collected from the American language. Look at my butterflies, my stamps, my old shoes!” What does one do with all this crap?
      Words are what sticks to the real. We use them to push the real, to drag the real into the poem. They are what we hold on with, nothing else. They are as valuable in themselves as rope with nothing to be tied to.
I repeat — the perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary.



Dear Lorca,

I would like to make poems out of real objects. The lemon to be a lemon that the reader could cut or squeeze or taste — a real lemon like a newspaper in a collage is a real newspaper. I would like the moon in my poems to be a real moon, one which could be suddenly covered with a cloud that has nothing to do with the poem — a moon utterly independent of images. The imagination pictures the real. I would like to point to the real, disclose it, to make a poem that has no sound in it but the pointing of a finger.
      We have both tried to be independent of images (you from the start and I only when I grew old enough to tire of trying to make things connect), to make things visible rather than to make pictures of them (phantasia non imaginari). How easy it is in erotic musings or in the truer imagination of a dream to invent a beautiful boy. How difficult to take a boy in a blue bathing suit that I have watched as casually as a tree and to make him visible in a poem as a tree is visible, not as an image or a picture but as something alive — caught forever in the structure of words. Live moons, live lemons, live boys in bathing suits. The poem is a collage of the real.
      But things decay, reason argues. Real things become garbage. The piece of lemon you shellac to the canvas begins to develop a mold, the newspaper tells of incredibly ancient events in forgotten slang, the boy becomes a grandfather. Yes, but the garbage of the real still reaches out into the current world making its objects, in turn, visible — lemon calls to lemon, newspaper to newspaper, boy to boy. As things decay they bring their equivalents into being.
      Things do not connect; they correspond. That is what makes it possible for a poet to translate real objects, to bring them across language as easily as he can bring them across time. The tree you saw in Spain is a tree I could never have seen in California, that lemon has a different smell and a different taste, BUT the answer is this — every place and every time has a real object to correspond with your real object — that lemon may become this lemon, or it may even become this piece of seaweed, or this particular color of gray in this ocean. One does not need to imagine that lemon; one needs to discover it.
      Even these letters. They correspond with something (I don’t know what) that you have written (perhaps as unapparently as that lemon corresponds to this piece of seaweed) and, in turn, some future poet will write something which corresponds to them. That is how we dead men write to each other.



For the most part the final section of My Vocabulary Did This to Me, San Francisco (1956-1965), correlates almost identically with the Collected Books, which was used as the original copy text for all the book-length poems. Included in this section are several previously unpublished individual poems, apparently composed between the writing of the other books originally included in the Collected Books; “Socrates,” “A Poem for Dada Day at The Place, April 1, 1958,” “For Steve Jonas who Is in Jail for Defrauding a Book Club,” “Letters to James Alexander,” “A Birthday Poem for Jim (and James) Alexander,” “Dignity is a part of man… ,” “Helen: A Revision,” “Golem,” and “Map Poems.”


In a recent interview in Rain Taxi, Kevin Killian attested to the uncluttered appearance and lack of rewrites in many of the notebooks in which Spicer composed the eleven books that followed After Lorca, giving reason to believe that Spicer more or less stuck to his poetics of dictation and the serial poem all the way through to his last book. The publication of these interstitial non-serial poems raises some interesting questions about Spicer’s loyalty to his own poetics and compositional technique, and the discrepancy between theory and practice. Was “dictation” the only legitimate method of composition, or were a few “willfully” composed poems allowed in between? And is the poet always aware of the difference between the two methods? Was the “non-participation ethos” really the only game in town for Spicer?


The “Letters to James Alexander” are actually letters and not poems, and are included here in the San Francisco section partly because they tie in to Spicer’s ideas about “correspondence” and the blurring of poems and letters. While working briefly in the rare books room of the Boston Library during a brief stint on the east coast, Spicer wrote an essay on the letters of Emily Dickinson which appeared in the Boston Public Library Quarterly, in which Spicer discussed a then-recent edition of Dickinson’s poems and letters. Spicer talked about how it was sometimes difficult to differentiate between her poems and the text of her letters, pointing out the correspondence between the two forms and the overlapping thereof. This realization, coming as it did just prior to the writing of After Lorca, was obviously a seminal one for Spicer, and was to have a lasting effect on his own ideas of form.


