Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology The New American Poetry 1945-1960 blew the lid off 1950s American verse. Against establishment poetry’s gray-flannel formalism, Allen unleashed a horde of barbarian-savants inspired by the most outré and counter-establishment aspects of earlier American and European modernism, who rejected well-wrought verse for the immediacies of American speech. Out of all the poets featured in that anthology — Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, John Ashbery, and a host of other now-familiar names — Jack Spicer seemed most clearly destined for a spectacularly successful career, on the strength of his “Imaginary Elegies,” four by turns hilarious and achingly lyrical poems in which the poet was both “like God” and a passive medium.
That success was not to be: five years later, Spicer had drunk himself to death at 40, leaving behind a few short poetry collections, a few fugitive prose pieces and recorded talks, and a name to conjure in the Bay Area — though that reputation barely extended beyond Oakland. Spicer’s work was central to 1970s and 1980s Language Poetry, but it’s taken dedicated editors to bring it wider recognition: his friend Robin Blaser, who edited The Collected Books of Jack Spicer in 1974, and his biographer Kevin Killian, who (with the poet Peter Gizzi) edited My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (Wesleyan University Press, 2008). Daniel Katz’s superb edition of Spicer’s uncollected poems and plays, Be Brave to Things: The Uncollected Poetry and Plays of Jack Spicer, brings the full range of this short-lived master’s work into handily available print.
Be Brave to Things probably isn’t the place to start with Spicer. For that, there’s last year’s New York Review Books reissue of After Lorca (1957), Spicer’s playful and corruscating collection of translations of, dialogues with, and general inhabiting of the great Spanish poet’s work; and My Vocabulary Did This to Me, which collects After Lorca and all of the other poetry that Spicer wanted in print. But most poets I know would give their eyeteeth to have written many of the poems in Be Brave to Things. That Spicer didn’t publish them isn’t a matter of casual absent-mindedness (as with his near contemporary Frank O’Hara, who seems to have left unpublished masterpieces in every drawer of his apartment). Rather, in his mature writing Spicer conceived his poetry in terms of thematically and imagistically interlinked sequences, in which the freestanding poems collected here simply didn’t fit.
By the last decade of his life, Spicer was writing almost exclusively in linked forms, and the bulk of the late poems in Be Brave to Things have been gleaned from the notebooks where he was working out his sequences. Some of them are squibs, like “Concerning the Future of American Poetry II”: “My grandmother always told me / That when you get in a fight with a dog turd / You only get shit on your fingers.” Some of them reiterate Spicer’s (intermittent) faith in the power of poetry:
In the smallest corner of words Poetry shouts from Them together Bears witness Words bearing witness Witness There In the smallest corner of words.
Others, like the prose poem “Dear Russ,” implicitly lament the distance between words and reality:
I would like to include a slice of the black-green of the bay in the letter and the noise of the seagulls (who seem to know it’s going to rain again) and the smell of the bullheads on the pier (they’ve been running lately and neither seagulls nor cats will eat them) and my love for this beautiful place and for you who are not in this place. But the U.S. Mail does not include boys or seagulls or bullheads or desires.
Spicer’s poetry can be deeply funny and playful but, as in the passage quoted above, it has a consistent undercurrent of sadness. One gets the constant sense that, for all his gifts, Spicer suspected his writing was a failed project, at best a rarely attained transcendence of his loneliness and his deep existential angst. This is most evident in some of the late, abortive sequences Katz collects in Be Kind to Things, in particular “A New Poem”:
Effortless Those loves Like electricity. Electric Invisible But pain hangs on like a dog. The beds we sleep in every night. The dull ache of a tooth or a lonely swimmer trapped in the night’s ocean And these others are not enough. Not until the poem burst into poetry And the body puts on the glad rags of unreason And the heart quenches Pain, I would tell my biographers. The sheer Pain of being human. And when I hold your hand Or do not hold your hand. This pain.
Much of the early work in Be Brave to Things is written in deftly handled traditional forms, demonstrating that Spicer’s later beautifully modulated or arrestingly jagged free verse was arrived at through much dedicated practice. The opening quatrain of “On Falling into Your Eyes” is nicely turned iambic pentameter (if a trifle hyperbolic):
No bastard son of sea-froth deified With all his arrows could twist half the pains That pinion me as I am swept inside And sprawl, half drowning, through your inner veins.
What’s striking is how many of the motifs and obsessions of Spicer’s mature work are already present in his apprentice writing: classical mythology (as in the reference to the god Eros above), in particular the story of the poet Orpheus; the ocean and the moon as mute yet multivalent symbols; the Tarot deck; and a whole range of images lifted from T. S. Eliot’s early work through The Waste Land.
Spicer managed to cram a great deal of writing in a variety of genres into his brief life: a largely complete translation of Beowulf (published in 2016), a review of Thomas Johnson’s 1955 edition of Emily Dickinson that lays its finger on textual and conceptual issues that have occupied Dickinson scholars ever since, an unfinished detective novel of great mystery and charm (The Tower of Babel, published in 1994). Perhaps what’s most revelatory about Be Brave to Things, however, is its selection of Spicer’s previously uncollected plays.
Young Goodman Brown is a solid dramatization of the Nathaniel Hawthorne story, marred only by the title character poking out his eyes, Oedipus-like. Pentheus and the Dancers: An Adaptation is a moving version of Euripides’ The Bacchae. The real gem is Troilus, Spicer’s take on the Trojan war tale of love and betrayal. His sources are Shakespeare’s play Troilus and Cressida and Chaucer’s long poem Troilus and Criseyde, but what Spicer makes of the story is entirely his own — alternately satirical, deeply thoughtful, camp, and heartbreaking.
The Trojans and Greeks are engaged in a static, ongoing war. Ulysses, full of elaborate strategies, is something of a poet: “I’ve wasted nine years of poetry on this war and I’m not going to have it ruined with a sloppy ending …. You can’t compromise a war anymore than you can compromise a poem. Not a real war anyway.” On one level, the play is precisely about the state of permanent war — when he wrote it in the mid-1950s, Spicer had lived through the Second World War and the Korean conflict, and was well into the Cold War. “You don’t think about the war, Cressida,” says Troilus, “No one thinks about it. People sometimes talk about it, but that’s as far as it goes.”
But the play is also, like so much of Spicer’s writing, about love — unrequited or betrayed — and the painful imprisonment to which it condemns the lover. Cressida’s uncle Pandarus tells Troilus, “The heart doesn’t die”:
You’re young and you’re a war-child. The only death you’ve seen is death by violence. That’s clean and only kills the heart—it doesn’t starve it. It doesn’t leave the heart locked alone in a prison cell, a cell that gets danker and slimier year by year, foul with its own excrement, stinking of unfulfilled desire.
“Is it really so bad?” asks Troilus. “No, not so bad. The human heart adjusts to anything,” Pandarus replies, “you’d better learn to eat your mixture of stone and bread with the rest of the prisoners.”
Troilus demonstrates that Spicer had it in him to be as brilliant a playwright as he was a poet; it deserves to be produced on stage. In print, it abundantly manifests the combination of linguistic élan, philosophical depth, and insight into personal misery that characterizes the best of this tragically short-lived poet’s writings.
Be Brave to Things: The Uncollected Poetry and Plays of Jack Spicer (2021), edited by Daniel Katz, is published by Wesleyan University Press and is available in online and in bookstores.