Lately I've been going through The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, edited and with an afterword by Peter Gizzi (Hanover NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1998) [see my note on Gizzi's most recent poetry collection here]. For those who might not know, Jack Spicer (1925-1965) was one of the three poets that made up the San Francisco Renaissance in the 1950s and 60s, alongside Robin Blaser (who eventually moved north to teach at the then-new Simon Fraser University in 1966) and Robert Duncan. There isn’t that much Spicer material out there, but it's essential material, and I'm glad to finally get a copy of the Collected Lectures; the other main book is The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, edited by Blaser, and published by Black Sparrow Press in 1975. I know there's a biography of Spicer out there somewhere, and I'm hoping to get a copy of it in a few months when Lisa Jarnot's biography of Duncan finally comes out with University of California Press. I'm even wondering, too, since University of California Press is willing to give us a new edition of Blaser's essential The Holy Forest and put out a book of his essays [see my review of same here], as well as the Duncan biography, would they, perhaps, be interested in reissuing the long out-of-print classic The Collected Books of Jack Spicer?
There's a whole slew of writing and writers influenced still by what happened originally down in that San Francisco Bay area, with Vancouver poet Meredith Quartermain's collaborations with Robin Blaser, the Duncan conference a few years ago in Vancouver that talked about his influence on the writers there, and other Vancouver-types creating their "Runcible Mountain" chapbook series out of the Spicer poem "Seven Poems for the Vancouver Festival," or what Toronto poet Stan Rogal [see my note on him here] has done with his own sense of the "serial poem" via Spicer. Even now-Toronto poet Andy Weaver had his own Duncan collusions, creating his cut-up sequence "were the bees" from an interview that George Bowering and Robert Hogg did with him in the 1960s [see my review of Weaver's first poetry collection here].
Start with a baseball diamond high
In the Runcible Mountain wilderness. Blocked everywhere by
stubborn lumber. Where even the ocean cannot reach its
coastline for the lumber of islands or the river its mouth.
A perfect diamond with a right field, center field, left field of
felled logs spreading vaguely outward. Four sides each
Faced of the diamond.
We shall a build our city backwards from each baseline
extending like a square ray from each distance—you from
the first-base line, you from behind the second baseman,
you from behind the short stop, you from the third-baseline.
We shall clear the trees back, the lumber of our pasts and
futures back, because we are on a diamond, because it is our
Pushed forward from.
And our city shall stand as the lumber rots and Runcible
mountain crumbles, and the ocean, eating all of islands,
comes to meet us. (Jack Spicer, from "Seven Poems for the Vancouver Festival")
His open lectures, which he insisted on being recorded for posterity, move like strange conversations about his own work, three of which happened in Vancouver, and a fourth in California (all taking place within the time-frame of June 13 to July 14, 1965), bare weeks before his body gave out from drink. Part of what is entertaining is just who was in the room as Spicer gave his talks, with the first three happening in the house of UBC professor and critic Warren Tallman, with audience that included George Bowering, Jamie Reid, Gladys (Maria) Hindmarch, Angela Bowering, Dorothy Livesay, Peter Auxier and Stan Persky. Just how magnificent it must have been in Vancouver in those days, one must imagine, with options that included not only the infamous Vancouver Poetry Conference, but extra visits, readings and courses by Spicer, Blaser and Duncan, as well as Robert Creeley, among others. As editor Gizzi writes in his introduction to the Collected Lectures:
