Jack Spicer Joins the Canon

My Vocabulary Did This to Me edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian

My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer
Peter Gizzi & Kevin Killian, editors.
Wesleyan University Press, 2008.
504 pages,
ISBN: 0819570907 (Library of Congress).
Buy at .

I AM just finishing the "must read" poetry volume of 2008, My Vocabulary Did this To Me, an anticipated republication of the poems by the late Jack Spicer, and I have to admit that Spicer's writing has me momentarily forgetting my prejudice against poems about poetry and poets and allowing myself to be knocked by the author's third-rail wit. A singular figure, who didn't fit in with the Beats, the New York School, nor the San Francisco Renaissance, Spicer's poems were a set of marginalia at the edges of the principle discussion as to what poetry was and ought to be, and as becomes clear as we read, his counter assertions, his asides, his declarations had more self contained clarity and vision than much of the stuff he looked askance at.

Interrogation of received notions was his on-going theme, and though the practice of making literary technique the unifying metaphor in a body of work tends to seal off poetry from a readership that could benefit from a skewed viewpoint—unlocking a door only to find another locked door, or a brick wall, ceases to be amusing once one begins to read poets for things other than status—Spicer rather positions the whole profession and the art as an item among a range of other activities individuals take on to make their daily life cohere with a faint purpose they might feel welling inside them. Spicer, in matters of money, sexuality, poetry, religion zeros on the neatly paired arrangements our language system indexes our hairiest ideas with and sniffs a rat when the description opts for the easily deployed adjectives, similes, and conclusions that make the hours go faster:

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.

("Thing Language")

There is a reservedly antagonistic undercurrent to Spicer's work, the subtle and ironic derision of the language arts that, as he sees them practiced, is locked up in petty matters of status, property, the ownership of ideas, the expansion of respective egos that mistake their basic cleverness for genius. The world, the external and physical realm that one cannot know but only describe with terms that continually need to be resuscitated, is, as we know, something else altogether that hasn't the need for elaborate vocabularies that compare Nature and Reality with everything a poet can get his or her hands on. What this proves, Spicer thinks (it seems to me, in any event) is that we know nothing of the material we try to distill in verse; even our language is parted out from other dialogues:

The trouble with comparing a poet with a radio is that radios
don't develop scar-tissue. The tubes burn out, or with a
transistor, which most souls are, the battery or diagram
burns out replacable or not replacable, but not like that
punchdrunk fighter in a bar. The poet
Takes too many messages. The right to the ear that floored him
in New Jersey. The right to say that he stood six rounds with
a champion.

Then they sell beer or go on sporting commissions, or, if the
scar tissue is too heavy, demonstrate in a bar where the
invisible champions might not have hit him. Too many of
The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a
counterpunching radio.
And those messages (God would not damn them) do not even
know they are champions.

("The Sporting Life")

Spicer is an interesting poet on several levels, all of them deep and rich with deposits that reward an earnest dig. He is, I think, on a par with Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams in grilling the elaborative infrastructure of how we draw or are drawn to specialized conclusions with the use of metaphor, and it is to his particular brilliance as a lyric poet, comparable to Frank O'Hara (a poet Spicer declared he didn't care for, with O'Hara thinking much the same in kind) that the contradictions, competing desires and unexpected conundrums of investigating one's verbal stream are made comprehensible to the senses, a joy to the ear. No one, really no one wrote as distinctly as the long obscure Spicer did, and editors Gizzi, Killian, and publisher Wesleyan Press are to be thanked for restoring a major American voice to our shared canon.