In the winter of 1958-59, Jack Spicer gave a poetry reading at San Francisco’s Bread & Wine Mission, a proto-New Age storefront drop-in centre at the top of Grant Avenue in North Beach run by Father Pierre Delattre. I was in the U.S. Navy at the time, eighteen years old, stationed at nearby Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, my first posting after boot camp.
Had I already read about, or seen a picture–in Life magazine–of “Hube the Cube”? This improbable poster-person for the beatnik movement was a scruffy, thin man with a black beret whom I sometimes saw walking on Grant Avenue. What got him into Life magazine was the word “oblivion” tattooed on his right bicep, his then-unique way of declaring withdrawal from the “rat race” of 1950s America.
When I went into the city, I searched out the “beatniks” and artists, and occasionally stopped by the Bread & Wine Mission for the free spaghetti dinner it offered once a week. That’s likely where I heard about Spicer’s reading.
I hadn’t yet been introduced to Spicer, though I’d read a couple of his poems in the Evergreen Review a year or two earlier. But I was paying more attention to the “stars” of the burgeoning literary movement that would eventually become “The New American Poetry”–Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gary Snyder.
In person, Spicer was an ungainly pear-shaped man in his early thirties, his thinning hair swept back from his sun-freckled forehead, garbed, the first time I saw him, in a rumpled sports jacket and ill-fitting black pants. While he read, he scrunched up his eyes, balled his chubby fists, and seemed to menacingly chew on the words of his poems.
I was soon to learn that Spicer, about a year or two before this reading, had experienced one of those extraordinary artistic breakthroughs that often determine a poet’s career and shape the remainder of their life. Born in Los Angeles in 1925, and raised there, he had come to the University of California at Berkeley at the end of World War II, where he fell in with a group of young poets, the most prominent of whom–Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser and himself–formed a triumvirate at the forefront of a local poetry movement that became known as the “Berkeley Renaissance.”
A decade later, while briefly and unhappily in New York and Boston, Spicer found himself at an artistic impasse. True, he had written several good poems in the past ten years, predominantly influenced, I think, by the work of W.B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens, but as he said in a poem commemorating the death of jazz musician Charlie Parker, “Song for Bird and Myself” (1956), “I am dissatisfied with my poetry, / I am dissatisfied with my sex life, / I am dissatisfied with the angels I believe in.” In the opening chapter of an unfinished novel he subsequently attempted, Spicer offers a fictional self-portrait of himself as a stymied, “academic” poet, returning to San Francisco to seek new inspiration. (The book was posthumously published as The Tower of Babel, Talisman, 1994).
Just before his return to San Francisco, Spicer read a new edition of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Selected Poems (New Directions, 1955), co-edited by Don Allen, a former Berkeley classmate working in the publishing business in New York. Toward the end of 1956, Spicer began dabbling in some translations of the work of the homosexual Spanish poet who had been murdered at age thirty-eight by the Fascists in 1936. Spicer was attracted not only to Lorca’s homoeroticism, but also by the Spanish poet’s association with surrealism (Lorca had been in love with Salvador Dali, and was a friend of the filmmaker Luis Bunuel), his Orphic theory of duende, and his interest in the nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman–all themes that resonated with Spicer’s own poetic concerns. By Christmas 1956, back in San Francisco, Spicer had completed his translation of Lorca’s angry “Ode to Walt Whitman,” at which point he became stuck in this still undefined project.
It wasn’t until summer 1957, after conducting a “Magic Workshop” for young poets and finishing a brief teaching stint at San Francisco State College, that his writer’s block broke. When Don Allen arrived in San Francisco to spend the summer, Spicer had a new “Lorca” poem to show him practically every day when they met at Vesuvio’s or The Place, two local North Beach bars. But the poems weren’t simply translations. As Spicer wrote to Robin Blaser in Boston in June 1957, “Since school’s been out (for me forever) I’ve been ignoring my unemployment and translating Lorca… I enclose my eight latest ‘translations.’ Transformations might be a better word. Several are originals and most of the rest change the poem vitally. I can’t seem to make anybody understand this or what I’m doing. They look blank or ask what the Spanish is for a word that isn’t in Spanish or praise (like Duncan did) an original poem as typically Lorca. What I am trying to do is establish a tradition. When I’m through (although I’m sure no one will ever publish them) I’d like someone as good as I am to translate these translations into French (or Pushtu) adding more. Do you understand? No. Nobody does.” As a great lover of games, Spicer would eventually come to enjoy creating guessing games that challenged readers to figure out which poems were Lorca’s, which were Spicer’s, and which were hybrids. (Clayton Eshleman, in “The Lorca Working,” Boundary 2, fall 1977, offers a scholarly treatment of that question.)
A year or so later, in 1958, in the middle of Spicer’s next book, Admonitions, and as part of the text, there is another letter to Blaser. “You are right that I don’t now need your criticisms of individual poems… Halfway through After Lorca I discovered that I was writing a book instead of a series of poems,” Spicer says.
“That is why all my stuff from the past… looks foul to me. The poems belong nowhere. They are one night stands filled (the best of them) with their own emotions, but pointing nowhere, as meaningless as sex in a Turkish bath… Look at those other poems. Admire them if you like. They are beautiful but dumb,” he laments.
“Poems should echo and reecho against each other. They should create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can…
“Things fit together. We knew that–it is the principle of magic. Two inconsequential things can combine together to become a consequence. This is true of poems too. A poem is never to be judged by itself alone. A poem is never by itself alone.
“This is the most important letter that you have ever received,” Spicer tells Blaser.
Allowing for a bit of vatic hyperbole in the claim that his earlier poems amount to no more than “one night stands,” what’s interesting is that Spicer’s critical vocabulary utilizes the colloquial language of gay cruising to describe his dilemma, asserting that poetry, if not the poets who write it, is looking for love rather than sex. More important, in the midst of writing After Lorca, Spicer discovered the notion of what he and Blaser would subsequently call the “serial” poem, a form whose unit of composition is the “book” (using that word in a way slightly different from its conventional reference), and to be distinguished from the modern “epic” (Ezra Pound’s Cantos, or Charles Olson’s Maximus), as well as other “long” poems, or poems in “parts.” In the serial poem, each poem stands on its own, and yet integrally connects to the other poems that make up the “book.” Furthermore, Spicer conjoins to the serial poem an Orphic theory that the poem is transmitted, from an unknown outside source, by a process of “dictation.” For the remainder of his brief life–he died in 1965–Spicer would write only dictated “books.”
The first result of this breakthrough was After Lorca (White Rabbit, 1957), a thoroughly original work and a book unlike any other in American poetry in its era. Beyond the form of the serial poem, and the mixture of “transformations” and scrupulously accurate translations (the one of Lorca’s “Ode to Whitman” is arguably superior to that of any preceding “professional” translation), Spicer gave the book an elegant and witty coherence by interweaving the poems with a series of letters to the dead Lorca that proclaimed Spicer’s poetics and provided a sort of self-reflexive narrative of the writing of the poems. As well, there’s an “introduction” to After Lorca written mock-posthumously by Lorca himself.
The assumption of the persona of Lorca is Spicer’s first great invention in After Lorca, creating the trope that not only are the poems written in the manner of Lorca (hence, “after Lorca”), but that both Spicer and (the imaginary) Lorca are writing “after” the death of the Spanish poet. “Frankly I was quite surprised when Mr. Spicer asked me to write an introduction to this volume,” Lorca begins, in a tone of dry, mild affront that Spicer sustains throughout the apparently reluctantly- written preface. “My reaction to the manuscript he sent me (and to the series of letters that are now a part of it) was and is fundamentally unsympathetic. It seems to me the waste of a considerable talent on something which is not worth doing.” However, Lorca adds, with grim wit, “I have been removed from all contact with poetry for the last twenty years. The younger generation of poets may view with pleasure Mr. Spicer’s execution of what seems to me a difficult and unrewarding task.”
The imaginary world that Spicer conjures with this first paragraph is so smoothly and economically presented that its surreal metaphysics are almost imperceptible–a world in which living poets can communicate with dead ones by sending them letters through a celestial postoffice, and in which dead poets have enough of an afterlife to criticize the living one’s efforts.
Lorca forcefully warns readers that the poems are not translations. “In even the most literal of them Mr. Spicer seems to derive pleasure in inserting or substituting one or two words which completely change the mood and often the meaning of the poem as I had written it.” Moreover, there are hybrid poems, half-Lorca, half-Spicer, “giving rather the effect of an unwilling centaur (modesty forbids me to speculate which end of the animal is mine),” as well as an equal number of Spicer’s own poems “executed in a somewhat fanciful imitation of my early style.” Worse, there’s “no indication of which of the poems belong to which category,” and–in a final twist of the poetic knife–“I have further complicated the problem (with malice aforethought I must admit) by sending Mr. Spicer several poems written after my death which he has also translated and included here.” As Lorca puts it, with gallows-humour, “Even the most faithful student of my work will be hard put to decide what is and what is not Garcia Lorca as, indeed, he would be if he were to look into my present resting place.”
The letters to Lorca are “another problem,” says the imaginary recipient of them. “When Mr. Spicer began sending them to me a few months ago, I recognized immediately the ‘programmatic letter’–the letter one poet writes to another not in any effort to communicate with him, but rather as a young man whispers his secrets to a scarecrow, knowing that his young lady is in the distance listening.” In this case, the young lady “may be a Muse, but the scarecrow nevertheless quite naturally resents the confidences.” As for the reader of this odd amalgam, “who is not a party to this singular tryst,” Lorca concedes that he “may be amused by what he overhears.”
What follows are about thirty brief poems, each dedicated to a poet, friend, or lover of Spicer’s acquaintance, two surrealist playlets featuring the silent movie comedian Buster Keaton (about whom Lorca had in fact written a playlet in his posthumously published Poet in New York), the famous polemical “Ode to Walt Whitman” in which Lorca–and Spicer–argue their uncompromising views on homosexual love, and the interleafed “programmatic” letters.
In the letters, Spicer propounds a poetics whose principal issues are the relation of language to poetry, the connections or “correspondences” of poems to each other despite their apparent disimilarities or distance in time, geography and language (a theory created in the nineteenth century by Rimbaud and Baudelaire), and necessarily, a metaphysics about art, life, love, and death–the latter realized through a metaphorical embodiment of “the dead,” who, as Lorca says, “are notoriously hard to satisfy.”
The poems in After Lorca are unassuming lyrics that nonetheless often carry the sting of the underlying poetics, but are far from the spectacular figures and romantic language that first attracted me to poetry (Allen Ginsberg’s “angelheaded hipsters,” say, “dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix”–some of whom I would meet in San Francisco). Spicer’s Lorca poems are stark, melancholy, disciplined, and cerebral. A characteristic one reads:
A Translation for Robert Jones
At the heart of the moon or the branches or my
And there is nothing in the universe like diamond
Nothing in the whole mind.
The poem is a seagull resting on a pier at the end of the ocean
A dog howls at the moon
A dog howls at the branches
A dog howls at the nakedness
A dog howling with pure mind.
I ask for the poem to be as pure as a seagull’s belly.
The universe falls apart and discloses a diamond
Two words called seagull are peacefully floating out where the waves are
The dog is dead there with the moon, with the branches, with my nakedness
And there is nothing in the universe like diamond
Nothing in the whole mind.
The complex metaphysics of “A Diamond” posit the merciless interrelationship of person, reduced to “my nakedness,” to the world and perhaps something larger. The ordinary world of “branches,” “a dog,” “seagull,” “the ocean,” rendered in words–“two words called seagull are peacefully floating out where the waves are”–and the binary universe/”the whole mind,” are offered as almost alternatives, mediated only by “the poem.” The howling of Spicer’s dog is far removed from the rhapsodic, Whitmanesque Howl that Ginsberg had written only a year or two before. In Spicer’s vision, the universe “falls apart” to disclose “a diamond” at the heart of things–“the moon or the branches or my nakedness.” The declaration is that “there is nothing in the universe like diamond / Nothing in the whole mind,” and that the diamond is the poem.
The letters to Lorca make the poetics more explicit, despite a dialectical elusiveness. Spicer begins with a tactical feint, disclaiming the importance of the missives. “These letters are to be as temporary as our poetry is to be permanent,” Spicer tells Lorca. “They will establish the bulk, the wastage that my sour-stomached contemporaries demand to help them swallow and digest the pure word. We will use up our rhetoric here so that it will not appear in our poems.” Several times Spicer makes unfavourable comparisons of the prose of the letters to poetry. “See how weak prose is,” he says. “These paragraphs could be translated, transformed by a chain of fifty poets in fifty languages, and they would still be temporary, untrue, unable to yield the substance of a single image. Prose invents — poetry discloses.”
In the course of enunciating his stance, Spicer also provides, almost offhandedly, an autobiographical portrait of his own spare life. “A mad man is talking to himself in the room next to mine. He speaks in prose. Presently I shall go to a bar and there one or two poets will speak to me and I to them and we will try to destroy each other or attract each other or even listen to each other and nothing will happen because we will be speaking in prose. I will go home, drunken and dissatisfied, and sleep–and my dreams will be prose. Even the subconscious is not patient enough for poetry.” Neither madness, dreams nor everyday discourse can take us beyond prose; only poetry can make something “happen.” Spicer adds, almost by way of respite, “You are dead and the dead are very patient.”
In a further letter, Spicer notes that although “a really perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary,” there is a considerable difficulty embedded in language and reality. “We want to transfer the immediate object, the immediate emotion to the poem–and yet the immediate always has hundreds of its own words clinging to it, short-lived and tenacious as barnacles. And it is wrong to scrape them off and substitute others. A poet is a time mechanic not an embalmer. The words around the immediate shrivel and decay like flesh around the body… Objects, words must be led across time not preserved against it.”
