In the 1970s, Robin Blaser, working with John Martin's Black Sparrow Press (now published by David Godine), edited the collected books of a little-known California poet who had died in 1965. More than twenty years later, the poet’s lectures were published in a volume edited by Peter Gizzi for Wesleyan University Press, along with a biography by Kevin Killian and Lewis Ellingham, firmly establishing the San Francisco Renaissance as a compelling moment in postwar American poetry for a larger literary audience. These volumes and others, with essays by literary critics and historians, such as Michael Davidson, served as the only access to the work of this mercurial and devastatingly alert author who appeared at the center of the Northern California scene of the 1950s and ’60s.
It is perhaps objectionable now to speak of the new volume of writing collected by Gizzi and Killian as the work of Jack Spicer, the California native whose biographical details have been mythologized in ways the poet himself certainly would have found distasteful. Spicer, more than any poet of his generation, stressed the impersonal arrival of the poem from the “outside”: from the influence of “spooks,” “Martians,” and, importantly, “the dead.” Following W. B. Yeats’ methods of spiritual séance (Yeats’ wife Georgie channeled the words of spirits for the poet’s dictation), Spicer argued that the poet’s personal history was minimal in reaching the poem’s much vaster range of possibilities. Words were not in his possession: they were the material interferences by which he could include an otherness that inhabited his dynamic and complex perspectives.
A poet of truly classical dimensions, Spicer offered an immense vision of the world wherein language acted as the impersonal and communal substance shared by the tribe. He worked in this way to complicate boundaries constructed around perceptions of public and private language, constantly undermining his own personal expectations in order to reveal a more communal relation between poet, poem, and reader. The deathbed claim regarding his vocabulary (Robin Blaser reports that Spicer’s last words were, “my vocabulary did this to me”), when read next to the Vancouver lectures, or his serial narratives, sounds like the utterance of someone no longer in command of his faculties of expression: his vocabulary didn’t kill him -- it was all those personal anxieties and habitual patterns of life that accumulate, suddenly stranding one at an abyss. Fortunately, the poems relate a much greater document than one man’s biography -- directing us toward something more than what one writer may think or feel about his situation. Although identification with queerness, anarchic politics, and the social parameters of Bay Area poetics are correctly associated with him, Spicer’s writing asks that we look also beyond the histories and identities that sink our perspectives of the world within our personal affinities. He brought his readers, instead, into the realm of adventure imagined as a kind of communal, cosmogonic possibility.
The public archive of writing gathered by Gizzi and Killian is impressive, and their contribution will certainly preserve Spicer’s growing legacy. His writing forms a map of possibilities by which many who still associate their work with a contemporary avant-garde have taken direction, and perhaps this collection will invite new readers to evaluate his writing too. The new book, moreover, departs in important ways from Blaser’s earlier version, ordering the work chronologically, submitting early, stand-alone poems, providing a generous selection of notes, and including a chronology that delivers in its own way a compact, serial narrative of the poet’s life.
New to this volume, however, are works such as “Golem,” that continue in the tradition of Spicer’s serial poetry. In such writing he preferred, through the serial form, thematic correspondence over cohesion; verbal echoes instead of repetition; tonal vibrancy and performative display instead of the soliloquy of the romanticized self -- a self made sensitive to the intrusive and indifferent world. He defied in his work the reductive stereotype of the sensitive and misunderstood poet, the lonely, self-tortured soul in search of spiritual communion. Instead, he developed a process that erased his desire and his knowledge on the page, defying one Jack Spicer as anything but an instrument open to the dictating orders of the “Lowghost,” a term he used as shorthand for the otherness he associated with language. He brought poetry, moreover, into a truly public role -- carrying it out of the ghetto of private, self-expression.
In one “Golem” stanza that creates a parody of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Spicer writes: “I have seen the best poets and baseball players of our generation caught in the complete and contemptible whoredom of capitalist society…” For the anarchist-purist Spicer, pimping one’s poetry made “[y]ou become fixtures like light / Balls. Drug / Habit / …do you suppose somebody fixed Pindar and the Olympic Games?” Expressing, too, a preference for community over one’s personal desire, he rants, in “Golem,” against the popular Beatnik currency, claiming:
Your life does not count. It is the rules of
the tribe. No
Your life does not count.
counting it all does not count. It is the rules
of the tribe that your life doesn’t count.
Numbering it doesn’t count. Madness doesn’t
Being mad at the numbers doesn’t count.
It is a rule of the tribe (dead as they are)
told over the dead campfires
That it doesn’t count.
That your life doesn’t count.
Countess Death give me Some life in this
little plain we live in from start to finish
Let me slit their throats and smash their heads on the
In relating a narrative of creative strife, Spicer’s use of the Jewish, Frankenstein-like monster, Golem, reveals a vision of spiritual mutation and poetic difficulty. The poem, Spicer argues, escapes the poet’s will: the intent to control language or individual reputation through it remains always wonky. Even Pindar
[w]as a publicity man for some
For a couple of wrestlers and cash,
Does not purify.
The very words I write
Do not purify. Are fixed in the
language evolved by thousands
of generations of these princes—
used mainly for commerce
Wrestler Plato tried to make
them all into stars. Stars
are not what they are.
Coining a phrase our words are
The poet’s effort, moreover, according to Spicer, involved keeping a “public mask.” Such distances between the private and public invited a creative spirit or otherness that allowed language to lift above the petty values of the tribe in order to restore communal knowledge. (The mask also protected the poet’s privacy, saving him from the painful projections of others.) In order to expand the capacities of the tribe, the mask the poet wore represented that motivating otherness in poetry. From it cosmic relation restored human potential; the personal was organized as the shared property of the public. When the poet “no longer had a public mask,” writes Spicer,
People retrieved his poems
from wastebaskets. They had
Oh, what a pain and shame was
People returned to their
business somewhat saddened.
Importantly, here, as in other great books and longer serial sequences, Spicer wanted to disrupt traditional notions of poetic inspiration, wisdom, and claims of authority and authorship in order to stress the significance of other modalities of psychic force, or trauma, on language. For Spicer, it is misleading for a poet to claim possession of language or cultural knowledge when, in fact, it is the writer who is possessed by these elements. And since the practice of poetry, as he theorizes it in his lectures, requires particular attention to the limits and boundaries of language, he wants to bring attention to something that we usually don’t think about, such as certain modalities of thought produced by language in diverse instances; the divisions between us and others; the unusual ability of words to interpenetrate remote individual consciousness; and the power of emotional intimacy to be transfigured by poetry to become more inclusive of others. Of course, practical daily life must go on, and this is Spicer’s unique situation as a witness to both the outer limits of language usage and as a public figure attuned to the specific cultures he inhabits.
Spicer, finally, helps us think about the world we live in -- how we love, seek, discover, disavow, stand up for what we believe, tenderly observing those we love, and willfully attacking what we most detest. With this, he gives us great pleasure too in the music and variety of his lines, the ongoing humor and surprises they create. But his poems especially contribute to a kind of public language that prefers dissonance instead of any easy sense of appreciative reception; and thus Spicer creates a poetics of masked interventions. The new collection, perhaps, should have been called “Attack of the Golem,” or “Spicer’s Golem Masks,” but the privilege of now having this work in print exceeds any such irritating quarrel.