Arts Listings

SF Library Hosts Reading of Jack Spicer’s Poetry

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Wednesday January 07, 2009 - 06:32:00 PM

Forty-three years after the poet’s death in San Francisco, My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, a handsome 496-page volume, easy to hold and to read, has been issued by Wesleyan University Press ($35), with Spicer’s poetry arranged in chronological order, including several of his “serial poems” previously unpublished. 

A tribute reading, which will celebrate the new book, will be held this Saturday at 1 p.m. in Koret Auditorium of the San Francisco Main Library, admission free. Readers will include Killian and Spicer’s friend Lewis Ellingham, co-authors of Spicer’s biography, Poet, Be Like God (Wesleyan). Spicer can be heard reading his poetry online at PennSound. 

The title of the Collected Poetry comes from Spicer’s last words to his friend and fellow poet, Robin Blaser, who edited The Collected Books of Jack Spicer (Black Sparrow, 1975). A structural linguist who did research at UC Berkeley, Spicer—born in Los Angeles—would playfully give 1945 as his birthdate, when he arrived in Berkeley. 

With Blaser and Robert Duncan, Spicer co-founded the Berkeley Renaissance poetry movement, and hosted “the most educational folk-song program West of the Pecos,” as he’d introduce his KPFA show of the late ’40s, with its deadpan mutations of the received word of folk-art, foreshadowing one mode of his later writing (though Spicer also contributed to music anthologist and filmmaker Harry Smith’s work).  

Spicer introduced a reading of his “Imaginary Elegies I-IV, for Robin Blaser,” featured in Donald Allen’s seminal New American Poetry anthology, with an epigraph from W. B. Yeats: “All that a man knows and needs to know is found in Berkeley,” to gales of laughter at the “pun” on the city and its philosopher namesake. The first poem in the new Collected Poetry is entitled “Berkeley in Time of Plague;” Spicer’s last public talk and reading were at the Berkeley Poetry Conference, just weeks before his death. His poetry career could be said to have begun and ended in Berkeley. 

Spicer’s poetry took an extraordinary turn in the late ‘50s, when he went away from writing the single lyric in favor of what he called the serial poem—“a name I dreamed up [to describe] what Duncan and Robin and I were like that others weren’t like.”  

He embarked on an exploration where a series of poems would “go from one point to another, to another, to another ... echo and reecho each other ... create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can.” Not mapped out in advance, a “book,” a kind of narrative was created, poetry telling of its own making. 

Spicer eschewed the academic, “the English Department of the spirit—that great quagmire that lurks at the bottom of all of us.” He mustered considerable abilities in composing after models of earlier British and American poetry, from Poe to Gertrude Stein to The Cantos, masters like Yeats and Rilke, Dada and Surrealist experimentation, with a remarkable ear for American speech, as well as great humor and wit—all delivered in a very different, ever-unfolding style that turned his “sources” to a radically innovative purpose.  

Blaser, whose Spicer essay “The Practice of Outside” can be found in The Fire (UC Press), recently called Spicer’s poetry “constantly oppositional.” Breaking with the Emersonian-Whitmanian tradition (of which Duncan was a great practitioner) and its spin-offs (autobiographical and confessional poetry), Spicer was caustic about “the big lie of the personal” (“For example/ The poem does not know/Who you refers to”), yet often wrote in a personable, playful manner about unusual or difficult things. His final serial poem ends with an admonition to Allen Ginsberg, just crowned King of the May in Prague: “At least we both know how shitty the world is. You wearing a beard as a mask to disguise it. I wearing my tired smile ... Why/ fight the combine of your heart and my heart or anybody’s heart. People are starving.” (Ten Poems For Downbeat, Book of Magazine Verse) 

A year or so before, he’d written some of the most unusual American love poems in Language: “Do the flowers change as I touch your skin?/They are merely buttercups. No sign of death in them. They die and you know by their death that it is no longer summer. Baseball season ...” 

Spicer pitched his sail to fickle winds, but never too far from shore, making his own sightings in a countercurrent, poetry that seems to appear and disappear with the weather, like the Farallons. “We are a coast people/There is nothing but ocean out beyond us. We grasp/The first thing coming.” also from Book of Magazine Verse, used as an epigraph by Richard Brautigan, who dedicated Trout Fishing in America to Spicer. 

Glibert Sorrentino, another writer Spicer influenced, said in 1966 that he had “achieved that rare and difficult feat—he created an art which was at once subservient to, and dominant over, a set of ideas.”  

Spicer’s 20-year engagement with the Bay Area poetry community is legendary, from the founding of the 6 Gallery, where Ginsberg famously debuted “Howl,” to satirizing the late ’50s scene that arose from the publicity that followed (the inspiration for a film project by Raul Ruiz), from collaborating with painters to reading (according to Herb Caen) to Dave Brubeck’s accompaniment; from the creation of poetry presses and magazines, as well as Blabbermouth Night in North Beach, where anyone could read or simply talk until told by the audience to sit down—to the sheaves of poems addressed to friends and fellow poets. 

This history of involvement makes it puzzling to read the recent slew of reviews—New York and Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The Chronicle—and postings on poetry websites that peg Spicer as loner and malcontent: “Belated Book From A Misfit Poet Who Didn’t Want To Be Published,” read the dismal headline draped over a dreary review in the Chron’s Datebook section a month ago.  

To be maladroitly preoccupied with psyching out a poet by stitching together a few scraps of quotation and rumor is only to prove Spicer’s distrust of the politics of reputation—“As far as the poet and his audience, I just don’t believe there is an audience for poems. There is an audience obviously for poets ...”—versus the making of poetry, which Spicer gave everything to, encouraging other poets to do the same.  

“Graphemes should not be looked at so minutely. The/Forest for the trees. The kisses for the love.” (”Graphemics,” in ‘Language’)  


My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer is available at Moe’s Books, 2476 Telegraph Ave.