By DWIGHT GARNER
Published: December 23, 2008
MY VOCABULARY DID THIS TO ME
The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer
Edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian
465 pages. Wesleyan University Press. $35.
The poem that says "I love you," James Fenton has observed, "is the
little black cocktail dress," the classic thing that everyone would
like to have written one of.
Less sexy, by far, are the types of poems left behind by the West
Coast poet Jack Spicer, who died in 1965. Mr. Spicer's love poems
curdle around the edges. He was one of America's great, complicated,
noisy and unjustly forgotten poets of heartbreak and abject loneliness.
The editors of "My Vocabulary Did This to Me," a new collected
edition of Mr. Spicer's work, speak touchingly of his "status as an
unattractive gay man." But Mr. Spicer was an outsider in many ways.
While he was a central figure, along with Kenneth Rexroth, in the
so-called Berkeley Renaissance of the late 1940s, for most of his
life he never quite fit in anywhere. He never blended, in literary or
social terms, with the two groups in which he might have later found
affinities, the Beats or the New York School of poets.
"Loneliness," Mr. Spicer declared, "is necessary for pure poetry." He
drank himself to death at 40.
Mr. Spicer could be, at times, among the irritable race of poets
Horace called the genus irritabile vatum. Yet his work was often
improbably humane and lovely. Here is a bit of one of his "Imaginary
Elegies," from the late 1940s:
When I praise the sun or any bronze god derived from it
Don't think I wouldn't rather praise the very tall blond boy
Who ate all of my potato-chips at the Red Lizard.
It's just that I won't see him when I open my eyes
And I will see the sun.
This collection's provocative title, "My Vocabulary Did This to Me,"
is taken from Mr. Spicer's final words, spoken in a San Francisco
hospital. The other details of his life are almost as tantalizing.
He was born in 1925 in Los Angeles and befriended the future
Secretary of State Warren Christopher while at the University of
Redlands. After college, Mr. Spicer worked in Los Angeles as a movie
extra and a private eye, and then roomed in the same Berkeley
boarding house with a young Philip K. Dick. In 1949 he hosted a folk
music radio show in Berkeley and connected with the archivist Harry
Smith. He assisted Mr. Smith in the compilation of his classic
Anthology of American Folk Music (1952).
A political anarchist, Mr. Spicer left the Ph.D. program at the
University of California, Berkeley, after refusing to sign a loyalty
oath, and he was a member of early gay liberation groups. He made
recordings of his poetry (now lost) with the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
With five visual artists, he opened the Six Gallery, where Allen
Ginsberg first performed "Howl." (Some of Mr. Spicer's own work was
read that night.)
He had other contacts with Ginsberg. The editors write, in an
unintentionally hilarious biographical entry for 1959: "At a drunken
party in Berkeley, Allen Ginsberg attempts to fellate Spicer in
public in the name of love, peace, and understanding; gets rejected."
Mr. Spicer also presided over a popular event called Blabbermouth
Night, at which, the editors write, "poets were encouraged to speak
in tongues and to babble and were judged on the duration and
invention of their noises."
Mr. Spicer was as much in love with sound as with sense, agreeing
with Archibald MacLeish that "A poem should not mean/But be." Mr.
Spicer's poetic notions could be wackier than MacLeish's, however.
Mr. Spicer viewed poets as radio transmitters of a sort, broadcasting
the words of other disembodied voices. He claimed he merely took
dictation, from voices he sometimes called Martians. He was opposed
to what he called "the big lie of the personal." He refused to
copyright his work.
The flavor of Mr. Spicer's more sound-driven work is suggested by
this snippet from a 1959 poem: "He will learn words as we did/I tell
you, Jay, clams baked in honey/Would never taste as strange."
His occasional high spirits were on display at the start of "Billy
the Kid," a poem from 1958 that includes bits of prose like this one:
"Let us fake out a frontier a poem somebody could hide in with a
sheriff's posse after him a thousand miles of it if it is necessary
for him to go a thousand miles a poem with no hard corners, no
houses to get lost in, no underwebbing of customary magic ... only a
place where Billy the Kid can hide when he shoots people."
To read Mr. Spicer in bulk, however, is to become intimate with the
poet who wrote the lines "I am going north looking for the source of
the chill in my bones" and "We are all alone and we do not need
poetry to tell us how alone we are." As he wrote in 1957:
Has lots of them
Lays or friends or anything
That can make a little light in all that darkness.
There is a cigarette you can hold for a minute
In your weak mouth
And then the light goes out,
Rival, honey, friend,
And then you stub it out.
You finish "My Vocabulary Did This to Me" feeling you've come in
contact with an original artist and a genuine one, a writer who is,
to borrow from Wordsworth, "fierce, moody, patient, venturous, modest, shy."
You also finish the book thinking that these poems are ready to find
a new audience. As Mr. Spicer elliptically put it toward the end of
his life: "Death is not final. Only parking lots."