Jack Spicer at the Elysium Hotel

What are you thinking now?

I’m thinking it’s 2009 and suddenly Jack Spicer is famous. I’m thinking (remembering) Creeley said (maybe it was 1963) in one of his enthralling non-stop riffs that Jack Spicer wanted to be the greatest unknown poet in America. Now he’s the Jack of Irony but I’m thinking it’s good that Jack (even if he is famous) is still transmitting poems to us from his own cozy little corner room on the second floor in the Elysium Hotel. He's quit drinking. The booze was a bad dream. He’s happy with the Martians and the spirits. Maybe Harvey Milk will come by and they can watch the movie together. They will like all the pretty boys dancing around, they will like the touching and kissing on the big American screen, but they will like the last part the best, the part where Dan White puts the gun to the back of Sean Penn’s head. Tosca is playing sadness in their hearts. Poor Dan White. The lawyers said he ate too many Twinkies. He went off to the Bardo Jail and when he came home he committed suicide. Jack and Harvey will weep big salty angel tears for poor Dan White. Jack will want to write a book of love poems for Dan White but he can't find his pencil. It got lost somehow in the translation.

My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer has received all sorts of attention, being regularly named in 2008 Top-10 lists and with reviews in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times (both, it seems, more curious in his life as a poet than his actual poetry). Ron Silliman, as always, is kind enough to list enough reviews to keep you busy for a while, and in his own commentary says, “So, yes, this is one of the most important volumes published in the past 50 years. It is hands down the best book published in 2008. And it is one of the most powerful collections of poetry you will ever read. Need I say more?”

I agree. And my copy hasn’t even arrived yet.

I know this because Jack is a hero of mine. I first ran into his work all the way back in the time of my growing up in poetry in 1960s. I first read his work in Donald Allen’s New American Poetry Anthology and soon afterward I was lucky enough to have access to the incredible poetry library at the Ruth Stephan Poetry Center at the University of Arizona (before the invasion of MFA-ism). At that time it was a one-room library stocked with all the little books that you couldn’t get anywhere else outside of San Francisco or New York City. In 1963, poet Drummond Hadley journeyed off to the Vancouver Poetry Conference and came back with tapes of all the readings and panel discussions that happened there. With my friend Paul Malanga, I spent hours listening to Spicer, Whalen, Creeley, Snyder, Olson and all the rest reading poems and talking about how to make a poem. They talked about typewriters and pencils and types of paper and projective verse and breathing and language and magic and history and anthropology and Williams and Pound. It was a paradise of words and language.

Best to listen to Spicer himself to see how I could be so enthralled by his ideas about poems as well as the poems themselves. Here, from an “Admonition” to Robin Blaser (I’m typing from Donald Allen’s introduction to One Night Stand and Other Poems). By the way, his derisive comment about converting emotion into poetry, as if it was a monetary exchange, is pretty close to the early comments (if I remember correctly) of the Language Poets about their frustration with their contemporaries. The explosion of Creative Writing Schools since he wrote the Admonition bears witness to his peculiar wisdom—

The trick naturally is what Duncan learned years ago and tried to teach us—not to search for the perfect poem but to let your way of writing of the moment go along its own paths, explore and retreat but never be fully realized (confined) within the boundaries of one poem. This is where we were wrong and he was right, but he complicated things for us by saying that there is no such thing as good or bad poetry. There is—but not in relation to the single poem. There is really no single poem.

This is why all my stuff from the past (except the Elegies and Troilus [a play]) looks foul to me. The poems belong nowhere. There are one night stands filled (the best of them) with their own emotions, but pointing now, 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 can't live alone anymore than we can.

So don’t send the box of old poetry to Don Allen. Burn it or rather open it with Don and cry over the possible books that were buried in it—the Songs Against Apollo, the Gallery of Gorgeous Gods, the Drinking Songs—all incomplete, all abortive because I thought, like all abortionists, that what is not perfect had no real right to live.

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 by itself alone.

What are you thinking now?

I am thinking that Spicer was our Lorca. Except nobody put him up against a wall and shot him. Booze killed him. Or he killed himself with booze. It's a disease of our clan. I've wondered myself how easy it would be to walk into that same elevator. But for me, a young poet in the 1960s, Jack Spicer was the great drunken faggot romantic poet who spoke about the mystery of poetry as an occult but very precise science while he listened to baseball games and considered the adventures of language as entangled in such mythos as the outlaw life of Billy the Kid. His poetry was exotic food for me wanting so much to be a poet but lost and bored with the regular academic fare. One night in Vancouver, must have been 1966, I got drunk with my friend the Canadian poet John Newlove. John, like me, was a huge fan of Spicer’s work and his vision of what it meant to be a poet. Unlike me, he had first-hand knowledge of the poet. He had heard Spicer give the “Vancouver Lectures” the year before and had made friends with him. Spicer had meant to move to Vancouver, but before he could he collapsed and slipped into a coma riding the elevator in his apartment building. Learning that Spicer was dying, John had traveled to California to say goodbye. That night in Vancouver, John and I read aloud “Psychoanalysis: An Elegy.” We might have been in a bus, we might have been in a pub. I don’t remember. I just remember the poem. I still read that poem sometimes to open my readings. I wonder if this is one of the poems that Spicer wanted to destroy.


What are you thinking about?

I am thinking of an early summer.
I am thinking of wet hills in the rain
Pouring water. Shedding it
Down empty acres of oak and manzanita
Down to the old green brush tangled in the sun,
Greasewood, sage, and spring mustard.
Or the hot wind coming down from Santa Ana
Driving the hills crazy,
A fast wind with a bit of dust in it
Bruising everything and making the seed sweet.
Or down in the city where the peach trees
Are awkward as young horses,
And there are kites caught on the wires
Up above the street lamps,
And the storm drains are all choked with dead branches.

What are you thinking?

I think that I would like to write a poem that is slow as a summer
As slow getting started
As 4th of July somewhere around the middle of the second stanza
After a lot of unusual rain.
California seems long in the summer.
I would like to write a poem as long as California
And as slow as a summer.
Do you get me, Doctor? It would have to be as slow
As the very tip of summer.
As slow as the summer seems
On a hot day drinking beer outside Riverside
Or standing in the middle of a white-hot road
Between Bakersfield and Hell
Waiting for Santa Claus.

What are you thinking now?

I’m thinking she is very much like California.
When she is still her dress is like a roadmap. Highways
Traveling up and down her skin
Long empty highways
With the moon chasing jackrabbits across them
On hot summer nights.
I am thinking that her body could be California
And I a rich Eastern tourist
Lost somewhere between Hell and Texas
Looking at a map of a long, wet, dancing California
That I have never seen.
Send me some penny picture-postcards, lady,
send them.
One of each breast photographed looking
Like curious national monuments,
One of your body sweeping like a three-lane highway
Twenty-seven miles from a night’s lodging
In the world’s oldest hotel.

What are you thinking?

I am thinking of how many times this poem
Will be repeated. How many summers
Will torture California
Until the damned maps burn
Until the mad cartographer
Falls to the ground and possesses
The sweet thick earth from which he has been hiding.

What are you thinking now?

I am thinking a poem could go on forever.

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