The Poetry Project

It’s a bad night.

Shiv Kotecha

At a 1957 poetry reading held at the Telegraph Hill Community Center, Robert Duncan introduced his then close friend, the ferociously smart, notoriously crabby Bay Area-lifer and poet, Jack Spicer to a rapt audience of about seventy-five: “In his own work,” Duncan said, “Spicer disturbs. That he continues to do so is his vitality.” He went on, carving out an image of Spicer’s vast, warping poetic cosmos with leery remove, careful to distinguish it from his own:

[T]hat God ‘contains’ is an aesthetic that defines my critical departure from delight in Spicer’s work where the uncontaind [sic], the isolate, appears and accuses the Creator. All partial voice screams out of very hell, divorced from the good, truths that we can afford neither to deny nor to embrace.

Duncan hits on the God-like qualities—uncontained, isolate—that give Spicer’s verse its uniquely tender, at times tenderizing, touch, “Like a diamond / Has at the center of it a diamond.” That the poet be an “instrument played upon,” open to “dictating” voices emanating from a supposed “Outside” is as foundational a tenet to understanding Spicer’s poetics as the calloused sense of self, and of community, he cultivated over his short, booze-addled life. These are the contradictions that spark the brashness of affect felt in the books and serial poems Spicer saw published in his lifetime—among them, After Lorca, Admonitions, The Heads of the Town up to the Aether, The Holy Grail Book of Magazine Verse. It’s a feeling, at least in my experience, close to joy.

Out now from Wesleyan University Press is Be Brave to Things, the fourth in an ongoing series of volumes resuscitating Spicer’s life and writing, following Poet Be Like God (eds. Kevin Killian and Lewis Ellingham), My Vocabulary Did This To Me: Collected Writings (eds. Peter Gizzi and Killian), and The House That Jack Built: Collected Lectures (ed. Gizzi). Be Brave To Things, edited by Daniel Katz, performs the difficult task of collecting the morass of uncontained isolates that a poet like Spicer—who wrote off a decade’s worth of stand-alone poems as “one-night stands,” and for whom publication was the enactment of a poet’s aesthetic and ethical prerogatives—left behind in his wake. Katz’s introduction outlines the fraught process of remaining faithful, at least in part, to Spicer, for whom a poem, writes Katz, “must say the very thing that the particular people to whom it is addressed cannot hear—what they refuse to hear and sends them running in the other direction or mailing rejection slips” (Katz). The result is a nice, girthy hard-cover presenting 200-or-so pages of previously unpublished verse and three plays—complete with annotations. Be Brave to Things is a welcome addition to Spicer’s not-so-minor canon, and as Katz astutely puts it, an “additional instance of the relentless battle Spicer’s work, when at its best, waged against itself.”

The volume opens with a reprint of Collected Poems, a short chapbook Spicer self-printed and hand-sewed in 1946, when he was a wee 22, as a Christmas gift for his UC Berkeley teacher Josephine Miles. The poems here, though juvenile, speak to many of Spicer’s sustained preoccupations: bar culture (“At Slim Gordon’s”); semantics (“To the Semanticists”); doggerel (“Wham Bam”); and, maybe most productively, games.

“You’re all a pack of cards!” opens the first poem, titled “The Bridge Game,” which zips across three stanzas, each registering, with varying degrees of literalism, the face values of playing cards—“Queen of Spades / Courtesy Bicycle / Courtesy Bicycle Playing Cards.” Each stanza is offset with short directives, as the kind Lewis Carroll’s Alice reads before biting into a shape-shifting shroom or cookie—“READ / VERY / FAST” or “Read with / an / imploring / voice”—locating the poem somewhere between poetic object, conjuring device, instructional guide (in which no one learns much of anything), and performance script. In Duncan’s account, for Spicer, “Bridge was always associated with active and acrimonious postmortem. The postmortem of a particularly interesting hand could very easily go on into a second or third hand after the occurrence that was being discussed and analyzed.” For this poet, postmortems were a way to go forward, and hitting your head against the wall, poetry’s most common beginning.

