After the birth of my daughter Sophie, the publication of Jack Spicer's My Vocabulary Did This To Me is the best thing to ever happen to me. Hyperbole? Yeah, but this is about love. New, never-before-published poems from Jack Spicer plus everything else. Unbelievable. When my friend found out about this book, he said, "It's like finding a new planet, one with clean water."
Spicer was not only a great poet, he also loved baseball, worked as a private eye, roomed in a boarding house with Philip K. Dick, hosted a folk music show on KPFA with help from Harry Smith, co-founded the Six Gallery and made recordings of his poetry with Dave Brubeck. He refused (presciently) to copyright his work, stubbornly published only with his friends' basement presses, taught college courses in Old English and Norse, was a published linguist, refused to sign a loyalty oath at Berkeley, and drank himself to death at 40.
Here is an excerpt from a never-before-published poem "Dignity is a part of man ..."
I miss you, I said. The dead flowers,
The poets who wanted to kiss me, the naked
That wanted to kiss me. I miss the flowers
I miss the hatred of not being asked.
Shut up, I said. Nothing but love could have
eaten the roses.
Spicer was postmodern before postmodernism, his poetry a haunting mix of erudition, language play, politics, bitchiness, magic and love letter. His claim that Martians brought him his poetry is one of the most beguiling and infuriating things a poet has ever said, but he insisted on it and argued the case brilliantly (see his Vancouver lectures). In the era of confessional poetry, he dismissed the autobiographical as "the big lie of the personal," but then used autobiography in his own work to heartbreaking effect. The range and depth of this book make his contemporaries, particularly the Beats, seem dated 50 years on. Spicer's work uncannily prefaces at least two major philosophical developments: Deconstruction and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory. How he manages this is both spooky and what makes him great (as opposed to merely good, readable or entertaining). My Vocabulary ... is not only a masterpiece, it can save you time and money: Rather than obtaining an MFA, you can just read Spicer's A Textbook of Poetry. As an added bonus, his After Lorca, published in 1957, features an introduction by Lorca wherein the elder poet provides the following admonition that serves as a user's manual for reading Spicer: "The dead are notoriously hard to satisfy."