Some words on Spicer.
Spicer (below right) participated in the Berkeley Renaissance with Robin Blaser, Robert Duncan and others, including important folk such as Helen Adam, Ebbe Borregaard, Thomas Parkinson, Graham Mackintosh, Steve Jonas, John Weiners and others, though the original trio (Spicer, Duncan, Blaser) formed the core.
Spicer was so serious about the appellation, “The Berkeley Renaissance,” that he often cited his birth year as 1946, when he met Duncan.
Spicer was most certainly a difficult person, --moody, alcoholic, impoverished, intensely loyal and intensely distancing, as well as physically challenged with a body that fought with his sense of being a producer of beauty. His homosexuality played no small part in his various difficulties; his search for a partner or partners never took, or at least not untraumatically, or for very long. Love eventually, to his eye, always betrayed him. His relationships foundered as, not unrelated, his health also foundered, and at the young age of 40 he lapsed into a hepatic coma from which he would never recover. To me, what is poetically important about Spicer is his commitment to Love, as well as his commitment to the Word. These are not separate. Nor is his death separate from his life, but his is a very long, involved, unresolvable story. Lew Ellingham and Kevin Killian's biography, Poet, Be Like God, does an admirable job giving a portrait of the poet and his milieu. But to a certain extent, to get at the poetry, we need to hold off a little on what we know about his life, giving the poetry an opportunity at an independent life.
Several things Spicer is famous for now are the serial poem, dictation, and writing in the unit of the book. All of these are more complicated than they became in the sound bytes of cultish devotion following his death, its protective postscript, and his consequent puppyish following—and suddenly, now, in the glow of (present) growing fame. These are all interesting concepts and Spicer's forays into explaining them as documented in Peter Gizzi's volume of his Vancouver Lectures (The House that Jack Built) make for fascinating reading. Or, as I mentioned, you can listen to them on PennSound. However, the ideas aren't what made the poems. Further, Spicer was pretty drunk while lecturing.
The new Collected gives us a chance to get to know a Spicer by his poems. All of the externals--the lectures, the biography, the sparkly concepts, the reminiscences--are important, but as Burton Hatlen importantly noted more than twenty years ago, no one has yet treated Spicer's poetry "as language." As great as Robin Blaser's essay that concludes the 1975 version of "The Collected Books of Jack Spicer," is--it had one unfortunate side effect. It paved the way for critics to turn Spicer's poetry into commentary and philosophic experiment, rather than living language. The poems were "interesting." They were "experiments." That is, largely, they were treated as prose. As something to comment on rather than to get lost in, be confused by, or fall in love with. Interest and experiment must come from poetry and not be brought to it. We now have the chance to treat the poems, rather than attempting to divine the principles which produced the poems. There is plenty of time to revel in the externals. The poetry's excellence will inevitably produce interest in what surrounded the production of the poetry and the poet. But this is a different enterprise, not mutually exclusive, but different, from reading poetry.
It is a lucky time to love Spicer's work. There are more people to talk with about it, more with whom to delectate over it-- and, hopefully, more patient critics to give us new ways into the workings of the poems. And no matter what else, there is this f*cking gorgeous new edition that feels great in the hand and frames the poems perfectly.