Book Supplement: Three Hours North

Through the Glass

Suicide in the West End

Convergence Zone

Bordering on the Dream World

Tour of Vancouver, BC

Vancouver, BC

Book Reviews


For Jack Spicer, the most volatile poet of the San Francisco renaissance, Vancouver, BC represented the penultimate promise of the West Coast beat scene--the city of "new meat." Spicer's relationship with place was both personal and universal; he searched for his poems in the cobblestone alleys and smoky bars of language. He found them at baseball games and heard them over the radio. He taught and influenced a number of younger poets. But Spicer was also territorial, and changes to San Francisco's beat scene and the North Beach gay scene in the 1950s and '60s began to turn Spicer's stomach. He planned on leaving it all to head north to Vancouver, but before he could do so, he committed a fateful error and was viciously murdered.Spicer's error took place on June 17, 1965, in Vancouver, where he was giving a series of readings and lectures. He was drinking heavily at the time, mixing his brandy with water, milk, or orange juice. The lectures were supposed to be an elucidation of his poetic methods: "dictation" and its larger embodiment as the "serial poem."

Spicer likened his dictation method to a radio, an image he pulled from Jean Cocteau's 1949 film Orphée, which featured an Orpheus obsessively scratching down poems that were dictated to him by a ghost over the car radio. This is the first line in Spicer's Billy the Kid: "The radio that told me about the death of Billy the Kid." Poets, like radios, should dictate, but not mess with, what they sense from the Outside. The Outside should be respected. As he states in the first Vancouver lecture, "Given a source of energy which you can direct, you can direct yourself out of the picture." The poem should take control of the poet, and what is on the page must stay. One is not to revise nor correct, not even a typo--typos are magical.

As Spicer began grouping a series of his poems together, such as his The Holy Grail poems or his Book of Magazine Verse, he would forget what he had written before. He would forbid himself from rereading his previous poems before writing the next. Dictation and the serial poem situate the poet with language working shrouded from sight. And just as Orpheus was instructed not to look back upon Eurydice's face, Spicer was forbidden to look back upon the words he wrote.

Spicer did look back, though. In a lecture entitled "Poetry in Process and Book of Magazine Verse," the last of the three Vancouver lectures collected in The House That Jack Built, Spicer read from his then unfinished manuscript. He announced at the beginning, like Orpheus testing Hades, "Tonight I'm going to try something which may foul up a poem for me." I wonder how his tone must have wavered for a second (or did it remain constant and unflinching?) just before he glanced into the face of his unfinished poem. The following is an excerpt from this beautiful and brutal gesture, part of a poem that renders a Vancouver so strange and playful and hopeful:

     Start with a baseball diamond high
     In the Runcible Mountain wilderness. Blocked everywhere by
     stubborn lumber. Where even the ocean cannot reach its
     coastline for the lumber of islands or the river its mouth.
     A perfect diamond with a right field, center field, left field of
     felled logs spreading vaguely outward. Four sides each
     Facet of the diamond.
     We shall build our city backwards from each baseline

I shudder now, as this article begins to round its final corner. Though Jack Spicer intended to return to Vancouver to live--where he was offered a job at Simon Fraser University, where for the first time he made a sizable amount of money off readings and lectures, where the young men saw through to his brilliance--he never did so. Shortly after, back in Berkeley, Spicer collapsed in an elevator clutching a chicken sandwich.

A few days before he died in the hospital at age 40, Spicer confessed to his longtime friend Robin Blaser the name of his murderer: "My vocabulary did this to me." His vocabulary killed him, his rules that he broke in one generously slow and premeditated gesture up in Vancouver. His head, with slicked-back hair and deep-set eyes, had turned toward Eurydice the face of his unfinished poem.