One of the Berkeley Renaissance of the 1940s and further, along with poets Robin Blaser and the late Robert Duncan was Jack Spicer (1925-1965), a poet whose reputation can only be strengthened through the publication of my vocabulary did this to me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, eds. Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008). In the preface to The Holy Forest: Collected Poems of Robin Blaser (Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 2006), Robert Creeley talked about Blaser’s relationship with Spicer, and quoted Spicer’s last words, spoken to Blaser on his alcohol-induced deathbed, that give Spicer’s current volume its title:
So the heart breaks
Into small shadows
Almost so random
They are meaningless
Like a diamond
Has at the center of it a
Or a rock
Love asks its bare question—
I can no more remember
What brought me here
Than bone answers bone in the arm
Or shadow sees shadow—
Deathward we ride in the boat
Like someone canoeing
In a small lake
Where at either end
There are nothing but pine-branches—
Deathward we ride in the boat
Broken-hearted or broken-bodied
The choice is real. The diamond.
I Ask it. (Billy the Kid)
Robin Blaser became a source for poetry's authority beyond any simplifying place or time. It is not at all that his work is transcendent or beyond the obvious limits of common life. Quite the contrary. In this still shifting edge of that West which is his first place of origin, he enters upon his own power without distraction or compromise, and comes to the substantiating community of his own need and recognition. In this respect only Robert Duncan finds a place of similar order, while their peers, such as Spicer and Olson, too often are battered by increasing isolation and overt rejection. So the last words said by Jack Spicer to his old friend echo with poignant emphasis: "My vocabulary did this to me. Your love with let you go on."What makes this collection essential is that it works to collect as much of Jack Spicer’s published work as possible in one volume (a “collected,” not a “complete”), and the editors even suggest that there is certainly more than enough unpublished work to fill an entire other volume, separate from this. Will this be something coming down the road over the next couple of years through Wesleyan as well?
A Postscript for Charles OlsonOver the years, Spicer has managed to become essential reading for generations of writers from his immediate contemporaries to subsequent generations, and for the longest time, the definitive edition of Spicer’s work remained The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, edited with an afterword by Blaser (Los Angeles CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1975). Other posthumous works followed, including from his days in Vancouver in the early 1960s, giving informal lectures in professor Warren Tallman’s house to many of the writers who ended up founding the influential poetry newsletter, Tish, collecting his pieces as The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, edited with an afterword by Peter Gizzi (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1998), the same year that a biography appeared, Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the Berkeley Renaissance, by Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1998).
If nothing happens it is possible
To make things happen.
Human history shows this
And an ape
Is likely (presently) to be an angel.
If you dream anything
You are marked
With a blue tattoo on your arm.
To be taken at 52 miles an hour. (Admonisions)
A Red WheelbarrowSpicer holds an interesting place in contemporary literature, despite not generally known for too much of his writing at the time, and was someone who managed to exist outside of the boundaries of what was happening with the New York School, the informal Black Mountain group, or any of the west coast poetics. Still part of the artistic life of San Francisco throughout the late 50s until his death, Spicer managed on his own, publishing only a half dozen or so small books during his own lifetime with local regional presses, before he died in 1965 at the age of 40. It wasn’t until Spicer’s appearance in the seminal anthology The New American Poetry, ed. Donald M. Allen (New York NY: Grove Press, Inc., 1960; London UK: Evergreen Books Ltd., 1960; Berkeley and Los Angeles CA: University of California Press, 1999), that word of his work started getting attention, the same collection where he wrote, as his “biographical note,” that he “does not like his life written down.” As editors Gizzi and Killian write in their introduction:
Rest and look at this goddamned wheelbarrow. Whatever
It is. Dogs and crocodiles, sunlamps. Not
For their significance.
