First I should credit the two pieces. Jack Spicer, Poet appeared as the inaugural chapbook in the “Poetry P.S.A.” from THE NAMELESS, the publishing imprint of eyedrum art & music gallery [eyedrum.org]. The P.S.A. series, though founded to focus on poetry may soon expend to consider other sorts of artists (Joseph Beuys for instance). The Spicer chap has a print run to date of 350 copies and I expect that more will be made in time. Poetry P.S.A. #2, Gertrude Stein, Poet by Mark Prejsnar exists in an edition of 300. As a member of the board at eyedrum, this series was my idea and I take the public service aspect of it very seriously. Over 250 copies of the Spicer chap have already been distributed for free in the Atlanta area; through personal networks (“Hey, do you know 5 people who would read this?”) and by leaving copies in independent video stores, coffee shops, book stores, galleries and bars. I’m very appreciative of Octopus of making this text available on line & thus outside of the local.
“Phantom Continuities / Poetic Communities” appears in the 2nd issue of the on-line art magazine interreview [interreview.org], whose theme is institutional critique. My thanks go to Ginger Wolfe at interreview for allowing me to reprint this along side it’s textual companion. The scope of this piece is perhaps somewhat broader than Spicer, but, as such, I hope that it offers an operationalization of what I find most crucial in Spicer’s legacy.
Jack Spicer, Poet
Jack Spicer died at age 40 in1965.
His wishes adhered to, he was buried in an unmarked grave.
This is not a séance, exactly.
Language lies between us.
“My vocabulary did this to me.”
—his last words
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.
“No one listens to poetry”
—if this is true… and if all of Jack’s poetry is out of print and hard to find, why then is Jack Spicer a crucial figure in American poetry now?
I think it is because Spicer was a subject of poetry. I don’t mean that he was or that he provided subject matter that a poem could then be about. I mean that he was a subject of poetry in the way that a peasant is a subject of the Queen.« Or at least that use as an option in the word. Hear it akin to being a ‘subject of the unconscious’ ala Lacan, or even as being ‘subject to penalties’ for breaking a lease or ‘subject to some restrictions’ racing by in the disclaimers.
We are obliged to
postulate an event, perhaps it happenned in
What is it about aliens? Imagine it is the 50s.
The alien. The
The aliens in invasion movies all seem to be subject to something, some plan, some imperative. Has anyone ever suggested that it could be poetry?
It Came from Other Space!
They land. They come to us. Invisibly. “Come” to us, in us, through us. If we get too close, we become them? Succumb to them, are seduced by them? Or are they us already? Were they us all along?
In Spicer’s time and likewise here and now, all around us, there is an incessant presumption, or less that than an ideology – if an ideology is what you know without knowing it – what you know everyone knows without knowing that you know that…
Self-expression is (ideologically) axiomatic in this culture. The linchpin. The answer behind which no answer lies when the question arises; why make art? Why be a poet? Forced to articulate what the culture has already scripted some artists and poets have obsessively & consciously foregrounded their self expressing itself. The confessional poem, etc.
It’s everywhere in culture, generally. Romanticism is a fair term to use for this. Or at least a line that leads back toward one explanation for such a widespread and unquestioned presumption. Others are always possible. But we know the story, right? The artist’s suffering. The harsh forces of an unjust society are incapable of seeing what this genius has wrought, until (of course) it is far too late. The tragedy. & thus rugged individualism forever engaged in, well,…expressing itself (as a way of affirming itself against what is not itself? as a rebutal to a world beyond its control? as a protest against it’s non-identity with itself?)
I am tempted to suggest that it is the misfit between this conception of the artist or poet and the real of their subjection to their art is what brings about the common thematics of trauma and suffering as a desperate attempt to balance the myth of the romantic creator-artist and way that language lies between, twisting telos out of shape.
Jack Spicer was coming from somewhere else.
[Or rather, his poetry would be seen to have come from somewhere different. This is hindsight and assumes that what Spicer will become over the course of his short life is in some way continuous with who he started out as. Perhaps this is false, perhaps, like a butterfly – like some other born from a cocoon or a pod – the period of the ‘books’ marking his emergence, already able to ‘take dictation?’]
Regardless of where it will seem that Spicer has come from, the ideology you get, that I got and that he got growing up in this culture is that the poetic or artistic self exists with the goal of expressing itself.
But things get complicated. Ask any artist.
The work, from the moment it becomes worthwhile, talks back. Is recalcitrant. Becomes something other to our supposed, half remembered intentions. Or they—our intentions—to maintain the fantasy of their control are covertly modified by the work without their knowing. & in even those rare instances where intention feels to have found some claim of clear expression, the work, the language, always exceeds it, managing to mean something else, to suggest something else– something other than what was intended–
that art is about self-expression.
Imagine then, the subversion, the shock even, when in Spicer’s last year he spoke of poetry to audiences suddenly swollen by the ranks of the original ‘wanna-beats’ – their interest derived, at least initially, from the mass media’s portrayal not of beat writings so much as what they thereby created in part; beat lifestyle·;
“I don’t think that messages are for the poet any more than the radio program is for the radio set. And I think that the radio set doesn’t really worry about whether anyone’s listening to it or not, and neither does the poet.”
The poet is figured here as a passive device. Combining things he said one could easily list the responsibilities of the poet according to Jack Spicer;
· to know when a transmission is coming in
· to take dictation
· to know when the transmission is over
· to stay out of the way of the transmission
Though this wouldn’t be his style at all, this listing, as if of a series of procedures that one could then follow to cause a poem. There is more.
Think of these responsibilities as the groundwork for a poem to happen. To use a Spicer metaphor from the lectures, see this as getting the place ready for a party and note that it says nothing about whether any guests will show up.
In the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, how is it that the pods are able to grow a new you? Is it, as it seems initially, mere proximity? (Isn’t that also one of the prime factors leading to sexual attraction?)
Large, insect- or vegetable-like pods or cocoons stashed in your home, garage or greenhouse allow the pod to grow a new you. So, if you allow one of them to live nearby, just look what will happen, or so says the ideological voice of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The film gives conflicting testimony regarding proximity as prime cause. Consider the scene near the end when Becky (Dana Wynter), exhausted from running, drifts to sleep for but a few moments, while Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) goes to scout out the best way for them to go next. All she has to do is fall asleep for a moment for the transformation to be complete.
(But they look…, just like us.)
An instant other becoming.
For Spicer, language always lies between us.
Hear that lie again. It lies there insisting on an excess in the words. Ever offered a compliment that as taken as an insult? Tossed off an email that said something different later? As a Spicer poem puts it, “words/ turn mysteriously against those who use them.” In a letter he wrote, “Words exhaust themselves while feelings don’t—that is our greatest tragedy.”
Invasion of the Body
famously read as an allegory of the
But what is it about these aliens? Does the pod produce a new you that then disposes of your body somehow? It seems that way to begin with. But why are no bodies found? Well, they must be very good at disposal. But they have our knowledge somehow, our minds, right? So they are us, but us with other motives. But then, again, that late transformation of Becky which leaves no “real” body around anywhere—what do we make of that? All she had to do was ‘sleep on it.’ & now she’s one of them? Is being one of them simply sympathizing with them? Is it sleeping with them? This film was also known as Sleep No More.
Is it something about how they reproduce? That it is somehow ‘unnatural’? ie, that they’re sexual deviants? The film’s working title was They Came from Another World. Lots of ‘coming’ goes on it the titles. Make what you want of that.
But the pod people, and the other aliens who look just like us from both Invaders from Mars and It Came from Outer Space, they all act differently. They act wrong. They act other than they were. But this otherness is not visible and thus must reside in their knowledge or their capacities. What they know of or are capable of and that we can only discern now and then…
In two of these instances the aliens are depicted as lacking in or devoid of ‘normal’ human emotion, as if, dead, but still animated. Still subject to some imperative…
It began with these poets, a teacher, a few others doing what one might think you would do in an academic setting, that is, share things you are interested in. It happens, but is not always the case. & surely this level of intensity and commitment is unusual. A period of ferment for the poetic drive that would contribute to what all three later accomplished, naturally…
…It couldn’t go on.
This was the 1950s remember. The teacher that was a part of their group, Kantorwicz, refused to sign the U of California’s Loyalty Oath. It was professional suicide but he refused. He was suddenly not only fired but physically absent from their world. His departure, a sure sign of the end. This intense period of poetic involvement, an event in itself for them all, ended by another, darker and more ominous political event.
John L. Spicer as he was academically known, also refused to sign the Oath. Spicer already openly and unapologetically gay, encouraged by Robert Duncan’s own bravery in this regard was now marked against his will, politically, a leftist label attached to him. Which, with the loss of job starts a period of wandering, working fringe jobs, jobs which barely challenged him. His community, his society of poets scattered and lost.
He was miserable.
He spent time in
Spicer’s father, he said, had been a Wobbly & Jack,
carrying on this assumed tradition went to anarchist and socialist political
meetings before becoming involved with the Mattachine
Society, one of the earliest homosexual rights groups. Ostensibly a book club it had clandestine
meetings and guarded its rolls dearly.
Jack took on an activist, organizational role in the Mattachine
Society. He attended an historic statewide gathering down in
Recall the scene in Invasion of the Body Snatchers where the he & she of the film hide in the doctor’s office – looking out they see everybody going about their morning lives – but then at a signal we see these Invaders all working with silent (dead?) precision to distribute the pods.
Subjects of their own reproduction?
Reflection and inversion.
Already branded a leftist, a homosexual and a poet Jack Spicer was well placed to see the collective fear of difference figured in films like Invaders from Mars or Invasion of the Body Snatchers—fear of those who look just like us, but are somehow not like us.
Where do their orders come from?
Spicer’s poetry is most known by poets who are working in some one of the traditions known as avant garde or experimental— where it also shows signs of influence and generativity. He is almost entirely unknown to the literary mainstream – what Charles Bernstein calls, with good reason – Official Verse Culture. & yet he is not, at first glance, a wild experimenter with language. A reader knows the words he uses. He writes of baseball, the ocean, seagulls, radios and of characters King Arthur and JFK, Buster Keaton and Dillinger. His poems are even deceptively open. They are also in no sense tradition-less, or as we might hear it these days, “tradition-free.”
The Grail is the opposite of poetry
Fills us up instead of using us as a cup the dead drink from.
For Spicer a poem cannot help but to embody earlier poems. As poets we are the cups that the dead (poets) drink from. We extend their margin of survival in language – as echoes of various levels of clarity. Tho it is not them, these dead poets so much as their poetry. Each poem is thus an always partial and unfinished redemption of poetry, not of the reader, nor of the poet (living or dead). But of poetry, of that which poets are subject to.
Spicer's poems after a certain point in his development are generally organized into small "books". Series or sequences is what they amount to but his term is book and it’s a good one.
The period of the books also marks (hindsight remember) the beginning of poetry coming from the dead, from the alien, from the ghost, from the outside. The poet as transcriber rather than creator. Poetry as a practice of dictation.
Here think of the scenes from Cocteau’s film Orphée in which the poet, Orpheus (Jean Marais) sits in the Rolls Royce of the Princess “Death” (Maria Casares) to listen, patiently and anxiously for the next transmission to come thru the car’s radio. It is only this radio that offers these poems and as a subject of poetry he has no choice. The world is on hold. It is time to take dictation. & of course it is the dead young poet Cegeste (Edouard Dermithe), killed in the opening scenes of the film, who is commanded by Death to transmit these messages to Orpheus.
Death loves the poet.
In addition to the notion of dictation is Spicer’s idea of the “serial poem.” Much could be said about what he means by serial poem. Often he uses it to mean that the poem is written as a series of events, i.e. that he writes one line then the next, then the next (He speaks in the lectures some place about having to wait hours upon hours for the next line to arrive) instead of "conceiving" the poem and then writing different parts of it and revising—it’s tied up in with notion of "dictation" and that’s what probably gives the poems the feel at times of dialogue.
A good example is in the “Imaginary Elegies” when he says at the beginning of one stanza:
Yes, be like god. I wonder what I thought
When I wrote that.
This references the ending of previous section:
Be like God.
Here, in a poem written before the transition from ‘one night stands’ (what Spicer called his poems before the serial poem idea took hold) shows clear indications of what he would only articulate as dictation much later. & notice that what is written is not “I wonder what I meant when I wrote that” but “I wonder what I thought…” One might hear an echo here of “what was I thinking?” or consider that uncanny experience, when something other speaks thru you. Maybe you’ve never made a Freudian slip.
The opening two poems from Spicer’s book Billy The Kid  exemplify his notions of serial poem and the outside from which the poems ‘come,’ concepts which tend to give the poems a feel of narrative argument games.
The radio that told me about the death of Billy The Kid
(And the day, a hot summer day, with birds in the sky)
Let us fake out a frontier — a poem somebody could hide in with a sheriff's posse after him — a thousand miles of it if it is necessary for him to go a thousand miles — a poem with no hard corners, no houses to get lost in, no underwebbing of customary magic, no New York Jew salesmen of amethyst pajamas, only a place where Billy The Kid can hide when he shoots people.
Torture gardens and scenic railways. The radio
That told me about the death of Billy The Kid
The day a hot summer day. The roads dusty in the summer. The roads going somewhere. You can almost see where they are going beyond the dark purple of the horizon. Not even the birds know where they are going.
The Poem. In all that distance who could recognize his face.
A sparkling of gold leaf looking like hell flowers
A flat piece of wrapping paper, already wrinkled, but wrinkled again by hand, smoothed into shape by an electric iron
Which told me about the death of Billy The Kid.
Collage a binding together
Of the real
Which flat colors
Tell us what heroes
really come by.
No, it is not a collage. Hell flowers
Fall from the hands of heroes
fall from all of our hands
As if we were not ever able quite to include them.
does not shoot real bullets
Being done is unimportant.
In those flat colors
Not a collage
Dictation, the transmission of poetry to the poet. The poem collecting, sequentially in serial forms. If this were all there were to Spicer’s poetic practice, he would still be a significant poet, but there is something beyond these practices, something to do with the creation of a society or community of poets.&
poetry requires this community of shared understandings, and throughout his
life he actively cultivated poetic communities, the scene which developed
around him is generally referred to now as the
Another expression of this sense of community was embodied by the magazine Open Space which collected the work of Bay Area poets associated with the Spicer circle and was intended to stay local. Spicer infamously tried to forbid any distribution of Open Space outside of the poetic community of which he was a part. For one issue only enough copies were printed so that contributors could each have one. Although Spicer believed that poetry was necessarily an activity of the social rather than the individual, he didn't believe that poetry was destined to have wide social or political impact (at least within the present age).
It is here that he’s clearly broken with the rugged individualist model of poetic creation. Duchamp’s comment that no masterpiece can be painted in isolation touches on the same truth that upsets the myth of the romantic creator.
Why did the pods come to earth? Here I hear the Lacan’s famous line on desire; “Desire is the desire of the other.” Poetry as the poetry of the alien? The ghost?
Who or what is transmitting these messages that the poet must transcribe?
Enter the myth of Orpheus, stage left. Spicer was particularly taken with the detail that when Orpheus sang his songs, not just the people or the animals came to listen but the trees and rocks listened as well. But Orpheus’ songs are not his own, they come from the gods. Spicer’s come from somewhere less clear. His friend Robin Blaser wrote; “Spicer’s blasphemy, in fact, is directed against that thought which would protect the purity of God.”
In After Lorca the first of his books (properly so called & thus found in The Collected Books), Spicer is engaged in “translation” but he’s also exchanging letters, conducting correspondence with the then already long dead poet Garcia Lorca in which Spicer is the channel for both sides. The poems veer from being more or less what we think of as “straight” translation to being things quite unrelated to translation as generally conceived, though perhaps they maintain correspondence with the poems (in the same way that Spicer corresponds with Lorca?).
Here Spicer is the cup from which Lorca drinks.
In the lectures given in the last year of
his life, 3 in
Language lies between us.
In all senses of this phrase.
the transmissions be trusted? Jack was
not always certain. He asked younger poet Larry Kearney whether the voice of
the baseball catcher in his Poems for the
St. Louis Sporting News» was ‘real,’ ie,
did it come from the outside or was there too much of Jack in the way?
Was it the real catcher or is this Spicer’s unacknowledged Satanic Verse? Elsewhere he is critical of one of his books [Admonitions] because there are places where he was unsuccessful at getting out of the way of the transmission.
Is the catcher real? Here are two of those poems. You decide:
Pitchers are obviously not human. They have the ghosts of dead people in them. You wait there while they glower, put their hands to their mouths, fidget like puppets, while you’re waiting to catch the ball.
You give them signs. They usually ignore them. A fast outside curve. High, naturally. And scientifically impossible. Where the batter either strikes out or he doesn’t. You either catch it or you don’t. You had called for an inside fast ball.
The runners on base either advance or they don’t
In any case
The ghosts of the dead people find it mightily amusing. The pitcher, in his sudden humaness looks toward the dugout in either agony or triumph. You, in either case, have a pair of hot hands.
Even when the game isn’t over.
God is a big white baseball that has nothing to do but go in a curve or a straight line. I studied geometry in highschool and know that this is true.
Given these facts the pitcher, the batter and the catcher all look pretty silly. No Hail Marys
Are going to get you out of a position with the bases loaded and no outs, or when you’re 0 and 2, or when the ball bounces out to the screen wildly. Off seasons
I often thought of praying to him but could not stand the thought of that big, white, round, omnipotent bastard.
Yet he’s there. As the game follows rules he makes them.
I was not the only one who felt these things.
To the extent that poems of the past still effect us in the present, what is going on? & when they do not, when we find them inert, lifeless, inaccessible, what has happened? Spicer was careful to point out to those who listened to him, that the English language had, even in the space of his lifetime, changed its sound. What does this mean? Well, for those who would suggest that the music of poetry is its primary value or what sets it apart from language uses not thought of as poetry, it highlights precisely where the analogy of music breaks down. Spicer believed that poems continue to be relevant to the extent that they continue to correspond with things in the world. Correspondence is not the same as a connecting of things which allows them to become steps in a chain of reasoning. Connection in that sense would be something that the poet asserts against the process of dictation. Rationalistic connection of this sort is a sign that the poet has not been able to “get out of the way” of the transmission. That they have succumbed to “the big lie of the personal.” This correspondence, though it has many poetic roots which will not be talked about here, might be thought of along the lines of the dreamwork as conceived by Freud, a work of displacement and condensation and not one of ‘clear meanings.’
But again, about Orpheus and poetry coming from the gods?
Consider poem 19 from the section, “A Textbook of Poetry” in Spicer’s 1961 book The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether;
“Esstoneish me,” the words say that hide behind my alarm clock or my dresser drawer or my pillow. “Etonnez moi,” even the Word says.
It is up to us to astonish them and Him. To draw forth answers deep from the caverns of objects or from the Word Himself. Whatever that is.
Whatever That is is not a play on words but a play between words, meaning come down to hang on a little cross for a while. In play.
And the stony words that are left down with us greet him mutely almost rudely casting their own shadows. For example, the shadow the cross cast.
No, now he is the Lowghost when He is pinned down to words.
So for Spicer, the manifestation of the gods in language is not Logos but a Lowghost. Something which, like us, is alienated in language?
Also note that the line “astonish me” is used in Cocteau’s Orphée, moments before Cegeste is killed, and Orpheus first sees Death.Ä
This is fellow Berkeley Renaissance poet and long time friend of Spicer, Robin Blaser:
“Spicer’s language, properly understood, is a chiasmatic language, a language that is the thing between you and everything else. Because otherwise, what have you got? You’ve got the entirely subjective poet or you’ve got the entirely objective poet, both of them total phonies (…) It’s an older language that accounts for Spicer’s interest in earlier verse, returning to a language before it became transparent and was entirely tied, either to modern science, so that it referred transparently to a world described objectively, or it was entirely subjective and belonged to the world of psychology, anthropology, and sociology. Instead Jack posed a language that had to be the instrument between and among things. (…) This is where he is not Romantic. Because Spicer did not think he was in charge of, but that he was among things. There is a world out there. One of the grand things about Spicer is that he affirms that world. But that world can be terrifying. And violent. And not always protective of the little man or woman.”
Poetry is not for poets. It can be detrimental it can be inane, it can be boring as Jack notes in poem 11 of “A Textbook of Poetry”;
Boredom is part of Logos too. You choose His word or someoneelse’s because you are bored. Meaningless words stick in your throat and you cough them up as an abstraction of what you are trying to cough up. A green parrot that was talking away that was lost and no one could find it.
An argument with the dead. That is what these pauses are about. They argue with you that there have been no beauty, not even words. They speak out of the right side of their mouths.
See them in the distance not understanding their destiny as we do not understand ours. Making a metaphor inhuman as hell. Standing under the shapes and forms that play with us like a camera selecting. !
The myth of the romantic individual, going it alone, braving the trials and so on and so forth, while still everywhere apparent, has never looked so fantastic or implausible. It is my contention that Spicer’s focus on the local, on the creation of a society of poets, a community of those who are subjects of poetry and who form the basis of each other’s audience is a perspective that is perpetually useful in the here and now and not just in the realm of poetry.
this time we live in, when I can easily correspond with folks all over the
globe by virtue of my dial-up modem, when calls for work for poetry magazines
are distributed world wide as well, what specifically about the
argument which could easily be launched here but which I will simply state is
that the most dynamic and influential ‘schools’ or ‘movements’ in the arts have been born into
places and times where such tight knit communities of artists existed. I have
talked at length about the
Concluding this piece of writing on Spicer feels, in spite of the length already attained, premature. There is much more to say about his work. Consequently I suggest you turn to the Sources and Acknowledgements where you will find out where you can find out more…
This has been a poetry psa
turn mysteriously against those who use them.
— Jack Spicer
Spicer’s line is a pertinent warning here, to anyone to quick to trust their own words. Anyone who would dare…
How many ways to parse that pair of words?
Translating them English to English, dropping stress here and there, pointing in each direction even before we think it that way, already the path that way in language is lined with snares, traps, lures
& will the faults of some institution’s edifice only be visible (by which I mean thinkable by which I mean sayable) for me because (blind to it in myself) I, in some sense, share them?
As a poet. Improvizing. Writing.
A part of the Atlanta Poets Group (apg), for some 7 years now.
How do I parse these words?
Am I ?—are we the institution to be critiqued?—to what end?
What shades of meaning am I to highlight?
Is critique simply criticism? “Constructive criticism?” Is it an attack?
Does critique imply a desire to let it’s object live on? To purify the object in some sense (possibly only a rhetorical one)?
“The universe is a flower of rhetoric.” —Jacques Lacan
Alternately to parse, I might ask What institutions (institutions of poetry or otherwise) have had any serious impact on me or the apg.? & do they merit critique simply for being in some sense institutions?
It is hard to think of any.
Define ‘impact’ perhaps?
as; … Presses or magazines that offer publication? … Venues for performance? …
Something less specific but more general? … the idea of the “open mic” as instituted here or there? [It contributes in most cases to a unreflective dumbing-down, to a lowest-common-denominator sort of poetry.]
Perhaps instead to target the idea of poetry extant in popular culture — believed in without inquiry—an instituted knowledge that has no correspondence with— and yet nonetheless forms a screen between — poetry as practiced and much of the populace. Thereby the same simple rejections again and again?
As much as I say that last bit and mean some hard kernel of it, I have qualms and uncertainties nonetheless… “moving target” issues… the problem of “poetry” that typifies exactly what I would have it not be?
Alignments and questions of them…
Jack Spicer and the
I won’t tell their tale. Could not, really. The story is out there in a number of books, prominently in my mind; Poet Be Like God by Ellingham and Killian—the much acclaimed biography of Spicer.
Spicer attached , perhaps even presumed something of the enlightenment ideals at the ideological ‘core’ of a liberal education. His desire was in many ways in line with these ideals — that which allows you to study what you care about – to study because study itself carries a naïve sort of innocence-as-good.
That is, to believe in desiring-to-know as an abstract value.
It’s a beautiful thing, that is, pushes my buttons.
& this belief or unsaid set of beliefs was in play
with other things in
His meeting Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser was crucial, as was their “faculty mentor” Ernst Kantorowicz.
Through frequent meetings and a combined interest in the literary tradition these folks constituted themselves as a group; The Berkeley Renaissance.
Maybe they used the word ‘group’ maybe they used the word ‘friends’ or ‘kreis’ or…
& behind them or as a historical group that posed a sort of phantom continuity with them , was the group of poets around the German poet Stephan George, ie, the George Kreis.
A note of transmission.
Institutions like beads on a chain?
Spicer’s interest in secret societies, did it predate this? It certainly continues through the rest of his life.
Who are these poets to call themselves a renaissance?
Answer; book nerds. Geeks, in common parlance (but subtracting the computer overtones). They were all gung ho for older poetry, for a sense of what the literary tradition might mean, for being poets along the lines of being preists of being ‘touched by god.’
That is, Spicer et al at this university were living out something bound up with values that stretch back to the enlightenment, to the capital ‘r’ Renaissance, values that I don’t know how well they would have stated at that time, but which seem this way , from here, in Atlanta, looking back. From a place where those ideals seem more tarnished and forgotten than ever.
It doesn’t last though.
(Did it ever leave? Even now, is it gone? Is it rising?)
Then came another… & another… & we stopped going to the café and starting going to a poet’s apartment.
& years went
& poets drifted through, intense for a time then to leave town
or poetry or just to move on.
Somewhere along the line we started having a few public performances, at bars, coffeeshops, universities, galleries.
Institutions. Or some are, right?
Every so often some portion of us would perform out of
Randy went to
Institutions. You can bet they were involved, implicated.
We bought a domain name and launched our website. Inst. We
were fortunate enough to have several magazines either fill issues with just
our work or give us special
sections. Institutionalizing us under
Something that other poets in other scenes other contexts don’t seem to get.
As if to have a name requires some specific thing of us, that we
Have a poetic. That is “a” sayable thread that ties us each to each in some fashion.
We failed to have this. Perhaps we lack institutional credibility without it.
Would this make sense out of the comment by an otherwise very intelligent poet that our poetic is “the ‘we-don’t-have-a-poetic’ poetic.”
Not every institution is also a good tornado or bomb shelter.
Some of us were anthologized in Another South from
The conceptual claim of this anthology, which has been contested from within and without, proposes, perhaps even against its will, southern experimentalism as… As what?
…an Institution? As “Kudzu Textuality”(Hank Lazar’s term)? As a sort of Southern Lit 2.0?
The English Departments of the Spirit. Remember that line.
Since then we have arranged a regularly recurring poetry event at eyedrum, a gallery with many functions from music to visual art and much else. A nonprofit run by volunteers and close to bone as well, but nonetheless, an “org” an…
How long must one exist before one becomes an institution and does it require staying still or simply predictable rhythms; sleep / wake / eat / slave / poetry / love / sleep etc
Many of us have lived close.
I’ve done time at the Bumble Factory and Slantytown . Local idiom but also how we say names.
Poets as ‘namers’ from way back.
This is half-assed. Leaving us a moat
Around some ruling certainty, while
Picking up the terms as from the ground is our choice
Like Spicer’s Martians rearranging the furniture in the room.
A poet who passed through said something about how tight groups make for a hothouse effect.
What then would be the weather that they cannot stand against?
Shrinking violets? I think not.
Smashed from without.
McCarthy period and a Loyalty Oath comes down from above. Weeding out the left if it can and creating havoc for those with any number of objections to the univocality of the oath and what it represents.
(Did someone hear Patriot Act?)
There is a conflict here with the enlightened values of the Renaissance (whether Berkeley or other) that sustained Spicer and the rest.
I don’t mean to suggest that they were ignorant of politics, that they might not have, as we do now perhaps, see a good deal of doom in pregnant potentia..
Spicer thought of himself as a leftist. Mythologized his father as a Wobbly. Was mildly involved with anarchist and socialist groups.
The loyalty act comes along.
Kantorowicz refuses to sign and is fired, leaves town. Jack Spicer refuses as well. This effectively ends his first west coast period.
Jack is now the Outsider, the Exile
All this training and nowhere to be, branded as a leftist, out gay in 50s, now working marginal support jobs in libraries and such moving around the country before landing back in San Francisco where he wrote the books that make him persistently there for us and yet outside….
Spicer is unhinged, set adrift.
Think of the protagonist in Carnival of Souls, she is killed in the first moments of the film but leaves town, settles among strangers, works at a job where a strange music comes through her and only gradually is drawn to the ghostly carnival where the reality of her death is brought home.
But is she dead or just different enough not to belong?
I am the ghost of answering questions. Beware me. Keep me at a distance as I keep you at a distance.
— Jack Spicer
A few weeks from this writing I will give a talk about the figure of the outsider in Spicer’s work. Of ghosts, spooks, Martians, etc. Two films will be shown, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Cocteau’s Orpheé.
With the former I will discuss Spicer’s involvement with the Mattachine Society an early “secret society” of homosexuals. What now looks like a gays right group. In the film, the aliens, who look just like “normal” people. Beings for whom “reproduction” is unnatural, inconceivable, etc.
Is it any wonder that Spicer identified with the aliens? The outsiders?
With Orpheé there are countless connections, too many to chase here…
But this doesn’t belong at all anyway and leads too far from this “vein” that ostensibly was our topic — the terrible split between even any one way of trying to parse or fix those words “Institutional Critique” to a desire.
Precarious living is often the case for the subject of poetry.
Spicer drifting and unhinged and even after he returns to the bay area, he lives on the fringes, getting by on little, a subject of poetry.
Tonight at a weekly a.p.g. meeting Mark said something about poetry being that activity which is, in regard to ‘success’ in the world and pragmatic ends generally, is harmful, detrimental. As an activity that, in running counter to the interests of capital, is positively detrimental to one’s material security and well-being.
I quote me; “I am the typing that’s making me sore.”
The name of the every other month event we do at eyedrum; Language Harm.
Which one? Language?
Is there a need to speak of the at times desperate and
precarious ways of living available not just for Jack Spicer, floating to the
east coast, despising
But for me, us, the many anybodies who are the Subjects of poetry, of art, of love, of whatever other calling is “outside the cash nexus” to again quote Mark.
Some of us here in
Or is that the instituted answer badly needing critique of a slacker with no protestant work ethic and pretensions to art that don’t bring home that tofu bacon stuff we call cold hard cash?
Views from opposing institutions?
But Spicer goes back to
Spicer is back.
Spicer drew poets to himself. He was instigator and the anchor all in one. (Functions, to the extent that they are functions, split up among us apgistas.)
He was a linguist by academic training, and was now
working as research assistant on a large index of dialects for the state of
This is also the period leading to the many magazines that Spicer had a hand in, whether as an editor or guiding influence; J magazine – M magazine – Open Space.
Are these institutions? Partial institutions? Counter-Institutions?
Each was limited, localized, specific, drawn from the community, intertextual and collaborative.
Famously Jack Spicer would try to forbid the distribution of the magazine Open Space outside of the bay area . His causing some issues to be printed in only enough copies for the contributors.
Is this a “turning in” on oneself or one’s scene? A gesture that founds a hothouse?
“A metaphor. Metaphors are not for humans.” – Jack Spicer.
Alternately is it localism?
The local as instituted? enacted?
What is there to say about the simultaneously “closed” group struggling in poetry with a magazine called Open Space?
Are these institutions (the magazines, the Magic Workshop,
the Kreis around Spicer, now called “The Spicer
Circle”) themselves embodied critiques?
Is Spicer not so much trying
through these temporary institutions to maintain fidelity to the ideals that
had once sustained him at
That is, we considering Institution as Critique?
Spicer himself seems to embody the rhythm of the institution with his dependable schedule of sitting in the park (he was supposed to have been able to tell the time by the shadows of the trees) and drinking in the bar. This rhythm, or repetition being somehow (magically?) required to sustain / maintain these institutions.
We have weekly meetings of our poetry group. Seven years of them now.
In Spicer’s work, the early period is characterized by many single poems. What we here sometimes call, when speaking of our work, “free-standing” poems. But when Spicer returns to the west coast after his exile he changes his mode.
Poems are no longer these lone works, shorn of context. Now they are born as and into ‘books’ and the semi square quotes you hear here is to hint at the dictated , orphic nature of these books—a fact that may fall away after this one mention.
Consider this passage from his book Admonitions where Jack looks back at those earlier poems. Poems, that like him, during his ‘exile’ period have no community.
The poems belong nowhere. They are one night stands filled (the best of them) with their own emotions, but pointing nowhere, as meaningless as sex in a Turkish bath. It was not my anger or my frustration that got in the way of my poetry but the fact that I viewed each anger and each frustration as unique - something to be converted into poetry as one would exchange foreign money. I learned this from the English Department (and from the English Department of the spirit - that great quagmire that lurks at the bottom of all of us) and it ruined ten years of my poetry. Look at those other poems. Admire them if you like. They are beautiful but dumb.
Poems should echo and reecho against each other. They should create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can.
