The American poet Jack Spicer, who was born in Los Angeles in 1925 and died, in San Francisco, forty years later, in 1965, a broken man and a drunk, interests today’s readers on many levels, and not the least of his interests was his theory of dictated poetry. He avowed that his best poetry was written by an outside force, a confluence of forces he hesitated to name, but sometimes called the “Martians,” or the “Outside,” and he compared the poet to the radio in Cocteau’s 1950 film Orphee, through which transmissions are heard from hell. Poet, or speaker, as radio. The way the sound amplifier in the stereo system is called the speaker. Spicer’s body of work collapses notions of self and agency with a greedy, brilliant flair for the absurd. Through his subconcious state, voices from the “outside” find human expressions, as he allows himself to be overwhelmed by the alterity of a will stronger than his own. The poet’s own voice thus has always a quality of abjection, for Spicer disclaims to having written the poems. “When someone praises my work I feel like they’re talking about my brother,” he said once. When he announced his “dictation” theories, claiming that his poetry was the product of “outside,” alien forces, he joined the mystical band of his heroes Yeats, Blake, and Rilke, but became a freak to the hard-edged, career-driven poets of MFA programs and prize committees.
I wonder if there are any biographers on Dennis’ blog, who have shared my experience, that the biographer and the subject change roles as the work goes on. What does that mean? It means that in 1990 I was totally on Spicer’s side (the biographer loves the subject, some kind of very primitive identification goes on in which, tracing a life, I step into the shoes of the man and ascribe the best motives to everything he does, or as it amounts to, I do). His enemies—like Lawrence Ferlinghetti—were my enemies. A few years later I passed into the intermediate stage, where I came to loathe Jack Spicer, and I began to suspect that people like Ferlinghetti were right. He was a sucky excuse for a human being and his writing isn’t all that great either. Finally at great length the biographer luckily moves into the third phase, which is really a combination of A and B. We’ve all read biographies of the Phase A type. Recently I read, with a mxiture of horror and fascination, Jackson Benson’s life of the California novelist Wallace Stegner. It was like—There but for the grace of God go I. And surely we know a lot of Phase B books too: I think Tom Clark’s life of Charles Olson was begun in Phase A and finished in Phase B, so that Olson gets worse and worse on every page and almost in every paragraph.
Anyway I’ve moved into the third phase, which is why I explain my diffidence, since I don’t any longer know if Spicer was a medium or not, but thinking about it, I know at least that he cultivated this image and may have believed it himself. The evidence is suggestive. First I wanted to back up a bit and explain Spicer’s life in general . . .
As a young boy Jack Spicer had a dream, one of those precognitive dreams that seem absolutely real and terrifying. It would not be exaggerating to say that this dream had some affect on the rest of his life, both as a poet and, you know, as a human being. He was dreaming about nothing in particular and then without a transition he was transported through the clouds into the darkest reaches of space, a space big beyond imagination, and strangely quiet, and he saw a murder being committed. I always think of this dream as “Murder in Space,” a cheap pulp type title, but that seems to be the way Spicer thought of it too, and perhaps his later addiction to science fiction and to detective stories issued from an attempt to try to clarify the nature of his dream—a dream, as I say, so vivid that he actually believed it had happened to him. The way that the survivors of space abductions really believe that they were chosen to be transported into silvery ships and probed with amazingly flexible steel rods in their rectums. But you notice the difference between this Whitley Strieber type of story and Spicer’s dream—generally speaking, nothing happened to Spicer—nothing touches his body, nothing clouds his brain: he’s there as a witness.
This episode was to color the rest of his life, the way Henry James’ “obscure hurt,” whatever that may have been, colored his view of social relations and human destiny. It was the implacable cruelty of the non-human beings that spooked him. As a young, sickly kind of boy growing up in pre-war LA, Spicer was familiar with the ordinary human cruelty—the petty dislike for anything different that drew him to Tennessee Williams’ early plays. But the cold cruelty of outer space seemed to leave its mark on Spicer’s inner self. The ghosts and voices that appear in his poetry are not sweet, they’re mean as hell, and strangely indifferent to human response. Like “Tak” in Stephen King’s books.
