Analysis of Jack Spicer’s After Lorca
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).
A poetics of referentiality (and surrealism is nothing if not that) gives way before a poetics of pragmatics, as the cultural and contextual weighting of a wordbecomes the central poetic fact. This implies a poetics of both literal andculturaltranslationandcitationality,andalsooneinwhichthehermeneutichorizon which the serial poem was meant to trouble recedes even furtherbefore the valency of poetry as act, interpellation and event. It is thisrealization that leads Spicer, in his next book Admonitions , directly to theproblematics of address, in a work whose form is explicitly epistolary, whose model is Dickinsonian rather than Whitmanian and whose centralrhetorical feature is obscenity.Threatened by a New York that isdissolute in every sense of the word, Lorca responds by rhetorically reaf ﬁrming an identity of proper name and common noun, as he had inhis Andalusian poems. If, following Walsh, we accept that Lorca fails to establish any transcendental ‘category capable of deﬁning the maricas,here he seems to abandon his failed project of categorization precisely by exploding any potential grouping into distinct, untranslatable nominalistfragments. The various groups are emphatically not subsumed under a single name; on the level of language, all possibility of equivalence andexchange is denied, including the referential exchange without whichtranslation is impossible – the ‘ matter ’ or referent of this particular passageis the singularity of a given name, in a given language, in a given place (Jack Spicer, 1980).
Jack Spicer, One Night Stand & Other Poems, ed. Donald Allen (San Francisco,CA: Grey Fox Press, 1980).
The House that Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, p. 15
Daniel Tiffany’s groundbreaking Radio Corpse: Imagism and the Crypthaesthetic of Ezra Pound (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995)