CRYSTAL SET #4: Book of Magazine Verse by Jack Spicer (White Rabbit Press, 1966)

Book of Magazine Verse by Jack Spicer (White Rabbit Press, 1966). I don’t know if Jack prepared the book for publication, but it was published the year after he died and the chronology in his collected poems does say he wrote it in spring/summer of 1965 and sent some of the poems out. According to the SF public library website White Rabbit put out 63 books between 1957-1968, including Jack’s After Lorca (1957). Book of Magazine Verse has 7 sections, each one titled something like “Two Poems for The Nation” or “Seven Poems for the Vancouver Festival,” the conceit being that Jack wrote each set of poems as a submission for that magazine, or whatever else, knowing they would likely be rejected. So the book is this joke about how writing poems becomes this business of publication and how editors police aesthetics. This kind of gesture seems in keeping with Jack’s snarky wit, sometimes remembered as him just being an asshole, but the book also represents his insistence that poems are not of this world, that they aren’t made to be discrete objects held in place under some lit mag’s temporary clout. This is the book’s dedication: “None of the poems in this book have been published in magazines. The author wishes to acknowledge the rejection of poems herein by editors Denise Levertov of The Nation and Henry Rago of Poetry (Chicago).” I don’t know how much it had to with the press, but in 1960 Spicer tried to start an art space in San Francisco called “White Rabbit College,” the name being a slight fuck you to Black Mountain College. Lisa Jarnot’s biography of Robert Duncan is the place to go for more about the intricacies of Spicer and Duncan’s relationship, one that was often very fucked. I remember one story where Jack sent a young male poet from his entourage to Vancouver with a message for Duncan and the kid saw him at a party, was all excited to given Duncan this message, and said to him something like “Jack wants to know if you can tell the difference between a poem and a streetcar” and Duncan freaked out on the kid, like who the fuck do you think you are, get the hell out of here. Years earlier, when they were very close, Spicer and Duncan had said about a poet they didn’t like that he couldn’t tell the difference between a poem and a streetcar. An amazing example of how far Spicer would go out of his way to piss someone off. But from our perspective 50 years later it also seems like such a devoted gesture. It’s hard to imagine Spicer, despite all the fights and shit talking and protesting against other poets, didn’t love his friends.


In the notes to his collected it says the cover, which is a replica of an old Poetrymagazine cover, was designed by Graham Mackintosh and Stan Persky. Each section is printed on a different kind of paper to simulate the kind of paper used in the magazine the poems were written for, from the glossy pages for Ramparts, a 60s-70s expensively produced political/lit mag, to the leafy brown newspaper-like pages for The St. Louis Sporting News, a section made of 4 poems “about” baseball. The poems remind me of Berrigan’s sonnets, maybe because they look similar on the page and have these off-kilter repetitions, but also because a whole poem repeats from one section to another. A note from Robin Blaser shows how this was in keeping with Spicer’s beliefs about dictation: “Jack did not know he had duplicated a poem until he read the poem to Stan Persky and me and we pointed it out. He looked surprised, checked them, and said that was the way they had to stand.”

I bought The Book of Magazine Verse at The Captain’s Bookshelf in Asheville, North Carolina, a place Steven Karl, Alexis Orgera, and I stumbled upon after eating vegan sausage on our way to Raleigh. Asheville is the Portland of North Carolina, a hill city still weird and thriving a few miles from Black Mountain College. The Captain’s Bookshelf is poetry dork heaven with a ton of rare editions and a poetry section full of treasures. I also bought a first edition of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. In the back the owners, who were so stoked to talk to us, showed us a painting that is a portrait of Kenneth Patchen with light and energy streaming out of Kenneth’s head. I think it was called Kenneth Patchen as a Spiritual Being. The Whitney Museum had just visited to appraise it for their collection but they didn’t want it because it had been mounted or something. Kenneth Patchen is from Ohio and one of the greatest least talked about poets and seeing this painting, I was kneeling on the ground looking at it, is one of the most important moments in my life. This is all to say that how I came to own The Book of Magazine Verse is bound up in some intense magic.

The Book of Magazine Verse is the last section in Jack’s collected and the last poem is about Allen Ginsberg with the first line “At least we both know how shitty the world is.” The poem is such a complicated articulation of the difficulties of love and freedom in terms of the public and the private and, because of its insistence on that difficulty, a totally incredible last poem for a book and for a life. Kevin Killian recently tracked down Spicer’s grave and you can read about that here: Daniel Katz’s new book about Spicer is also really good: