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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Number 180: Jack Spicer "Any Fool Can Get Into an Ocean..."

Any Fool Can Get Into an Ocean...

Any fool can get into an ocean
But it takes a Goddess
To get out of one.
What’s true of oceans is true, of course,
Of labyrinths and poems. When you start swimming
Through riptide of rhythms and the metaphor’s seaweed
You need to be a good swimmer or a born Goddess
To get back out of them
Look at the sea otters bobbing wildly
Out in the middle of the poem
They look so eager and peaceful playing out there where the
water hardly moves
You might get out through all the waves and rocks
Into the middle of the poem to touch them
But when you’ve tried the blessed water long
Enough to want to start backward
That’s when the fun starts
Unless you’re a poet or an otter or something supernatural
You’ll drown, dear. You’ll drown
Any Greek can get you into a labyrinth
But it takes a hero to get out of one
What’s true of labyrinths is true of course
Of love and memory. When you start remembering.

-- Jack Spicer

Hap Notes: Jack Spicer (1925-1965) is going to mess with your head if you are brave enough to get to know him even slightly. He was so far ahead of his time we are still trying to catch up to him. Sometimes he's pulling your leg, except that this is just a turn of phrase and it's not actually your leg, he can't be pulling because he's dead and phonemes aren't turning. Or is it, he, they? Let's start over.

Jack Spicer was born in Los Angeles. He went to school at Berkeley where he met a variety of like-minded poets who encouraged him, most notably Kenneth Rexroth, Robin Blaser and Robert Duncan. Duncan inspired Spicer to come out of the closet and embrace his sexuality. Spicer often called (as many gays often do on the year when they are finally allowed the freedom to be who they are) 1946 the year of his birth. Spicer lost his teaching assistanceship at Berkeley when he refused to sign that paranoid Sloan-Levering Act loyalty oath. He was a student of linguistics and studied Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse in which he was close to getting a Ph.D.

Spicer was politically active and was involved in the gay liberation group, the Mattachine Society. He was hired as the head of the humanities department at the California School of Fine Arts in the early 50's. Spicer and five of his literary/art friends founded the "Six" Gallery, the place where Ginsburg read "Howl" and changed the direction of poetry. Spicer, however, was not a 'Beat'. He wasn't really from any school of poetry at all. He was his own school of thought.

Spicer's work was incredibly individual, beautiful, lyric, self-mocking, somewhat difficult and brilliant. His book "After Lorca" published in 1957, was his "translations" of Lorca's poems and also letters written to the poet. Lorca writes back and even writes the preface to the book. The fact that Lorca had been dead for 20 years when Spicer wrote the book is part of the charm and miracle and wonders of Spicer since it is Spicer writing both for Lorca, about Lorca and to Lorca and to himself as Lorca. Spicer, while he wrote some wonderful individual poems, felt that a book of poems should be more like a series of poems that are roughly sewn from the same threads.

Spicer also worked for a time as the host for a folk music radio show at Berkeley where he made a connection with music archivist Harry Smith and ended up assisting Smith with the Anthology of American Folk Music.

Spicer sort of held court in local bars with people who were attracted to his theories and poetry. He was adamant about not being published nationally, detested the idea of poetry as something one "sold" and refused to copyright his work when it was published on a small press locally (he called copyrighting "the big lie of the personal"). All his poetry was published in the public domain. His belief was that poetry came from the "outside." He called it "Martians," I call it the universe, but in any case he felt the poet was a conduit for these "transmissions" and that the poet's vocabulary was the "furniture" that the muse or Martians or the universe used to arrange the "room" of a poem.

He said of these "transmissions" at one of his Vancouver lectures "I don't think it's something the electroencephalogram would get. I don't think it has anything to do with what's in my skull. I think there's something Outside. I really believe that, and I haven't noticed anyone really, in all of these people who come here, who did seem to believe that I believed it, but I do."

Before you dismiss him as a nutcase, let me point out he was a highly educated linguist with a solid background of reading in the classics. Those of you who know something about Science Fiction authors will get a kick out of the fact that when Spicer attended Berkeley he roomed at the same boarding house with Philip K. Dick. (All of us who know Dick's work are now sporting a wry smile.) What Spicer is talking about is a connection with the "muses" that often miraculously helps one create a work of art. He felt the inspiration for poetry was from some "outer" source that one interpreted with their own vocabulary.

Spicer had an alcohol addiction that was pretty fierce. He collapsed into a coma from alcohol poisoning and died in the poverty ward of San Francisco General Hospital when he was only 40. His last murmured words were " My vocabulary did this to me."

Spicer is a book and a half of information that I'm not qualified to write. It's ironic, but not unpredictable, that Spicer's poetics are highly lauded by linguists and philosophy majors who love to disseminate his theories with even more obfuscating theories. Wittgenstein is often dragged in, and, of course, Derrida. Or Derrida-da as I like to joke. (Just trying to lighten up the mood...)

Today's poem, in addition to referencing a lot of Greek and Roman mythology, is a sly response to Robert Frost who said, "any damned fool can get into a poem but it takes a poet to get out of one."

Here are some Spicer quotes that are somewhat enlightening about his work:

In response to his saying poetry was not important:

"What I'm trying to say is that when I say "not important," it is the kind of thing that - you want a job, you want a million dollars, you want someone to sleep with - no. That doesn't help a bit. It is important to your life in the sense that you live your life not just as a human being but as something more than a human being, and I don't know how much it is. In terms of biography, I doubt if poems that you write or poems that you read by others really change the course of, or the flow of events, of things. But at the same time they do in a fundamental way."

"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. ”

I add this quote strictly because it shocked me. I always thought this was MY crazy theory. I'm happy to see it is Spicer's: "But there are different kinds of levels of gravity and Vancouver has a different level than San Francisco does, and it's one I prefer." (yes, he's talking about the force gravity, not seriousness)

You can find more Spicer here:

P.S. I have no idea if Jack Spicer from "Xiaolin Showdown" has anything to do with the poet but it would be charming if he did have. I kinda doubt it, though.

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