Jack Spicer (January 30, 1925 – August 17, 1965) wrote a poetry of imagistic and conceptual juxtaposition reminiscent, at times, of Dadaist randomness. He considered true poetry to be “dictated,” and thus removed from the conscious control of the poet. Spicer’s own poetry never completely lacks sense or meaning, however. Spicer believed that the “dictated” poem of necessity employs the materials present in the poet’s mind. Since the poet’s understanding of the world is part of that valid source-material, that understanding might be expected to appear in the dictated work. The poet’s understanding does not shape that work, however. Spicer argued that personal experience provides the material or vocabulary for poetry even while the conscious mind provides a less than ideal means for transforming that material into poetry.
In a real sense, Spicer embraced the traditional notion of the Muse, without using the term and without arriving at traditional results in his poetry. He felt and expressed the sense of there being an “Other” who dictated his poems, whom he sometimes humorously identified as a Martian. Although Spicer is often viewed as a Surrealist, this attitude toward “dictation” sets his works apart from those of earlier Surrealist poets. To the degree that he was successfully receptive to such dictation, his poems could be regarded as objective but nonanalytical in nature, in common with Surrealists. His poems are also intentional, however, with their intent often arising from a strong impulse to teach.
Spicer wrote the poems in his first book using the ideas he introduced and developed during his 1957 workshop. In addition to dictation, he arrived at the idea of the poem-series, or “book,” which is a larger form that incorporates and helps give meaning to the individual, component poems. His first such grouping, After Lorca, uses Federico García Lorca’s poems as a jumping-off point. The book begins with a fictitious introduction that is presented as having been written by García Lorca himself, twenty years after his own death. Spicer then presents an extravaganza of erratically bold and freewheeling “translations,” intermixed with a series of letters Spicer imagined writing to García Lorca.
The pseudo-translations give Spicer an opportunity to salute such varied figures as Paul Verlaine, Walt Whitman, and Buster Keaton, as well as García Lorca. A freshness of invention animates even the briefest of the poems, while the imaginary letters to García Lorca state some of the poet’s ambitions: “I would like to make poems out of real objects. . . . The imagination pictures the real. I would like to point to the real, disclose it, to make a poem that has no sound in it but the pointing of a finger.” In this “correspondence” with García Lorca, Spicer plays with the meanings of the word “correspond”: “Things do not connect; they correspond. That is what makes it possible for a poet to translate real objects, to bring them across language as easily as he can bring them across time.” He notes that his own letter, now an object, will inspire an act akin to his own: “some future poet will write something which corresponds to them. That is how we dead men write to each other.” Spicer’s inclination to engage in verbal discovery, often through use of puns, would reappear in many later works.
A Textbook of Poetry
“A Textbook of Poetry” was one of several “books” that appeared under a title that suggested a literary form other than what it actually was. Lacking the straightforward “how to” nature of a handbook, “The Textbook of Poetry” instead presents in imaginative terms Spicer’s notions about poetry, its composition, and its meaning. The text is presented as prose, in paragraphs that are fully justified, rather than left-justified as is standard for poetry. All the same, the lines themselves have a character indistinguishable from Spicer’s other poetry. After stating “Metaphors are not for humans,” Spicer writes this short paragraph:
The wires dance in the winds of the noise our poems make. The noise without an audience. Because the poems were written for ghosts.
In “The Textbook of Poetry,” Spicer further develops his notion of the dictation of poems. The other voice that is within the poet, as well as the true poetry that is contained within the dictated poem, are elusive and perhaps are never completely within the grasp of understanding: “The ghosts the poems were written for are the ghosts of the poems. We have it second-hand. They cannot hear the noise they have been making.” However, these inner voices, or “ghosts,” are acting with purposeful intent, for they are “teaching an audience.”
Spicer’s lines approach the mystery of Daoist utterance in attempting to express these elusive notions or images: “I can write a poem about him a hundred times but he is not there. . . . I have not words for him.” An element of Plato’s concept of reality plays into the poem, with the inexpressible that Spicer “cannot proclaim” being akin to Plato’s Ideal, in that it “descends to the real.” Spicer even uses the Greek word logos, both in association with the name God (“I mean the real God”) and, simultaneously, divorced from the notion (“I did not mean the real God”).
The unreliable-title approach of “The Textbook of Poetry” was anticipated by his early “The Unvert Manifesto and Other Papers Found in the Rare Book Room of the Boston Public Library in the Handwriting of Oliver Charming,” which Spicer wrote during his brief Boston period. Although he called it a “manifesto,” it resembled poetry in parts, and, in others, fiction, in its use of narrative and dialog.
Spicer had been working on Language in the last two years of his life, and it includes several sequences of poems that show his further exploration of themes and approaches that already had characterized his works. Just as earlier poems had used the Orphic and Holy Grail myths for springboards, “Baseball Predictions, April 1, 1964” uses for its central concern the death of President John F. Kennedy, an event that had already taken on mythic dimensions in American culture. Other poems, including the sequences “Love Poems,” “Intermissions,” “Transformations,” “Phonemics,” and “Graphemics,” intertwine Spicer’s idiosyncratic meditations on love and death, including again Kennedy’s death, with his continuing exploration of the nature of poetry. In writing Language, Spicer was succumbing yet again to the heuristic impulse and talking about poetry as a way of teaching about poetry. He also, more unusually, seems to have given in to the need for self-explanation: Assertions appear among these lines, as if in selfdefense, that what he is writing is, indeed, poetry.
After leading the workshop in San Francisco in 1957, Spicer never managed to depart completely from teaching about his chosen subject: what poetry is and is not, and how it is written, or rather dictated. Even the grail in The Holy Grail is presented in such a way as to give insight into poetry: “The grail is the opposite of poetry/ Fills us up instead of using us as a cup the dead drink from.” Some of Spicer’s continuing influence arises from the fact that he is so engaging and thought-provoking as a teacher, even when at his most enigmatic.
Nonfiction: Dear Ferlinghetti: The Spicer/Ferlinghetti Correspondence: Dear Jack, 1964 (with Lawrence Ferlinghetti); The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, 1998 (Peter Gizzi, editor).
Boyd, Nan Alamilla. Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
Ellingham, Lewis, and Kevin Killian. Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1998.
Foster, Edward Halsey. Jack Spicer. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1991.
Foster, Edward Halsey. Jack Spicer. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1991. Mayhew, Jonathan. Apocryphal Lorca: Translation, Parody, Kitsch. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Spicer, Jack. The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer. Edited by Peter Gizzi. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1998.