My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer. (Wesleyan) $35.00
With back cover blurbs from Ron Silliman and Nathaniel Mackey, Jack Spicer would seem to fit nicely within the tradition of epic-scope American poetry occupying the space between the mainstream and avant-garde, but his book’s contents complicate that pigeonholing. Born in Los Angeles in 1925, Spicer wrote poems that didn’t fit the aesthetics of the Beat Movement or the New York School, though he was conversant with poets and poetry from both communities. Likewise he can’t be categorized by his homosexuality, which appears throughout his work without ceremony. An important member of the lesser known San Francisco and Berkeley Renaissances, Ginsberg performed the first reading of “Howl” at his Bay Area gallery, “6.” His Collected Poetry is titled after Spicer’s famous last words—better than any poet’s tombstone epigram—before his death in Northern California in 1965.
Spicer’s early work is noteworthy for the development of his tone and voice, his growing balance of wit with authority. The poems have aged well, seem contemporary. From his Berkeley Renaissance period, as classified by the editors, he writes in “Imaginary Elegies”:
The poet builds a castle on the moon
Made of dead skin and glass. Here marvelous machines
Stamp Chinese fortune cookies full of love.
………………………………………… ………………Tarot cards
Make love to other Tarot cards. . . .
Nestled one-third of the way through the book is After Lorca, Spicer’s 1957 collection, in which he first explores the subject matter and form that dominates his collected work. Published by a White Rabbit Press, a small independent, at a time when most up-and-coming young American poets competed to win publication in the Yale Younger Poets Series, their introductions written by judge W.H. Auden, Spicer’s collection is generously introduced by Federico García Lorca himself, already two decades dead. Think Nabokov with more humor than pretension. The collection is composed of an assortment of Spicer’s translations—some actual translations, some half-translations, some translations of poems supposedly written by post-mortem Lorca, some Spicer originals disguised as translations—and a handful of letters written from Spicer to Lorca, discussing his developing poetics.
The translation theory he expounds in his letters, coupled with the translations themselves, demonstrates a bold-faced confidence that is justified by the poems themselves:
When I translate one of your poems and I come across words I do not understand, I always guess at their meanings. I am inevitably right. . . . A poet is a time mechanic and not an embalmer. The words around the immediate shrivel and decay like flesh around the body. . . . Words are what sticks to the real. We use them to push the real, to drag the real into the poem.
The poems themselves express an authority borrowed from Lorca—certainly also resulting from Spicer’s own poetic evolution, punctuated by moments of lyrical brilliance. A typical example, from “Debussy,” a translation dedicated to the University of the Redlands, where Spicer briefly attended:
The shadow demands from my body
My shadow skims the water like a huge
A hundred crickets try to mine gold
From the light in the rushes.
A light born in my heart
Upon the ditch, reflected.
In his introduction to the collection Lorca calls the poems unwilling centaurs, though he claims modesty prevents him from claiming either half of the beast. His description applies well to all of Spicer’s work, not just After Lorca, as the poet always sought to include more voices than could be contained within his poems themselves, later supplementing them with self-conscious letters and footnotes. Rather than a weakness—Spicer’s inability to articulate the scope of his vision within his poetry—his inclusion of that interior heteroglossia is perhaps his greatest strength, effectively questioning and stretching the boundaries of the poem itself.
Spicer’s 1960 collection, The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether, contains unnumbered footnotes, commentary directly and indirectly related to the poems themselves, which venture into more experimental territory. Again, Spicer employs a Nabokovian framework to weave his collection together with a narrative. The first footnote of the collection begins, “To begin with, I could have slept with all the people in the poems. It is not as difficult as the poet makes it.” The footnotes to “Concord Hymn” are a good example of the range and tone of their counterparts: “‘Conquered Him’ is a poem by Emerson.//The Dead Seas are all in the Holy Land.//If you watch closely you will see that water appears and disappears in the poem.” Other examples are more esoteric. One footnote to “The Territory Is Not the Map” reads, “Orpheus and Eurydice are in their last nuptial embrace during this poem,” and the mythological characters reappear throughout the narrative of the footnotes, widening his scope even further.
Several of the poems in The Heads experiment with loose rhyme schemes (“What is a half-truth the lobster declared/You have sugared my groin and have sugared my hair”). For the most part, the poems themselves are less brilliant than the framework they’re placed within, if they are considered to represent the entirety of the poems. This seems an intentional method of ensuring that the footnotes are essential to the collection, rather than of periphery interest; Spicer has intentionally made the footnotes form part of the poems. Throughout the collection, Spicer’s footnotes maintain a consistent voice, similar but distinct from that of the lyric poems they annotate, providing an interesting commentary on the nature of the lyric device. His playfulness is reminiscent of O’Hara or Koch, but with no trace of the subtle New York privilege that sometimes sneaks into their less experimental work. Spicer also pranks the Beats. In a footnote to his poem “Ferlinghetti,” he writes, “Ferlinghetti is a nonsense syllable invented by The Poet.”
Spicer’s final five years were incredibly productive, yielding half a dozen small press books varying wildly in subject matter and form. Spicer’s poems contain medieval knights, American baseball, and period linguistics. His experiments with form include sectional long poems and prose poems.
Spicer’s work from After Lorca on is characterized by a bold middle-class American wit, handled gracefully so that it doesn’t interfere with his literary ambitions. For the most part his cleverness does not detract from the quality of his work. His self-consciousness does not detract from his lyrical authority. He continues to include letters within his collections, which form cohesive movements. Spicer writes decades before the advent of the MFA-fueled McPoem, and he succeeds at compiling concept albums rather than anthologies of pop chart singles. Spicer’s most noteworthy contribution to the art is his ability to weave the contemporary short lyric into epic arrangements, combining the preeminent mode of American poetry today with the mode that has most endured through the history of our language.
In one of his letters to Lorca, Spicer explains his conception of literary tradition:
In my last letter I spoke of the tradition. The fools that read these letters will think by this we mean what tradition seems to have meant lately—an historical patchwork . . . which is used to cover up the nakedness of the bare word. Tradition means much more than that. It means generations of different poets in different countries patiently telling the same story, writing the same poem.
Spicer’s rendition of the great, same poem is noteworthy for its form, for its epic scope and voice, and for its serious consideration of playfulness. His collected poetry is too monolithic, too tedious an introduction to the poet, but serves as a worthwhile study of his evolution as a poet, an unconventional trajectory toward greatness. Acquiring Spicer’s single collections is no easy task, as they were printed half a century ago by small presses working below the mainstream radar. MVDTTM is well edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, and includes a valuable critical introduction to Spicer’s work, a timeline of his life, and notes to accompany the poetry itself. The quantity of work produced in a single life of forty year is remarkable, and it’s too bad that Spicer’s vocabulary took him at such an early age, that he was unable to contribute more to that great, same poem.