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Jack Spicer

Graham Foust
Listening to Poetry : Jack Spicer and the fiftieth-anniversary issue of Poetry (Chicago)  


In other words, if you publish in Poetry magazine, it's great. You get paid money. You get people reading it all through the country. But, in the long run, if you're participating in one of these things, then you have to say "yeah, I read Poetry myself" - Poetry magazine, that is - which I don't, and wouldn't, because I don't believe in the society that it creates.

- Jack Spicer, "Poetry and Politics"
(July 14, 1965)


N HIS ESSAY "Spicer's Language," Ron Silliman observes that Jack Spicer's third poem "for Poetry Chicago" ("In the far, fat Vietnamese jungle nothing grows") contains what is likely a reference to John Berryman's "Dream Song 27" ("The greens of the Ganges delta foliate"), which appeared in the fiftieth-anniversary double issue of Poetry. Silliman's observation serves to illustrate his claim that although the covers of Spicer's Language and Book of Magazine Verse share a format (both books mimic the covers of specific magazines, Language and Poetry respectively), Book of Magazine Verse, in which "In the far, fat" appears, contains a "level of reference" that Language, with its "thoroughly intertwined" concerns, does not. Silliman's initial argument is quite simple: Book of Magazine Verse contains poems written "for" magazines which would undoubtedly reject them, and the poems "relate more or less directly to the publications which they were ostensibly written 'for' " (Silliman 168). Language, on the other hand, although a few of its sections take their names from linguistic terminology, is a book of poems dealing with a wide and often unruly range of subjects, and, save for its cover, has little to do with the journal of the Linguistic Society of America (though Spicer, as is well known, had been published in that Language as well). I assume that because the poems in Language aren't overly thick with references to academic linguistics or articles published in that field (though further research might prove me wrong), and that because a great deal of them contain common themes (baseball, death, love, poetics), Silliman feels the reader is more likely to find the poems talking to each other instead of to other texts.
Ron Silliman
Ron Silliman
AFTER RAISING the issue of reference, Silliman proceeds to take a closer look at the first poem in the first section of Language ("Thing Language"), "This ocean, humiliating in its disguises." While I find Silliman's close-reading of Spicer's poem quite valuable in terms of how one might read "This ocean," I'd also argue that he could have looked more closely at Poetry, as two pages away from Berryman's "greens of the Ganges" lies what may very well be the source (or one of the sources) for what is arguably Spicer's most famous poem. Careful examination of the fiftieth-anniversary issue of Poetry has lead me to believe that when Spicer claims he doesn't read Poetry - "Poetry magazine, that is" - he's stretching the truth a bit. I'd be willing to bet that he wasn't a subscriber (or even a purchaser - one can imagine Spicer reading it angrily and aloud in a bookstore or a library, spitting between the pages and returning it to the shelf), but to read Spicer's Language is, I would argue, to witness a response to the "bosses of poetry" (from Aiken to Olson), their magazine and their celebration.


      Editor Henry Rago's foreword to the commemorative volume speaks of poetry as "not eclectic but catholic" (ii). "Eclecticism," he continues, "suggests an uncertainty about what one really wants, and a settling for bits and pieces of what various people seem to have wanted . . . [a] catholic view implies a sense of poetry as a kind of absolute, a center which perhaps no one ever attains but which can be approximated from an unlimited number of possible points of departure, each the only one, desperately the only one, for the poet concerned" (ii). Despite its sense of desperation, which Spicer might have grudgingly appreciated, this assertion would no doubt have made him wince, as his poetic Protestantism was fundamentally resistant to "the big lie of the personal" (Collected Books 48). For Spicer, uncertainty ("the wanting coming from Outside"), not poetry, is the absolute, and "uncertainty about what one really wants" is, in effect, how all good poetry gets written. In the first of his Vancouver lectures, Spicer speaks to this practice of dictation: "[E]ssentially you are something which is being transmitted into, and the more that you clear your mind away from yourself, and the more also that you do some censoring - because there will be all sorts of things coming from your mind, from the depths of your mind, from things that you want, which will foul up the poem" (Collected Lectures 7). Whereas Spicer sees language as the ever-present tool of an unknown message attempting to make itself manifest ("part of the furniture in the room"), Rago sees language as occasional, claiming that the poet "cause[s] language to exist where there was no language before" (iii).
Jack Spicer
Jack Spicer
From the collection of Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian
AT THE END of his foreword, Rago attempts to sum up the state of poetry, to trace "the shape of the . . . [poetic] situation" circa 1962. He sees his task as one of "locating certain points of importance, wherever they happen to be, in whatever unsuspected places, and drawing a line connecting them" (iv). "If a figure must be used," he says, it is more like a shoreline [than a spearhead], the water moving in upon the land unevenly; some of it rushing in under extraordinary pressure, some of it moving quietly, filling and overflowing the slope of the land" (iv). "Whatever it is," Rago continues, "it is made up of solitary poets living out their lives, each taking a lifetime to write his own poetry" (iv). Again, Spicer must have been aghast, as his "lowghost" does away with the notion of one's "own" poetry. The "solitary" poet had no place in Spicer's world, where, as Michael Davidson notes, poetry was a "public forum in which [it could debate and argue itself] into existence" (153).
      Later in the magazine, Rago's poem "The Promising" appears, borrowing its figure from (or perhaps lending its figure to) the image in the Preface. In the poem we see "white silence widening," "Words at the dark shore," "[t]he shore [that] signs itself in silence" (101). "[A]s now from the poetry book / we filch a phrase" read lines four and five of Conrad Aiken's "Love's Grammarians," the magazine's first poem, and Spicer takes Aiken's advice to heart in "This ocean," his own first poem for his second-to-last book, though his take on the matters at hand is certainly different. "We make up a different language for poetry," Spicer writes, "[a]nd for the heart - ungrammatical" (Collected Books 233). In addition to perhaps pilfering Rago's poem, it seems likely that Spicer had John Berryman's "Dream Song 71" in mind, if not in hand, when he wrote "This ocean" in 1964. Oddly enough, "This ocean" is the first poem Spicer had written since October 1962, the publication date of the fiftieth-anniversary of Poetry. (Ellingham and Killian 279). It's as if he had to return to the source of his disgust in order to write himself out of a two year silence.
Compare Spicer's poem with Berryman's "Dream Song":

      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.      (Spicer, Collected Books 217)
      Spellbound held subtle Henry all his four
      hearers in the racket of the market
      with ancient signs, infamous characters,
      new rhythms. On the steps he was belov'd,
      hours a day, by all his four, or more,
      depending. And they paid him.
      It was not, so, like no one listening
      but critics famed & Henry's pals or other
      writers at all
      chiefly in another country. No.
      He by the heart & brains & tail, because
      of their love for it, had them.
      Junk he said to all them open-mouth'd.
      Weather wóuld govern. When the monsoon spread
      its floods, few came, two.
      Came a day when none, though he began
      in his accustomed way on the filthy steps
      in a crash of waters, came.      (Berryman, 9)
Berryman's poem was written on December 20, 1959, nearly three years before its publication, and recalls the poet's 1957 trip to India, during which he gave lectures and readings under the auspices of the United States Information Service. Spicer's poem seems to be a response to Berryman's in that it asserts Spicer's belief that "the radio set doesn't worry about whether anyone's listening to it or not" in the face of Berryman's compulsive agonizing over "Who's number one?" on the poetry circuit. The difference between these two poems might be illustrated by using T.S. Eliot's description of the differences between Henry James and John Milton, though unlike Milton and James, Spicer and Berryman are of course contemporaries. Read Spicer for James, Milton for Berryman:


