A brilliant poetry star who burned out too soon

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Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology New American Poetry 1945-1960 blew the lid off 1950s American verse. Against the grey-flannel formalism of establishment poetry, Allen unleashed a horde of barbaric scholars inspired by the most outrageous and counter-establishment aspects of American and European modernism earlier, who rejected well-crafted verse for the immediacy of American speech. Of all the poets featured in this anthology – Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, John Ashbery and a host of other now-familiar names – Jack Spicer seemed most clearly destined for a spectacularly successful career, on the strength of his “Imaginary Elegies”, four poems alternately hilarious and painfully lyrical in which the poet was both “like God” and a passive medium.

This success was not to be: Five years later, Spicer had drunk himself to death at age 40, leaving behind a few short collections of poetry, a few fugitive bits of prose and taped interviews, and a name to conjure up in the Bay Area – although that reputation barely extended beyond Oakland. Spicer’s work was central to the linguistic poetry of the 1970s and 1980s, but it took dedicated editors to bring him greater recognition: his friend Robin Blaser, who edited The Collected Books of Jack Spicer in 1974, and his biographer Kevin Killian, who (with poet Peter Gizzi) edited My Vocabulary Made Me This: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (Wesleyan University Press, 2008). Daniel Katz’s superb edition of Spicer’s unpublished poems and plays, Be Brave About Things: The Poetry and Uncollected Pieces of Jack Spicer, brings the full range of this fleeting master’s work into one easily accessible print.

Be brave for things probably isn’t the right place to start with Spicer. For that, there’s last year’s New York Review Books reissue After Lorca (1957), Spicer’s playful and caustic collection of translations, dialogues and general interpretation of the work of the great Spanish poet; and My vocabulary did this to me, which collects After Lorca and all the other poetry Spicer wanted to print. But most poets I know would give their teeth for writing many poems in Be brave for things. That Spicer did not publish them is not a matter of occasional distraction (as with his close contemporary Frank O’Hara, who seems to have left unpublished masterpieces in every drawer of his apartment). Rather, in his mature writing, Spicer framed his poetry in terms of thematically and imagistically linked sequences, in which the stand-alone poems collected here simply did not fit.

During the last decade of his life, Spicer wrote almost exclusively in bound forms, and the bulk of the later poems of Be brave for things were gleaned from the notebooks where he worked on his sequences. Some of them are squibs, like “Concerning the Future of American Poetry II”: “My grandma always told me / That when you fight with dog poop / You only got shit on the fingers.” Some of them reiterate Spicer’s (intermittent) faith in the power of poetry:

In the smallest corner of words
Poetry shouts from
Them together
Bears witness
Words bearing witness
Witness 
There
In the smallest corner of words.

Others, like the prose poem “Dear Russ”, implicitly lament the distance between words and reality:

I would like to include in the letter a slice of green-black from the bay and the sound of the seagulls (who seem to know that it will rain again) and the smell of bullheads on the pier (they have been running lately and neither seagulls nor cats will eat them) and my love for this beautiful place and for you who are not in this place. But American mail does not include boys, seagulls, bullheads or desires.

Spicer’s poetry can be deeply funny and playful but, as in the passage quoted above, it has a constant undercurrent of sadness. One has the constant feeling that, for all his gifts, Spicer suspected that his writing was a failed project, at best a rarely achieved transcendence of his loneliness and deep existential angst. This is most evident in some of the late and aborted sequences that Katz collects in be nice to things, in particular “A new poem”:

Effortless
Those loves
Like electricity. Electric
Invisible
But pain hangs on like a dog. The beds we sleep in every night.
	The dull ache of a tooth or a lonely swimmer trapped in the
	night’s ocean
And these others are not enough.
Not until the poem burst into poetry
And the body puts on the glad rags of unreason
And the heart quenches

Pain, I would tell my biographers. The sheer
Pain of being human.
			And when I hold your hand
Or do not hold your hand.
				This pain.

Much of the early work of Be brave for things is written in skilfully manipulated traditional forms, demonstrating that Spicer’s later beautifully modulated or jagged free verse was achieved through very dedicated practice. The opening quatrain of “On Falling into Your Eyes” is nicely shot in iambic pentameter (if a bit hyperbolic):

No bastard son of sea-froth deified
With all his arrows could twist half the pains
That pinion me as I am swept inside
And sprawl, half drowning, through your inner veins.

What is striking is how many of the motifs and obsessions of Spicer’s mature work are already present in his apprentice writing: classical mythology (as in the reference to the god Eros above), especially the story of the poet Orpheus; the ocean and the moon as mute but multivalent symbols; the tarot deck; and a whole series of images taken from the early work of TS Eliot up to land of waste.

Spicer managed to cram a great deal of writing in a variety of genres into his brief life: a largely complete translation of Beowulf (published 2016), a review of Thomas Johnson’s 1955 edition of Emily Dickinson that pinpoints the textual and conceptual issues that have occupied Dickinson scholars ever since, an unfinished detective story of great mystery and drama. ‘a great charm (The Tower of Babel, published in 1994). Perhaps what is most telling about Be brave for things, however, is its selection of previously unreleased Spicer pieces.

Young Goodman Brown is a solid dramatization of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story, marred only by the main character gouging out his eyes, Oedipus-style. Pentheus and the dancers: an adaptation is a moving version of Euripides The Bacchantes. The real gem is Troilus, Spicer’s take on the Trojan War tale of love and betrayal. Its sources are Shakespeare’s play Troilus and Cressida and Chaucer’s long poem Troilus and Criseyde, but what Spicer makes of the story is entirely his own – alternately satirical, deeply thoughtful, campy, and heartbreaking.

The Trojans and the Greeks are engaged in a static and continuous war. Ulysses, full of elaborate strategies, is a bit of a poet: “I’ve wasted nine years of poetry on this war and I’m not going to waste it with a botched ending…. You can no more compromise a war than you can compromise a poem. Not a real war anyway. On one level, the play is specifically about the permanent state of war – when he wrote it in the mid-1950s, Spicer had lived through World War II and the Korean conflict, and was well into the Cold War. ‘You don’t think of the war, Cressida,’ said Troilus, ‘no one thinks of it. People talk about it sometimes, but it doesn’t go any further.

But the play also speaks, like so many of Spicer’s other writings, of love – unrequited or betrayed – and the painful imprisonment to which it condemns the lover. Cressida Pandarus’ uncle says to Troilus, “The heart does not die”:

You are young and you are a child of war. The only death you have seen is death by violence. It’s clean and it only kills the heart, it doesn’t starve it. It doesn’t leave the heart locked alone in a prison cell, a cell that gets wetter and slimier with each passing year, filthy with its own excrement, reeking of unfulfilled desire.

“Is it really that bad?” asks Troilus. “No, not so bad. The human heart adapts to anything, Pandarus replies, you better learn to eat your mixture of stone and bread with the rest of the prisoners.

Troilus demonstrates that Spicer had it in him to be as brilliant a playwright as he was a poet; he deserves to be on stage. In print, it amply manifests the combination of linguistic élan, philosophical depth, and understanding of personal misery that characterizes the best writings of this tragically short-lived poet.

Be Brave About Things: The Poetry and Uncollected Pieces of Jack Spicer (2021), edited by Daniel Katz, is published by Wesleyan University Press and is available online and in bookstores.

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