Jack Spicer on poetry.

Pure poetry bores everybody. It is even a bore to the poet. The only real contribution of the New Critics is that they have demonstrated this so well. They have taken poetry (already removed from its main source of interest—the human voice) and have completed the job of denuding it of any remaining connection with person, place and time. What is left is proudly exhibited in their essays—the dull horror of naked, pure poetry.
Live poetry is a kind of singing. It differs from prose, as song does, in its complexity of stress and intonation. Poetry demands a human voice to sing it and demands an audience to hear it. Without these it is naked, pure, and incomplete—a bore…
Orpheus was a singer. The proudest boast made about Orpheus was not that his poems were beautiful in and of themselves. There were no New Critics then. The proudest boast was that he, the singer with the songs, moved impossible audiences—trees, wild animals, the king of hell himself.
Today we are not singers. We would rather publish poetry in a little magazine than read it in a large hall. If we do read in a hall, we do not take the most elementary steps to make our poetry vivid and entertaining. We are not singers. We do not use our bodies. We recite from a printed page.
Thirty years ago Vachel Lindsay saw that poetry must connect itself to vaudeville if it was to regain its voice. (Shakespeare, Webster and Marlowe had discovered this three centuries before him.) Our problem today is to make this connection, to regain our voices.
We must become singers, become entertainers. We must stop sitting on the pot of culture. There is more of Orpheus in Sophie Tucker than in R. P. Blackmur; we have more to learn from George M. Cohan than from John Crowe Ransom.
–Jack Spicer, 1949
Jack Spicer (January 30, 1925 – August 17, 1965) 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.
Spicer was born in Los Angeles where he later graduated from Fairfax High School, 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.[1] 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 famous Six Gallery, the scene of the famous 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.
He 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 the canto jondo, 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-Chomskian 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.[citation needed] 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).
“Any fool can get into an ocean . . .”
by Jack Spicer
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,
Of labyrinths and poems. When you start swimming
Through riptide of rhythms and the metaphor’s seaweed
You need to be a good swimmer or a born Goddess
To get back out of them
Look at the sea otters bobbing wildly
Out in the middle of the poem
They look so eager and peaceful playing out there where the
water hardly moves
You might get out through all the waves and rocks
Into the middle of the poem to touch them
But when you’ve tried the blessed water long
Enough to want to start backward
That’s when the fun starts
Unless you’re a poet or an otter or something supernatural
You’ll drown, dear. You’ll drown
Any Greek can get you into a labyrinth
But it takes a hero to get out of one
What’s true of labyrinths is true of course
Of love and memory. When you start remembering.

0 thoughts on “Jack Spicer on poetry.

  1. From: Jack Foley
    Thanks. What Spicer is saying sounds deceptively like \”slam poetry,\” but it isn\’t quite the same thing. Spicer\’s poetry is fascinating and endlessly problematical, but it isn\’t ego centered. Slam is entirely ego centered. Though I am a performance poet who has given hundreds of poetry readings, I have a problem with “slam poetry” and “spoken word poetry.” Such poetry seems to me little more than the assertion of the “ego”: this is what I think, these are my feelings. I think the popularity of spoken word is partly due to that fact. Americans like to think of themselves as “individuals” and feel that “self-expression” if properly presented is a good thing: after all, everyone is different, we all have individual feelings and they should be expressed. It seems to me that the problem with that formulation is basically that it isn’t true—which is why so many “individuals” end up saying exactly the same things! The “ego” of “individuality” is the ego generated by mass culture; it isn’t real. From a political point of view, that fictional ego is very useful: one man, one vote. But from the point of view of self-contemplation, it is false. It arises not out of a genuine confrontation with the self –which is multiple–but out of the notion of economic man in the marketplace: the “individual” is economic man choosing this product rather than another. Though a slam poet may be attacking mass culture on one level, on another, perhaps deeper level he is affirming it by affirming the individual I. The self Spicer\’s poetry names is neither the individual \”ego\” of slam nor the amorphous ego of a \”mass\” movement but a multiple one in which various mysterious factors co-exist, argue, attract one another–what this haunted man thinks of as \”ghosts\” or \”Martians\”: \”spooks.\” In that sense, what Spicer has in mind–though it involves performance–is the opposite of slam:
    I would like to write a poem as long as California
    And as slow as a summer.
    Do you get me, Doctor?
    Jack Spicer

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