Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Jack Spicer's Ghosts and the Immemorial Community

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Jack Spicer's Ghosts and the Immemorial Community

Article excerpt

A double correspondence makes communication with the dead possible. The dead correspond with the living because the dead were alive, while the living can correspond with the dead because the living already have one foot in the grave: each living moment is already past. Ghosts point to this intimacy of the living with the dead, the impossible presence of the past corresponding with a present already past. While Jack Spicer's poetry often expresses an experience of the extreme awareness of mortality and the fleeting present, Spicer also practices a "poetry by dictation" in which the poet acts as a medium for what is Outside: "Instead of the poet being a beautiful machine which manufactured the current for itself, did everything for itself, [...] there was something from the Outside coming in" (House 5). For Spicer, ghosts are beings outside the present. However, beyond this strange experience of voices and presences that come from "Outside," Spicer's work demonstrates a sense in which ghosts constitute an essen tial aspect of community. For Spicer, the dead are as essential to a community as the living, perhaps more so.

Spicer, who died in 1965, was responsible, along with Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser, for a resurgence of poetic activity in the Bay Area in the 1950s and 1960s. Michael Davidson's book, The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century covers this very creative period and group of poets. And, although The Collected Books of Jack Spicer is out of print, a new biography, Poet Be Like God (Ellington and Killian), and a collection of his lectures, The House that Jack Built, indicate that Spicer is still very much with us. Spicer's poetry workshop in 1957 (documented by Blaser in The Collected Books), his poetic companionship with Duncan and Blaser, and his vital involvement with young poets in the Bay Area throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, all point to his conception of poetry as community. It is, however, his relationship to past poets and how this relationship constitutes a kind of "tradition" that I want to focus on. I argue that Spicer's poetry does not just express a vision, or an idea l of community, but is, rather, an instance of community. Spicer came of age as a poet during the post-war period when New Criticism had a stranglehold on American poetry and poetics. But Spicer resisted the image of the poet as a genius labouring away in isolation and creating aesthetic objects, for he saw poetry as a shared social activity. For Spicer, poetry was not a well-wrought urn but a shared response, a co-response, and this became both a source of correspondence with the dead and a profound sense of responsibility to them.

Spicer's work presaged many contemporary concerns, but his concern for community corresponds to a vital engagement with the concept of community of which Jean-Luc Nancy's book The Inoperative Community is a kind of watershed. In this essay I draw on Nancy, as he draws on Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille in his book. Spicer did not know the work of these writers, yet he forms with them what Blanchot calls an "unavowable community" because it is "too numerous but also because it does not even know itself, and does not need to know itself--intercalated, alternating, shared texts, like all texts, offering what belongs to no one and returns to everyone: the community of writing, the writing of community" (Nancy 42). The decimation of traditional communities by the progress of modern society creates a strange and dangerous situation for community, and the desperation of Spicer's work points to the desperate condition of community in modernity. In the absence of community, Spicer responds with a community of ab sence. Conceiving what a "community of absence" might be my task in this essay. As Spicer said in a lecture a few months before he died, "Certainly we belong to a community rather than a society, we poets. But I think every poet has to create actively his own community" (House 167). …

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