James Tierney

The poet thinks continuously of strategies, of
how he can win out against the poem.

Jack Spicer’s strategy was greater than the sum of his tactics. He was famously committed to a mission that wove casually across cosmologies his devotion to a metaphysics of disregard. But as a systematic, unremitting malcontent, Spicer wrote individual lines of poetry that bore out each in their turn a larger or smaller wormhole from established planks both literary and cultural. The poems track a transverse line through all four, five, six dimensions, from Spicer’s deeply considered self-reflexive poetics, to his damning response to what he was enduring daily in life, down to a subterranean mysticism that struggled to survive these two. Operating in a small room of likeminded poets, deep underground, they, in both morbid and heroic fashion, resisted vast pressures that threatened to implode thin walls at every moment. Spicer wrote to and for these poets, writing against this ocean of earthly things above them. The tension between his misanthropy and his affection produced a body of work at once as intimate and as alienating, to use his own analogy, as letters passed between neighbors.

This coven was, however, bound to lose the argument. They were a team that lost every outing, and that is what is most beautiful about it now, because the odds against this kind of a losing streak are extraordinary. Their perseverance let us know the fix was in, and it has become clear that this odd activity was after all shifting the paradigm enough that, one, poetry did change, and two, it was once again possible to engage seriously with Magic. The camp of private sorrow gradually giving way to lighting fire for food.

I am tempted to take Spicer at his word, but do not, when he writes: “I am the ghost of answering questions. Beware me. Keep me at a distance as I keep you at a distance.” He deserves it, after all, for asking so much, and I want to cast off close readings for the heuristic ride of these language games, these endless amusements. Repeatedly, however, my attention is fixed on the horology, in the end, of these same language games.

Spicer’s deathbed declaration, which provides the title to this book, my vocabulary did this to me: the collected poetry of Jack Spicer, (it’s not clear from the anecdote whether the subtitle was spoken aloud or implied) speaks starkly, humorously, to the primacy of language, and its effects, above all other forces, malignant and otherwise, to which he might have attributed his early, perturbed death. Language, all too much like the mechanisms of death, need not in its inexhaustible assemblage of vocabulary track reason. It’s true, the mere presence of grammar, punctuation, and the suggestion of sense always counsel otherwise, and how can we resist? It takes someone as close to the medium as Spicer was, a trained linguist, to understand instinctively that the evolution of a language depends on its use by its outliers, its opportunities to challenge reason. It is in this sense that language is most human, and on this point Spicer’s poetry is adamant—that it be composed of the most human language. Wittgenstein, notably, was similarly obsessed. The closer we inspect the contents of this book, the more it is necessary to abandon surface readings of the detectable emotional, psychological, biographical, and biological scars that are the poetry’s ambivalent medium and to contend with a consistent set of language games that work very hard to define from out of the shapeless rock an uncommon and indefensible aesthetic position.

You have clipped his wings. The marble

Exposes his wings clipped.

“Dead on arrival”:

You say before he arrives anywhere.

The marble, where his wings and our wings in similar fashion

      blossom. End-


In his own way, Spicer wanted more than Creeley or Duncan, more than Ginsberg or Burroughs. He wanted big the way Olson wanted big, the way Pound and Williams wanted big, impossibly big, this was the source of his energy, his profligacy, and his frustration. For all the things Spicer made a point of dismissing, for all the ambivalence and defeat that sighs out from these pages, it is more than anything else his love for his own work and his own process of creating it that rises unambiguously up from the experience of this collection. It is this that pulls the latter day reader through book after book of some staunchly cryptic poetry. In spite of all that has been said to the contrary, Jack Spicer was happy somewhere, from out of somewhere he has produced a body of work characterized in large part by a kind of joy, a wicked and even whimsical humor wrapped in a lucid and rare intelligence, producing at one point, even, a retelling of the quest for the Holy Grail that rivals in its hilarity any produced since.

The third

Joyful mystery.

The joy that descends on you when all the trees are cut down

and all the fountains polluted and you are still alive waiting

for an absent savior. The third

Joyful mystery.

Spicer’s most consistent challenges to language, persisting throughout his many reconceptions of form, are those of the joke, the pun, and the riddle. Ever present, they give shape to his intellect, to both the constructive crescendos and the deflating failures—jokes that deliver their punch lines to great effect, stock jokes, and jokes that fall flat or are promised but never arrive; puns by the score, puns punning upon puns, puns as riddles; riddles with riddles for answers, riddles as nonsense, as exemplars of the form alone, abstracted, abandoned midriddle, riddles that trail off into mumbles. Riddles like his eels to the river, gathered all together at one point under the organizing principle of the ultimate non sequitur: Who Are You?

But let’s not forget: “There are people that talk about poetry like tired insurance clerks talk about baseball. They must be destroyed by our silence.” If the riddles aren’t riddled enough, the poet who plays this game is merely an enabler. And even this habitual evasion becomes predictable, says Spicer, enabling this tired clerk:

It’s rather like a medium (a real medium) who gets a spirit, call her

Little Eva, to control her. Pretty soon, after a few sessions, she’ll get

to know what Little Eva is going to say and start saying it for her.

