Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

"A Whore's Answer to a Whore": The Prostitution of Jack Spicer

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

"A Whore's Answer to a Whore": The Prostitution of Jack Spicer

Article excerpt

Damn it all, Robert Duncan, there is only one bordello. A pillow. But one only whores toward what causes poetry Their voices high Their pricks stiff As they meet us.

"Dover Beach"

I

THE ACADEMIC ASSIMILATION of contemporary poetry and poets, typically characterized as a symptom of postmodern malaise, has been a sore point among poets (both those with "campus lives"--by which I mean income and/or readers--who themselves may well have some apprehensions about the situation and those who wish for, envy, or simply reject such options) and a number of anxious critics. Too often the rebukes delivered to poets working and poetry written within literature departments have an implicitly moral reproval behind them, though one that keeps the nature of the offence ambiguous. That is, whether it is the alleged mediocrity of such poems or the fact that their authors draw a university salary that is the greater sin stays an unanswered question, as does the question of which is the cause, which the effect. Consider briefly as a representative example of this kind of discourse the accusations of Vernon Shetley. "Poetry," he writes,

   for the most part locked into a self-justifying culture of lyricism
   in creative writing departments, has suffered an enormous loss
   of intellectual respectability; the kind of people, both inside
   and outside the academy, who have an appetite for challenging
   reading are no longer much attracted to poetry [...] Reconnecting
   poetry with the intellectual reader is an urgent matter
   not merely for the health of poetry but also for the health of
   the intellect. (170-71)

Poetry has lost "respectability," no longer attracts the correct "kind of people," is unhealthy, and in short ought to be ashamed of itself. What Shetley insists a poem should be is "difficult"--that is, I would like to note for later reference, not "easy" (Shetley 192)--in order to retain or regain those linked qualities of "respectability" and "health." (1) Here and in other incarnations, the complaint that poetry has compromised itself or "sold out" is presented in a trope all too like pious invective against sexual permissiveness. Dana Gioia, assuming a gentler, more liberal tone, has more recently addressed the same perceived problem:

   One should not lament that today's poets have achieved a
   comfortable economic status from teaching and other professions.
   A house, medical insurance, and a pension are not
   bad things for a writer. But one should also not pretend that
   the contemporary writer's transformation from bohemian to
   bourgeois has not changed American literary culture. The personal
   sacrifices required by bohemia often bestowed a ferocious
   intellectual independence and flamboyant individuality
   not easily achieved by writers employed by state institutions
   like universities. Freedom from institutional employment also
   permitted certain excesses and vices-especially drugs and
   alcohol--that destroyed many lives. (122)

No less patronizing than Shetley, Gioia in this "West Coast Elegy" ("one should not lament" but one can elegize) presents a dichotomy of romantic but immoral life in the street ("freedom from institutional employment" is an interesting phrase from a former corporate executive and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts) and comfortable conformity in the institution (how nice to hear that shelter and health care are "not bad things"). The strangest aspect of this passage is not Gioia's inability to see or conceive of contemporary poets who might challenge these categories--say, a tenured boozer--but that it serves as an introduction to a consideration of Jack Spicer as an exemplar of the "unruly lives of bohemian writers who flourished in the Bay Area" (122). According to Gioia, Spicer's poetry is praised as "accessible," but, rest assured, he "is not by any standard a major poet" (126). …

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