Finally, in terms of language, “Words are what sticks to the real. We use them to push the real, to drag the real into the poem. They are what we hold on with, nothing else. They are as valuable in themselves as rope with nothing to be tied to.”
The difficult notion of “the real” and the problem of the “immediate object” or emotion are taken up in a subsequent letter, one that would attain some notice as Spicer’s formal statement of poetics when it was published in editor Don Allen’s New American Poetry, 1945-60 (Grove, 1960). Although many of Spicer’s contemporaries also made statements about poetics, the still-remarkable feature of After Lorca’s poetics, which are fully embedded in the work of art, is that no American poet had said precisely these things before, and no one had spoken in this intimate, confiding tone of voice about how poetry worked.
Spicer declares, “I would like to make poems out of real objects. The lemon to be a lemon that the reader could cut or squeeze or taste–a real lemon like a newspaper in a collage is a real newspaper.” Immediately, and characteristically, Spicer invents a tantalizing dialectic between the impossibility of poems made out of real lemons and the reasonableness of a newspaper fragment pasted into a collaged artwork. “I would like the moon in my poems to be a real moon, one which could be suddenly covered with a cloud that has nothing to do with the poem–a moon utterly independent of images. The imagination pictures the real. I would like to point to the real,” Spicer says.
If there is a dialectic between words and the real in poetry, there is something similar between mere images and “visibility” within a poem. “How easy it is in erotic musings or in the truer imagination of a dream to invent a beautiful boy. How difficult to take a boy in a blue bathing suit that I have watched as casually as a tree and to make him visible in a poem as a tree is visible, not as an image or a picture but as something alive–caught forever in the structure of words. Live moons, live lemons, live boys in bathing suits. The poem is a collage of the real.”
But, as Spicer knows as well as the rest of us, “things decay… Real things become garbage. The piece of lemon you shellac to the canvas begins to develop a mold, the newspaper tells of incredibly ancient events in forgotten slang, the boy becomes a grandfather. Yes, but the garbage of the real still reaches out into the current world making its objects, in turn, visible–lemon calls to lemon, newspaper to newspaper, boy to boy. As things decay they bring their equivalent into being.”
That is, “things do not connect; they correspond.” It is the possibility of correspondence that gives meaning to the otherwise mysterious notion of “tradition” that Spicer mentions in both his letter to Blaser and the letters to Lorca. A poet “translates” real objects, “bring[s] them across language as easily as he can bring them across time.” The corresponding objects are not at all identical–“that lemon may become this lemon, or it may even become this piece of seaweed, or this particular color of gray in this ocean. One does not need to imagine that lemon; one needs to discover it.” Even the letters to Lorca “correspond with something (I don’t know what) that you have written… and, in turn, some future poet will write something which corresponds to them. That is how we dead men write to each other.”
At the end, after other letters and poems, Spicer announces that “this is the last letter.” The connection between the two poets has faded away “with the summer. I turn in anger and dissatisfaction to the things of my life and you return, a disembodied but contagious spirit, to the printed page.” The communion with the ghost of Garcia Lorca is over.
How was it ever able to happen? Spicer wonders. “It was a game, I shout to myself… There are no angels, ghosts, or even shadows. It was a game made out of summer and freedom and a need for poetry that would be more than the expression of my hatreds and desires.” Yet, it was real. “The poems are there, the memory not of a vision but a kind of casual friendship with an undramatic ghost who occasionally looked through my eyes and whispered to me…”
In “Radar,” a postscript dedicated to Marianne Moore, Spicer once more measures the uncertainty of the world in relation to the self, and the irreparable loss which shadows any such encounter:
No one exactly knows
Exactly how clouds look in the sky
Or the shape of the mountains below them
Or the direction in which fish swim.
No one exactly knows.
The eye is jealous of whatever moves
And the heart
Is too far buried in the sand
At Spicer’s reading that night in the winter of 1958-59, he read Admonitions and A Book of Music, two books written in 1958. In about six months I would acquire an elementary understanding that permitted me to see why this poetry was more interesting than its spectacular, hip cousins, but at the time, what Spicer read went mostly over my head. But after the reading, I hung around anyway and fell into conversation with the poet. Somewhere in the course of talking–perhaps as a result of the talk, or simply because I was young and attractive, though I wasn’t any more aware of my beauty than I was of his alleged ugliness–Spicer produced a rumpled brown paper bag, the kind you could get at any grocery store. He emphasised that although the books inside the bag normally sold for one dollar, on this occasion he was giving me a gift. At which point, he extracted from the paper bag a copy of After Lorca and handed it to me. Thus, I began my relationship with my mentor.
3946 w. July 5, 2001