A Counterpunching Radio: Jack Spicer in American Poetics

The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer
Jack Spicer
Edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian
Wesleyan University Press ($35)

by Stephan Delbos

In his 1960 National Book Award acceptance speech, Robert Lowell made one of the most famous distinctions in American poetry by drawing a line between “raw” poets like Allen Ginsberg, who had rocketed to fame four years earlier with “Howl,” and “cooked” or academic poets like Lowell himself. Few figures besides Lowell had the authority to make such a statement and be taken seriously, and at the time, he seemed to have captured the zeitgeist: A rupture had been developing in American poetry for almost a decade and Lowell’s speech acknowledged that a decisive break had finally been made. Poets chose sides and wrote, or continued to write, accordingly.

Jack Spicer was, by Lowell’s standards, a kind of anti-poet. Though he was part owner of the Six Gallery where Ginsberg first read “Howl,” Spicer’s relationship with the Beat movement was strained at best, as he preferred alcohol and arcane wisdom (Gnostic texts, tarot cards) to marijuana and satori. “Ferlinghetti is a nonsense syllable invented by The Poet,” he wrote in 1960. But Spicer was no more aligned with the halls of higher education than the bearded Beats. Trained in literature and linguistics, both of which informed his poetry, Spicer nevertheless became alienated from the dispassionate rigors of the academy after 1950, when his refusal to sign the Loyalty Oath got him expelled from the PhD program at the University of California, Berkeley. Though he would continue to teach throughout his life, most notably his “Poetry as Magic Workshop” (which became a seminal event for a diverse group of poets including Jack Gilbert, Robert Duncan, and George Stanley), Spicer maintained an uneasy truce with formal education.

Spicer’s refusal, or inability, to allow himself and his poetry to be categorically defined more or less guaranteed that he would never achieve the level of success enjoyed by many of his contemporaries. Though his work would eventually be viewed as a precursor to the New American Poetry and the post-avant movement, Spicer toiled in relative obscurity during his lifetime, keeping a shabby, one-room flat in North Beach, San Francisco, where he lived on peanut butter sandwiches and cocktails of milk and brandy while writing—or “receiving,” as he called it—difficult poems which grappled with the very roots of language and utterance at the expense of a wide audience.

In August 1965, Spicer’s friends found him in the poverty ward of San Francisco General. He had suffered an alcoholic collapse in his apartment building days before and was brought in unidentified. In Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian’s tremendous Spicer biography Poet Be Like God (Wesleyan University Press, 1998) friend and fellow poet Robin Blaser described Spicer’s last moments: “The only time he brought down that incredible garble was the point at which he broke, and with a terrible struggle, shitting in his pants and everything else, to speak those sensible words to me: My vocabulary did this to me. Your love will let you go on.”

Part of that now-legendary statement has become the title of the long-awaited volume of Spicer’s collected poems. Masterfully edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, My Vocabulary Did This to Me presents most of Spicer’s published and unpublished poems in a single, chronological volume. The collection expands and improves on two previous volumes, The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, (Black Sparrow Press, 1975) and One Night Stand & Other Poems, (Grey Fox Press, 1980) which gathered Spicer’s mature and early work into separate publications. By presenting all of Spicer’s work in a single volume, My Vocabulary Did This to Me allows readers to track the radical evolution of the poet’s style and come to a fuller understanding of Spicer’s significance in the American literary landscape.

Spicer distinguished two periods of his own oeuvre as decisively as Lowell had divided American poetry. An older Spicer would ridicule his early poems as “one-night stands,” and distance himself from the idea of a single, perfectly crafted poem in favor of purely inspired, or “dictated,” book-length poems. Nevertheless, his early poems bear the seeds of a style that would eventually flourish, and the best of them are beautiful and richly strange. “We find the body difficult to speak,” is one example:

We find the body difficult to speak,
The face too hard to hear through,
We find that eyes in kissing stammer
And that heaving groins
Babble like idiots.
Sex is an ache of the mouth.

As his poetry developed, Spicer moved beyond a neoromantic tone and narration (which his contemporary Robert Duncan would continue to practice for most of his life) to an uncompromising sense of poetics that wrestled the angels of language, meaning, and perception. The change is dramatic. In an early poem, Spicer wrote: “I would like to write a poem as long as California.” By the time he had reached what he considered his mature phase, he would write: “I would like to make poems out of real objects.”

In a 1957 letter to Robin Blaser, which Spicer published in his book Admonitions, Spicer explained the concept of the “serial,” or book-length poem: “The trick naturally is what Duncan learned years ago and tried to teach us—not to search for the perfect poem but to let your way of writing of the moment go along its own paths, explore and retreat but never be fully realized (confined) within the boundaries of one poem…. There is really no single poem.” Spicer would pursue this ideal for the rest of his life, composing book-length poems of separate sections woven around a single concept (After Lorca), tone (Admonitions), vocabulary (Language), or image series (Map Poems).

After Lorca, published in 1957, is the first book Spicer considered mature. The book consists of a series of “translations” from Lorca, interspersed with letters from Spicer to Lorca, and even an introduction by the dead Spanish poet. Translation is a term that must be used loosely, however, as Clayton Eshleman has calculated that eleven of the thirty-four poems in After Lorca are completely original, and that Spicer took liberties even with the poems which are more faithful to Lorca. As Spicer said in a 1965 lecture included in The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi (Wesleyan University Press, 1998): “The fact that I didn’t know Spanish really well enough to translate Lorca was the reason I could get in touch with Lorca.” Spicer claimed that he had channeled Lorca’s presence—that the dead poet was, in fact, active in the book’s composition.

