sucks back up
the saucer eyed,
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.
Take vodka, my brother.
We’re alone in the green trellised tumbledown.
Built by a disgraced Lieutenant General.
Well, disgraced when we remember him. Best to forget.
He died of soft brain
and will not bother us, and I must tell,
Alyosha, in dreams, I twist my shirt
beneath the willow,
and I am planning, beneath absolutely pathetic limbs,
there is a trunk amid those wisps,
there is death in a shirt.
And need be, suspenders. I wake happy.
I am not afraid, Alyosha, a day like any of my life.
But, Mitya, you forget: a day like any, yes,
perhaps, but shorter.
I stopped opening the cabinet
when I decided brandy was bad for me.
That was threeish.
Six, Smerdyakov waked me.
I feel robustly thirsty.
In Russia, of course,
if you are the son of Fyodor,
you are Fyodorovich. Is the boy my son?
With Reeking Lizaveta? Who scaled my fence
to bear him and die? Crazy, smocked, there for a dare
Lizaveta? Well then, Fyodorovich. But Reeking,
so: Smerdyakov Fyodorovich.
His soul is stump-legged.
His eyes reflect light
like a dog’s.
Tonight, he will sleep in the house.
Tonight, I want company.
He whimpers like a dog
before his fits.
Perhaps only that’s why I trust him.
For those of you (like myself) for whom being read to is like being a kitten licked by a mama cat, I’m sure you’ve had your share of audiobooks. I can highly suggest George Guidell (great readings of Kafka and Joyce) and others were I pressed to.
But for deeper pleasures, I want to encourage anyone who has not yet done so to visit PennSound. http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/ An amazing resource, an unmatched resource. From Jack Spicer to Gertrude Stein to my all-time favorite reader on the site, George Oppen. The folks behind this project are not just to be thanked but to be licked back. N.B. For Spicer, I do not encourage you to listen to the lectures. The Gizzi transcript does them more justice by my estimation. Listen instead to the poems. Or at least, start with the poems.
But for deeper pleasures, I want to encourage anyone who has not yet done so to visit PennSound. http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/ An amazing resource, an unmatched resource. From Jack Spicer to Gertrude Stein to my all-time favorite reader on the site, George Oppen.
The folks behind this project are not just to be thanked but to be licked back.
N.B. For Spicer, I do not encourage you to listen to the lectures. The Gizzi transcript does them more justice by my estimation. Listen instead to the poems. Or at least, start with the poems.
Under the pool blue sky,
noon’s skim moon,
your scarf, once round,
flies its rough colors.
much celebration forced upon it
So much celebration forced upon it
by niggling fingers and pointy sticks
and a vicious, a hungry
round your neck.
I had the extreme good luck of being introduced to Jack Spicer’s poetry in a graduate course I took with Michael Moon at Duke. He brought in the “Poetry as Magic” questionnaire, what was then available of “The Unvert Manifesto” and its accompanying “Oliver Charming” diaries, the entirety of After Lorca, and some other selections. I fell in love deeply and instantly and have ever since remained in love. And now, it is my great good luck that Kevin Killian and Peter Gizzi have edited a beautiful, new collected Spicer, entitled my vocabulary did this to me: The Collected Poems of Jack Spicer. If you don’t yet have it, it is a book no poetry lover can do without. Not because it is “necessary,” but precisely because it is “unnecessary” in all the right ways.
My affair began with great good luck. I was visiting San Francisco one break and while browsing at Different Light, chanced across, for $10!, the 1974/1975 issue of Manroot devoted to Spicer. This lead me to the therein oft-cited Caterpillar 12 issue, edited by Clayton Eshleman. So much delicious material. My obsession lead me far and wide--to Maria Damon’s brilliant chapter on Spicer in her The Dark End of the Street: Margins in American Vanguard Poetry, to Michael Davidson’s right-on work on Spicer in The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century and to Peter Gizzi’s crucial The House that Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Spicer.
No one wants to hear the stories of how happy couples got together. Big yawn. So, in the next couple posts I’m going to tell all about how this affair went awry, and I’ll be nearly honest. It isn’t that I don’t still love, nor have been counseled on loving too much... no, I had to go and enter what Spicer basically spat out when he mentioned it: “The English Department.” And that, as some guy once said, made all the difference.
to be cont'd
Post-Oscar Masked Ball 2009
Haute couture dragons spew smoke.
A huge boar snorts, then unhoofs his snout of coke.
Flasks pass—each with double-jointed
levered caps. It all feels
so World War One.
Then a pocket goes crazy disco.
:Yes, all the plays do have nice homosexuals, but the musicals are nice
:Gimlet...Gin’s the new Vodka. And lime...
