Jack Spicer’s The Collected Books of Jack Spicer

It’s very hard to get a handle on how to describe Jack Spicer’s poetry. On a continuum of twentieth-century poets from serious and sometimes playful (Auden, Ashberry, Duncan) to serious and downright raucous (Frank O’Hara), he is closer to O’Hara, but there is an urgency to Spicer that sets him into his own poetic space. The Collected Books of Jack Spicer is the volume to have if you want to include Spicer in your library.

Editor Robin Blaser, in his commentary, “The Practice of Outside,” makes several important points, the first of which is simply that Spicer saw the creation of poetry as “an act or event of the real, rather than a discourse true only to itself.” This is so much the antithesis to what we are urged to think of poetry that one is at first doubtful, until one begins reading Spicer. (Robert Duncan, in his introduction to Spicer’s collection One Night Stand and Other Poems, points out that Spicer was at war with the New Criticism, that would see the poem as a thing in itself.) I think in part it’s this insistence on the real, on the poem as part of something else, that grounds Spicer’s work, as much as it may push the limits of the comprehensible. Hints of this idea show up again and again – nowhere does he ask for the poem to be true to itself, but rather, “I ask for the poem to be as pure as a seagull’s belly.” With Spicer, it’s not enough to refer to the concrete: he insists on it.

Tell everyone to have guts
Do it yourself
Have guts until the guts
Come through the margins
Clear and pure
Like love is.

— “For Jack”

Blaser points to this short poem as an example of this building of a reality: “it is as if the reader and the poet had to begin again – not with a false ground – perhaps with a ground that is simultaneously true and false – where a composition begins again.” The “book” idea extends this: Spicer’s poetry is narrative and episodic; in the books, separate poems revolve around this ground in an attempt to find the starting point.

This volume starts off with “After Lorca,” a group of “translations” interspersed with letters from Spicer to Lorca (all signed “Love, Jack”) and an introduction by Lorca himself, who had been twenty years dead when this collection occurred, and was, by his own admission, fundamentally unsympathetic to the project. This is, perhaps, the best example of Spicer’s stance that I can come up with: the poem starts in a place that is true and false, real and unreal, and has little to do with Spicer, or you, or me.

This teacup Christ bled into. You are so polite, Lance
All your heros are so polite
They would make a cat scream.
I dreamed last night that your body had become a gigantic adventure. Wild horses
Could not tear it away from itself.
I
Was the whole earth you were traveling over. . . .

— From “The Book of Gwenivere” (“The Holy Grail”)

The poetry itself is explosive – Duncan compares Spicer to Orpheus, and I think there’s some truth in that. It is best taken in small doses, but it’s hard, very hard, to have just one or two – like pistachios, one finds oneself suddenly very full and wondering where all those poems went. No, it’s not immediately accessible, but it’s dazzling stuff, worth the work.

(Black Sparrow Press, 1996)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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