On Halloween morning in 1954, six artists reopened the King Ubu Gallery, a San Francisco auto repair shop that had been transformed into an electric forum for alternative voices. The front window displayed a Duchampian toilet with a draft notice dangling across the tank. This unspacious place was given a new name and found an auspicious calling when Allen Ginsberg howled loud about the best minds of his generation.
Among this gallery’s hell-raising sextet of founding fathers was Jack Spicer, a 29-year-old linguist regarded in the poetry community with varying degrees of respect and contempt. Spicer struggled to find some workable niche between academic security and the rising Beat counterculture. Both were at odds with his anarchist instincts.
Like the emerging Bay Area bookseller Roy Kepler, Spicer refused to sign the loyalty oath required of California universities and was kicked out of a doctoral program at UC Berkeley. These turmoils spurred fierce poetry, but they also induced Spicer to take to drink and die of alcoholism in 1965.
Thankfully, the pain and innovation bristling inside Spicer’s too-brief tenure have now been contained in “My Vocabulary Did This to Me,” a collection of poems along with several unfettered letters, coy colloquies and a “Poetry as Magic” workshop questionnaire that asks aspiring poets: “If you had a chance to eliminate three political figures in the world, which would you choose?”
Spicer’s poems have been helpfully organized by date, where one can watch his experiments blossom into a chilly but carefully tended garden, warmed by “an innocent old sun quite cold in cloud.” Over the years, his use of em dashes reminiscent of Dickinson transforms into brisk line breaks that splinter words into sharp syllables. Indented asides, responding to repeated phrases, shift into dadaist dialogues with the silent-film icon Buster Keaton and domesticated birds, as well as into sardonic letters to the dead.
Like an open-source software advocate, Spicer refused to claim copyright for these poems. And he often sampled from other poems while taking swipes at his colleagues, condemning Kenneth Rexroth for teaching “the youth of our generation to write political poetry / That does not really offend the FBI.” He mocked Lawrence Ferlinghetti in a poem that carries the annotation “Ferlinghetti is a nonsense syllable invented by the Poet,” and he later thought the San Francisco Renaissance he took part in was something of a sham.
But these jolly hostilities originated from an inveterate playfulness. Spicer offered an “unvert manifesto” sustained by “mertz,” a nonsensical term that involved “linking the sexual with the greatest cosmic force in the universe.” Unverts had the power to defy easy classification as inverts, outverts, perverts or converts, but one suspects that all this jocosity enabled Spicer to casually throw away the forms he’d worked in before. Spicer’s 1957 collection, “After Lorca,” not only includes an introduction from the Spanish poet written two decades after his execution but also includes several letters to him from Spicer.
“We are polite,” wrote Spicer, “but it is as if we were trading snapshots of our children -- old acquaintances who disapprove of each other’s wives. Or were you more generous, Garcia Lorca?”
Spicer’s stand-alone poems, the “one night stands” from before, would no longer do. And he took to thematic works like “The Holy Grail” with powerful but mixed results. He was aware of poetry’s difficulties, but refused to be glib about it. In the previously unpublished “Helen: A Revision,” Spicer responds to Robert Frost’s claim that “any damned fool can get into a poem but it takes a poet to get out of one.” He points out that “getting out of a poem is no more difficult than answering a lying obvious answer to a lying obvious question in an intelligence test or a lover.”
But Spicer did not discount the classics. He frequently evoked Orpheus and Eurydice, with a particular fixation upon music playing in hell. Where Ginsberg railed against Walt Whitman in the neon fruit supermarket, Spicer took a more empathetic view in a long ode, acknowledging Whitman’s lost America while noting that his tongue was “invoking / Comrades to keep vigil over your gazelle without body.”
While time has been kind to Spicer, his reputation has not quite soared with his apparent martyrdom. His vocabulary did indeed do this to him, but perhaps with this handsome edition, love and reappraisal will let him go on.