The four lectures took place within a thirty-day period from June 13 to July 14, 1965. The casual seriousness of these talks is typical of Spicer's public style and should not be interpreted as offhand; they are the only authoritative account of his poetics outside of his poems and letters. Although Spicer was noticeably intoxicated and disheveled, he took these events seriously and made sure that they were being taped. As transcriptions of oral texts recorded at the end of the poet's life, the lectures gain a certain oracular power and finality: Spicer's statements are not prophetic but contrary, allusive, and purposeful. His humor or "wicked wit," as Warren Tallman put it, is charismatic. He has that particular gift of being both irreverent and to the point. As a public speaker he is not the "roman candle" type, as he disarmingly claims in the second lecture; instead, he says, he simply wants to be honest, and this struggle sometimes ties his sentences in knots. He writes to Graham Mackintosh before giving a lecture in 1954: "There's a big difference between talking as a teacher, which is easy, and talking as a poet, which is heartbreakingly difficult if you want to talk honestly." Because of the difficult honesty of their pitch, these talks are also riddled with disappointment and uncertainty about the future of the poet—that is, the poet as a cultural figure in general and the poet as Jack Spicer in particular, a highly intelligent, lonely, middle-aged, gay, baseball-loving alcoholic, one of the great poets of his time, recently unemployed, dying, and at the height of his poetic powers.Part of what makes Spicer worth returning to is how he helped instill into a thread of literature the thing he called the "serial poem," giving name and form to what was happening as a thread through his work, Duncan's and Blaser's, and moving further into the future in poems by many of Vancouver's TISH poets (Bowering, Wah, Marlatt, etcetera), and even further into Canadian and American post-modernism. Or even the fact that Spicer considered the "poet" a mere conduit to some outside force that spoke through the poet; there were other, earlier poets that thought the same thing, but Spicer was the only one to name it "Martian." Imagine: Jack Spicer in the 1960s, talking about how the voice of the Martian channeled through him and wrote all of his poems. Talking about the serial poem, here is the beginning of the second Vancouver lecture:
JACK SPICER: Tonight I'll say a few words about the serial poem, read an example of the serial poem, we'll talk about it for a while, and then if you want particular sections repeated we can do it, but I'm going to try to do this thing straight through.
The whole business about the serial poem was sort of a joke to begin with. Not the fact of what I think it is but the name of it. Essentially it came from when I was talking with Robin Blaser. If you went to the New Design Gallery reading you heard three of his poems, all serial poems, what I could call that. And we were saying that, in spite of the fact we had absolutely different poetics in almost every way, that Duncan, he, and I had a kind of a similarity, and what was it? And it occurred to me that it was a serial poem. Now with Duncan this isn’t entirely true, but what I consider Duncan's two best poems—Medieval Scenes, which was published separately and is in Duncan's Selected Poems, and The Opening of the Field—are both pure honest-to-God serial poems.
I'll try to get to what a serial poem is in a minute. Robin kept asking me all the way, when we went to the radio station. I talked about serial poems. He kept looking sort of at me and said, "But you promised to tell me what a serial poem was." And I said I didn’t really know. But I think I do now. I think in a way you have to get exactly what a serial poem isn’t first, and then you get some idea of it.
A serial poem, in the first place, has the book as its unit—as an individual poem (a dictated poem, say, as we were talking about on Sunday night) has a poem as its unit, the actual poem that you write at the actual time, the single poem. And there is a dictation of form as well as a dictation of the individual form of an individual poem.
And you have to go into a serial poem not knowing what the hell you're doing. That's the first thing. You have to be tricked into it. It has to be some path that you've never seen on a map before and so forth. You can't say—now to give some examples of what it isn’t—you can't say to yourself, as Lawrence did in Birds, Beasts, and Flowers, which is a beautiful book, but is not a serial poem, "I am going to write poems about birds, beasts, and flowers," or else say, "Well, gee, I've been writing poems about birds, beasts, and flowers, and so let's put it in a book and call it Birds, Beasts, and Flowers, and separate the poems out by way of birds, beasts, and flowers."
A serial poem, in its essence, has to be chronological. In other words, the book, which is a unit like a poem is, has to be absolutely chronological. It has to be chronological in the writing of the poems. You can't just say, "well, I wrote a lot about birds and I wrote a lot about animals and I wrote a lot about flowers, so all my poems for the last five years which I'd like to get published, some of which have been published in magazines, I'll distinguish in three parts." That's not the kind of thing. (VANCOUVER LECTURE 2: The Serial Poem and The Holy Grail, June 15, 1965)