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 Jack Spicer at the opening of the 6 Gallery, 1954

Jack Spicer at the opening of the 6 Gallery, 1954


Language (White Rabbit Press, 1965). Cover design by Jack Spicer.

Language (White Rabbit Press, 1965).
Cover design by Jack Spicer.


Book of Magazine Verse (White Rabbit Press, 1966). Design by Graham Mackintosh and Stan Persky.

Book of Magazine Verse (White Rabbit Press, 1966).
Design by Graham Mackintosh and Stan Persky.


After Lorca (White Rabbit Press, 1957). Cover by Jess.

After Lorca (White Rabbit Press, 1957).
Cover by Jess.


Billy The Kid (Enkidu Surrogate, 1959). Cover design and illustrations by Jess.

Billy The Kid (Enkidu Surrogate, 1959).
Cover design and illustrations by Jess.


Announcement for Billy the Kid, circa 1959

Jack Spicer
Announcement for Billy the Kid, circa 1959
Collage on paper


The Holy Grail (White Rabbit Press, 1964).
Lettering by Graham Mackintosh.

Peter Gizzi

Jack Spicer, Bruce Conner and the Art of the Assemblage


Emotion and innovation is something I’ve thought a lot about relative to my own writing but it’s also something I’ve confronted in very concrete ways in the writing of Jack Spicer, and I thought I would focus here on Spicer’s work, specifically the affinity between his poetry and West-Coast assemblage art, and in particular the film work of Bruce Conner. I am interested in the ways both Spicer and Conner use history as a material texture while leaving gaps within their work to draw the reader into an intimate and emotional engagement with these materials. 1

          In 1965 when Jack Spicer wrote, “get those words out of your mouth and into your heart,” he voiced an imperative to both poet and reader, addressing the perilous honesty that the lived life of the poem demands. This admonition is startling coming from a poet who claimed that his poems originated outside him; who insisted he was no more than a radio transmitting messages; a poet who professed an almost monkish practice of dictation, from “Martians” no less; who rejected what he called “the big lie of the personal;” and yet in bridging these competing demands, he created one of the most indelible and enduring voices in American poetry.2

          To begin with a brief sketch, Spicer was born in 1925 in Los Angeles, though he claimed his birth year to be 1946, when he met the poets Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was taking classes with the German medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz and the poet Josephine Miles. Out of Spicer’s intense fraternity with Duncan and Blaser, the Berkeley Renaissance was born. Spicer spent most of the rest of his life in the San Francisco Bay area with only a few brief departures. But his excursion to New York and Boston in 1955–56 proved to be a defining moment in the development of his poetic vision.

          Ultimately his year on the East Coast further solidified his allegiance to the American West and his identity as a California poet. Both before and after his stint on the East Coast, he was deeply involved in a community of San Francisco-based poets, artists, and bookmakers. In his life, Spicer saw seven small books to press, worked as a researcher in linguistics at UC Berkeley, and in 1965 gave four important lectures shortly before his death from alcoholism at the age of 40. His legendary last words were “My vocabulary did this to me.”

          Spicer is known to many as an erudite poet, with a knowledge of Latin, German, Spanish, French, Old Norse, and Old English, but he is also one of our great poets of heartache and abjection. Although he could be foul-mouthed and cranky, and was certainly alcoholic, he may also be characterized as a late devotional poet who wrote from a mix of doubt, irreverence, and belief. He delighted in organizing and presiding over “Blabbermouth Night” at his favorite local bar, an event at which poets were encouraged to speak in tongues or to babble and were judged on the duration and invention of their noises. He was deeply committed to the depth and authenticity of sound. He worked for years on a linguistic project that mapped slight changes in vowel sounds from town to town in northern California, a project that would profoundly inform his later poetry, in particular Language and Book of Magazine Verse. He hosted Harry Smith on the first radio show devoted to folk music at KPFA in the late 40s, where he also troubled the folk movement’s quest for the authentic by presenting his own fake versions of songs he claimed his friends had just heard down on the pier.

          Spicer was one of the original “6” of the 6 Gallery, a poetry and assemblage- oriented gallery that opened in September 1954 as an extension of a class Spicer had been teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute. (Some will remember that the 6 Gallery was the site of Allen Ginsberg’s first public reading of “Howl” in 1955—a reading that marked the resurgence of poetry as a public, countervailing, oral force. But I should also mention that Spicer was on the East Coast at that time and that he didn’t like what he considered the Beat invasion of his home territory.)

