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Ex Libris

December 29, 1985|ROBERT ATWAN | Atwan writes on poetry, rhetoric and American culture, and is a contributing editor to "The Harper American Literature."

Should auld acquaintance be forgot? As the old year passes and many drink a cup of kindness for auld lang syne who rarely do so in the dry middle of the year, we bring to mind a half-forgotten poet, a drinker, a quintessential Californian.

Jack Spicer, a native of Los Angeles, was among the premier poets of the San Francisco Renaissance. Along with Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, Philip Lamantia and Brother Antoninus, Spicer helped establish during the late '40s a public atmosphere for poetry that set the stage for the Beat Movement.

A heavy-drinking, nonsense-loving figure, Spicer died in 1965 at age 40 in the alcoholic ward of the San Francisco General Hospital. Ten years ago, Spicer's long-time friend, Robin Blaser, lovingly assembled "The Collected Books of Jack Spicer," and the volume, published in paperback by Black Sparrow ($7.50; 382 pp.) deserves to be better known. Blaser's appended essay ("The Practice of Outside") on the intellectual dynamics of Spicer's poetry could stand alone as a significant piece of contemporary criticism.

In many ways, Spicer represents an entire assemblage of the social and cultural elements that went into the poetry written between 1945 and the early '60s. His style juxtaposed French surrealism and Walt Whitman, high-minded transcendentalism and popular trash, anarchistic politics and a deep love for things American. It was aggressively anti-academic and proud of its autodidact spirit.

Look into Donald Allen's influential anthology of "The New American Poetry" (1960) and you will find several impressive pages of Jack Spicer. But search through all the anthologies of the next 25 years and you will probably not find his name again. Though his presence once radiated a poetic magic to all around him--to Robert Duncan he was "mentor, censor and peer" all rolled into one--Spicer's poems have practically disappeared from current literature.

This would not have surprised him. He was essentially a poet's poet who cared more for the task of poetry than for his own reputation. "She said she wanted to be a singer," the artist John Chamberlain said of his ex-wife, "but what she really wanted to be was famous." Spicer seemed to write with no ulterior motive; in fact, he thought personal ambition severely compromised poetic quality. It put too much emphasis on personality, and Spicer poems continually attacked the "big lie of the personal."

Easily accessible, Spicer could usually be found in North Beach bars, at Candlestick Park wearing his Giant cap, or in front of his favorite pinball machine experiencing the meaning of "telekinesis." He didn't see the act of writing as a superior calling that demanded academic respect and acclaim. Spicer's everyday life--drinking with friends, cruising, visiting amusement parks, watching the gulls-- that was his "career." As Blaser notes, Spicer was "the least alienated of contemporary poets--in touch with the quickness of ordinary language as he was in love with baseball."

Yet, baseball and ordinary language aside, this remains complex, challenging poetry. Spicer resists two important tenets of New Criticism: the use of a dramatically recognizable speaker (preferably someone whose "tone of voice" conveniently changes during the course of the poem) and a sense of the poem as a completely self-contained unit, an "organic whole."

Spicer believed that true poetry didn't grow out of individual experience--a form of sentimentality--but came from "outside" the poet almost in the form of a mental invasion. "Who is speaking?" is therefore always a critical problem; poetry is often "What the words choose to say." As a result, Spicer's work rarely relies on the cozy first-person intimacy that characterizes the sound of so much contemporary poetry. He is honest enough to realize that if the "I" is problematic, so is the "you."

The other radical departure--his distrust of the individual poem--causes further critical discomfiture. In "Admonitions" (1958), he writes that Robert Duncan taught him "not to search for the perfect poem but to let your way of writing of the moment go along its own paths, explore and retreat but never be fully realized (confined) within the boundaries of one poem." From then on, Spicer gave up writing "one night stands" and concentrated all his powers on the serial poem: "Poems should echo and reecho against each other. They should create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can."

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