Things fit together. We knew that - it is the principle of magic. Two inconsequential things can combine together to become a consequence. This is true of poems too. A poem is never to be judged by itself alone. A poem is never by itself alone.
This is the most important letter that you have ever received.
A poem is never by itself alone.
What of a poet?
A subject of poetry?
This group that I ‘belong’ to, as time has passed, has gone through upheavals, tensions, heated debates. Various and shifting troubles in our personal lives have contributed to the never-truly-stable feeling, and to a sense of being outside of, and at the very best, marginal to the dominant culture.
Which is not to say that we don’t feel connection to poets elsewhere. We do. And we share poetic culture with poets in many places.
But, Atlanta has never been a hot spot for experimental poetry and as this group has come together it has become more and more obvious that we are our own primary audience and that Atlanta, as Outside the poetry world as it may be in many respects, is the theatre of our operations far more so than any other “community” of poets.
Spicer’s situation was very different when he got back to
Still, there is something there.
What is it and is it an institution or something else?
Manifest content is very different, latent content has some points of overlay.
But (reaching for the hammer) it is the subjection that does this, isn’t it?
To the institution of __________.
Jack Spicer was a jerk.
This is not a be-like-Jack call for (re)enactment. A great poet, yes. A poet whose praxis as poet was to build community around himself. A shadow institution in which some of the values which the university and thus the society he lived in had once betrayed at his expense, could find some form of life. Shadow instituted.
But it wasn’t about that, it was about poetry. The subject of.
& it wasn’t perfect and as I said, Spicer was a jerk at times.
But continue to parse this way; Institution as critique?
Think of the cover of his 1964 book Language, which cover was a duplicate of the cover of the academic journal of that name. The institutional publishing organ of the field to which he contributed all the while without being a part of it.
Or Jack Spicer was not a subject of linguistics but a subject of poetry.
The grail is the opposite of poetry
Fills us up instead of using us as a cup the dead drink from.
Institution as critique?
To build something. A ridiculous house let’s say.
Saying, to explain it “Because it wasn’t there” of a mountain. Of a social scene. A culture. (inverting Mallory re Everest)
A peachtree dish. Hot house effects as the requisite opening up of a space (Open Space) for poetry to occur?
Are we the institution that is our critique?
ie, that we didn’t exist?
The subject of poetry vs poetry institutions?
It is one thing to suggest that an institution, unsupported by the culture at large, unconnected to the cash flow, or to power in most instances, might embody a critique of the lost promise of that same culture’s ideals and another to prove that it is so in some kind of empirical sense.
Thankfully there is no need to do so.
Jack Spicer is anyone’s ghost.
We’ve taken criticism for various things. Sometimes it causes distress and other times it seems beside the point.
A poet who visited some time back attended one of our meetings and said that it was like being in school. And this guy teaches. He would know, yeah?
Well, I understand the complaint and I know that it turns some away.
But with some sadness and wish that we could be otherwise somehow, all things to all poets, we are not.
We meet every week, we perform at least every two months, we collaborate, we have rhythms to the way we re-institute or re-instantiate every time.
Institution is not our word of choice.
The apg and any other group/kreis/—Spicer’s —
Are a clique, an in-group, a poetry gang?
Such is also any community from some outside vantage
Just as any premature ‘fixing’ might make of it or us an institution
Or not. & we’ve all heard about how the revolutionaries turn into bureaucrats, but who has really tried?
I am a Subject of Poetry.
Groups, collectives, networks, collaborators are breeding grounds for such.
I proclaim my irrelevancy to that which is not subject to some truth of similar gravity.
No, now he is the Lowghost when he is pinned down to words.
— Jack Spicer
for more about the apg see atlanta poets group.net
& for other atlanta stuff see eyedrum.org
the crucial Spicer books are
also of great interest are the essay in that last title by Peter Gizzi
the aforementioned biography by Lew Ellingham & Kevin Killian
and Jack Spicer by Ed Foster
the line from Lacan is translated by Bruce Fink and found in Lacan’s Seminar XX
Where we have never been is real.
Want to read more about Jack Spicer?
There aren’t that many books to get, tho some of them are not easy to find. During his lifetime, most of Spicer’s books were published in small edition and distributed to friends, locals and very few others.
The first essential book is The Collected Books of Jack Spicer edited and with commentary by Robin Blaser. This was published by Black Sparrow Press but is currently out of print. Black Sparrow is out of business. Used copies are hard to find but they are out there, and necessary. If you were to have but one Jack Spicer book, this is it.
Spicer’s earlier poems, before the transition to writing in books are available in the very rare out of print collection, One Night Stand and Other Poemsª. There are many great poems in this book but also many in which are simply not up to the level of his later work. One can understand, after making this comparison, why it was that Spicer called all of these single, unattached poems ‘one night stands’ – they lack the community that being part of a book would provide.
The next crucial book is The House That Jack Built, The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer edited by Peter Gizzi. Legendary & mostly unavailable in any form, Spicer’s lectures on poetry, all given in the last year of his life, finally made it to print in 1998. These lectures are wonderful to read and it is here that Spicer spells out his thoughts about dictation, serial poems and most of what we have as his poetics. This book also features Gizzi’s brilliant essay “Jack Spicer and the Practice of Reading.”
Long in the making and much acclaimed, the biography Poet Be Like God appeared in 1998. It doesn’t seem to have been reissued in paperback. But this book, written by Lew Ellingham (a member of the Spicer Circle) and Kevin Killian is a model of solid biography and an extremely engaging introduction to the world of Spicer. If Spicer’s poetry speaks to you, you will need this book.
