Crystal Set #18: Language by Jack Spicer (White Rabbit Press, 1965)

Language by Jack Spicer (White Rabbit, 1965; second printing 1970). Offset, 66 pages, "Designed and printed at White Rabbit by Graham Mackintosh - June 10, 1965." This copy from the second printing. [Cited page numbers for Spicer poems refer to My Vocabulary Did This To Me.]


Colored by love and judgment, constructed through a series of unmoored metaphors crossed with appearing-to-be-rational syntax that sheds as slight repetitions accumulate across sets of lines, built to showcase the otherworldliness of syllables simultaneously coalescing and floating off into a field of meaning constantly calling on the echo of myth, distant and funny and ragey—this is Jack Spicer’s Language. It feels like an ur-text for an entire poetics (i.e., Language), or a way to consider disobeying how a book functions, which is what nearly each of Spicer’s books seem to generate. Maybe because Spicer is so willing to be against something in his work, and to be so wickedly intimate and mysterious in his refusals, that reading Spicer’s poems always feels like a tremendous relief. Here is a poet showing you how to rage so sharply and strangely. I love that obscure, uncompromising music.

The entirety of Language is republished in Spicer’s Collected, My Vocabulary Did This To Me, but it’s different to read Language as its own discreet book. Not only are the poems laid out differently in the White Rabbit edition, with each poem occupying a single complete page rather than the condensed framing in the Collected, but the cover of the White Rabbit book is my favorite of any of Spicer’s covers, which are all notably just really good. Spicer’s covers aren’t merely decorative but clever, well-designed opening salvos in the critical and mystical aesthetic arguments his poems are the material of. Like the cover for Book of Magazine Verse (White Rabbit, 1966)—a facsimile copy of the then-cover of Poetry Magazine that Spicer uses as a send-up of the academic culture of respectability and professionalism tied to such publications—the cover of Language establishing a lineage for the book itself as it talks back to Spicer’s career as a professional linguist by reproducing the cover of the still-publishing flagship linguistics journal Language in which Spicer’s only professional publication was included. Daniel Katz’s description of the cover in The Poetry of Jack Spicer effectively describes the context and gesture:

“Indeed, the famous cover of Language can be seen as an assertion of this very fact: here one finds faintly reproduced a sepia green photocopy of the cover of the July-September 1952 number of the linguistics journal Language (which contained Spicer’s one publication as an academic linguist) but messily scrawled across it in a large bold red hand (probably Spicer’s own) stands the title “Language” and the name “Jack Spicer.” In truth, however, the book represents less poetry asserting its rights to language over and against those of linguistics than a different figure which the cover also suggests: the over-writing or overdetermination of a palimpsest.” (141)

You can actually read Spicer’s name on the original journal cover underneath the “ck” in the red handwritten “Jack” given as John L. Spicer, the name he would also be buried with (and which would prohibit his grave from being tracked down until just a few years ago). Spicer and his mentor David Reed’s essay “Correlation methods of comparing idioletcs in a transition area” is fascinating to skim through if only to see into the specialized interests of Spicer’s academic training (a PDF of the essay is available here). Copies of the first and second edition of Spicer’s Language are still available online from $40-$300, making it one of the still more accessible Spicer books to find, though it’s increasingly scarce. I especially love the paperclip that appears on the top center of the cover, as if casually left there while making copies of the journal cover. Katz’s description doesn’t mention this detail, though the paperclip seems to me a vivid indication of how Spicer’s relationship to publication as a fiercely local, small press-based activity within particular communities of artists anticipates the zine aesthetic of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

