Monday, December 1, 2008

A Most Unfortunate Howler, in the Otherwise Tremendous "my vocabulary did this to me : The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer"

Let me first say that I’m one of the lucky ones. Lucky in the sense that my vocabulary did this to me : The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, just out from Wesleyan University Press, is for me necessary only for the twenty or so previously unpublished poems that it includes among its 400 plus pages. All the rest of Spicer’s work – at least as contained in this book – is known and loved by me through the original small press editions, the 1975 Black Sparrow Press Collected Books of Jack Spicer, and various periodicals.

But I am lucky, very lucky, in this regard. For years now, most who wanted to read Spicer’s poetry essentially had no options. The original editions of his books are out-of-reach, as in expensive or unavailable (the White Rabbit Press 1957 After Lorca, for example, ranges from $250 up to $1,500). Even the Black Sparrow Collected Books is out of reach for most. Paperback copies, when found, commonly sell for $50 or more, and the hardcover edition goes for considerably more.

As such, the Wesleyan Spicer Collected (that’s my shorthand title for the book) is big and happy news. Truly big and happy news. Although it ain’t cheap at 35 bucks (retail price, Amazon’s price is less), it is by far the cheapest fullest collection available, and hopefully will permit many more to read Spicer’s great poems. I wish this book multiple printings, and, better yet, multiple readings by multiple readers. That’s probably a fantasy, I know, but still, I do wish it. Please do your part, dear reader of this humble glade: buy the book, and read it, again and again.

So now let’s get to the “howler.” One of the poems published for the first time – and thus which I read first – is titled, “They Murdered You: An Elegy on the Death Of Kenneth Rexroth.” The poem was written in late 1956, according to the chronological ordering given by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, the editors of the Wesleyan volume.

In a prefatory note the editors describe “They Murdered You . . .” as “a premature elegy on the death of Kenneth Rexroth” (page xxix). The further describe the poem, in the “Notes to the Poems” section at the end of the book (page 444), as “parodic of Ginsberg’s Howl” and further state that although titled an elegy Rexroth “was quite healthy at the time; he lived until 1982.”

The editors don’t explain how they came to conclude that Spicer was parodying Howl. Spicer’s poem, it is true, uses the phrase “best minds of his generation” (although not anywhere near the top of the poem) and a few other words (e.g., “busted”) that are close to or actually in Ginsberg’s poem. But those are very minor similarities. Spicer’s poem has neither the paragraphic prose stanzas, the overall length, or the searing tone of protest of Howl.

The first howler, then, is that the Spicer poem ain’t parodic of Howl, not in the least. The poem it parodies is in fact one of Rexroth’s own, a famous one, a very famous one, called “Thou Shalt Not Kill (A Memorial for Dylan Thomas).” Spicer’s “Elegy” for Rexroth has the same overblown tone, the same name-dropping tendencies, and definitely the same rhythmic repetition of Rexroth’s memorial for Thomas. As if all that weren’t enough, there’s the title of Spicer’s poem: “They Murdered You” obviously riffs on similar lines in Rexroth’s poem about the death of Dylan Thomas, such as “You killed him” or “They murdered him.” That Spicer was parodying the Rexroth poem is easily figured out after even a skimming of Spicer’s “Elegy,” at least for those familiar with Rexroth’s work. Apparently, Gizzi and Killian don't have that familiarity or, if they did, it was somehow forgot. Either way, shame on them.

The editors’ mistake about which poem was being parodied makes me wonder if they understand what the heck Spicer was up to in the poem. Their comments in the notes suggest they simply see the poem as, in their words, “a premature elegy” for Rexroth. In addition, their further note that “Rexroth was quite healthy at the time” betrays that the two either have a bit to learn about Rexroth, or had an unfortunate lapse of memory.

Spicer’s poem is in fact a kick-him-when he’s down overtly sarcastic or, at turns, devastatingly wry put down of Rexroth. Spicer’s poem skewers Rexorth’s ego, his poetry, his poetic concerns, his values and ideals, his fantastic exaggerating, and even those many in the San Francisco poetry world who admired him. You gotta buy the book to read the entire poem here, but folks, believe me, this ain’t even close: Spicer’s poem not only skewers Rexroth, it reams him. It’s executed brilliantly, and it’d make me laugh really, really hard but for the very uncomfortable feelings I have about the poem. First, Spicer had a deep self-hate – as Gizzi and Killian directly imply in their introduction (page xx) – and reading the poem I get a sense that he’s projecting a lot of that hate onto Rexroth. That gives the whole thing a very yucky feel.

But the biggest yuck, ick, and shame of this poem comes from remembering – as the Spicer editors apparently do not – that Rexroth was far from “healthy” at the time the poem was written, and in fact was struggling with a profound crisis that appeared to threaten his life.

The basic story is that Rexroth’s wife fell in love with the poet Robert Creeley then left Kenneth, taking their two daughters. Rexroth, who in the best of times had what we today might call anger management issues, went nuts. It was more than anger. The terms his biographer uses – and the many anecdotes she tells leave no doubt that the terms are accurate – are “irrational” and a “state of hysterical paranoia” that then “deteriorated to the point where his friends actually feared for his life.” (See Linda Hamilian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (W.W. Norton and Co., 1991),pages 262 and 265). His wife then returned, at least temporarily.

Rexroth’s crisis was well known in the poetry community, including by those outside San Francisco. (See Hamilian, page 265.) Indeed, Killian in his and Lew Elingham’s Spicer biography, Poet Be Like God (Wesleyan University Press, 1998) has himself written about Spicer’s knowledge of the situation, and also wrote that Spicer sympathized with Creeley and Rexroth’s wife (see page 128 therein).

In this light, Spicer’s “They Murdered You” comes across as an ugly kick to the balls of a poet who was already devastatingly down. The poem, that way, is really friggin’ ugly. Spicer, to his credit, didn’t publish the damn thing.

Gizzi and Killian, however, decided to put the thing into print. Maybe they decided the poem’s parodic skill and humor outweighed the negative impact of showing Spicer’s mean-prick hate. That, or the two editors were ignorant of what the poem is all about. I think it’s the latter. That the two editors missed the mark both on which poem Spicer was parodying (one by Rexroth, not Ginsberg), and what the poem actually is about (a devastating put-down, an ugly one under the circumstances, not simply a premature elegy), qualifies hands down as the biggest poetic howler (howler (noun): Slang – A laughably stupid blunder) of 2008. And that’s a shame.

What’s the significance of the editors’ mistake? One reader of this here rant states I’ve focused on just a single mini-detail, suggesting that the matter isn’t that important.

True enough, the error is but one detail in a very large book, and as I made clear at the top here, everybody should buy and read this book. However, let’s remember that just about anybody could have edited the vast bulk of the Wesleyan Spicer Collected. About 300 of its pages simply republish the poetry found in the Black Sparrow Press Collected Books of Jack Spicer. Putting that together was relatively easy. The editors’ skills, then, were most important for the 100 or so pages in which they present newly discovered texts and a selection of Spicer’s early poems (circa 1945 to 1956), plus the additional 40 pages of prefaces, introductions, and notes.

With regard to the early poems, the editors of the Wesleyan Spicer Collected “de-selected” (did not print) about one-third of Spicer’s early poems, which previously had been published in the now out-of-print One Night Stand & Other Poems (Grey Fox Press, 1980). That’s a good number of poems left on the cutting room floor. Given how they missed the mark with the Rexroth poem, the knowledge and values the editors used when they deleted all those other poems should give pause, or at least give rise to questions. The editors offer no specific explanations for what they took out or kept in, only asserting they attempted to make a “judicious selection” to provide “something more than an adequate selection” of Spicer's early work (page xxx). Forgive me, but that’s a boilerplate mealy-mouthed editorial line. Although editors usually aren’t required to explain why each poem wasn't included in a selected edition, the howler on “They Murdered You” raises questions about the de-selection process used here.

In addition, the editors “Acknowledgments” section lists dozens of people who helped in their project, including the presumably savvy editorial folks at Wesleyan University Press. There can be no doubt: both the editors, who should have known, and the publisher’s editorial staff, whose job it was to check everything, completely missed the mark on Spicer’s “They Murdered You.” They missed the mark even though the poem directly involves an iconic Bay Area poet (Rexroth), one of that poet’s most well-known poems (“Thou Shalt Not Kill”), and one of the more sensational episodes in the history of Bay Area poetry. A detail of significance or not, the ignorance and institutional breakdown here is shocking.


Michael Theune said...

This blog post is a terrific act of criticism, Steven--kudos!

Steven Fama said...

Thanks very much, Michael. I really appreciate that you took the time to read and comment.

You call my post an "act of criticism," someone else (and sometimes me too) has termed it a "review," and while I'm okay with those words, I prefer, if what I wrote has to be called something, "a reader's rave and rant."

Matelda said...

I found this useful. I only own print-outs of Spicer from college, so I'm going to get the book anyway, but I appreaciate this information.

Steven Fama said...

Hi Matleda -- Thanks for the note. If you like Spicer, or want to check out his poems, it is a sensational book to have.

Anonymous said...

Steven, I enjoyed this rant very much. I have just finished the book (for the first time) and will enjoy chasing down all these details as I study the other poets involved.

James Liddy (d.2008) was my mentor and came over to SF from Ireland originally chasing Spicer's ghost (late 60's). He opened the world of John Lester Spicer to me in a couple courses, and he's been a solid influence on me.

Thanks again