:Every bistro, though, fried frisée. And drizzled drastic reductions!
:Poodles are in again and still trimmed like hedges.
a tray retreats.
But the vibe changed.
Nixon was the first to notice.
Then Missus Claus.
Einstein couldn’t, K-holed,
but a Mario Brother burped Yup.
Unrolling like sod toward them.
Or like a memory
of the seventies
flipping flat at their feet.
And from the fog
They stumbled in
with the rest
Princess Diana is a mess
above the Marquis de Sade’s smashed forehead.
No, no, she says—
King Tutankhamun seemed squeamish, or scared,--
I’m stuffed, wiping her chin. Really stuffered.
O, May I
call you Tut?
Precision-licking one last tidbit:
Regardless do call me Di,--
In today's New York Times, a place I know we all rush for the latest and "greatest" in poetry criticism, David Orr asks, in "The Great(ness) Game, basically, what will happen when THE generation of GREAT poets is gone.
This week we welcome John Emil Vincent as our guest blogger. John is a poet and critic. His most recent book of criticism is John Ashbery and You: His Later Books. After Spicer a collection of essays he's edited about poet Jack Spicer, is forthcoming from Wesleyan Press. Welcome, John
Just a quick note to say (sob) goodbye - I meant to come back yesterday and talk about the new exhibition at Tate Modern, Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism. So maybe you've had a lucky escape. I was going to call it "The Great Mistake" (no secrets there then; though I surprised myself) and I was going to do a companion piece on my own blog called "The Great Silence" - two virtually simultaneous posts mirroring each other across the internet... it's like the romance of the open seas...
But the whole conceit was scuppered by my laptop battery playing up! Surely that's constructivism of a sort! (Actually...) It'll take me a couple of days no doubt, but I think there will be a couple of posts on Baroque in due course.
And I was going to tell you about my fellow Salt poet, Chris McCabe, but it is also too late for that. It's like being on holiday somewhere for a week, there's always a thing you never had a chance to see...
So I will just say thanks again to the Best American Poetry team for asking me to spend a week here. It's been tremendous fun. And I look forward to reading John Emil Vincent.
A lovely, lazy Saturday - and there's even some sun! Spring, and globally warmed, too: over a brick wall there is a branch of a rosebush, with a strange, desultory half-opened baby rose bud on it. Yellow, dirtyish.
Anyway, we dozed half the morning till woken up by a resentful young person: "You two aren't awake!" - amid strange dreams. In due course, after coffee and laundry, the three of us walked down the road to the local cafe for a bit of lunch. Coming out after the banoffie pie, the young person in question - my partner's 14-year-old daughter - points to a shop sign across the road."Look, look!" Tones of disgust." They've got it all wrong, they've spelt - " then she sees it: Professionails. "Ohhhhhhh," she groans. "It's a PUN... it's a pun! I get it. Profession-nails, it's a..."
"What?" says her dad. "What was that?"
I am in the middle of explaining it to him, pointing across the road, when I see the little sign on the door of the cafe: "Wanted. Professonal writer."
Thus piteously Love closed what he begat:
The union of this ever-diverse pair!
These two were rapid falcons in a snare,
Condemned to do the flitting of the bat.
Lovers beneath the singing sky of May,
They wandered once; clear as the dew on flowers:
But they fed not on the advancing hours:
Their hearts held cravings for the buried day.
Then each applied to each that fatal knife,
Deep questioning, which probes to endless dole.
Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul
When hot for certainties in this our life!--
In tragic hints here see what evermore
Moves dark as yonder midnight ocean's force,
Thundering like ramping hosts of warrior horse,
To throw that faint thin line upon the shore!
-- George Meredith
So, it’s late last night, and I’m still puzzling over this Frost poem (posted below). I mean this thing is nagging at me. In a low-level way. I’m not a maniac (mostly). But the Tommy Lee Jones movie I’m watching has just ended, and I'm wondering about “The Lockless Door.” I have the one-volume abridgment of the Lawrence Thompson biography, so I pull it down and this is what I find on pages 93-94: Frost was afraid of the dark!
In the summer of 1895, he followed Elinor White and her sister to Ossipee Mountain in New Hampshire. He rented what amounted to a shack (with a lockless door!) in order to be near her. In the event, he was alone much of the time. His fear of the dark—with him from childhood—was so great, that he slept that summer with his pants on just in case.
Then one night there was a knock at the door, and Frost freaked out. He climbed out the window and called “Come In” back over the sill, just like in the poem. When the door started to open, he ran for it, spending the night hiding out in the woods basically. Sometime after dawn, he crept back to the house to find his neighbor passed out on the kitchen floor "as though dead": he had stopped on his way home, to sleep off a bender. The experience, Thompson says, haunted Frost's dreams for years. The poem, he suggests, was “perhaps motivated in part by the hope that he might rid himself of the whole thing.”
