Reviewed: The Poetry of Jack Spicer by Daniel Katz

Bard of the Bay Area.

San Francisco Bay Area
Jack Spicer tried to limit circulation of his work to the Bay Area (Photo: Getty Images)

The Poetry of Jack Spicer
Daniel Katz
Edinburgh University Press, 256pp, £24.99

As a poet who has composed volumes of poems, such as Reverdy Road and Mercury (both available from Salt Books), which work as sequences or "books", not as collections of "accessible", loosely separate lyrics (the most fashionable kind of poetry at the present time), it gives me great pleasure to greet Daniel Katz’s The Poetry of Jack Spicer, the first full-length study of the Californian poet’s work. For me, Jack Spicer is the poet I most return to, and have learnt most from, over the last several years of writing.  Spicer’s genius is as the poet of our age by defining the serial poem, taking the book as its unit of composition, and yet his work has remained underrated at best and ignored at worst since his tragically early death at the age of forty after complications from alcohol addiction in 1965. 

Katz’s study follows the chronology of the work and unlocks the troubled and complex originality that is to be found in Spicer’s "books" of poetry. There are many original features to Spicer’s poetry, but perhaps this is the most vital, and probably the one which has provided the barrier for earlier consideration of the poet’s work, outside the world of avant-garde poetry, in this age of the sound bite. It is this insistence that his poetry be read in serial form, or in the unit of the "book" rather than the single, stand-alone lyric (Spicer called his early, lyric poetry "one night stands"), to which Katz’s book provides excellent guidance, through a body of work which ranges from the "translations" and "correspondence" of the first "book" from 1957, "After Lorca", to the linguistic complexities of "Language" and the bitter and serous comedy of the "Book of Magazine Verse," both from 1965.  The fundamental point Katz picks out of Spicer’s work is the form of "correspondence" – whether that be in the relation between individuals, between the individual and politics, or between society and sexual politics (Spicer was gay in an era prior to gay rights), or between, even more radically, the correspondences between poems and books, and between poems across centuries.  Katz picks up on this crucial feature of Spicer’s poetry from the very start:

To some extent, Spicer was simply ahead of his time: his speculations on Emily Dickinson’s manuscript variants and her practice of embedding poems within letters foretells the path-breaking work of Susan Howe in the 1980s, while After Lorca’s implicit dialogue with Pound’s “Homage to Sextus Propertius” anticipates the sort of theoretical work on Pound as translator which has only come to the forefront over the last twenty years or so. 

In this sense Spicer is a pathfinder. He is also cussed and stubborn in his personal life (I’m not sure I’d seek him out as a drinking buddy), and more importantly, in his work.  As Katz points out, "Spicer’s obsessive assault on what he saw as poetic expediency or fashion is also an assault on the notion of the 'timely' itself," and more fundamentally, is Spicer’s move "to champion an avant-garde whose time can never arrive". Spicer’s work will always be out of fashion, on the outside – he even tried to limit the circulation of his later work to the Bay Area of San Francisco where he was living and holding court in the bars, threatening physical violence to those who might profit from these publications. In the little magazine Open Space he declared: "'Open Space' is actual working place, is free, is for the city – it isn’t meant for manuscript collectors or bookdealers who sell it as valuable merchandise – if I find anyone doing that I’ll take bloody action". Looking beyond the macho bravado there is a radical point to this in that Spicer sees poetry as a completely other form of circulation to that of the western capitalist model, and not just as some form of hippy sentimentalism, but poetry is withdrawn, or beyond this kind of exchange, and promises a political as well as an aesthetic model, which speaks to our age more urgently than it did to the post-McCarthyist, pre-Psychedelic moment of the early 1960s.

As Katz highlights, quoting from Spicer’s final poem in the "Book of Magazine Verse", "a political poem, if anyone ever wrote one":

                   What we kill them with or they kill us with (maybe a squirrel rifle)

                            isn’t important.

                   What is important is what we don’t kill each other with

                   And a loving hand reaches a loving hand.

                   The rest of it is

                   Power, guns, and bullets.

Katz’s book is thorough, thoughtful and brilliantly argued, one which I hope won’t be the last extended study of Spicer’s work, but rather marks the beginning of a serious and considered conversation about this troubled and original poet, and will help to assure Spicer the place he deserves alongside other major American poets born into the 1920s such as Frank O’Hara, Paul Blackburn, Robert Creeley and John Ashbery.