Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Jack Spicer’s Hokku Notebook



Distaff leakage expenditures, wool
skinny’d off the spindle
collect’d in a pail.
Bub with the downy-
tongue’d orchid hobby, Sonny
with a commanding post-
racial post high up
in the gubernatorial echelons.
(Fanny working the floor.)
If I pause with
my brassy cornet slant’d
up to purse out
the embouchure and wet
down the lip-chafe,
is that you half-
moonishly peeking the blues
up to supplement the
Harry Yee-concoct’d (1957)
white rum cocktail call’d
the Blue Hawaiian you
hold like a horn?
No. No it isn’t.
Every sentence ought somehow
contain its own half-
plausible alibi, some accounting
for the history of
its proceeding, its measure
a headlong groundswell itinerant,
thereby never nothing new.
(Fanny, remarkably, is holding
her own.) Truth is,
too potent the lenses
in the fly’s eye:
the skippy fandango of
residuals in a glance
makes for a sheer
constitutional bewilderment, so I
plunge like a feral
communicant, vivacity’s slobberer, back
into the musical fold.

Jack Spicer’s mention of “Jo Miles” (“a local poet. Without location. . . . prone to lovely whoredom”) coincided with a mention by A. R. Ammons (in a 1980 issue of The Manhattan Review) of “Josephine Miles”:
I don’t think that she and I have ever shared very much in regard to the theory of poetry. But I loved her as a person. She seemed to me so majestic. You know she’s crippled and had been from the age of five. She so totally rose above that without denying it that I always had a tremendous respect and love for her.

I never did take any classes with her, but when I was out there (Berkeley) I used to show her my poems, and she would read them and comment on them, and that was a very valuable thing to me. By the way, she continued to do it, and she was the one person I chose out of the world to hassle. So I kept sending her poems, having no idea what a drain this was on her. But I would say on the average of two or three times a year, I would send her one or more poems to read and say something about. And it was a lifesaver to me, because in south Jersey I knew absolutely no one else in poetry.
Causing me to idly consider the chance of Spicer and Ammons crossing paths, two misfits. Ammons notes later in the interview that he’s trying to “reach the absolutely crazy point where what is happening in my mind and what is happening on the page seem to be identical . . . The problem is that once you get there, it no longer seems necessary to write.” In Spicerean lingo: the “what’s coming through.” Ammons:
I’ve never been interested in single discursive statements as such, as explanation, but I’m interested in clusters of those, because then they become, they sort of come to be the thing they represent. They’re many-sided.
Presque New Sentence alors! And: “. . . you don’t want the poem to amount to no more than what you already knew when you began to write. Whatever kind of instrument it may be, it must be one capable of churning up what you didn’t already know.”

A. R. Ammons, 1926-2001

Of Note

Out of Jack Spicer’s Hokku Notebook (North Beach Yacht Club, 2009), Ryan Murphy’s latest in a series of finely-design’d and -print’d chapbooks (under a number of “imprints,” each apt to its particular book):
The skull is not the bones. The Ro-
Mans discovered this. The eighteenth-century classicists
Dropped their hats and cheered
The skill
At making things is not the sure
Body of bones.
The skeleton stays
Says, “Mary Murphy sumus.
We grow.”
A piece originally print’d “in J Number Four under the pseudonym “Mary Murphy.” (Another piece in the Notebook is reportedly out of J Number One, and by “Mary Murphy” too. Suggesting a smattering of continuity as opposed to spur-of-the-moment whim.) A finicky music: skull / skill, cheered / sure, stays / says, classicists / sumus. Hokku Notebook includes nine shortish (ten lines or less) poems, one a little longer, and a prose half-mock essay / review (of John Wieners’s The Hotel Wentley Poems and two others) call’d “In One Arm and Out the Other.” (Spicer clothespins the dirty sheet of the essay to a narrative clothesline of nigh mystery-novel tautness by three perfectly placed mentions of the “two others”—“These three books (two of which I haven’t read but will before I finish this review) were not written by nice guys.” “First Wieners, the only poet of the three whose book I read up to now. The Hotel Wentley is a landmark.” [Not, notably, the book; the hotel.] And, final paragraph: “I have decided not to read the other books. Call this an essay.”) Spicer’s contempt is acrid and jocular à la fois. And suffused un peu partout equally:
      Leo Durocher spoke for all of us poets when he said nice guys don’t win ball games. What is unfortunate is that the opposite of nice guys (poets) don’t often win them either. But oftener than nice guys.