          The 6 Gallery created an environment of “neo-dadaist” experimentation and genre-bending conceived in resistance to mass cultural trends and the increasing commercialization of the art world. In a parallel gesture that would seem counter-intuitive to most writers, Spicer restricted the distribution of his publications to his immediate surround, the San Francisco Bay Area. This rethinking of audience not in terms of numbers but in terms of the direct engagement of the viewer/reader is in keeping with the specifically West-Coast underground aesthetic manifest in George Herms’s “secret exhibition” or Wallace Berman’s Semina. In his lifetime, Spicer’s published books were released in small editions of 500 to 1000 copies or even fewer by small local presses: White Rabbit Press, Enkidu Surrogate, and the Auerhahn Society.

          The 6 Gallery was an early manifestation of what would come to be known as California “junk” or “funk” art, sometimes called “neo-dada.” Its national emergence as “assemblage” was marked by the 1961 exhibition The Art of Assemblage at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. For most art viewers, including the national arts magazines, this constituted an introduction to little-known West Coast artists like Bruce Conner and George Herms. But California assemblage already had a long history in both Los Angeles and San Francisco. Simon Rodia worked essentially in isolation on the Watts Towers from 1921 to 1954, and by the early fifties, artists like Wallace Berman and George Herms began to gather at small galleries like Syndell Studio and Ferus. In San Francisco, Jay De Feo and Wally Hedrick were practicing a similar aesthetic, and Jess (Collins) had established himself as a collage artist. By the late fifties, Bruce Conner had made his way to San Francisco, and Berman and Herms had moved up the coast to join the Bay area scene.

          We should remember that San Francisco was more or less off the grid of the burgeoning New York art market at the time and was ruled by something closer to a frontier sensibility. The interest in magic and the occult within the North Beach poetry and art scenes might be best captured by L. Frank Baum’s description of Oz as a place that “has never been civilized, for we are cut off from all the rest of the world. Therefore we still have witches and wizards among us.”3

          In a 1967 California Funk exhibition catalog, Peter Selz wrote that when the elements of a funk assemblage are examined closely “they do not read in a traditional or recognizable manner and are open to a multiplicity of interpretations. … Funk is visual double-talk, it makes fun of itself although often . . . it is dead serious.”4 It is, as Spicer writes of Dada “not funny” but “a serious assault / on art” (“Poem For Dada Day at The Place, April 1, 1958”).

          Spicer’s outrageous literary debut After Lorca exemplifies the macabre humor, serious gamesmanship, anti-commercial status, and destabilized voicing of poetic assemblage. After Lorca was published in 1957 by White Rabbit and illustrated by Jess. The book can be read as a dadaist send-up of the venerable Yale Younger Poets Series, for which W. H. Auden served as judge in the 1950s, selecting work and writing introductions. For his own book, Spicer adapted the format of the established older poet vetting the emerging poet, turning to Federico García Lorca to introduce him even if the martyred Lorca had to do so from the grave. Understandably put out, Lorca begins: “Frankly I was quite surprised when Mr. Spicer asked me to write an introduction for this volume.” And thus begins Spicer’s provocative poetics of engaging the dead in his literary practice.

          After Lorca is ostensibly composed of translations of Lorca’s work, the faithfulness of which even Lorca questions. There are also nearly a dozen original Spicer poems masquerading as translations, combined with six now-famous programmatic letters to Lorca in which Spicer articulates his poetics and his sense of personal woe with respect to poetry, love, and his contemporaries. With these letters, translations, and fake translations, Spicer established a unique correspondence with literary tradition, one that would further evolve into a resonant intertextual practice of assemblage.

In fact, a number of Spicer’s books, especially Language and Book of Magazine Verse, are in themselves art objects. In the manner of Duchamp, they are copies of other “original” documents; they announce themselves as not merely functional objects but as sculptural assemblages. The cover design of Language is a facsimile of the cover of Language: Journal of the Linguistic Society of America (July-September 1952). The issue included Spicer’s only published academic article in linguistics, co-authored by David W. Reed. The White Rabbit Press cover features the title, author, and press information written over the journal’s cover in red crayon (or lipstick) by Spicer. The cover design for the Book of Magazine Verse simulated an early issue of Poetry magazine. Book of Magazine Verse contains poems written to venues that Spicer anticipated would not print his work. The paper for each section of the book was chosen to simulate that of the magazine to which the poems were directed.

          Within his work, Spicer delighted in provocative and incongruous combinations. His poems make use of a life-long fascination with games and systems: bridge, baseball, chess, pinball, computers, magic, religion, politics, and linguistics. Even though he loved to dissemble—using misunderstanding, misdirection, puns, or counter-logic—his poems leave us not with a lack of meaning but rather an excess of meaning, with figures echoing and bumping against each other from widely disparate places and times. His poems repeatedly disrupt even their own procedures by jamming the frequencies of meaning they set up. John F. Kennedy’s “Camelot presidency” becomes a grail circle; and in the then-nascent computer age, the Tin Woodman’s heart is made of silicon. His poetry engages in conversations with other texts, both high and low, often invoking works that have already been widely retold and transformed, and are thus already “corrupt”: The Odyssey, grail legend, bible stories, Alice in Wonderland, the Oz books, the legend of Billy the Kid, nursery rhymes, and the evening news—the H bomb, the deaths of J. F. K. and Marilyn Monroe, even the Beatles’s U. S. tour.