Following the organization of Gizzi and Killian’s 2008 volume of Spicer’s collected writings, My Vocabulary Did This To Me, the poems in BBTT are organized in sections based on place: the first section include poems from 1945-1955, composed after Spicer graduated UC Berkeley, and was still living in California; the second section comprises poems from Spicer’s ill-spent sojourn to the east coast, written in 1955-1956; the final section includes the poems Spicer wrote on his return to the Bay in 1955 until his untimely death by way of severe alcohol poisoning a decade later, at age 40. Included are drafts and outtakes of Spicer’s early series Imaginary Elegies and outtakes of poems that closely resemble, in theme and structure, poems from his collected books. Also included are several one-off series’ and two attempts Spicer made at putting together a Selected Poems, despite his principled vehemence against the poetry “collection” as such.

“There is really no single poem,” Spicer wrote to his friend and primary executor, the poet Robin Blaser, a letter first published in his omnidirectional registry of romantic complaint, 1958’s Admonitions. “The trick naturally is … to explore and retreat but never be fully realized (confined) within the boundaries of one poem.” The premise of Spicer’s serial compositions is that, through the meticulous arrangement of motifs and codes, repetitions and procedures, titles and subtitles, in-jokes and imitations, poems become navigable architectures of thought. They are like a hall of mirrors, or, as Blaser put it, a “hell of meanings.” A good poem, according to Spicer, has the power to stage the polyvocal dynamics of a social scene, or a dead letter office, or a cemetery, or hell itself. His poem “Homage to Creeley | Explanatory Notes” is but one example of this. It is the first of two “books” that appears inside another book—a bound object called The Heads of the Town up to the Aether (1962). Per its title, “Homage” consists of thirty-or-so poems, interspersed with unnumbered footnotes that pawn faux didacticisms and slight analyses meant to mislead their reader rather than comfort her with the dim resolution of meaning. “I’m the ghost of answering questions,” claims the Poet’s intervener, “Keep me at a distance as I keep you at a distance.” The “collection” of poems, in this instance, is already framed within a larger schematic of ideas—prefiguring the precarious task Katz has had in constructing, as he puts it, “a failed monument to the failure of the poetic which Spicer paradoxically championed.”1

Several of the stand-alone poems Katz includes are exquisite, and they betray Spicer’s commitment to the serial form. Consider the Petrarchan sonnet, “We bring these slender cylinders of song,” in which poems are to be inhaled as poppers might—at least for those of us for whom reading poems has the capacity, for better or worse, to wholly envelop the mind:

We bring you opium of cellulose,
And frankincense inscribed in little scratches
And you can take a big or little dose
Or have your memory in scraps and patches.

Another favorite is the suite of fragments under the title “A New Poem,” in which Spicer pivots his focus “all the way down past [his own] skull” to discount the poetic devices, tropes, ghosts, and inspirations with which the published Spicer so readily dosed his readers. In the fragment that suggests a “beginning,” for example, Spicer inverts his claim that “Poetry should end in a rope,” averring instead:

I want to begin with a rope.
Human contact. All I have missed
These meaningless years. All that all have talked to have missed.

“Doors are closed,” reads another line, followed immediately by the stop-ended line “New poem.” As in “Be Brave to Things,” the poem Katz borrows for his title, the second-person addressee that grounds so much of Spicer’s mature lyric is noticeably absent here. Composed as a list of spare, articulate demands, in these late exercises, one gets a sense that Spicer used poetry to imitate the uglier parts of his life, and the fragments thus read like a strange private documentation of Spicer’s embittered final years—a slow unspooling to accompany his real-life penchant for being everybody’s least favorite friend.

Complementary to the lines that comprise “A New Poem” are what Duncan warned his listeners against—poems Spicer used to provoke or disturb readers; poems to push people away, not hold them tight. Be Brave to Things contours our sense of Spicer as that fitful, faggot poet for whom love was an explosion of comic implication, intimacy a hell of relation, and sex a trap. However, the deep cuts it serves up limn Spicer’s more unsavory attributes. Katz leaves it to us readers to stomach the many guises and devices of love and of hate—“put on,” you could say, because it’s poetry, but also painfully real—that Spicer spewed against people he refused to understand, among them women (as in “For Joe,” in My Vocabulary Did This To Me) and Jews, as in “For Bob,” included here.2 Written between 1957-58, the years Spicer was writing Admonitions, “For Bob” marks the occasion of Spicer discovering that his then-boyfriend Russell Fitzgerald had begun a sexual relationship with Bob Kaufman, a half-Jewish, half-Black Beat poet. Here, as elsewhere, the poem becomes an odd site for Spicer—an asocial zone where he could play out his needlessly ruthless aggressions toward others. Spicer’s outlook on racial and sexual difference was medieval to his contemporaries—it’s one of the many reasons he died alone. To contemporary readers, however, Spicer’s “disordered devotion toward the real” might be worth reading with sustained attention—that is, not just as a “death note,” but rather in our consideration of the more abscessive tendencies of civic legislation and cultural discourse of the present. We don’t have to read past the poems for ongoing proof that Spicer was no God. Or if he was, then they stand in as proof that God too is bad.