For their significance. For being human
The signs escape you. You, who aren’t very bright
Are a signal for them. Not,
I mean, the dogs and crocodiles, sunlamps. Not
Their significance. (A Red Wheelbarrow)
In the last nine years of his short life, Jack Spicer saw to press seven books of poetry (and left behind at least ten more), establishing a poetic tradition on the West Coast that ran parallel, yet counter, to the contemporaneous Beat movement—parallel, yet counter, to the poetry of the New York School poets as well. His anarchist convictions led him to refuse copyright on his poetry since he believed that he was in no sense its owner, and its creator in only the most tenuous sense. Spicer’s own students came to include many of the finest poets, both gay and straight, working in San Francisco. He founded the magazine, J, in 1959, to publish their writing, alongside his own, and in 1964 oversaw another monthly journal, Stan Persky’s Open Space. What he had learned from the internal struggles of the Mattachine was to gain control of the means of production, so the presses that issued his work were all local and, insofar as possible, under his thumb. For Spicer the local became paramount, a seedbed of honest and vital work.With his work in the “serial poem,” Spicer managed to work a series of ongoing collages, leaping from line to line, stanza to stanza in a way that open the form in breathtaking ways, being an early proponent for the same ideas forwarded by bpNichol through his long poem The Martyrology, saying that the poem only connect sometimes through being written by the same hand, or editor Michael Ondaatje quoting Spicer in his introduction to The Long Poem Anthology (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1979), that poems can no better live by themselves than we can. Talking about his book Baseball, A Poem in the Magic Number 9 (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1967; Coach House Books, 2004) and its Jack Spicer influence in the interview “A Conversation with George Bowering” from Canadian Literature: A Guide (Calgary AB: Educational Communications Corporation (Access Network), 1986), Vancouver writer George Bowering says:
The genesis of Baseball, according to the beginning of the poem, is that, in the beginning, God made baseball. The poem was written during the baseball season of 1965. It’s dedicated to the great American poet Jack Spicer, who told us how to write a serial poem and who was also interested in baseball. He was a San Francisco Giants fan. Some of my critic friends like the poem because it’s the first long poem in sections that I published. Jack Spicer died about halfway through that summer, or two-thirds of the way through that summer, in Berkeley, at the age of thirty-nine, and his death begins to enter into the last part of the poem as part of the subject. It’s an important poem to me because it’s a long poem that is not continuous in a narrative sense … doesn’t have a set of characters, doesn’t have a climax and all that business. All that holds it together is the fact that what’s being written about is baseball. It’s written in nine sections, i.e., nine innings, and it deals with my childhood memories of baseball being played in Oliver, and big-league baseball, and baseball as a metaphor, and baseball as something cosmic. But really, the subject of the bookWhat I’ve always appreciated about Spicer’s “serial poems” is how they connect through their sheer disconnect, letting the umbrella of concept/title cover everything that falls under it, connecting the poem, sometimes, simply because it is part of the same single piece. When Spicer wrote serially, everything fell into the poem, and the tangent, as well as serial repetition, became the point, as opposed to working against the point. Talking about Spicer’s serial poem in the introduction, the editors write:
is poetry. It reflects on itself. It has a lot to say about how one makes poetry. So the love for baseball is a disguised way of talking about a love for poetry.
Spicer conceived of and developed the “serial poem”: a book-length progression of short poems that function together as a single movement. In his lectures, Spicer quoted Blaser’s description of the serial poem as akin to being in a dark house, where you throw a light on in a room, then turn it off, and enter the next room, where you turn on a light, and so on. This movement from room to room in an architectural structure makes sense if you think of “stanza” as coming from the Italian for “small room.” As his poetry moves from dark room to dark room, each flash of illumination leaves an afterimage on the imagination, and the lines of the poems become artifacts of an ongoing engagement with larger forces.In one of the lectures, “Vancouver Lecture 2” (June 15, 1965), Spicer himself said that:
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.Just as some have said that the measure of a person’s life is who comes to the funeral, it can also be said that the measure of a writer is the influence that they leave behind, and some of the trajectories a reader could follow after the writing of Jack Spicer would be, for example, his Billy The Kid (1959) to Toronto poet bpNichol’s the true eventual story of billy the kid (Weed/Flower Press, 1970; reprinted as part of Craft Dinner: Stories and Texts, Aya Press, 1978) and Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (Anansi, 1970), moving even beyond, to Winnipeg poet Dennis Cooley’s wild and expansive Bloody Jack (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1984; Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2002). One could follow Spicer’s “A Fake Novel about the Life of Arthur Rimbaud” (as part of The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether, 1962), to Toronto writer arthur craven’s “A Short Fake Novel about Spicer,” or even Spicer’s After Lorca (1957) to Mark Goldstein’s recent After Rilke: To Forget You Sang (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2008), that even has a photograph of Spicer on its cover, not to mention Spicer references sprinkled through various other writers over the years, from the late Richard Brautigan to Toronto writer Stan Rogal to the late Montreal poet Artie Gold, who wrote his own poem after Jack Spicer, collected in his own The Beautiful Chemical Waltz: Selected Gold (Dorion QC: The Muses’ Company, 1992), that writes:
‘The trouble with comparing’ yr life to a ballgame
is that a dead fool will have no obituary, but a ball
even when lobbed shows a token
amount of revolution. The trouble
is the hotdogs and whatnots we treat ourselves to
extemporaneously. The trouble is one of
demonstrating suitable analogy; we
endure only once. The trouble is the tragedy
that even well chosen, our analogy will not delay a game
The trouble is popcorn vendors
and game officials. The question becomes one
of recourse, and here, even heroes
show unimpressive scores.
The trouble with contesting
is that in life we are constantly outcontested
constantly unaware of our being outcontested. The trouble
with belief in this and in experience is that it comes
as intellectual sentiment, and is never useful to us
when a shut-out has already decided th game. Baseball
is still interesting carried past
the second inning.