The poet Jack Spicer is more blogged about than read, as you’ll read in practically every post about him. This will be no exception. I haven’t read him enough either: I’ve known him so far mainly as a focus of gossip. (A San Francisco poet I know once told me, as we marveled at the inanity of Billy Collins, that back in the day, Collins had been one of Spicer’s disciples in North Beach.) This week I’ve been reading Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian’s biography, Poet Be Like God (Wesleyan, 1998), which is a feast of anecdote. But there’s news, and I expect soon we’ll be hearing more about him again.

Spicer was born in Los Angeles in 1925. At UC Berkeley, he met Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser, who would remain the poets closest to him. He studied for a few years in Minnesota, and then briefly worked in Boston, but he soon returned to the Bay Area to stay. He worked at Berkeley as a research linguist, but spent as much time as possible on the poetry scene in North Beach.

It’s astonishing how much of Spicer’s energy (and indeed that of the whole scene) went into the epiphenomena of poetry — teaching, talking, theorizing, publishing, arguing, drinking, cliquing, gossiping. (Spicer even supplied items to Herb Caen, gossip columnist for the Chronicle.) And yet he made poetry anyway.* He wrote steadily, publishing a stream of little books with fugitive presses. He distanced himself jealously from success in the poetry world — New York, Allen Ginsberg, even Ferlinghetti and City Lights — but achieved some success despite himself, speaking to attentive audiences, for example, at the University of British Columbia. His drinking caught up with him: in July 1965, he fell into a hepatic coma, and died after three weeks in and out of consciousness, fellow poets visiting whenever he could talk.

For Spicer, poetry was like receiving a radio transmission: something spoke through him. And more than a conceit or a superstition, this is borne out in the poetry. The language is direct, flexible, unshowy — what’s strange is the elusiveness of the voice, the instability of the poems’ agenda. It really is as though the poet had short-circuited himself out and his language spoke instead. Take this, from the book Language, of 1964:

    This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
    Tougher than anything.
    No one listens to poetry. The ocean
    Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
    Or crash of water. It means
    Is bread and butter
    Pepper and salt. The death
    That young men hope for. Aimlessly
    It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
    One listens to poetry.**

There’s an extended analogy at work here, but it would be hard, and misleading, to explicate it fully. One could assimilate “bread and butter / pepper and salt”, for example, to the analogy, but more plausibly they are simply clichés, half-abstract language objects bobbing up to divert the flow.

This week I went looking for the Collected Books, edited by Robin Blaser in the 1970s.  I used to see this on every poetry shelf in town, but now that I’m ready to read it, it’s become a collectible. Thank goodness, though, Wesleyan University Press is bringing out a new Collected Poems, long rumored and now on the brink of publication. (I’ve preordered it from Amazon.)

The title of the new book, My Vocabulary Did This To Me, is not a line from the poetry, but something Spicer said to Blaser in the hospital at the end. Or so Blaser says: another poet remembers the phrase differently, and a third denies it outright. Apart from its joke value, then (and Spicer might not have been joking), it’s an example of how Spicer is remembered — and an apt encapsulation of his poetic.


* Graham Mackintosh, who published him, said later, “I think what happened was he’d be of a certain blood-alcohol count, which would allow him to pass out for about five hours. Which would bring it around to approximately seven in the morning. Which was the time he would do most of his writing. Then he’d go back to sleep, and sort of pass back out.” (Quoted in Ellingham and Killian; but like most of their sources, Mackintosh is talking as much about himself as about Spicer.)

** Copied from the Spicer page at the Buffalo Electronic Poetry Center.  For more, see the Spicer feature in Jacket magazine, April 1999. And Lawrence La Riviere White dug deeper in a post at The Valve (almost on the fortieth anniversary of Spicer’s death).