Here’s proof that biography only gets you so far: I know now what motivated the poem and some of the actual events referred to, but I still can’t say what the tenor (subject) of the poem really is. And on some level I don’t really need to know for sure. There’s something of the allegory or fable to the thing, an indeterminacy that allows it to resonate deep in the psyche. The brilliant bastard!
(Or: "A and An, O and OH")
Well, this isn't exactly about poetry. It may even be anti-poetry. It is about using words and language, though. Because what I do in my day job is writing, editing, copy-editing, preparing texts for publication, producing publications, even designing styles for organisations. Currently I'm working on issues to do with a large-scale rebranding.
So anyway, last week, after months of procrastination - no, years of procrastination - I hauled off and went on my local internet warehouse bookseller and bought my very own copy of the Chicago Manual of Style. It's so exciting! (Even with the discount it was £30. It had better be exciting.) It knocks Strunk and White, I'm afraid, into a teeny little cocked hat.
So here it sits on my desk, all orange and typographically lovely, shiny, hardback and three inches thick. I was reading it. It's no less amusing than The Elements of Style, and a hell of a lot more thorough and authoritative. Thorough and authoritative is what I like. I've found (sadly) that almost any example of poor usage is enough to amuse me, so I don't need the conscientious tomfoolery of S&W to keep me interested. I arrived at work feeling utterly validated - almost as a human being! - the day I was reading on the train that the Chicago Manual doesn't even recommend punctuation after a bullet-point list.
In fact, they had an example where you don't even have the bullets. Talk about empowering!
Ever since I was called a pedant in fourth grade and my dad thought it was amusing to refer to me as "Grandma" (a Beverley Hillbillies reference) I've been obsessed with grammatical, usage, typographical and puncutation-based rights and wrongs - as if it were a moral issue where you place your quotation marks, and are they single ones - 'like this' - English-style (or is that just old-fashioned?), or big fat American double ones, "like this?" Punctuation in or out? Is your slip showing or is it like tastefully exposed beams? Subject abnd verb disagreement shows you up as a sloppy thinker: I wouldn't trust your ideas. I wouldn't trust your poem.
So the issue is this, and maybe I've just answered my own question. To what extent is this love of the rules, of the forms of typographical expression, of the forms of language itself, to what extent is it inimical to creative expression? To the plasticity you need to be able to create art out of a material? (Language is a material.) Or dies it create strictures that facilitate creation? Does it create a whole class of possibilities that's lost on people who don't can't parse a sentence?
Look, I know everyone’s got way too much junk mail clogging their inboxes. Far be it from me to suggest adding to the daily wafts of e-ffluvia. I must unsubscribe to about five unwanted e-mail lists a day, and I still have enough spam to see me through to spring.
But here’s one daily e-mail I always look forward to (along with the 5-string banjo list, and Scuttlebutt, about boats getting thrashed in mid-ocean): it’s a poem-a-day sent out by About.com and chosen by Simran Khurana. Who is she? Does she actually exist? Here’s a photo of her from the site:
I’m am crazy about her. It’s like poetic philocaption. I just love that she sends me poetry—really good poetry!—every day. And she will send it to you, too!
It’s classic stuff: Yeats, Frost, Stevenson, Dickinson—all public domain, of course, and all worth a look. I’m constantly surprised to find a classic poem that I really didn’t know that well or that I hadn’t thought of in a long time.
Here is Frost’s “The Lockless Door,” which Simran sent me last week. It’s a killer. Anyone want to venture a guess as to what’s going on in this poem? I’ve got some ideas, but, man, this thing is mysterious. It just keeps opening up.
The Lockless Door
It went many years,
But at last came a knock,
And I thought of the door
With no lock to lock.
I blew out the light,
I tip-toed the floor,
And raised both hands
In prayer to the door.
But the knock came again
My window was wide;
I climbed on the sill
And descended outside.
Back over the sill
I bade a "Come in"
To whoever the knock
At the door may have been.
So at a knock
I emptied my cage
To hide in the world
And alter with age.
I'm starting a cemetery in my back yard! Progress is being made. "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."
The cuddly Cockney teddy bear poet Tim Wells exposes his love for American popular culture (just be lucky I'm not giving you the Rock Hudson one. Buy the book.)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Back in the day I didn’t have a washing machine. Instead I’d take my laundry up
Stamford Hill. There was a closer launderette, with a downhill walk, but the
woman who handed out the washing powder and did the service washes was
psychic. I’d heard her tell about illness, tragedies and heart’s secrets many a
time. I didn’t want her handling my smalls.