Anyway when he came to Berkeley in 1945, an intellectual, kind of gawky, kind of cute guy, six feet tall and about 120 pounds, kind of in the closet, but kind of confused sexually, not really sure but that he wasn’t, after all, as heterosexual as anyone else, he fell into the company of two other young poets, Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser, and in this company, which the three of them later called the “Berkeley Renaissance,” he began to practice magic in earnest.
He had already met, in Los Angeles, the British novelist and essayist Aldous Huxley, who introduced him to Hinduism, Busddhism, and Yoga. Spicer was a kind of seeker after truth, and the realms of the other world intrigued him. Of course they would, they intrigue any sensible child. A few years later he met Huxley’s friend Christopher Isherwood, whose experiments in automatic writing further intrigued him. As a teenager he hung around carnivals and circuses hoping to meet gypsies, and somewhere along the way, perhaps from the gypsies, he learned to read the Tarot cards. Not as popular then as they are today, where all of us know more or less what a Tarot card looks like. My point is that Spicer really hungered after magic. In Berkeley, in the company of Spicer and Duncan, he really went to town with it. I don’t know if any of you have ever done any drugs, but the whole time Spicer was in college he was living in this artificial paradise comprised of such a heavy-duty intellectual camaraderie that the participants all felt drugged. It was in this state of heightened consciousness that Duncan hit on the idea of the serial poem. Each night, around a wooden round table, in the kitchen of a rented Berkeley house, Duncan would compose a poem more or less in a trance. Ten nights later he had ten poems, the “Medieval Scenes.” There was also s series of domestic scenes. There were swans in the wallpaper in the bathroom that you could see while you were taking a bath: but not really see: you registered them in your subconscious and then forgot them, and they came out in your poetry.
You started to call all the cute new young guys you met yours “swans,” and you didn’t even know why. And then one day Duncan looked very closely at the wallpaper and saw the swans with his conscious mind, and this explained everything. This was their discovery, at the rooming house at 2029 Hearst Street, in Berkeley, that they were all living in a magical world.
Bruce Boone and I went to the house at 2029 Hearst and asked the people if they would let us come in, because this was the famous house where Duncan lived with Hugh O’Neill and Janie O’Neill, and they let us in and Bruce chatted them up and I asked if I could use the bathroom. So I got in there and you know, flushing the toilet and everything, I started to peel away the damp paint on the wall on the other side of the bathtub—which was one of those standing tubs, and I was looking for those swans, and instead just this kind of wet plaster goo stuff came off under my nails, so I ran the water in the sink and I imagine I looked so guilty coming out that those people probably thought, well, who knows what they thought, but it’ll be a cold day in hell before they let anybody in the house again, and Bruce told me he kept them occupied by talking about the Gnostics and about Bataille and S and M. No wonder they looked dazed.
Anyhow, I think part of the thing about magic was about sex, and about gay sex, and playing with magic was one way of actually playing with sex without actually having to come out and have it. Especially in the immediate postwar period when homosexuality was this incredible taboo. The way that many gay men would get drunk, have sex with each other, and then be able to say, “I was so drunk I don’t remember what we did last night.” This wasn’t true of Duncan who, Leonard Wolf said, was the “most out man he ever knew.” On the other hand, there’s out and then there’s out, and it means something different today than it did in 1946. James Schevill recalled that Duncan would go into bookstores with his book and depending on the store, sometimes he would bring in a woman friend with him and introduce her as his wife, if the bookstore owner was thought to be leery of selling the books of homosexuals. And indeed, of course, Duncan had been married, and lived a bisexual life throughout this period. Spicer too. He claimed to some to be a virgin, to others he let on that he had had sex for money as a teen with the aging and disgraced tennis star Bill Tilden. The gay men of Los Angeles knew him as a player in the bars. But to Duncan and Blaser, and most of the men and women of the Berkeley Renaissance, he represented himself as a virgin—a blank page, a untouched vessel. And it was at this juncture that Philip K. Dick came into their lives.
