Reviewed: The Poetry of Jack Spicer by Daniel Katz

Bard of the Bay Area.

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.

Jack Spicer tried to limit circulation of his work to the Bay Area (Photo: Getty Images)
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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue