Three Anagrams of Jack Spicer's Biography

Biog To Peel Ked

To show you where James Joyce stood with the literary establishment as of 1959, the Times's (which Times? The Times) review of the first edition of Richard Ellmann's biography opined: "If Joyce be a great writer, then this is a great book." And Ellman's publishers were so desperate that they had to use it as a blurb.

Well, we know who finally won that little point. After all, how many books criticizing the gender politics of the London Times do you see in bookstores? Too few, that's for sure. And so we see that, even though it might take a while, a big fat scholarly biography is necessary to make a big fat writer socially acceptable.

Why necessary? First, because grad students like to cite things. But also to keep us from getting too distracted by questions like "Did Samuel Beckett maintain one boil for a very long time or did many shorter-lived boils infest him in sequence?" That way we can enjoy the writer's work while we're reading it without worrying that we'll be left without something nasty to say about the writer at parties.

Lew Ellingham's and Kevin Killian's biography of Jack Spicer does its job well. It's a tough job, a dirty job, a thankless job. But, by Poet, they did it, as proven by the confused boredom of reviewers and the prickly offense of friends. As for myself, all my vulgar curiosities have been sated and put away for the winter, and I'm much the better for it.

Ego-Bilked Poet

Any well-researched biography, no matter with what respect it's written, will belittle its subject. It's the nature of the form. Attempting to describe a human being thoroughly and with detachment allows too little room for subjectivity, which is what most of us subjects have to rely on to get through the night.

For example, in their scattered publication history, Spicer's letters have almost never escaped tsks or worse over his bigotry, and the biography has only amplified the tsking.

But none of Spicer's expressions of racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and homophobia went any farther than those of Henry James, T. S. Eliot, or Virginia Woolf -- at least not in their content. Nope, Spicer's bigotry receives special targeting because of the American lower-middle class language he used to express it.

Biographers and academics judge artists from the lower classes according to a level of socially-conscious saintliness that we don't expect upper class artists to bother with -- the poor aristocratic dears have so much more on their minds. And Spicer is insistently no saint or role model.

To Beep Like God

The only thing I dislike about Ellingham's and Killian's book is the title. It sounds so solemn, so portentous, so like Robert Duncan. Something like "God is a Big White Baseball" or "Nobody Listens to Poetry" would seem a more appropriate academic-biography-artsy-teaser-over-the-real-subtitle. After all, as Robert Duncan himself pointed out in an interview, what made Jack Spicer and Frank O'Hara the greatest poets of the 1950s and 1960s were their otherwise-one-man-stands against the horrible puffy gray slime flood of American Poetic Diction.

Sadly, try as Spicer and O'Hara might to pump their lower-middle-class and flightily-mobile (respectively) All-Americanisms into the withered practices of verbal art, you only have to move about ten inches away from the original sources for concepts to re-dessicate as thoroughly as Ursula Andress in She. Biographies and criticisms have their own professional dictions to maintain; how can a critic talk about "Poetry" and "Magic" without sounding like D. H. Lawrence or Billy Graham? Whereas the power of living magic (as opposed to spoiled power-hungry nostalgia for magic) is strictly limited, and its practice strictly mundane.

As Spicer wrote, "Plainly we are dealing with materials distorted from their original form." Which is why The House That Jack Built, the new collection of Jack Spicer lectures, makes such a perfect pepper shaker to the new Jack Spicer biography's salt. You read the biography and think, "Jeez, what a prize dope. He believed this magick-with-a-k crap, and never noticed that he actually spent just about all his spare time on dying." But then you go to the lectures and think, "Golly, he was this sharp and warm only a couple of weeks before he collapsed? And this poetic stuff actually sounds like something even us real down-to-earth folks might get stuck with. Why isn't everyone like this?" And then you can step right right back to the biography and get your answer. Great little couple.

The poems are their own thing.

Copyright 1999 Ray Davis