So I’d take my bundle up the hill and sit and read the paper as my shirts
and trousers sudded and span. The woman there was notable in that she’d wear
plastic Safeway bags on her feet, with slippers over them. This was before the
coming of Morrisons.
Once I was there waiting on the machine and perusing the paper. A fellow
came in to collect his wash. The old woman handed him a neatly folded pile of
fresh clothes. He thanked her. She said, ‘I found this in your wash …’ and
handed him a gleaming bullet.
He blushed, looked to the floor, palmed it and gave an embarrassed thanks.
The film that night was Tyrone Power in Jesse James.
And here is the Forward-shortlisted Turnbull production:
Ode on a Grayson Perry Urn
Hello! What’s all this here? A kitschy vase
some Shirley Temple manqué has knocked out
delineating tales of kids in cars
on crap estates, the Burberry clad louts
who flail their motors through the smoky night
from Manchester to Motherwell or Slough,
creating bedlam on the Queen’s highway.
Your gaudy evocation can, somehow,
conjure the scene without inducing fright,
as would a Daily Express exposé,
can bring to mind the throaty turbo roar
of hatchbacks tuned almost to breaking point,
the joyful throb of UK garage or
of house imported from the continent
and yet educe a sense of peace, of calm –
the screech of tyres and the nervous squeals
of girls, too young to quite appreciate
the peril they are in, are heard, but these wheels
will not lose traction, skid and flip, no harm
befall these children. They will stay out late
forever, pumped on youth and ecstasy,
on alloy, bass and arrogance and speed
the back lanes, the urban gyratory,
the wide motorways, never having need
to race back home, for work next day, to bed.
Each girl is buff, each geezer toned and strong,
charged with pulsing juice which, even yet,
fills every pair of Calvins and each thong,
never to be deflated, given head
in crude games of chlamydia roulette.
Now see who comes to line the sparse grass verge,
to toast them in Buckfast and Diamond White:
rat-boys and corn-rowed cheerleaders who urge
them on to pull more burn-outs or to write
their donut Os, as signature, upon
the bleached tarmac of dead suburban streets.
There dogs set up a row and curtains twitch
as pensioners and parents telephone
the cops to plead for quiet, sue for peace –
tranquillity, though, is for the rich.
In Hackney, in East London, where I live, we have a little blog tradition, where on a Wednesday we like to post up a picture of someone going beyond the call of duty in the line of elegance or style. We call this Elegantly Dressed Wednesday. It was started by my friend Ben Locker, and I like to carry the tradition on in this sad age of "fanny packs" and feed caps.
The subjects of the above picture - Tim Turnbull and Tim Wells (or, clockwise, Wells and Turnbull, aka "the tall one")- are certainly no slouches when it comes to their appearance. They couldn't look more disreputable, in a thoroughly respectable way, if they tried. In more ways than one. The two had their debut collections published in the same month, by the same publisher, Donut Press. They were the first two full collections published by Donut Press. They were also both shortlisted for Best First Collection in the Forward Prize.
Both these poets usually operate well outside the usual safe territory of the Forward Prize - that is, they are seen as mainly "performance" poets, at home in the smokiest East End pubs, fast-talking, mic-wielding, rude-word-shouting, drunken ruffians of the poetry night, surrounded by poets' molls in a (pre-ban, that is) fug of smoke.
The fact that the prize went to someone else does nothing to diminish the achievement of both the two Tims (as they are known) and Donut Press itself, in breaking through the barriers and bringing some fine, quirky writing to wider attention.
Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.
and this chunk of Blake
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Here's them with their rhymes switched:
Could frame thy fearful symmetry
Emptied of its poetry,
What immortal hand or eye,
Let the Irish vessel lie?
Word to the wise.
Posted by Jennifer Michael Hecht on February 18, 2009 at 05:33 PM in Jennifer Michael Hecht, The Lion and the Honeycomb | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)
A Toast for Archie's Birthday
To you who drink clear water from a clean wooden bowl
held up by hands that can be counted when raised
in the high terrain: they contain numberless fingers
for you have multiplied infinity by zero, spelled
the product, and won the bee that buzzes like a heaven-
sent distraction around your lampshade hat,
waking worldly hopes from their slumber of faithful
charity: to you who know how to seize the day by
the waist as it went and in fifteen instructive minutes
subtract two hundred cumbersome calories by blasting
matter into the energy of which we shall always have
a shortage: with thanks for your penetrating analysis of
the profoundest depths of love, down in the darkest womb
of winter, from which shall spring the offspring
of May: your happiness I drink, your birthday I praise.
-- David Lehman
This poem was written for A. R. ("Archie") Ammons on the occasion of his birthday, February 18, 1982.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.