The poems in After Lorca dance between presence and absence. Seemingly hollow and resonant, they point toward meaning rather than create it. Setting and narrative dissolve to imagery and reference. As Spicer wrote in one letter to Lorca contained in the book: “I would like to point to the real, disclose it, to make a poem that has no sound in it but the pointing of a finger.” The poem “Forest” is one example of such disclosure.

You want me to tell you
The secret of springtime—

And I relate to that secret
Like a high-branching firtree

Whose thousand little fingers
Point a thousand little roads.

I will tell you never, my love,
Because the river runs slowly

But I shall put into my branching voice
The ashy sky of your gaze.


The secret of springtime. How
I wish I could tell you!

The fourth couplet especially shows how Spicer allows his poems to sway between disclosure and withdrawal. By postulating a verbal equation that doesn’t precisely add up, Spicer creates the illusion of disclosure while actually deepening the mystery he is supposed to be revealing. Both the speaker and the being addressed in this poem dissolve into the imagery the poem activates. The “secret of springtime” is the core of the poem, a seed of emotional energy that can never be precisely imparted; the poem is the speaker’s best effort at disclosing the ineffable truths of love and natural regeneration.

The concept of the serial poem was only one tenet of Spicer’s idiosyncratic system of poetics. Some of Spicer’s later poems are themselves descriptions of the theories governing his poetic practice. In the poem “Sporting Life” from Language, published in 1965, Spicer described his theory of composition by dictation, using the metaphor of the poet as a radio.

The trouble with comparing a poet with a radio is that radios
don’t develop scar-tissue . . .

The poet

Takes too many messages.


The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a
counterpunching radio.
And those messages (God would not damn them) do not even
know they are champions.

In Spicer’s language, the poet is a radio receiving signals from Outside. Rather than being the expression of an individual ego, a poem, for Spicer, is the expression of a source that exists beyond the poet’s consciousness. Any interference on the part of the poet is bound to result in a less pure, or a failed poem. As he said in a 1965 lecture: “try to keep as much of yourself as possible out of the poem.” In the same lecture, Spicer goes on to describe the painstaking process—which sometimes lasted all night—of trying to decide whether a certain line was conscious, and thus worthless, or truly dictated, and thus part of the poem.

This concept of poetic dictation runs back through Yeats and Rilke to Blake and even to the biblical prophets, a heritage of which Spicer was well aware. What makes Spicer’s take on such theories particularly interesting in mid-century American poetry is not only the metaphors he uses to describe the process of poetic dictation, but the fact that this concept takes all responsibility out of the hands of the poet, and thus stands in stark contrast to both the ego-driven bardic ramblings of Allen Ginsberg and the crafted self-confessions of Robert Lowell.

In the same 1965 lecture, Spicer described the idea of dictation this way: “In other words, instead of the poet being a beautiful machine which . . . did everything for itself—almost a perpetual motion machine of emotion until the poet’s heart broke or it was burned on the beach like Shelley’s—instead there was something from the Outside coming in . . . if you have an idea that you want to develop, don’t write a poem about it because it’s almost bound to be a bad poem.” Such theories will seem antithetical to some and outright blasphemous to others. Nevertheless, it is precisely these ideas and Spicer’s dedication to them that have established Spicer as a poet ahead of his time—a poet who, whether he knew it or not, was following Mallarmé’s dictum of writing for an audience which does not yet exist.

There is a kind of black magic, a Faustian danger inherent in the process of dictation, or at least in Spicer’s description of the indifferent and possibly malicious sources which guided his poems. It is this danger that provides a possible key to Spicer’s early death, and some explanation of his final words. As he described the dangers of dictation in a lecture, Spicer’s words seemed personally prophetic: “Take what you want and pay for it, says God . . . But the closer you get to [the source of dictation] the worse off you get, and the more it eats into you.”

Spicer’s final book of poetry, Book of Magazine Verse, was published posthumously in 1966. The poems were intended for popular magazines, from Poetry to The St. Louis Sporting News, and Spicer actually submitted them prior to the book’s publication. As planned, none of the poems were accepted. However, the book contains some of Spicer’s most memorable and most quoted lines, such as “Get those words out of your mouth and into your heart.” The book also features some of Spicer’s most obvious outright attacks on his poet peers, in which he displays the full breadth of the vituperative tone that had been present in his verse from early on. In contrast to the self-referential and mytho-hermetic poems of Spicer’s middle-period books like The Holy Grail, the poems in Book of Magazine Verse are nakedly compassionate and actively engaged with politics, religion, and history.

The final poem in the book, the tenth of “Ten Poems for Downbeat,” addresses an unnamed but obvious Allen Ginsberg, for whom Spicer harbored particular contempt. As a fellow homosexual poet based in San Francisco, and one who achieved phenomenal fame while he himself went unknown, Ginsberg was an understandable object of contempt for Spicer. The poem is a crooked capstone to Spicer’s career, as it ruefully expresses his resignation in matters of artistic integrity and the fame he always self-consciously wished for but was never to enjoy:

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. I
don’t see how you do it. One hundred thousand university
students marching with you. Toward
A necessity which is not love but is a name.
King of the May. A title not chosen for dancing. The police
Civil but obstinate. If they’d attacked
The kind of love (not sex but love), you gave the one hundred
thousand students I’d have been very glad. And loved the
policemen. Why
Fight the combine of your heart and my heart or anybody’s
heart. People are starving.

Challenging, rewarding, befuddling, sublime, and even scary—Jack Spicer’s work has no real precedent in American poetry and his example stands as both a breakthrough in American poetics and a grim example of the dangers of a single-minded pursuit of the pure Word. My Vocabulary Did This to Me will remain a touchstone for anyone interested in the work of an American poet both shaped and ultimately destroyed by the vast but uncompromising limits of the language he dared to challenge and explore.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009