Jack Spicer

Jack Spicer Poems

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
...

What can I say to you, darling,
When you ask me for help?
I do not even know the future
Or even what poetry
...

A dead starfish on a beach
He has five branches
Representing the five senses
Representing the jokes we did not tell each other
...

Rest and look at this goddamned wheelbarrow. Whatever
It is. Dogs and crocodiles, sunlamps. Not
For their significance.
For their significant. For being human
...

If the diamond ring turns brass
Mama's going to buy you a looking glass
Marianne Moore and Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams
going on a picnic together when they were all students at the
...

Hush now baby don't say a word
Mama's going to buy you a mocking bird
The third
Joyful mystery.
...

A diamond
Is there
At the heart of the moon or the branches or my nakedness
And there is nothing in the universe like diamond
Nothing in the whole mind.
...

When the trains come into strange cities
The citizens come out to meet the strangers.
I love you, Jack, he said
I love you, Jack, he said
...

Any fool can get into an ocean
But it takes a Goddess
To get out of one.
What’s true of oceans is true, of course,
...

Coming at an end, the lovers
Are exhausted like two swimmers. Where
Did it end? There is no telling. No love is
...

The trouble with comparing a poet with a radio is that radios don’t develop scar-tissue. The tubes burn out, or with a transistor, which most souls are, the battery or diagram burns out replaceable or not replaceable, but not like that punchdrunk fighter in the bar.
...

What are you thinking about?

I am thinking of an early summer.
I am thinking of wet hills in the rain
Pouring water. Shedding it
...

When he first brought his music into hell
He was absurdly confident. Even over the noise of the
shapeless fires
And the jukebox groaning of the damned
...

Imagine Lucifer
An angel without angelness
An apple
Plucked clear by will of taste, color,
...

Dear Lorca,

These letters are to be as temporary as our poetry is to be permanent. They will establish the bulk, the wastage that my sour-stomached contemporaries demand to help them swallow and digest the pure word.
...

16.

No one exactly knows
Exactly how clouds look in the sky
Or the shape of the mountains below them
Or the direction in which fish swim.
...

Along East River and the Bronx
The kids were singing, showing off their bodies
At the wheel, at oil, the rawhide, and the hammer.
Ninety thousand miners were drawing silver out of boulders
...

Nothing is known about Helen but her voice
Strange glittering sparks
Lighting no fires but what is reechoed
Rechorded, set on the icy sea.
...

Plague took us and the land from under us,
Rose like a boil, enclosing us within.
We waited and the blue skies writhed awhile
Becoming black with death.
...

Your joke
Is like a lake
That lies there without any thought
And sees
...

Jack Spicer Biography

Jack Spicer was an American poet often identified with the San Francisco Renaissance. In 2009, My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer won the American Book Award for poetry.

Life and Work

Spicer was born in Los Angeles where he later graduated from Fairfax High School in 1942, and attended the University of Redlands from 1943-45. He spent most of his writing-life in San Francisco and spent the years 1945 to 1955 at the University of California, Berkeley, where he began writing, doing work as a research-linguist, and publishing some poetry (though he disdained publishing). During this time he searched out fellow poets, but it was through his alliance with Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser that Spicer forged a new kind of poetry, and together they referred to their common work as the Berkeley Renaissance. The three, who were all gay, also educated younger poets in their circle about their "queer genealogy", Rimbaud, Lorca, and other gay writers. Spicer's poetry of this period is collected in One Night Stand and Other Poems (1980). His Imaginary Elegies, later collected in Donald Allen's The New American Poetry 1945-1960 anthology, were written around this time.

In 1954, he co-founded the Six Gallery in San Francisco, which soon became famous as the scene of the October 1955 Six Gallery reading that launched the West Coast Beat movement. In 1955, Spicer moved to New York and then to Boston, where he worked for a time in the Rare Book Room of Boston Public Library. Blaser was also in Boston at this time, and the pair made contact with a number of local poets, including John Wieners, Stephen Jonas, and Joe Dunn.

Spicer returned to San Francisco in 1956 and started working on After Lorca. This book represented a major change in direction for two reasons. Firstly, he came to the conclusion that stand-alone poems (which Spicer referred to as his one-night stands) were unsatisfactory and that henceforth he would compose serial poems. In fact, he wrote to Blaser that 'all my stuff from the past (except the Elegies and Troilus) looks foul to me.' Secondly, in writing After Lorca, he began to practice what he called "poetry as dictation". His interest in the work of Federico García Lorca, especially as it involved the canto jondo ideal, also brought him near the poetics of the deep image group. The Troilus referred to was Spicer's then unpublished play of that name. The play finally appeared in print in 2004, edited by Aaron Kunin, in issue 3 of No - A Journal of the Arts.

In 1957, Spicer ran a workshop called Poetry as Magic at San Francisco State College, which was attended by Duncan, Helen Adam, James Broughton, Joe Dunn, Jack Gilbert, and George Stanley. He also participated in, and sometimes hosted, Blabbermouth Night at a literary bar called The Place. This was a kind of contest of improvised poetry and encouraged Spicer's view of poetry as being dictated to the poet.

Spicer's view of the role of language in the process of writing poetry was probably the result of his knowledge of modern pre-Chomskyan linguistics and his experience as a research-linguist at Berkeley. In the legendary Vancouver lectures he elucidated his ideas on "transmissions" (dictations) from the Outside, using the comparison of the poet as crystal-set or radio receiving transmissions from outer space, or Martian transmissions. Although seemingly far-fetched, his view of language as "furniture", through which the transmissions negotiate their way, is grounded in the structuralist linguistics of Zellig Harris and Charles Hockett. (In fact, the poems of his final book, Language, refer to linguistic concepts such as morphemes and graphemes). As such, Spicer is acknowledged as a precursor and early inspiration for the Language poets. However, many working poets today list Spicer in their succession of precedent figures.

Spicer died as a result of his alcoholism. Since the posthumous publication of The Collected Books of Jack Spicer (first published in 1975), his popularity and influence has steadily risen, affecting poetry throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. In 1994, The Tower of Babel: Jack Spicer's Detective Novel was published. Adding to the Jack Spicer revival was the publication in 1998 of two volumes: The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi; and a biography: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance by Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1998).

A collected works entitled My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, editors) was published by Wesleyan University Press in November 2008, and won the American Book Award in 2009.

The Best Poem Of Jack Spicer

Thing Language

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
Nothing.
It
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.

Jack Spicer Comments

Ken Bullock 16 May 2010

Most of the bios & commentaries on Jack Spicer read like sad sack pulp writing parodies of the old cliche' about the bitter loner, the awkward loser with a soul full of poetry. This's been grafted onto an older urban myth of Spicer as the secret postmodern before-the-letter hero of Beat San Francisco. (I can almost see Spicer laughing at a couple of the links in the More Info section on this site: one to a kind of Goth Anime blog bearing his name, another to a Facebook page for Jack Spicer, who looks like a regular guy from Westchester, NYC's equivalent of SF's Marin, who likes Pink Floyd, Betty White, Mad Men & Ireland.) Spicer's rather whimsical poetics-of which there's been more talk, if anything, than of his poems-boil down to something else, altogether: the Serial Poem, an 'unmapped-out, ' somewhat narrative sequence of poems, against the paradigm of the stand-alone lyric poem ('There really is no single poem') -something like the sad loner Spicer was supposed to be-in the belief 'poems should echo and reecho against each other. They should create resonances. They cannot live alone anymore than we can.'... & 'Dictation, ' Spicer's 'via negativa' of composition, an attempt to get the poet out of the way of the poetry-which almost sounds like a quote of Philip Whalen (who dedicated a poem on angels to Spicer) : 'get out of my own way.' Spicer commented once that there really wasn't a market for poetry, but there was for poets. 'The big lie of the personal, ' he called it in After Lorca, his break from writing what he called 'one-night stands.' Reading his poems out of sequence of the books he started to write them in, with After Lorca, is something like saying you've read Blake, when you've only read a few lyrics in some monstrous Norton compendium, not the books of the Songs, much less the Prophetic Books. Or Nerval's sonnets apart from the sequence of Les Chimeres (which Spicer's old companion in the serial poem & literary executor Robin Blaser translated) . And saying you've read Spicer without at least dipping into his 'detective novel of poetry' send-up of both the late 50s San Francisco scene (there's a hilarious caricature of Kenneth Rexroth in it) & the roman-a-clef, Tower of Babel (as it was titled for posthumous publication by Kevin Killian) , is like reading Blake sans The Marriage of Heaven & Hell or An Island in the Moon-hard to tell what he was really up to, in situ, if you wasn't there... The best way to read Spicer begins & ends with The Collected Books, edited by Blaser-worth every penny you'll pay for it online-which begins with Garcia Lorca's letter from beyond the grave, refusing to comment on the idiosyncratic (& doctored) translations of his poems that follow, cut with letters from Spicer to Lorca, calling for a poetry of the real, against the imagism of the time that dominated poetry & the postwar translation boom of foreign-language modernism. The Collected Books give a real ride, from After Lorca through other books including Billy the Kid and The Holy Grail, to the very end, Spicer's 'metaphysics of place'-the West Coast- '... We are a coast people/there is nothing but ocean out beyond us. We grasp/the first thing coming.'-& his admonition to Allen Ginsberg, just declared King of the May ('A title not chosen for dancing.') in Prague '65: '... Why/Fight the combine of your heart and my heart.People are starving.' In the back of The Collected Books are Blaser's essay on Spicer's poetry, 'The Practice of Outside, ' & much more, including James Herndon's wry memoir of Spicer (his 'Unpopualar Front campus anarchist association of one at UC Berkeley; his 'greatest folksong program West of the Pecos, ' on KPFA-fm, which drunkenly falsified both songs & accounts of how they were 'collected.') Another Herndon memoir, Everything As Expected, can be found in part online, with pictures of the artwork his wife Fran did in collaboration with Spicer. About that artistic friendship-one of many for Spicer-it also shows his 'unalienated' quality, his closeness (strange for this purported bitter loner) with the Herndons. (Their first son Jay figures, along with his baby talk, in Spicer's poems.) 'Constantly oppositional, ' Blaser called Spicer's poetry. A poet almost unique in America in his combination of playfulness & dead seriousness, making poetry out of spoofs of the games of modern life, besides from the act of making poetry itself-only Poe comes to mind as a real parallel-Spicer had a sense both of the tragic, and (in Pirandello's sense, 'what you find instead of what you expect to find... a sense of the opposite') -a sense of humor.

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