His goal was nothing short of building from these disparate narrative threads “a whole new universe”—albeit a universe in which things do not fit seamlessly together. As he puts it, “Things do not connect, they correspond.” Later, in his Textbook of Poetry, we find:

It does not have to fit together. Like the pieces of a totally unfinished jigsaw puzzle my grandmother left in the bedroom when she died in the living room. The pieces of the poetry or of this love.
For Spicer, reading and writing are repeatedly associated with a loss of boundaries. Spicer makes what the film critic Manny Farber has called “termite art,” an art that eats its own borders.5 As the poem just quoted continues, this aesthetic is literalized:
As if my grandmother had chewed on her jigsaw puzzle before she died. // Not as a gesture of contempt for the scattered nature of reality. Not because the pieces would not fit in time. But because this would be the only way to cause an alliance between the dead and the living.

          As his work matured, Spicer turned more and more toward an aesthetic of assemblage, where the “pieces of the poetry” are less blended and more arranged. Rather than reworking the poem to produce a seamless surface, Spicer allowed for the semantic and narrative gaps within a poem to remain. Holes appear within the text, and the surfaces of Spicer’s poems are literally riddled with logical and temporal gaps, non-sequiturs and puns. Instead of hearing a line from “O Suzanna” (“I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee”) we get “I Arthur, Rex Quondam et futurus with a banjo on his knee”—a king turned into a minstrel, the medieval reframed within the folk revival.

          In “The Book of the Death of Arthur” section of The Holy Grail (1962) you can hear Spicer’s recasting of narrative content and his use of slippages between some of the different narrative or lyric gestures:

“He who sells what isn’t hisn
Must pay it back or go to prison,”
Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt, or some other imaginary
American millionaire
—selling short.
The heart
Is short too
Beats at one and a quarter beats a second or something like that.
Fools everyone.
I am king
Of a grey city in the history books called Camelot
The door, by no human hand,

Marilyn Monroe being attacked by a bottle of sleeping pills
Like a bottle of angry hornets
Lance me, she said
Lance her, I did
I don’t work there anymore.
The answer-question always the same. I cannot remember when
I was not a king. The sword in the rock is like a children’s
story told by my mother.
He took her life. And when she floated in on the barge or joined
the nunnery or appeared dead in all the newspapers it was
his shame not mine
I was king.

In the episode of le damoissele cacheresse, for example, one
stag, one brachet, and one fay, all of which properly belong
together as the essentials for the adventures of a single hero,
by a judicious arrangement supply three knights with
difficult tasks, and the maiden herself wanders off with a
different lover.
So here, by means of one hunt and one fairy ship, three heros
are transported to three different places. When they awake
the magic ship has vanished and sorry adventures await
them all. Not one of them is borne by the boat, as we should
naturally expect, to the love of a fay
Plainly we are dealing with materials distorted from their
original form.

The faint call of drums, the little signals
Folks half-true and half-false in a different way than we are
half-true and half-false
A meal for us there lasts a century.
Out to greet me. I, Arthur
Rex quondam et futurus with a banjo on my knee.
I, Arthur, shouting to my bastard son “It is me you are trying to
Listening to them, they who have problems too
The faint call of them. The faint call of
(They would stay in Camelot for a hundred years) The faint call of

1. Versions of this piece were given at The Lamont Poetry Room at Harvard University, Poet’s House of New York, The Poetry Center at San Francisco State, The Art Institute of Chicago, Kenyon College, University of Southern California, and Columbia University. Thanks to all involved.
2. For more information about dictation and serial poetry see Spicer’s lectures and my afterword, “Jack Spicer and the Practice of Reading,” in The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer (Wesleyan, 1998). For more about Spicer’s life see Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian’s biography, Poet Be Like God (Wesleyan, 1998). All poetry of Jack Spicer’s quoted in this essay is from My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (Wesleyan, 2008).
3. See Bruce Jenkins’s essay “Explosion in a Film Factory” in 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story (Walker Art Center, 2000).
4. See Peter Selz’s catalog essay in Funk (University of California Art Museum, Berkeley, 1967).
5. See “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” in Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies (Praeger Publishers, 1971).

PETER GIZZI’S books include The Outernationale (2007), Some Values of Landscape and Weather (2003), Artificial Heart (1998), and Periplum (1992).

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