At first glance, Spicer’s poetry is indeed quite context dependent, and standing alone, might have little to offer to readers already familiar with the more accessible work of other post-WWII San Francisco/West Coast poets. Ultimately, in order to understand Spicer one needs to read the collected poems in conjunction with Poet Be Like God, the excellent biography by Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian, and The House That Jack Built, edited by Peter Gizzi, which contains Spicer’s three Vancouver Lectures and much other material. Meanwhile, in putting together this new edition of early and individual non-book poems, as well as the books themselves in their original chronological order, editors Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian have done a great service to Spicer and his readers. And this is what gives My Vocabulary Did This to Me its strength; the contextualizing of Spicer’s oeuvre as a whole, making it possible to better chart the course of his development. A cognizant introduction by the editors and a note on the assembling of this particular edition, as well as a brief chronology of Spicer’s life, notes to the poems, bibliography and indexes make this the definitive volume of Spicer’s work. Another volume collecting unpublished and uncollected work is scheduled to appear as well.


The price that Spicer paid for his arduous search for the poetic grail and his ornery isolationism was a high one. Ongoing contention between the original Berkeley Renaissance members — Duncan, Blaser and Spicer — led to an eventual estrangement between Duncan and Spicer, while Spicer’s alcoholism increased exponentially. The North Beach scene changed dramatically, following on the heels of Ginsberg’s reading of Howl and the ensuing obscenity trial surrounding the publication of the book, and eventually the San Francisco Renaissance and its “beatnik” nemesis eclipsed the Berkeley Renaissance. Many poets and friends eventually moved away from San Francisco and Spicer found himself increasingly isolated, his sense of community in shambles. After the loss of his job at the University of Berkeley, Spicer floundered and began to fall apart, neglecting even the rudiments of personal upkeep and hygiene while the drinking continued unabated.


Eventually Spicer went into therapy and new hopes were kindled with a temporary position as a research assistant at Stanford, as well as a series of visits to Vancouver to read his poetry and deliver his three “lectures,” all of which were well received. Eventual plans to relocate to Vancouver and take up a teaching job there were precluded by Spicer’s sudden death, dying of alcoholism at 40 in the poverty ward of San Francisco General Hospital in 1965, after allegedly uttering his now famous last words to Robin Blaser, “My vocabulary did this to me.” Thus Spicer was unable to complete his project, or to develop his poetics to their logical or illogical conclusion.


As Spicer says in “Imaginary Elegies V,”


And offering your life to summon anything is a pretty silly thing.
      I can’t see
Where their messages get me.


In Spicer’s case, it was more of a tragedy than a silly thing. The scope of Spicer’s project notwithstanding and engaging and radical as his poetics were, they were apparently unable to sustain him as a poet or a person, or perhaps just too demanding in the long run, and as he began to deteriorate both physically and spiritually his “circle” and friends basically stood by and watched as he self-destructed. Much hyperbolic speculation has been spun in the interim, elevating Spicer to the status of cult literary icon, a fact which Spicer certainly would have found ironic, having insisted on his work not being published or distributed outside of the immediate Bay Area, seeing his poetry and poetics as strictly regional, with the poetry taking precedence over the persona of the poet, refusing even to copyright his own work. Spicer’s rebellious stance against the poetic norms of the time, his outsider status, even among other outsiders; his downplaying of the poetic ego and even his death at such a relatively young age all helped to fuel the iconic status, despite any overall consensus as to the merit of his work, to say nothing of its alleged “difficulty.”


Nonetheless, Spicer’s ruthless approach and steadfast commitment to poetry remains a model of integrity and authenticity. As Joanne Kyger said in a recent email, “The sparse tending of his lines make him one of the great shit detectors.” In his last public lecture, “Poetry and Politics,” delivered at the Berkeley Poetry Conference on July 14, 1965, just one month before his death, some of his last words of advice were “Don’t sell out as a poet.” Spicer was a fearless trailblazer who opened up the way for much avant-garde and experimental poetry that followed, as well as a rigorous questioning of the poetic status quo, and his work remains relevant and challenging to this day. Spicer was constantly pushing the envelope and taking risks, elevating the stakes higher and higher as he moved toward his tragic and untimely end. Spicer’s onerous quest and remaking of the real qualify him as a true Savage Detective and honorary Infrarealist, long before the late Roberto Bolaño had even conceived either of those terms.

Mark Terrill

Mark Terrill

Mark Terrill shipped out of San Francisco as a merchant seaman to the Far East and beyond, studied and spent time with Paul Bowles in Tangier, Morocco, and has lived in Germany since 1984, where he’s been scraping by in various incarnations, including shipyard welder, road manager for rock bands, cook, postal worker and poet. The author of 15 books and chapbooks, his work been translated into German, French and Portuguese, and recently he’s performed his work in various venues in Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris and Prague. He is a regular contributor to Rain Taxi Review of Books and he recently guest-edited a special German Poetry issue of the Atlanta Review, forthcoming in spring 2009. His latest chapbook is The Salvador-Dalai-Lama Express from Main Street Rag.

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