Some are surprised to hear of the link between Jack Spicer and Philip K. Dick. I gave one talk at the Art Institute in San Francisco, which is like slacker heaven, and a lot of people were raising their hands, jumping in, talking and yakking, but dotted across the room around the seminar table sat these young guys, their arms folded, it was summer so you could see the henna tattoos up and down their arms, sunglasses, slacker heaven. So I mentioned Spicer’s influence on Philip K. Dick and they came alive like—like black sunflowers: “Valis, yeah, Valis, Vast Active Living Intelligence Fucking System.” Anyway at the end of his life, Philip K. Dick was about to write another novel, this one to be called “The Owl at Midnight,” which would have been a memoir of the six months he spent at UC Berkeley, living in the same house as Duncan, Spicer, Philip Lamantia, all these crazy poets who sat up all night trying to scare themselves into poetry. But he died. In the meantime it was really a pathetic story, because here he was, right, the world’s greatest science fiction writer, he’d written “The Man in the High Castle” and all those other books, and he wrote to Robert Duncan a letter something like, “Say, do you remember me? I was just a kid in your house and I looked up to all of you and now I’ve written, you know, like 20 books and I wanted to tell you how much you meant to me,” and he never heard back from Duncan. And later Duncan said that he didn’t write back because no, actually, he didn’t remember him, and he still hadn’t read any of Philip K. Dick’s books. But Spicer had kept up with Dick’s career for sure. And indeed, right at the moment that he discovered dictation, he was reading not only Philip Dick, but William Burroughs, and starting to write his own masterpiece The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether, a book in four parts, and the first part is called “Homage to Creeley.”
And so I find that the atmosphere of Heads of the Town is just filled with all these references, or emanations, from Burroughs, Dick, another writer called Alfred Bester, whose two great novels The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination were among Spicer’s favorites. It’s funny because, after Spicer’s death, Robert Duncan began a long introduction to his work, an essay he never actually finished, in which he speculates at some length on the amazing similarities between Spicer’s writing and Burroughs’ writing, and he says something to the effect of, but of course Spicer never read Burroughs. Luckily we now have the lectures Spicer gave up in Vancouver where a member of the audience asks him if in fact “Naked Lunch” isn’t indeed a dictated poem, and he says, no. And indeed he puts down Burroughs in this very dismissive nothing way, but that’s just defense, the way that I have sometimes been guilty of sneering at, say, hmmm, Djuna Barnes or Hemingway when the truth is that my writing couldn’t have existed without theirs. I asked William Burroughs if he knew Spicer’s writing and he explained the difference between their projects was that he, Burroughs, aimed at expanding the human consciousness and that Spicer seemed to be interested in narrowing it or blunting it in some way.
Spicer thought of himself as a real patron of the arts. And never hesitated before saying, So and so is good and so and so is awful. His voice had a lot of authority to it, people listened to what he said. He wasn’t a patron in the sense of someone who spends a lot of money on art and artists, no, for he wasn’t wealthy, or even most of the time especially solvent. What’s the name of that couple in New York who amassed that huge, huge collection of minimalist work by paying $25.00 a month to different artists? Spicer didn’t even go that far. He was the type of patron who just shows up at galleries, nods, or frowns, goes for the cheese and wine, then talks about the work to different people afterwards. He felt important, because the painters deferred to his judgement, but what was his judgement about art? You can see that a biographer wants to know about these things. Did he have good taste?
He seemed indeed to sneer at those who cared about art. The painters who loved him constantly wanted to give him their paintings. There’s a wonderful picture by Jess, which he gave to Jack Spicer, but Spicer turned around and gave it away to another friend, which is good in a way since it still exists, seeing that Spicer lived like a pig and prided himself in owning only two artworks, and these of declaredly awful taste, a terra-cotta bust of himself, hollow, in texture and shape like a flowerpot, which he had commissioned in Minneapolis by a local artisan, in the spirit of those tourists who come to Fisherman’s Wharf and pose beside those people who do your picture in charcoal and crayons in seven minutes with a backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge behind them. There’s a photograph of Spicer kissing his own head. This head still exists too and it’s really terrifying. There are photos of Spicer and Blaser holding a seance in 1959, 1960, around the same time that Blaser was beginning “Cups” and Spicer “Homage to Creeley.” The other artwork Spicer owned was what he called his Egyptian frieze, a frayed hanging he also called “Uncle Louie.” Despite its down-home name, “Uncle Louie” was a gaudy piece of Orientalism, the representation of a pharoah surrounded by lines of hieroglyphs and Egyptian figures, created in Cairo during World War II by women artisans. The piece hangs four feet long, and eighteen inches wide, and its present owner described it in these terms, “It’s just a commercial piece of appliqué.” The representation of the Pharoah is so askew that others thought it was actually the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland smoking a hookah.
One of the painters Spicer knew, Paul Alexander, remembered this work, asserting that “That was a purposely ugly image, hung over his bed, meant to offend.” Spicer, although gay himself, disliked what he thought of as the effeminacy, or should I say the effeteness, of the affectations of both collectors and artists, particularly the intriguing art collections of his two greatest friends, the poets Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser.
Let me now resketch some details of Spicer’s life and you can see where the magic fit in, or didn’t fit in. He was born in Hollywood in 1925 and died in San Francisco forty years later—in a way his career was much like that of Frank O’Hara, only in a humbler West Coast way of course, and the startling coincidence of their dates (both poets died at age forty, a year apart) is perhaps no more than a coincidence, but I sometimes wonder if their meeting in 1955 didn’t spur Spicer on to a greater interest in the visual arts. He nursed a stubborn feeling, almost a grudge, that anything O’Hara could do, he could do better. Duncan’s interest in Surrealism—he had, during the war years, lived in New York in the “View” group of Charles Henri Ford and Pavel Tchelitchev—inspired Jack Spicer; Duncan’s first-hand knowledge of the European painters who had fled their homelands for New York during World War II must have been a very good education in what they called modern art back then. And soon, once Duncan had met the painter Jess Collins a few years later, and moved in with him in 1950, Spicer was on the fringes of Jess’ wide circle of painter friends.
When you read The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, and particularly the long essay by Robin Blaser that concludes the book, “The Practice of Outside,” you get the idea that all of the work in the book was written under dictation, but that’s a little misleading. The book begins with Spicer’s first book, “After Lorca,” during the writing of which he discovered the concept of the serial poem—an entirely different kettle of fish. It was during the writing of “Homage to Creeley,” several years later (say, from November 1959 to the spring of 1960) that Spicer announced to Blaser that he had been writing his poetry through “dictation.” He was no longer “in charge” of his writing—some outer force was using him as a trance medium. For Spicer, dictation was a release from the responsibility of authorial intention and all it denotes. No longer was his “personality” to intrude. The days of dedicated poems were over. The spirits that wrote the new poems hardly knew the boys Spicer loved. The morning after he wrote “Dillinger,” he stumbled across a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle and discovered that the last of Dillinger’s gang had been shot down in a barber shop. He became convinced that he was in touch with—and perhaps had been in touch with for years—a great “Outside” force, as powerful and omniscient as the spirits that visited Blake and attended the seances of William and Georgie Yeats, or those who wrote the “Sonnets to Orpheus” through Rilke. He was now a radio, picking up transmissions from “ghosts.”
—He began to speak of poems that “scared” him, such as this one, “Magic,” from “Homage to Creeley.”
—-Strange, I had words for dinner
—-Stranger, I had words for dinner
—-Stranger, strange, do you believe me?
—-Honestly, I had your heart for supper
—-Honesty has had your heart for supper
—-Honesty honestly are your pain.