Then it’s no longer a séance but fakery and time to change spooks.

Spicer was forever changing spooks, it must have been exhausting. This anxiety runs through the entire oeuvre and is itself exhausting, an anxiety toward his own influence on himself—he worked just that closely to each line, each page. And: “so it is (the violence of the impatient artist)”. The violence is in the speed at which these lines hit the page. It is only in the forensics one begins to appreciate who hit what, at what angle, at what speed, and which wounds will prove the worst.

Nevertheless, Spicer at many points goes out of his way to make explicit and plain something the reader of this handy collected volume ought already to have figured out—that he doggedly makes no distinction between the abstract and the concrete. He gives precedence to neither, uses each to explain the other in a confounding infinite loop, more often than not shaping the literal to elucidate the figurative, the two flinging one another through the weave of this book like curling partners.

    And this is a system of metasexual metaphor. Being faithful to the

nonsense of it: The warp and the woof. A system of dreaming fake


Perhaps only in Wallace Stevens did we have a poet who contemplated at an equivalent depth the true value of a fiction, the modus operandi of the deliberately constructed fake: the reification of ghosts, Magic, and Spicer would go so far as to say, of reification itself. He favored the immaterial.

    Poetry comes along after the city is collected. It recognizes them

as a metaphor. An unavoidable metaphor. Almost the opposite.

The collected municipalities of Jack Spicer, it might have been called. But with Spicer, in contrast to Stevens, we have that other palm at the end of the mind, not at all the one in which a golden bird sits and preens, squawking, but the one that gropes blindly the contours of the face or body before it and transmits the human data back to that palm at the front of the mind—the fist gripping the pen that puts these primitive perceptions onto paper. So unlike Stevens, every flight of Spicer’s is contrasted with his giving up the fight. Spicer saw clearly, in nearly each encounter it would seem, the stark failure, the reversal, of the Marxist ideal in America: from each, according to what is required of him, to each, according to his ability to get it.

Though he’d already been nurturing it for some time, ”A Textbook of Poetry” stands as Spicer’s most sustained and most explicit attempt to get at the source of this eternal, lifelong heartbreak—”the pieces of the poetry or of this love”—disappointments as much public as private. And though not an advisable measure of a poet, it is worth noting that once a reader has truly entered into it, Spicer’s poetry, more than most, has the power to invoke on behalf of his lost causes both tears and laughter inside of two lines.

Imagine this as lyric poetry.

In this ironically, and yet presciently, titled "textbook" of poetry (something the larger volume is certain to become) Spicer presents us with several extended riddles that loop into one another over the course of the poem. And just as he does over the course of all of the later books, he repeats lines, sentences, phrases, words in order to recast them, a set of repetitions so prevalent they are easily overlooked as affect or lyric. But they are something altogether more tractable than this, they are at the heart of the language game that is no less than a life or death matter for Spicer. Cast once as metaphysical grasping, the same unit is cast once more as the concrete real. There are times when the repetition comes three, four, five times, the metaphysical and the real pivoting on the instructive, the bland, or the lyrical, demonstrating that each is a part of an unweighted continuum that is brought to the fore, not demonstrated by, but lived, as language, as metaphor, as image—as Magic, so Spicer called it, that lamp (or lump) that is even above love. The reader, Spicer often made a point of saying, is a ghost and the text read a fake, always a fake read by a ghost, “I am the ghost of answering questions”. Every question satisfied by an identical answer, a paradox wherein everything truly living and not truly dying is created in the processes of the dead thing—artifice, the fakebook—for the dead, by the dead, these dead the gravitas that stayed his swinging pendulum, kept it at true south, through some otherwise exceedingly vibrant language.

Dare he

Write poetry

Who has no taste of acid on his tongue

Who carrys his dreams on his back like a packet?

Ghosts of other poets send him shame

He will be alive (as they are dead)

At the final picking.

To sustain the argument of this continuum, that is, to show it living, to in fact give the undead range of it life, as Spicer saw it, he at some point understood he had to sustain a continuum within his own poetry. He left his one-night-stands behind and took up his vocation, the task of composing the catechism that took a high toll too soon. But we get it. We get the whole thing.

Only days before his own unreasonable death, I happened to sit beside Robert Creeley and speak to him. It would be the last moment in which I, the reader, would have any direct link to Jack Spicer, the poet. It never occurred to me to ask Creeley about Spicer, dead then nearly 40 years, because Spicer’s poetry, like Creeley (who was then sitting beside me, both him and the entirety of his poetry), I had never located in the past. This book confirms it, that this exploded view of a singular and strikingly coherent mind, previously only experienced here and there, and now taken as a whole, has for half a century floated outside of time as poetry emerging out of some imaginary future. In this cosmology, Spicer continues to exist in that isolated room of poets, the truest elitist among the elites (of a sort), who as it happens is now hawking a book by the tens of thousands. The room grows very large, the walls more substantial, and that future now bears down upon us. Kafka knew what Spicer knew, and Rimbaud knew—burn them all, but don’t—“these dead poets knew what was coming to them”.

Thus said Merlin


Who saw through time.