The book closes on three plays, each of them an adaptation: Young Goodman Brown, of Nathanial Hawthorne’s short story of the same name; Pentheus and his Dancers, an adaptation of Euripides’ Bacchae; and the gem of the trio, and perhaps of the whole volume, Troilus, a drama based on Troilus and Cressida, the teenage side-plot of the Trojan War penned in verse by Chaucer and later as a drama by Shakespeare. Spicer’s verbose translation of the classic, composed in large part before he moved to Boston in 1955, faithfully moves through the basic plot of the tragedy without heeding to the stylistic markings of either of his predecessors. There’s the delightfully flat-footed puttering of Spicerian speech that’s perfected in later poetic works like The Holy Grail, wherein characters become uncanny projections of themselves, and of other figures in the play. If, on your first read, Troilus feels like the right stand-in for Jack, and Troy for San Francisco, I recommend reading the play again, reversing the casting, with Spicer as the long-fled slut Cressida, pained object of Troilus’s whiny plight. (They’re all a pack of cards!—remember?) There’s something destabilizing, almost alchemical, to Spicer’s restaging of these mythological figures, especially in Troilus. It’s a remarkably undead piece of writing that I would love to hear staged for the radio, with the achy platitudes of the leads voiced by my most plangent of friends.

Katz concludes the list of imperatives that accompanied his editorial process with a humble declaration, and he sounds like Spicer in its twinkling ambiguity: “We might want this book,” he writes, generously suggesting that some of us might not. It’s the perfect attitude for entering this beguiling, at turns chilling, book of misfires, failures, and symptoms that accompanied Jack Spicer’s most affecting verse. It brings him back to earth. I can only hope the poet himself—who continues to exist in the form of one afterlife or another—relishes in the oceanic effects produced in us by his great love and his great hate.


1 Katz also reminds readers that the book in question is composed of poems Spicer found solace in rejecting: “There are plenty of poems. One of the nicest things is when you learn that you can throw poems away—that you don’t have to save good lines and things like that.”

2 Incomplete list of things we can presume Jack Spicer hated: the individual; his mom and occasionally dad; the east coast, Boston in particular; the “soupy romanticism” of the Beatles; Bob Dylan; in large part, women; the intersection of straight desire with his own; spirituality, and people who believe in it; triangulation (in 2020, I took a guy to Cypress Lawn Memorial Park with the express purpose of fucking whilst keeping the palm of my hand pressed against the cold metal receptacle Spicer’s remains are in, as if to participate in some sexy occult ritual of my own [“is this dictation?”]. I imagine Spicer would’ve hated this too, but I bet you anything Killian would’ve loved it. [nb. If you do make the journey, Spicer did not like flowers. As Killian reported in Poet Be Like God, he hoped loved ones commemorate him with green onions]); academics; academia; the poet Bob Kaufman; Dylan Thomas; Lawrence Ferlinghetti; most other poets; MFA poets; MFA programs; drugs; driving; twee literary magazines like Poetry; John Ashbery, whose first book Some Trees Spicer would apparently refer to as Thumb Twees—hilarious; Frank O’Hara; and Charles Olson, for his bad sense of humor, among other things.

3 “For Bob” is one of the poems Killian, in Poet Be Like God, notes that Spicer read the night of the 1957 reading that opens the essay. Writes Killian in PBLG: “‘Bob Kaufman?’ Duncan cried gleefully years later, ‘Half-jew and half black! Was he the cause or effect of Spicer’s rage?’” (138). For readers interested in a deep dive of Spicer’s knotty relation to race, I’d start with Arcana: A Stephen Jonas Reader (City Lights, 2019). Jonas was a black, queer poet Spicer met in Boston, and whose acidic verse Spicer found “bewildering.” He was Spicer’s “anti-O’Hara,” “appointed, pure.”; “It was Steve,” said Spicer, “who taught me to use anger (as opposed to angry irony) in a poem.”

#270 – Fall 2022