—-I burned the bones of it
—-And the letters of it
—-And the numbers of it
—-That go 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
—-And so far.
—-Stranger, I had bones for dinner
—-Stranger, I had bones for dinner
—-Stranger, stranger, strange, did you believe me.1
His students would say to him, look, on the one hand you are telling us that your poetry does not come from your own mind, that you are only a vessel and that spirits or ghosts are speaking through you, like a Ouija board; and yet on the other your poetry is filled with exactly all the things that interest you. And Spicer explained this by his theory of the “furniture in the room,” itself taken and bent slightly from the essay “Le Roman Demeuble,” by Willa Cather, the novelist he admired. Cather’s thesis was that the 19th century novel had been overstuffed with things—descriptions, antecedents, clothes, jewelry, interiors, gesture, and that the modern novel was the novel “without furniture.” Anyhow Spicer changed the terms a bit and began to defend his dictation theories by arguing that the ghosts come into one’s brain and can only work on what’s there inside the individual poet to work with, like poltergeists, those earthbound spirits who can only communicate with the living by dragging furniture around. If you know two or three languages, that’s more furniture the ghosts can use to make their message clearer. If you have a rich and varied emotional life, that’s even more furniture. Everything you know and everything you’ve felt gets stored up inside one’s mind in a key Freudian interchange, and that’s what the ghosts use. Thus, Spicer argued, his knowledge of jazz, of linguistics, of baseball, of High German, would naturally come into his poetry. They might as well be the letters in a bowl of alphabet soup. The ghosts use what they can and in some poets, for example, Ferlinghetti, there wasn’t much there to use.
I interviewed Ferlinghetti a few years ago and he was very polite and so forth but after the interview was over he said, “But Kevin, what I don’t understand is, why write a whole book about Jack Spicer? He’s almost forgotten nowadays, isn’t he?” I said, no, actually there are many interested in his work. He said, “Waste your time if you want to, but I can’t imagine anybody publishing it.”
I drew myself up rather coldly and replied, “Well, maybe thanks to your help we can revive his memory. Thank you very much for your time, Mr. Ferlinghetti.”
I mean, in a way, the Beats, whom Spicer disliked so much, were, with their “first thought best thought,” “spontaneous bop prosody” awfully close to the idea of the poet as medium, except that Spicer scorned their misuse of mediumship, because the results, or so he thought, were in the interest of “self-expression.” The banality of self-expression was this hideous thing to him, perhaps because of his LA background, and besides, once you’ve seen a murder in space, one’s own self loses charm, and the selves of others are beneath poetry. I remember once, I was interviewing Allen Ginsberg, who knew Spicer very well, and he spoke very openly about their differences, until I asked him what he felt about Spicer’s very last poem, which in commonly read as an attack on him.
—At least we both know shitty the world is. You
—-wearing a beard as a mask to disguise it. I
—-wearing my tired smile. I don’t see how you
—-do it. One hundred thousand university
—-students marching with you. Toward
—A necessity which is not love but is a name.
—King of the May. A title not chosen for dancing.
—Civil but obstinate. If they’d attacked
—The kind of love (not sex but love), you gave
—-the one hundred thousand students I’d have been
—-very glad. And loved the policemen. Why
—Fight the combine of your heart and my heart or
—-anybody’s heart. People are starving.2
So Allen said, “I don’t know if I know that poem. What book is it in?” Well, he continued to deny ever having heard of the poem, even after I sent him a copy. So about six months later he was in, I don’t know where he was, in Prague or somewhere, and Dennis Cooper and Mark Ewert were staying in his apartment in New York and called me up. I asked them to go through the books—which were in alphabetical order—and see if any of Spicer’s books were there. One stayed on the line and the other came back with the book—Spicer’s last book, the posthumously published Book of Magazine Verse. “Well, turn to the end,” I commanded and you’ll never guess what happened.
