Jill Alexander Essbaum is the author of the poetry books Necropolis, Harlot, Oh Forbidden and Heaven. She was the recipient of an NEA literature grant and has taught at Concordia University in Austin, and the University of Texas.
Robert Polito is the Director of the Graduate Program in Creative Writing at The New School and the author of the two books of poems, Hollywood and God and Doubles. He is also the author of A Readers Guide to James Merrill's "The Changing Light at Sandover" and Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography. The editor of The Selected Poems of Kenneth Fearing and Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930's and 40's, he lives in New Paltz and New York City.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Orr begins with
noting that John Ashbery is the first living poet to have a volume in the Library
of America.And this leads Orr to
ponder: "What will we do when Ashbery and his generation are gone? Because
for the first time since the early 19th century, American poetry may be about
to run out of greatness."
7-elevens! Stock up on greatness before the twister hits!
“Great,” is a sloppy term, something to which Orr’s pile-up of potential
definitions and questions, mostly rhetorical questions, gestures. To give him
some credit, the definition of “great” is his topic; but notice the plague of
single words meat hooked in quotation marks (“greatness,” “great,” “boring,”
“good,” “major,” “serious,” &c.)—and THEN notice when Orr increasingly
decides meat hooks aren’t necessary.Words whose meaning he begins by suggesting are up for grabs, are by the
end of the essay, grabbed. The start of the essay is addicted to quotation
marks on terms, while the end, I’m not sure if he thought this was subtle,
features few. For a piece dealing with definition he plays faster and looser
with the indefinite and definite than any writer I’ve ever read. Defining
“great,” he opines, is an “increasingly blurry business.” [these quotation
marks are mine—from now on I will bold the words he himself puts in quotation
marks.]However “increasing blurry,” the
term “great” is at the beginning of the essay more often then not held in
quotation marks, and, by the end, great stands naked, proud, and apparently
self-evidently in focus.
problem is that over the course of the 20th century, greatness has turned out
to be an increasingly blurry business.”
this on postmodernism’s questioning of “Truth, Beauty, [and] Justice.” But
simple sense might tell us that as history progresses, we have fewer and fewer
filters (years, critics, just plain old historic contingency) through which
poetry must pass to get to us eager readers. Contemporary poetry is precisely
that, contemporary, these poems haven’t been around long enough to have
dependable gauges of “greatness” even were we to wish to make such questionable
judgments. And there is the adventure! There is the delight, the pleasure, the
challenge for the contemporary reader. I do not for one read a poem to decide,
“Is this great?” I read it to see if it invents, if it makes me run out and
read it to all my overly-patient friends, if I can’t stop running through lines
of it as I fall asleep, if it gives me insight into big or little questions
I’ve been puzzling over. Or if it shapes in language something that has been
floating in the often addled ether of my thinking. Or if a new device makes me
see language and its possibility in an unexpected way.
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