[T]he complication, with James, is due to a determination not to simplify, and in that simplification lose any of the real intricacies and by-paths of mental movement; whereas the complication of a Miltonic sentence is an active complication, a complication deliberately introduced into what was a previously simplified and abstract thought. The dark angel here is not thinking or conversing, but making a speech carefully prepared for him, and the arrangement is for the sake of musical value, not for significance. (261-62)


Upon closer inspection, we see that both poems contain ten sentences, and both address the idea of audience as applied to (replied to?) the poet. Reception is a key figure here: (how) is the poet/poem being received? Both poets address the "reception" of the poet (or the lack of it), and although their positions as poets in the world of poetry differed greatly, there seems to be a conversation going on here, at least in one-direction (Spicer to Berryman). In what I take to be a direct response to Berryman's ideas on poetry's public, Spicer "samples" Berryman to make his own comments on the subject, and one altered and added-to snippet from "DS 71" ("no one listening") will eventually become one of Spicer's most well-known lines ("No one listens to poetry"). (It's important to also note that this line also echoes Spicer's "embarrassing" questions in Occident magazine in 1949: "Why is nobody here? Who is listening to us?")
Jack Spicer
Jack Spicer
SILLIMAN'S ESSAY stresses the importance of Spicer's poem's first word ("This"), pointing to its "indication of presence [a]s language's most fundamental claim on subjectivity, at once both referential and illusory" (170). One might see something of this in Berryman's first word ("Spellbound") as well, as the image it requires the reader to conjure is one in which a subject is constricted ("bound") by something that can only ever be indicated to be present ("a spell"). A patient, for instance, does not see the force of the hypnotist, but rather sees the swinging watch as representative of hypnotist's power. The important difference between the two poems begins here in their first words, as Berryman's word describes what Spicer's word does. Spicer's "This" is an index, a sign which, in the words of American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, "like a pointing finger exercises a real physiological force over the attention, like the power of a mesmerizer, and directs it to a particular object of sense" (Brock 570). As a professional linguist and a poet who wanted "the pointing of a finger" to be the sole sound in a poem, Spicer would certainly have been familiar with the notion of the pronoun as a kind of spell upon the attention.
      "It" seems equally important in terms of Spicer's relation with Berryman, as this pronoun appears at the beginning and end of "Dream Song 71" 's second stanza, though the two uses are referring to different things. The first "It" seems to refer to the situation at hand in the previous stanza, i.e. Henry's experience of holding listeners spellbound and of his own being enamored. Berryman continues by comparing this hearing of poetry by what we might take to be the Indian "public" to what appears to be his character's experience as a postmodern American "academic" poet, thus raising the issue of one's public being, for the most part, one's peers. For Henry, it seems, these experiences are two very different things, and the second "it," which we might take to be Henry's words in the marketplace (in the sense of a poem aloud in India, but also, now, a poem published in Poetry), is what the audience has a love for, and this "it" replaces the earlier "It" (Henry's experience) as well as the earlier love (the audience's love for Henry).
      The seventh line of Spicer's poem, like the seventh line of Berryman's, also begins with "It," though Spicer lets the first word have (or rather be) the last, as if the violence of his sudden line break is designed to draw attention to Berryman's less immediate leap of reference. Exactly what Spicer is pointing to is unclear, but we hear it, and one suspects that this is his point(ing). Given what has come before it, Spicer's "It" might be poetry, the ocean, a quality/measurement of water, or even "Thing Language" (the title of the book's first section, printed at the top of the page) and while Berryman feels free to let his index slide, it seems Spicer has a duty to explore (if not explain) how the word works and where it might or might not. Berryman's solitude is inflicted upon him by other people by way of forces beyond anyone's control (a "crash of waters" prevents listeners from attending), while Spicer, who passionately acknowledged his debt to the outside and his disdain for other poetic fashions and factions, is his own victim simply because he's tuning in no matter what the weather (whether "A drop/Or crash of water," no matter).