I’ve always read Language as a parallel text to Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets, not because Berrigan’s sonnet sequence and Spicer’s serial poems are directly related (though there is meaningful resonance between their work and attitudes, as I’ve suggested elsewhere), but because of an associative attention to repetition, seriality, wit, and the range of performative rhetorical gestures that both poets make. They’re also contemporaneous publications, with The Sonnets appearing in 1964. I like how reading one against the other generates new ways to describe their respective work. Even a title like Spicer’s “Thing Music,” which is the first serial poem in the book (see Anthony McCann’s awesome 2014 book Thing Music), feels like a Berrigan-esque title, a both serious and oddly humorous phrase that ambiguously calls on a range of referents and ideas. But it is only Spicer who could, over the course of these poems, refer to his heart as being made both of “silicon” and, later, “green cheese” (a particular kind of Spicer goofiness), and write lines like these: “Meow, meow; meow, meoww / Is it really on top of a yellow giraffe / Meow, meow, meow, meow. Meow, meow” (374). I get such a kick out of these lines, their nursery rhyme-resonate silliness, the “ww” anomaly that unloosens the repetition into a conceptual space, and the idiosyncratic, musical note-like use of punctuation. Or take these lines from later in “Thing Music,” which resonate with Berrigan’s attention to simultaneity but glow through Spicer’s unexpected metaphor: “Take each past, combine it with its present. Death / Is a tooth among / Strangers” (378). This frightening, magical statement becomes an aesthetic proverb in Spicer’s mythic-aural pantheon of wicked lines. Here are a few more irreducible lines from throughout Language: “the / radio dead but alive it can connect things / Into sound” (376); “Going into hell so many times tears it / Which explains poetry” (383); “And look at stars, and books, and other people’s magic diligently” (384); “Take a step back and view the sentence” (384); “We make up a different language for poetry / And for the heart—ungrammatical” (390).

But please, can we take a moment to appreciate how incredibly well Jack Spicer uses the word “fuck” in his poems, and to acknowledge that him, Alice Notley, and Amiri Baraka, really, are the ideal models for how to curse in American poetry. These lines from the series “Morphemics” are case in point: “Us exiles dancing on the banks of their fucking river. / They asked us to sing a sad song. How / Motherfucker can I sing a sad song” (391). This is some stunning incredible vicious insistence. The double expletive here becomes the dancing and singing that refuses to emote on the proper, sanctioned level. Or there’s Spicer’s casual virtuous spite folded into daily observation, exemplified by a line like “But real unfucking rain” from “Graphemics” (398). These lines are shrines from which to devise the future of literature.

Finally, I’m thinking of these lines near the end of Language from the sixth poem in “Graphemics”: “Walden Pond / All those noxious gases rising from it in the summer” (401). For a long time I’ve thought of these lines as a description of the pastoral and transcendental toxicity of sanctioned American poetic lineage, literature, and literary spaces that Spicer railed against. But looking back at the poem recently, I remembered an article in The Guardian about a new environmental paper on the ecological health of Walden Pond that describes how Thoreau’s happy lake is quickly becoming a phosphorus-dense sludge ball because it’s full of pesticides and human pee. Having been a person who swam in Walden Pond about 10 years ago, I found this alarming, accurate, and totally appropriate to Spicer’s poem and the nature of literary tourism. The article specifically mentions the use of pesticides on the pond in the 1960s, a likely candidate for the summertime “noxious gases” caused by increased algae growth from the chemicals in the water, which is perhaps what Spicer is referring to. One imagines Spicer visiting Walden during his short tenure working at the Rare Book Room of Boston Public Library in the mid-’50s, maybe even going with Robin Blaser or John Wieners and enjoying the abject landscape they found in the heart of America’s New England literary history. Language is cut through with these moments of joyous pessimistic vitriol, devotion, and mystical intelligence, a completely Spicerian trinity of aesthetic tenets, but all of Spicer’s work deserves to be read and reread, especially for its defiance and derangement of male literary heritage and tradition. In moments of tenuous and fraught inheritance, I’m often thinking of the last lines from “A Poem For Dada Day at The Place, April, 1, 1955,”: “‘Beauty is so rare a thing,’ Pound said, / ‘So few drink at my fountain.’ / You only have the right to piss in the fountain / If you are beautiful.” It turns out Walden’s urine-saturated fate is bound up with Spicer’s Duchampian irreverence more than he could have imagined.