peter mclachlin (peter_mclachlin) wrote,
peter mclachlin

jack spicer—"poems should echo & reecho against each other..they cannot live alone any more than we"


The City of Boston


The city of Boston is filled with frogheaded

flies and British policemen. The other day I saw

the corpse of Emily Dickinson floating up the

Charles River.


Sweet God, it is lonely to be dead. Sweet

God, is there any god to worship? God stands in

Boston like a public statue. Sweet God, is there

any God to swear love by? Or love—it is lonely,

is lonely, is lonely to be lonely in Boston.


Now Emily Dickinson is floating down the

Charles River like an Indian princess. Now

naked savages are climbing out of all the graveyards.

Now the Holy Ghost drips birdshit on

the nose of God. Now the whole thing stops.

Sweet God, poetry hates Boston.



By Jack Spicer, in the Spring/Summer issue of The Massachusetts Review. Spicer, the author of seven books, died in 1965 at the age of forty. Found among his papers, this poem was written circa 1956. My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer will be published next month by Wesleyan University Press.


—from Harper’s Magazine, July 2008


More Jack Spicer, from


Fifteen False Propositions Against God - Section XIII


Hush now baby don't say a word

Mama's going to buy you a mocking bird

The third

Joyful mystery.

The joy that descends on you when all the trees are cut down

and all the fountains polluted and you are still alive waiting

for an absent savior. The third

Joyful mystery.

If the mocking bird don't sing

Mama's going to buy you a diamond ring

The diamond ring is God, the mocking bird the Holy Ghost.

The third

Joyful mystery.

The joy that descends on you when all the trees are cut down

and all the fountains polluted and you are still alive waiting

for an absent savior.



Fifteen False Propositions Against God - Section XIV


If the diamond ring turns brass

Mama's going to buy you a looking glass

Marianne Moore and Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams

going on a picnic together when they were all students at the

University of Pennsylvania

Now they are all over seventy and the absent baby

Is a mirror sheltering their image.



For Mac


A dead starfish on a beach

He has five branches

Representing the five senses

Representing the jokes we did not tell each other

Call the earth flat

Call other people human

But let this creature lie

Flat upon our senses

Like a love

Prefigured in the sea

That died.

And went to water

All the oceans

Of emotion. All the oceans of emotion

are full of such ffish


Is this dead one of such importance?



Thing Language


This ocean, humiliating in its disguises

Tougher than anything.

No one listens to poetry. The ocean

Does not mean to be listened to. A drop

Or crash of water. It means



Is bread and butter

Pepper and salt. The death

That young men hope for. Aimlessly

It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No

One listens to poetry.



A Red Wheelbarrow


Rest and look at this goddamned wheelbarrow. Whatever

It is. Dogs and crocodiles, sunlamps. Not

For their significance.

For their significant. For being human

The signs escape you. You, who aren't very bright

Are a signal for them. Not,

I mean, the dogs and crocodiles, sunlamps. Not

Their significance.

And yet more Jack Spicer, from


A Postscript to the Berkeley Renaissance


What have I lost? When shall I start to sing
A loud and idiotic song that makes
The heart rise frightened into poetry
Like birds disturbed?

I was a singer once. I sang that song.
I saw the thousands of bewildered birds
Breaking their cover into poetry
Up from the heart.

What have I lost? We lived in forests then,
Naked as jaybirds in the ever-real,
Eating our toasted buns and catching flies,
And sometimes angels, with our hooting tongues.

I was a singer once. In distant trees
We made the forests ring with sacred noise
Of gods and bears and swans and sodomy,
And no one but a bird could hear our voice.

What have I lost? The trees were full of birds.
We sat there drinking at the sour wine
In gallon bottles. Shouting song
Until the hunters came.

I was a singer once, bird-ignorant.
Time with a gun said, "Stop,
Find other forests. Teach the innocent."
God got another and a third
Birdlimed in Eloquence.

What have I lost? At night my hooting tongue,
Naked of feathers and of softening years,
Sings through the mirror at me like a whippoorwill
And then I cannot sleep.

"I was a singer once," it sings.
"I sing the song that every captured tongue
Sang once when free and wants again to sing.
But I can sing no song I have not sung."

What have I lost? Spook singer, hold your tongue.
I sing a newer song no ghost-bird sings.
My tongue is sharpened on the iron's edge.
Canaries need no trees. They have their cage.


The Unvert Manifesto and Other Papers Found in the Rare Book Room of the Boston Public Library in the Handwriting of Oliver Charming.  by S.


The Unvert Manifesto

1.      An unvert is neither an invert or an outvert, a pervert or a convert, an introvert or a retrovert. An unvert chooses to have no place to turn.

2.      One should always masturbate on street corners.

3.      Unversion is the attempt to make the sexual act as rare as a rosepetal. It consists of linking the sexual with the greatest cosmic force in the universe  Nonsense, or as we prefer to call it, MERTZ.

4.      Sex should be a frightening experience like a dirty joke or an angel.

5.      Dirty jokes and angels should be frightening experiences.

6.      An unvert must not be homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, or autosexual. He must be metasexual. He must enjoy going to bed with his own tears.

7.      Mertz!

8.      All the universe is laughing at you.

9.      Poetry, painting, and cocksucking are all attempts of the unvert to make God laugh.

10. The larger the Dada, the bigger the hole.

11. Sidney Mertz was the only man ever arrested for drunken driving of a steam locomotive. He is now the bartender of the American Legion bar in Jackson, Wyoming.

12. Jews and Negros are not allowed to be unverts. The Jew will never understand unversion and the Negro understands it too well.

13. An unvert loves only other unverts. He will, however, consent to perform an act of unversion with almost anything except lovers and mountain lions.

14. God loves God.

15. Mertz must be applied to sex. People must learn to laugh into each other's gonads.

16. God is an unvert.

17. Sex without love is better than love without sex. Sex without Mertz is never better than Mertz without sex. Nonsense is an act of friendship.

18. The larger the Dada, the bigger the hole.

19. Nonsense, Mertz, Dada, and God all go to the same nightclubs.

20. So does Graham Macarel.


Excerpts from Oliver Charming's Diary


October 31, 1953:
    "I must unvent someone named Graham Macarel. He should be about seventeen or eighteen and have a large Dada. I can use him as the hero and victim of my Mertzcycle . . ."

November 5, 1953:
    "Laughed all day. The elements of imagination are exhausting as Hell."

November 23, 1953:
    "It was more successful than I expected. He is beginning to become mythical. I saw him today and he told me that he is taking a course in his art school in which he has to clip examples of racial prejudice from Tarot cards and give their exact date. His art school's name is the California School of Fine Flowers. His teacher's name is S. We talked for awhile and I am already beginning to destroy his universe. . . . Method is everything."

December 1, 1953:
    "Love must only be applied at the wrong time and in the wrong place. It must be thrown at the unsuspecting like a custard pie made of poison . . . Nothing destroys Mertz more than custom. Nothing destroys it less than treason."

December 7, 1953:
    "I return to Graham Macarel. (Note - I must be sure to call him Mac. Graham reminds the uninformed imagination of crackers.) He has become a combination of a Boy Scout and a depth charge. He appeals to the primitive sources of nonsense and despair.
    I suspect that his teacher, S., is secretly an unvert  or, at least a spoiled unvert. Something is going on between S. and history. I wonder if Mac realizes that an unvert is an agent of Kubla Khan."

December 9, 1953:
    "'An unvert is an angel of Kubla Khan.'  that's what Mac said to me last night in the men's room of the Palace Hotel. At the time he said it he was . . . which is certainly Dada if not Mertz."

December 10, 1953:
    ". . . suspects . . ."

December 18, 1953:
    "It is Christmas vacation at the California School of Fine Flowers. S. was in the bars last night, very drunk. I think he is planning to unvert somebody."

December 19, 1953:
    "I had a conversation with S. late last night. He was again very drunk. 'Why did you have to invent Graham Macarel?' he asked me angrily.
    'I thought it would be good for your poetry,' I answered.
    'Why didn't you invent syphilis instead,' he asked contemptuously. So yesterday I invented syphilis. Today I am going to . . ."

December 22, 1953:
    "S. is in Los Angeles."

December 23, 1953:
    "To appear as human among homosexuals and to appear as divine among heterosexuals . . ."

December 24, 1953:
    "Nobody remains in this city and I have done all my Christmas shopping.
    The Dada in painting is not Duchamp. The Dada in poetry is not Breton. The Dada in sex is not De Sade. All these men were too obsessed with the mechanism of their subject. A crime against nature must also be a crime against art. A crime against art must also be a crime against nature. All beauty is at continuous war with God."

December 25, 1953:
    "Merry Christmas, Graham Macarel."

December 26, 1953:
    "It continually amazes the unprejudiced Mertzian observer that even the people who struggle most against the limits of art are content to have sex in ordinary academic ways, as if they and their bed-partners were nineteenth-century paintings. Or, worse, they will change the point of view (top becomes bottom, male becomes female, etc. etc.) and think, like the magic realists that they are, that they have changed something.
    Everybody is guilty of this - from Cocteau to Beethoven."

December 28, 1953:
    "A sailor asked me last night what the unvert thought of Kinsey. I told him that we held that Kinsey was a valuable evidence of the boredom of un-unverted sex  that ordinary sex had become so monotonous that it had become statistical like farm income or rolling stock totals. I told him that Kinsey was the Zola preparing the way for the new Lautréamont.
    It is remarkable how even science fiction has developed no new attitudes toward sex. The vacant interstellar spaces are filled with exactly the same bedrooms the rocketships left behind. It is only the unvert who dares to speak Martian in bed. I wonder if Kierkegaard had wet dreams."

December 29, 1953:
    "How The Zen Masters Taught Sex To Their Disciples - such a book would be the most useful book a man could publish. Sex is a metaphysical experience. Zen taught that man can only reach the metaphysical by way of the absurd. No, absurd is the wrong word. What is the Chinese for shaggy-dog story?
    The book should be illustrated pornographically but the general style of Mad Comics. It should have a blue cover."

December 30, 1953:
    "S. is in town again. I saw him at the Black Cat. He looked confused at all the lack of excitement around him, as if he believed that a holiday was like a snowstorm and people should notice it.
    We began discussing homosexuality. I, by bringing in subtle pieces of unvert propganda, and he, embarrassed and overintellectual as if he thought, or rather hoped, that I was trying to seduce him."
    'We homosexuals are the only minority group that completely lacks any vestige of a separate cultural heritage. We have no songs, no folklore, even our customs are borrowed from our upper-middleclass mothers', he said."
    The trouble with S. is that he doesn't understand Martian. I must tell him about the time . . ."

December 31, 1953:
    "I rebel against the tyrrany of the calendar."

January 1, 1954:
    "My analyst is teaching me French."

January 2, 1954:
    "S. says that it is inconsistent for an unvert to have a psychiatrist. He does not understand unversion. The relationship between the analyst and the patient is the firmest and most hallowed, if the most conventional, sexual relationship in the modern world. This is precisely why it must be shaken. It is our task to experience and unvert all sexual relationships."

January 3, 1954:
    "Sometimes, in moments of depression, I think that all this talk of Dada and Mertz is merely the reaction of the unsuccessful cocksucker or artsucker who doesn't understand beauty when it offers itself to him. Witness Western civilization or the bar last night . . ."

January 4, 1954:
    "Now that I have Graham Macarel, S., and a psychiatrist, all that I need is an angel. One cannot, however, safely invent an angel . . . Lot was the last person to safely invent an angel. He was bored with his lover, with their children, and with all the inhabitants of the immense and sandy Turkish bath that they were living in . . . He invented an angel and then everybody had to kill him . . . Everybody had to kill him not because the angel was as dangerous as a hydrogen bomb (which he was) and not because the angel was beautiful as a Florida hurricane (which he was), but because the angel was a stranger and it is always the habit of Jews and homosexuals to kill strangers . . . They almost caught the angel once in Lot's chimney, and a sailor once managed to catch hold of its groin as it was disappearing into a broom-closet, but soon fire and brimstone were descending on the town and Lot was walking with his lover along a deserted road on the first range of foothills carrying a packed suitcase . . . The lover looked backwards, of course, to make sure that the angel was not following them and was immediately turned into a life-sized salt statue. It is very difficult to suck the cock of a life-sized salt statue or to sample the delight of sodomy with a pillar . . . Lot left him there and trudged onward alone, with an angel on his back.
    I must take warning from this. There are some inventions even sex does not make necessary."

January 5, 1954:
    "No angel as yet. I wonder if I could steal one. By a bit of clever propaganda I have arranged that Mac will have to report on angels to his history class. This should bring things into focus.
    Mac asked me about angels yesterday  whether I thought they really existed, what they did in bed, etc. etc. I told him that very few people under twenty-five had angels at all. That they were like a kind of combination of Siamese cats and syphilis and for him not to worry if they occasionally tugged at his pubic hairs. He was still uncertain: 'How can I find any chronology in it?' he asked plaintively."

January 6, 1954:
    "There is a morning when it rains in the corner of everybody's bedroom."

January 7, 1954:
    "My psychiatrist, Robert Berg, considers that it is his duty to unvent angels. It must be understood that unvention is as different from unversion as psychoanalysis is from poetry."

January 9, 1954:
    "Mac tells me that he saw an angel resting in a tree above his art school. This must be the angel we have been waiting for."

January 10, 1954:
    "I have seen it too. It is a bearded angel, small as a bird, and answers to the name of Heurtebise. S., being what he is, pretends not to believe and says that it is only an owl or some unlucky night creature. He says that he is sorry for it."

January 11, 1954:
    "The angel keeps screaching in the tree. It is behaving more and more like a bird. We are doing something wrong . . . Perhaps it isn't our angel."

January 12, 1954:
    "I am gradually able to have the most Mertzian sexual...


Three Marxist Essays


Homosexuality and Marxism


There should be no rules for this but it should be
simultaneous if at all.
  Homosexuality is essentially being alone. Which is
a fight against the capitalist bosses who do not want
us to be alone. Alone we are dangerous.
  Our dissatisfaction could ruin America. Our love
could ruin the universe if we let it.
  If we let our love flower into the true revolution
we will be swamped with offers for beds.



The Jets and Marxism


  The jets hate politics. They grew up in fat cat society
that didn't even have a depression or a war in it. They
are against capital punishment.
  They really couldn't care less. They wear switch-blade
knives tied with ribbons. They know that which runs
this country is an IBM machine connected to an IBM
machine. They never think of using their knives against
its aluminum casing.
  A League Against Youth and Fascism should be formed
immediately by our Party. They are our guests. They are


The Jets and Homosexuality


  Once in the golden dawn of homosexuality there was
a philosopher who gave the formula for a new society
"from each, according to his ability, to each according
to his need."
  This formula appears in the New Testament  the
parable of the fig tree  and elsewhere.
  To continue the argument is fruitless.



Second letter to Federico Garcia Lorca

Dear Lorca,

When I translate one of your poems and I come across words I do not understand, I always guess at their meanings. I am inevitably right. A really perfect poem (no one yet has written one) could be perfectly translated by a person who did not know one word of the language it was written in. A really perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary.

It is very difficult. We want to transfer the immediate object, the immediate emotion to the poem and yet the immediate always has hundreds of its own words clinging to it, short-leved and tenacious as barnacles. And it is wrong to scrape them off and substitute others. A poet is a time mechanic not an embalmer. The words around the immediate shrivel and decay like flesh around the body. No mummy-sheet of tradition can be used to stop the process. Objects, words must be led across time not preserved against it.

I yell "Shit" down a cliff at the ocean. Even in my lifetime the immediacy of that word will fad. It will be dead as "Alas." But if I put the real cliff and the real ocean into the poem, the word "Shit" will ride along with them, travel the time-machine until cliffs and oceans disappear.

Most of my friends like words too well. They set them under the blinding light of the poem and try to extract every possible connotation from each of them, every temporary pun, every direct or indirect connection - as if a word could become an object by mere addition of consequences. Others pick up words from the streets, from their bars, from their offices and display them proudly in their poems as if they were shouting, "See what I have collected from the American language. Look at my butterflies, my stamps, my old shoes!" What does one do with all this crap?

Words are what sticks to the real. We use them to push the real, to drag the real into the poem. They are what we hold on with, nothing else. They are as valuable in themselves as rope with nothing to be tied to.

I repeat  the perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary.




First Letter (from Admonitions)


Dear Joe,

Some time ago I would have thought that writing notes on particular poems would either be a confession that the poems were totally inadequate (a sort of patch put on a leaky tire) or an equally humiliating confession that the writer was more interested in the terrestrial mechanics of criticism than the celestial mechanics of poetry  in either case that the effort belonged to the garage or stable rather than to the Muse.

Muses do exist, but now I know that they are not afraid to dirty their hands with explication  that they are patient with truth and commentary as long as it doesn't get into the poem, that they whisper (if you let yourself really hear them), "Talk all you want, baby, but then let's go to bed."

This sexual metaphor brings me to the first problem. In these poems the obscene (in word and concept) is not used, as is common, for the sake of intensity, but rather as a kind of rhythm as the tip-tap of the branches throughout the dream of Finnegans Wake or, to make the analogy even more mysterious to you, a cheering section at a particularly exciting football game. It is precisely because the obscenity is unnecessary that I use it, as I could have used any disturbance, as I could have used anything (remember the beat in jazz) which is regular and beside the point.

The point. But what, you will be too polite to ask me, is the point? Are not these poems all things to all men, like Rorschach ink blots or whores? Are they anything better than a kind of mirror?

In themselves, no. Each one of them is a mirror, dedicated to the person that I particularly want to look into it. But mirrors can be arranged. The frightening hall of mirrors in a fun house is universal beyond each particular reflection.

This letter is to you because you are my publisher and because the poem I wrote for you gives the most distorted reflection in the whole promenade. Mirror makers know the secret - one does not make a mirror to resemble a person, one brings a person to the mirror.




Second Letter (from Admonitions)


Dear Robin,

Enclosed you find the first of the publications of White Rabbit Press. The second will be much handsomer.

You are right that I don't now need your criticisms of individual poems. But I still want them. It's probably from old habit - but it's an awfully old habit. Halfway through After Lorca I discovered that I was writing a book instead of a series of poems and individual criticism by anyone suddenly became less important. This is true of my Admonitions which I will send you when complete. (I have eight of them already and there will probably be fourteen including, of course, this letter.)

The trick naturally is what Duncan learned years ago and tried to teach us  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 by fully realized (confined) within the boundaries of one poem. This is where we were wrong and he was right, but he complicated things for us by saying that there is no such thing as good or bad poetry. There is - but not in relation to a single poem. There is really no single poem.

That is why all my stuff from the past (except the Elegies and Troilus) looks foul to me. The poems belong nowhere. They are one night stands filled (the best of them) with their own emotions, but pointing nowhere, as meaningless as sex in a Turkish bath. It was not my anger or my frustration that got in the way of my poetry but the fact that I viewed each anger and each frustration as unique something to be converted into poetry as one would exchange foreign money. I learned this from the English Department (and from the English Department of the spirit that great quagmire that lurks at the bottom of all of us) and it ruined ten years of my poetry. Look at those other poems. Admire them if you like. They are beautiful but dumb.

Poems should echo and reecho against each other. They should create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can.

So don't send the box of old poetry to Don Allen. Burn it or rather open it with Don and cry over the possible books that were buried in it  the Songs Against Apollo, the Gallery of Gorgeous Gods, the Drinking Songs  all incomplete, all abortive - all incomplete, all abortive because I thought, like all abortionists, that what is not perfect had no real right to live.

Things fit together. We knew that  it is the principle of magic. Two inconsequential things can combine together to become a consequence. This is true of poems too. A poem is nver to be judged by itself alone. A poem is never by itself alone.

This is the most important letter that you have ever received.




"This ocean, humiliating in its disguises"


This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.
No one listens to poetry. The ocean
Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
Or crash of water. It means
Is bread and butter
Pepper and salt. The death
That young men hope for. Aimlessly
It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
One listens to poetry.



Sporting Life


The trouble with comparing a poet with a radio is that radios
     don't develop scar-tissue. The tubes burn out, or with a
     transistor, which most souls are, the battery or diagram
     burns out replacable or not replacable, but not like that
     punchdrunk fighter in a bar. The poet

Takes too many messages. The right to the ear that floored him
     in New Jersey. The right to say that he stood six rounds with
     a champion.

Then they sell beer or go on sporting commissions, or, if the
     scar tissue is too heavy, demonstrate in a bar where the
     invisible champions might not have hit him. Too many of

The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a
     counterpunching radio.

And those messages (God would not damn them) do not even
     know they are champions.


Six Poems for Poetry Chicago (poems #1-4)




"Limon tree very pretty
And the limon flower is sweet
But the fruit of the poor lemon
Is impossible to eat"
In Riverside we saved the oranges first (by smudging) and left
     the lemons last to fed for themselves. They didn't usually
A no good crop. Smudge-pots
Didn't rouse them. The music
Is right though. The lemon tree
Could branch off into real magic. Each flower in place. We
Were sickened by the old lemon.




Pieces of the past arising out of the rubble. Which evokes Eliot
     and then evokes Suspicion. Ghosts all of them. Doers of no
The past around us is deeper than.
Present events defy us, the past
Has no such scruples. No funeral processions for him. He died
     in agony. The cock under the thumb.
Rest us as corpses
We poets
Vain words.
For a funeral (as I live and breathe and speak)
Of good
And impossible




In the far, fat Vietnamese jungles nothing grows.
In Guadacanal nothing grew but a kind of shrubbery that was
     like the bar-conversation of your best best friend who was
     not able to talk.
Sheets to the wind. No
Wind being present.
Lifeboats being present. A jungle
Can't use life-boats. Dead
From whatever bullets the snipers were. Each
Side of themselves. Safe-
Ly delivered.



The rind (also called the skin) of the lemon is difficult to
It goes around itself in an oval quite unlike the orange which, as
     anyone can tell, is a fruit easily to be eaten.
It can be crushed into all sorts of extracts which are
     still not lemons. Oranges have no such fate. They're pretty
     much the same as they were. Culls become frozen orange
     juice. The best oranges are eaten.
It's the shape of the lemon, I guess that causes trouble. It's
     ovalness, it's rind. This is where my love, somehow, stops. 

Tags: book cover art, excerpts & quotations, ezra pound, jack spicer, love, poetry, t.s. eliot, william carlos williams

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