      "It" and admiration are also present in "Dream Song 16", another of the Dream Songs in Poetry. In this poem, Berryman's character is hunted down by his admirers:
      Henry's pelt was put on sundry walls
      where it did much resemble Henry and
      them persons was delighted.
      Especially his long & glowing tail
      by all them was admired, and visitors.
      They whistled: This is it! (7-8)
Again, "it" appears twice, the first instance obviously referring to Henry's pelt and the second perhaps to his impressive tail (note too that the admirers in "DS 71", collectively, have a tail as well). One wonders if Spicer, upon seeing a sign-laden phrase such as "This is it," decided to crack it open and see what made it itch. While Berryman takes for granted language's ability to point something else, Spicer gives a voice to the problems with such activity (the problem, really, with all linguistic activity). Existence, indicated by the "is" in Berryman's sentence, hangs between two nothings ("this", "it"), two words which require the presence of something else in order to mean. According to Peirce, being is all breadth and no depth, nothing all depth and no breadth (Brock 561). Language (and Language), like a dream (and like some of the Dream Songs), is both: a world in which a human might be skinned and still speak humorously. It is also a place in which one's seriousness might not be able to penetrate even the surface of one's own speaking. Both poets seem to know this, yet again Berryman narrates:
      Collect in the cold depths barracuda. Ay,
      in Sealdah Station some possessionless
      hundreds exist & die
      The Chinese communes hum. Two daiquiris
      withdrew into a corner of the gorgeous room
      and one told the other a lie.       (8)
while Spicer, allowing the mesmerism of "It" to flag (imagine a blank cloth waving in the breeze), enacts:
It means
      Is bread and butter
      Pepper and salt. The death
      That young men hope for. Aimlessly
      It pounds the shore.      (Collected Books 217)
The difficulty of Berryman's poetry lies in its syntax, which is, more often than not, slangy, twisted and disjunctive compared to most "confessional" poems of this time. Spicer's difficulty is between the sentences, a result of what Silliman calls "disjunctive contextualization" rather than jazzy syncopation. Despite the fact that the Dream Songs can be a difficult read, their lines tend to smooth meaning by way of typical linguistic (as opposed to rhetorical) anaphor; Spicer's poetry, as Silliman notes, makes a space for meaning by blowing holes in it: anaphor, double-barreled (182). Thus Berryman hums, is the source of his own music, while Spicer is a witting (but not necessarily willing) speaker for otherworldly white noise (" . . . and aimless signals"). Yet while Spicer took pains to remain an "outsider" who pledged allegiance to the "Outside," his borrowing from the "bosses" shows he also did his fair share of looking at, and listening to, Poetry.


Graham Foust lives in Buffalo, NY, where he is in hot pursuit of a PhD in English. He is the author of Endless Surgery (Trifecta Press, 1997) and Three from Scissors (Meow Press, 1998).


Works Cited
Berryman, John. "Four Dream Songs." Poetry (Chicago). Sept.-Oct. 1962: 7-9.
Brock, Jarrett. "The Development of Peirce's Theories of Proper Names." Studies in the Logic of Charles Sanders Peirce. Ed. Nathan Houser, Don D. Roberts and James Van Evra. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.
Davidson, Michael. The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Eliot, T.S. Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. Ed. and with an Introduction by Frank Kermode. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1975.
Ellingham, Lewis and Kevin Killian. Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1998.
Rago, Henry. "Foreword" and "The Promising." Poetry (Chicago). Sept.-Oct. 1962: 7-9, 97-101.
Silliman, Ron. "Spicer's Language." Writing/Talks. Ed. Bob Perelman. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985. 166-191.
Spicer, Jack. The Collected Books of Jack Spicer. Ed. and with a commentary by Robin Blaser. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1989.
---. The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer. Ed. and with an Afterword by Peter Gizzi. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1998.


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