. . .

      To expand a bit, the Richard Wilburs and the David Meltzers [and the] Bob Kauffmanns will remain nice guys in their respective worlds of the university and the little magazine and the Bread And Wine Mission and the newspaper and these not-nice-guys will remain poets even when batting .037 in the Sally League teams, through all the shit they have shat, through all the bad balls they have fouled off or struck out on, they have known themselves as poets and not authors or gentlemen or minority figures or Buddhists. There is a chance, at any time, that they will hit one lovely ball and be called back to the majors.
And, oddly enough—tonal miasma here—that contempt’s got a briny kindness soak’d through it.

Spicer’s latest—after Robin Blaser—editors Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian provide a succinct “Afterword” to the book, though one that raises some questions. They begin: “Among the dozens of Spicer’s notebooks we pored through in May 2004, this one stood out,” and proceed to argue both that the work in Hokku Notebook “illuminates a transitional period in Spicer’s writing, the push from the initial serial poems like Billy the Kid and A Book of Music toward the longer and more involved projects of his later years” and that it makes visible “the depth of Spicer’s Asian interests.” They write:
      Spicer’s use of the term “hokku” echoes his commitment to the serial form, since the hokku was generally seen as a single component in a longer form, the renga. (In tandem with the poems of the present notebook, Spicer was also working up a serial piece called “Ten Hokkus for Dorrie,” which remains unpublished.)
“Dozens” of notebooks? Is one witnessing the initial dribbles here of something about to become puddle and gush? Why, I idly consider, weren’t the stray pieces—particularly the ones print’d previously—included in the Gizzi and Killian-edit’d My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (Wesleyan, 2008)? Why not, too, the excellently titled “Ten Hokkus for Dorrie”? Why insist that the notebook indicates a sequence, albeit “transitional”? Is there a sense that Spicer’s “commitment to the serial form” may inhibit one’s looking? That, a thing casually identify’d begins to be found everywhere? I don’t know. Another piece of the notebook:
You have to make moral decidisn. With your
            hands, your arms. Anything meaning stay in
You bet wrong you lose your life. They don’t
Shoot you.
They bore you with how your life is already lost
            with your con-
And let the poem get out of hand
Which tells nothing to everyone. How painful.
That broken-field punning “con- / Sequence” recalls for me a notion of William Matthews, the “beautiful fake,” a feeling I suspect Matthews identify’d with, and that innumerable poets do. He slipped it into a prose poem call’d “The Penalty for Bigamy Is Two Wives”: “I don't care what anybody thinks or writes, I don’t care if my friend who writes poems is a beautiful fake, like a planetarium ceiling . . .” My sense of Spicer’s long been that he’s a mess, and likely ought be allow’d to remain a mess without any prefab slottings in the retrieval. Gizzi and Killian write: “Soon Spicer’s hokku was to give way to its successor, the jingle-jangle children’s verse syllabics of “Homage to Creeley,” and then to the mixed originals of Lament for the Makers.” A sequence definite and unconned. Which’d seem to belie Spicer’s stance of inconsistency and foolishness, as he calls it in “In One Arm and Out the Other”—“Flirting with the edge of things”—gaseous play. Isn’t “the depth of Spicer’s Asian interests” spell’d out most succinctly in “The Unvert Manifesto”: “All the universe is laughing at you.”

Jack Spicer, 1925-1965