Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Jack Spicer's Collected Poetry

Buy the Book

I was first introduced to Jack Spicer and his poetry when I was involved with the Synthetic Poets of Dallas, Texas in the late 1990's. My compatriots had been influenced by him so I read him and was not moved at that time. I am a thick and sometimes stupid person-but Spicer's work is in many ways more like a slow virus than a major epidemic and I became very sick with the virus.

As one grows as a poet or person the work slowly breaks down the rocks and creates a new canyon. In "My Vocabulary did this to Me" the Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer from Wesleyan University press two poets, of equal import to Spicer, Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian delve into this man's seminal work and give us something that is rare in poetry today, a sense of the poet as revolutionary and conservator at the same time. Spicer like Gizzi and Blaser are forging new landscapes and this book does much for our understanding of the monument of the work.

There is something very Gnostic about Spicer and his friends Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser. In many ways these poets are Seminal in the original use of the word. Seminal comes from semen and the Gnostic orgiastic ritual where in the purity of that sexual ejaculation was viewed as the way to return to the Divine and bypass the Earthy Demiurge. In many ways Spicer is of this mentality he helps us to bypass the Demiurge and return to poetic divinity.

There are many great poems in this book. One of my favorites is They Murdered You: An Elegy on the Death of Kenneth Rexroth. I am a huge Rexroth fan and so when I first found this poem I read it out of my affection for Rexroth but this poem is so much more than a tribute.

"I will never again climb a mountain, read St. Augustine or go to bed with a woman"

Without wishing you were there Kenneth Rexroth"

In this poem Spicer both critiques and lauds Rexroth and he also encapsulates a poet's life his Obra in a short poem. He brings together poetry, jazz and religion "Each of whose tones perfectly overlays the other" And Spicer goes on to laud and critique Rexroth and his political verse and in the end he defines influence and image and makes us see both what Spicer views as his ultimate concern and his gratitude to an older poet.

Later in the Collected Works they give us Golem from 1962. His poem begins October 1, 1962 with the Dodger Giant playoff for the National League pennant. The first stanza is all about baseball the second is a devastating critique of early 1960's middle class ness. the fourth stanza however is something worthy of Plato or Augustine;


Everything is fixed to a point.
The death of a poet or a poem is
fixed to a point. This House, that
Bank Account, this Piece of paper
on the floor. That Light that shines
there instead of elsewhere.
Appealing to the better nature of
things. Inventing Angels.
Inventing angels. The light that
that light shone shone there
instead of elsewhere. Each
corner of the room fixed in
an angle to itself.
The death of a poet or a poem or
a piece of paper, Things
Fix themselves.

In this stanza Spicer ascends to a poetic depth that is not normally found in the American idiom. There are few poets who have written in our nation's poetic life who can get away with what Spicer did and be taken seriously. Spicer does this without flinching.

What is amazing about Spicer and this is also true for Williams is that their collected works are so small. Williams for example is less than a 1000 pages including Paterson. Spicer is perhaps 1500 pages. Yet his influence along with Robin Blaser and Robert Duncan continue to enlighten things. It is not the quantity but the quality of the work that is evident here.

The sense of the Gnostic in these poets was illustrated well in a book by Peter O'Leary The Gnostic Contagion but it is in reading the actual work that this neo-Gnosticism comes to the forefront. Spicer has been viewed along with Duncan, Blaser and Creeley as proto-Language poets. They are the Austrolopithicines of the Language revolution of the 1970's and this might be true but I think more so Spicer and his SF Rennaissance friends are the culmination of a great tradition of heroic poetry.

From this peak the break down of the work caused new stones to be created and among these is Language Poetry but the work here is more is heroic and seminal in a Gnostic way.
Gizzi and Blaser have created a great valedictory for Spicer and we can hope that Lisa Jarnot's long awaited biography of Robert Duncan will do the same for his work.

In the end though these San Francisco Renaissance poets and Spicer's work in this book are towering as to make much of the poetry we are all writing seem like broken shards to their great marble masterpieces.


Logan Lamech said...

Masterpiece is a word I don't use lightly but definately applies here.

Logan Lamech

Steven Fama said...

Dear Raymond,

my vocabulary did this to me is a great book that should be read and re-read many a time.

However, I'm incredulous at your assertion that the editors of this book are poets of "equal import to Spicer." I ain't dissing anybody, but only saying that, for goodness sakes, you are talking about Jack Spicer here.

Jack Spicer, of dictation-from-Martians, author of numerous no-doubt classic books of poetry, and a writer who had a deep influence on literary culture.

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