I must also mention Jack Spicer by Edward Halsey Foster, a small chapbook-sized piece (much as this is) published as No.97 of the Western Writers Series by Boise State University. Foster is excellent on the issue of Spicer’s involvements with poetic communities and groups and his discussion of the kreis was instrumental for my thinking about Spicer and the community. Foster is a very good reader of Spicer in spite of the language that lies between them (and us).
The Electronic Poetry Center at SUNY-Buffalo maintains a homepage for Jack Spicer with poems and other material about him at http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/spicer/ – this is probably the best one stop place on the web for learning more about Jack Spicer.
There are letters published in little magazines here and there and some poems which never made it into any collection. Spicer also wrote a few plays. Can I take a moment and cry out to whomever could be listening that it is long passed the time when the world has needed a comprehensive Complete Writings of Jack Spicer? Dear big white baseball in the sky, could you get on the stick? Perhaps I should say “Dear Death?”
I owe my prmary debt of gratitude to Jack Spicer, a poet, who tho dead, speaks to me. Likewise this could not have been written without my extensive use of all the books mentioned above. In particular I should point to Peter Gizzi’s very fine essay which makes the links between Spicer and the 50s sci-fi invasion films which this text in turns makes much of and which form the basis of the two Jack Spicer Double Feature film nights at eyedrum. [Night 1 is Invasion of the Body Snatchers & Orphée, night 2 is It Came From Outer Space & The Blood of a Poet] It is my hope that these films will help open up a discussion of Spicer and will motivate those who come to see them to read not only this small text but more importantly to read Spicer.
But I must underscore that language lies between myself and these other writers on Jack Spicer. To the extent that I have deviated or strayed from the path they left me, I have either impeded the transmission or perhaps heeded it rather than the word of these other living poets. This booklet, does not adhere to academic rules about citation. If there is a quote it comes from one of those books and I leave it to readers to find them again if neeeded. This book is addressed to poets and artists and not to any institution. It is hoped that none of those quoted will sue me. They are subjects of poetry too tho right? My fingers are crossed.
I should also thank the Atlanta Poets Group who contributed significantly to this text, in particular James Sandersz, Dana Lisa Petersen and Mark Prejsnar. Thanks to Tracey Gagné & Randy Prunty for trouble shootingthe final draft. Thanks also to eyedrum for hosting the Spicer movie nights and to the City of Atlanta Bureau of Cultural Affairs for their support of eyedrum’s monthly programming.
« The Queen.
Spicer was a big fan of the Oz books. They echo thru many of his poems as do other popular myths and stories such as the grail and the old west. Populist sources if also literate.
· The Beats, are they not mid century american romantics? Whitmanic singers of their world with contemporary needs and all—yes—but with persona always there, personal style as “voice.” Who-I-am (proclaimed) as language trope. A pretty complex language game to submit to and one that seems to misconstrue the relationship between one’s language of self presentation in a sort of fictional ‘space’ and the living of one’s life—sometimes with devastating consequences— consider the impact Kerouac’s depictions had upon Cassady and later, himself.
* “At The Old Place” is the O’Hara poem. Stories differ about how much animosity there was between Spicer and any of the poets who would be known (if they weren’t already) as the New York School. Dana & I were talking about this and she chalked it up to “bitchiness.” We & others have remarked on the seeming correspondences between Spicer and O’Hara. The differences are enormous, but there are some things having to do with their senses of place and the way they both come to be seen as defining the scenes they are a part of. One could also think about how pop culture appears in the work of each, both poets are known for loving movies. O’Hara famously addresses Lana Turner in a poem and Spicer writing in his own “J” magazine published 3 poems as Mary Murphy from The Wild One. “What’re you rebelling against, Johnny?” Brando, “Whattaya got?” Jack Spicer and his friend Joe Dunn are in one of the crowd scenes in Hitchcock’s San Francisco classic, Vertigo. At least that is the myth. A crowd scene watching Madeline (Kim Novak), perhaps at the flower market? Maybe its true. Frank O’Hara would have appreciated it.
& Perhaps initially this was an attempt at a recreation of the Berkeley Renaissance, but as time passed and Spicer became more and more the focal point, as his rhythms of life and poetry became the structuring forces of the scene that gathered around him, it seems that such a community became an ideal abstracted somewhat from any particular group of people. It is here that it becomes particularly relevant now.
» These are found in The Book of Magazine Verse, a volume in which Jack writes poems for a collection of magazines which he knew would never publish them, including Downbeat, The Nation and Poetry Chicago.
( This evokes the curious bit of dialogue from It Came From Outer Space in which the telephone linemen are asked if they’ve seen anything strange. They have not, but they have heard some curious signals on the lines. Then there is this beautiful scene where the lineman tells the protagonist, “Might be somebody up that way tapping the wires. Or back that way listening to us like we're listening to him... And sometimes you think that the wind gets in the wires and hums and listens and talks, just like we're hearing now.” This dialogue sits interestingly next to “The wires dance in the wind of the noise our poems make. The noise without an audience. Because the poems were written for ghosts.” from poem 4 of “A Textbook of Poetry.”
Ä Spicer is known to have told poets who came to see him that 1st thing they should read Cocteau’s play then go immediately & see his film, & then they should come and talk to him. This groundwork would allow them to tune in what Jack was saying..
! The irregularities in this poem’s spelling and diction are not typographical errors, but consequences of how the poem was dictated to Spicer. Aliens, it would seem, are not hung up about such things and when the rules impede the transmission of the poem, the rules succumb.
ª It also seems that this book has more than one version. There was also some other sort of collected poem which gathered much of this early work. I have only spoken of the version that I own, which tho ridiculously rare, is at least findable.
z A poet whose first work I was to see was called “Jack Spicer Virus.”