Between the Dead and the Living: Jack Spicer’s Second Life

Between the Dead and the Living: Jack Spicer’s Second Life

Between the Dead and the Living: Jack Spicer’s Second Life

A new collection of poems by Jack Spicer returns one of the great American visionaries to print.


Jack Spicer was hardly unknown during his lifetime, despite seeming to do everything possible to keep his reputation under wraps. Notoriously, he did not want his work distributed outside the San Francisco Bay Area, his home for most of his adult life; nearly thirty years after his death from alcoholism in 1965–he was only 40–he was still considered, as Norman Finkelstein later put it, “the almost exclusive property of a small band of mainly West Coast poets and critics (most of whom misread him as a poststructuralist).” Spicer was the prototypical DIY indie purist avant la lettre. A 1957 “Admonition” to himself begins, “Tell everyone to have guts/Do it yourself.” His reputation began to spread more widely after 1975, when Black Sparrow Press published The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, now out of print. A new collection, My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (Wesleyan, $35), edited by Peter Gizzi, poetry editor for The Nation, and Kevin Killian, a poet who is also co-author of a Spicer biography, returns one of the great American visionaries to print–expanded and with a revised chronology.

Some of Gizzi and Killian’s additions to Spicer’s oeuvre may be controversial. Notably, they have included a sequence of letters written to a young poet named James Alexander, with whom Spicer had fallen in love, on the grounds that “Spicer believed that letters could be poems”–true enough, the idea or form of the letter underlies much of his poetic work–and included them in his readings; but in a 1956 book review, Spicer had expounded on the difficulty of distinguishing poetry from letters in the work of Emily Dickinson. Yet the letters to Alexander, for all their poetic intensity, are immediately distinguished from anything Spicer ever published as poetry by their charm–by a whimsical seductiveness he never allowed to enter his canonical work. What Spicer recognized as poetry was always fierce and contentious and, despite the devices that feign otherwise, written to no one and for no one. Through parody and pastiche he exploded every form he touched. Just before he died, he finished A Book of Magazine Verse–“poems for magazines which would not print them” (including The Nation). Though he dreamed of a community of poets and did what he could to create one around himself, his poetry communicates a vast isolation; this is its strength, for it gives his vulnerable and unmelodious words an immense space in which to resonate.

More urgent than the letter as such to Spicer’s poetry is a confrontation with the novel as a genre. (One section of his most elaborate book, The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether, 1960, is “A Fake Novel About the Life of Arthur Rimbaud.”) In essence, the form of the letter enters into the poems as it does into an epistolary novel; Spicer puts novelistic devices to decidedly nonnarrative uses. At the dawn of Romanticism Friedrich von Schlegel discerned the end of the lyric poem, which henceforth was “constantly to be woven into novels.” Likewise, in his mature work (beginning with After Lorca, 1957) Spicer cultivated a method of writing poetry that emphasized not the single isolated poem, nor yet the grand, accumulative lifelong projects of the Modernists–such as Pound’s Cantos, Williams’s Paterson, Olson’s Maximus Poems or Zukofsky’s “A”–but rather what he called “serial poems,” self-contained book- or chapbook-length sequences in which the connections between poems (often prose poems) become as telling as the connections between words in each one. “Poems should echo and re-echo against each other,” Spicer wrote. “They should create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can.” The poetry and prose of After Lorca echo not only among themselves but with that of the Spanish poet whom they alternately address and ventriloquize. Spicer’s serial method allowed him to weave a dense mesh of myth, metaphor, literary allusion and searing emotional candor through his text while letting each line stand brutally blunt–almost physically perspicuous–to the point where it could be mistaken for something artless. As a result, his books have a structural concision that protects them from the self-indulgent longueurs as well as the ostentatious erudition that sometimes mar the Modernist epics.

Like all of Spicer’s best work, After Lorca is “an argument between the dead and the living.” He was haunted by Jean Cocteau’s image of Orpheus as a poet taking dictation from the beyond through radio broadcasts only he could hear–he liked to say his own messages might be coming from Martians. But as he wrote in his 1965 book Language, “The trouble with comparing a poet with a radio is that radios/ don’t develop scar tissue.” Three years before his death he wrote what reads like his own epitaph:

He died from killing himself. His public mask was broken because
He no longer had a public mask.
People retrieved his poems from wastebaskets. They had
Long hearts.

The poem from which that is taken is indeed one that Gizzi and Killian have salvaged from, if not the trash, in any case the filing cabinet in a friend’s basement. One can only be grateful.

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