I see I’m running out of space and time and wanted to send you off with parts of a questionnaire I’ve been transcribing, a questionnaire Spicer was in charge of in his capacity as publications chairman for the Oakland chapter of the Mattachine Society in 1953. This was one of the first gay liberation groups in the USA and prospective new members were encouraged to answers as many questions as they cared to, for sociological purposes, while retaining their anonymity. There are dozens and dozens of questions and these are just a few…
18. I can __________, cannot __________, be spotted “a mile off”; two miles off and I don’t care __________; I do care very much __________, somewhat __________, a little __________; I watch myself constantly __________, a lot __________, somewhat __________, seldom __________, when I remember __________, never __________.
19. The item, starred “*” on the list in question 13 above, is the characteristic which I feel gives me aweay most often. (Star several if you feel there is more than one.) I am not aware of any give aways __________.
31. I am married to a member of the opposite sex __________, happily __________, unhappily __________, outwardly satisfactorily but inwardly torn between conflicting loyalties __________.
32. I wish I were married __________, “married” __________, living with a homosexual friend __________, living with parents __________, living with (other relations) __________, living with a lover __________, alone __________.
33. I am very good looking __________, fairly good looking __________, unusual looking __________, interesting looking __________, ordinary __________, plain __________, homely __________, ugly __________, some of each at times __________, don’t know __________, don’t care __________.
37. At work I hope to heaven they don’t find out __________, don’t care if they do find out __________, don’t think about it __________.
38. I hope my relations never find out __________, I have told them __________, don’t care if they do find out __________;
They found out accidentally __________, they have known all along __________, and are resigned to it __________, object to it __________, have cut me off __________, take it in their stride __________, they are rather proud of me __________;
My parents do __________, do not __________, know; if they find out they will take it in their stride __________, be proud of me anyway __________, cut me off __________, it will probably kill them __________.
46. I always dress to look my “sharpest” __________, to look masculine even if it entails studied carelessness and roughness __________, sometimes let myself/allow myself touches of the opposite sex __________, exactly the way I please __________, always conventionally so as not to be overly noticed __________, honestly don’t care about my clothes __________.
The general ensemble usually turns out masculine __________, more or less masculine __________, feminine __________, more or less feminine __________, startlingly bohemian __________, acceptably bohemian __________, acceptably intellectual __________, well-tailored __________, acceptably groomed __________, don’t know __________, don’t care __________.
p.s. Hey. If anyone reading this is in Washington, DC or its environs, Zac Farley’s and my film PERMANENT GREEN LIGHT will be showing there on August 26, 8 pm, at Suns Cinema. More info and tickets via this link. Please go if you’re there and can, thanks! ** Shane Christmass, Hi, man. That is weird. Ah, interested to read that story, you bet. Everyone, awesome author Shane Christmass has a new story up, part of which is ‘written’, as he puts it, using AI software. Intrigued? Here ’tis. Thank you for rescuing my book! ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. Well, I think successfully being not the thing you actually want to fuck but a close enough short-term simulacrum is a good escort’s forte. ** Steve Erickson, And you know what, I bet there are quite a number of alt-right gays shopping for escorts as we speak/type. Hoping one of those actors works out and has a home-recording set up to boot. Oops, good luck with the dentist. ** Misanthrope, Nope, never met or interviewed River Phoenix. I did walk past him once on Melrose Blvd. He was with some friends and looking particularly grubby (in a good way) and stoned (in a good way). Non-writers can be so wacky, it’s true. Poor things. Passport in the bag! Trip at your fingertips! You go, birthday boy! ** Armando, Hi. Why ‘weird’? Because my friends died. Your day was more eventful than mine. I just worked. Well, and wrote some emails. Thank you for the condolences. No problem at all asking if I’ve read your emails. I’m the one at fault there. Good day and luck to you too! ** Okay. Today I give you the second of a series of restored posts made for the blog by the late and very great writer Kevin Killian. This one is old enough that it predates the release some years ago of ‘Poet Be Like God’, the superb and highly recommended biography of Jack Spicer that he co-wrote with Lewis Ellingham. Enjoy your days. See you tomorrow.