Wednesday, November 11, 1998

Imaginary elegy

33 years after his death, Jack Spicer haunts American poetry.

Posted By on Wed, Nov 11, 1998 at 12:00 AM

Jack Spicer died of drink in 1965. He was 40 years old, flat broke and all but unemployable. Though his work is increasingly recognized as among the most original of the postwar period, it was virtually unknown in his lifetime.

While it must be acknowledged that Spicer himself contributed to this invisibility -- not only by his disdain for commercial publishing, but also by the formal difficulties posed by his work -- it must also be acknowledged that most of his more visible contemporaries were far too willing to ignore that work, and there was nothing benign in their neglect. Happily, we now have the first biography of this legendary San Francisco poet.

Authors Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian labored long and hard to bring us this remarkable montage of interviews, memoirs, photographs and correspondence, and the resulting biography will doubtless engage a much broader audience than Spicer ever actively sought or attained. Perhaps by design, Poet Be Like God deviates from the conventions of standard biography. The first half of Spicer's life, for example, is related in a scant eight pages, which curiously reflects Spicer's claim that he was born "in 1946," the year he moved to Berkeley and began his literary career.

In effect, this volume is less the biography of John L. Spicer, citizen, than it is a vividly loquacious portrait of Jack Spicer, the self-deprecating, man-loving, tough-minded poet, mentor and drunk. Nor is this Spicer's portrait alone, for it is equally the story of the gay, literary and bohemian cultures that flourished in the Bay Area in the first decades of the Cold War. Although the narrative focuses on Spicer, it amply demonstrates that his life and work were inextricably linked to those with whom he built and shared a community.

Spicer's ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory was prodigious. He was a dedicated outsider and irascible critic of middle-class values ("squares"), non-poets ("tourists"), professional poets ("sell-outs") and the academy ("that great quagmire"), and his intransigent bohemianism extended to his finally fatal disregard for his own person. Hence, while the story of his life and times is unquestionably compelling, it is also an effective antidote to anyone's lingering attachment to the romance of the suffering artist. Spicer's motto might well have read: "'tis better to have loved and lost than never to have lost at all."

He described himself as a "dancing ape" and "a Calvinist," with all the attendant self-loathing that implies. By all accounts, he was "genially ugly," physically inept, sexually insecure, profoundly superstitious and emotionally demanding. He was also a brilliant poet and raconteur, and a generous -- though rarely encouraging -- mentor to younger poets. Although something of an academic prodigy himself, Spicer loathed academic life. His own "academy" was conducted in a succession of North Beach bars by night and in the bleachers of Aquatic Park by day.

Poetically, politically and culturally astute, Spicer offered his "circle" a virtual seminar of sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued critiques of the major movements of his day. An amiably equal-opportunity gadfly, he spared very few of his eminent contemporaries, gleefully anatomizing everything from the banalities of official verse culture to the emergent if regressive confessionalism and identity-based poetics of the period to the cutting-edge hype of the then "New" American Poetry.

If Spicer's influence on the poets who gathered around him was immediate and decisive, his influence since his death has been intermittent, if tellingly on the rise. His Collected Books has been continuously in print since 1975; he is acknowledged as a major precursor of the Language School and as a rich source of inspiration for a number of post-Stonewall gay and lesbian writers. Once considered a talented eccentric, curiously out of step with his times, he may now be read as having surely if darkly anticipated much of the social and cultural landscape we inhabit in the '90s. Perhaps his time has come at last.

Equally new and noteworthy is The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer. Scrupulously transcribed and edited by poet Peter Gizzi, who also contributes a fine essay on Spicer by way of an "Afterword," this volume collects for the first time the four historic talks Spicer gave in the months before his death. Delivered extemporaneously, without notes and intended as oral, if not oracular, transmissions, these lectures -- together with his final, posthumously published Book of Magazine Verse -- effectually comprise the poet's last will and testament.

The first three talks were recorded over several evenings in June 1965 and were addressed to an audience "assumed to be actively interested in writing poetry." Each evening Spicer read from his work and raised key issues in poetics. He began with a discussion of his theories of "dictation" (how poems come to the poet) and "the Outside" (where poems come from). For Spicer, a poet isn't an "author," but rather the receiver or translator or scribe of messages coming in from elsewhere.

Although Spicer playfully referred to his sources as Martians, he was quite serious in urging poets to "lose" their egos and to dismiss their conscious designs upon poetry in favor of what otherwise "wants" to be written. Of equal import here is his insistence on the reader's active reception and imaginative completion of the work. Spicer then elaborated on his trademark practice of writing "serial" poems. If, he argued, individual poems can be structured and composed by dictation, then the larger structures that compose those poems into "books" can also be determined by dictation.

Spicer concluded his Vancouver lectures with an astonishingly open and self-critical discussion of his current work in progress. He also actively provoked his audience to locate themselves in relation to the theories he had proposed: "I don't expect anyone to trust me on this thing, but I would like to see people experiment and see what they can do in terms of their own lives." He then returned to the Bay Area and in July gave what proved to be his final lecture at the Berkeley Poetry Conference.

On this occasion, he was particularly concerned to interrogate the efficacy of "political" poetry, to caution poets against "selling out" in the face of their socially and economically precarious position in society, and to stress the importance of little magazines and small presses in creating and sustaining communities of poets. He concluded by saying that "if there's any way of getting the poet, the individual and society together, it would be the song. But I haven't yet been able to do it."

A month later he was dead.

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