Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Forget Spicer - Part Two

I have yet to read an introduction to Spicer’s work that was not quick to point out that the poet was gay and an alcoholic. Not the kind of drunk that goes around half-snockered all day, but rather the kind who gets pants-pissingly, carpet-barfingly, on the sidewalk down-fallingly drunk. Such people are difficult to get along with, and local poets in the same age-group who knew Spicer have not been slow to express their disapproval of him and his writing, Ferlinghetti and Phil Whalen (in conversation with me) among them.
There are two issues involved, the first being whether attaching labels to poets helps us to understand what they have to say to us, and secondly if a poet's addictions and life-style choices increase our understanding of his/her work.
Is it really useful to call Snyder, Whalen and Ginsberg Buddhist poets? Being Buddhist, they all took Bodhisattva vows, in their individual ways led unusually disciplined life-styles, and occasionally referenced Buddhist practice in their writings—but who thinks of such things when we label them Buddhist? Isn’t it rather that the label exists to avoid having to think through what the term implies? Don’t we call a writer a Buddhist so we don’t have to review to ourselves why we are or aren’t one?
So we are urged to remember that Kerouac and Spicer worshipped at the altar of Bacchus, Spicer perhaps more sympathetically so due to the victimization of gay people struggling to survive the 1950’s. Kerouac’s writing attracted hundreds of thousands of readers, Spicer’s influence has been all but non-existent. There’s no way to estimate the effect of alcohol on their writings. You might well think that drunken poems are less focused and dribble off into incoherency more often than sober poems, but how can you really know if the drunk poet had written his poem differently if he were sober?
We need to give up describing writers with labels. We ought to view alcoholics as people as who like to drink, and in the first analysis we should view poems as independently-existing phenomena, like apples fallen from an unknown tree.


  1. “We should view poems as independently-existing phenomena, like apples fallen from an unknown tree.” Well put, and I’m inclined to agree with you; but does anyone, can anyone, really do this? Certainly not one’s readers who know, or think they know, the poet. I always try at least to view the poem as an autonomous object, even my own poems—doubly difficult to do, even with the really good ones birthed in autonomy. What about now as I’m reading Baudelaire across time? I think we should make the attempt and hope to hear from some discerning other who appreciates us for our work divorced from us; but the more I think about it, no poem or artistic endeavor of any kind is, can be, or should be an independently-existing phenomenon. We can view it as such for a specific purpose, but we can’t kid ourselves into believing we can close ourselves off . . . and here I fear delving in the abstract. The apples will cover the ground and eventually rot, transfigure if you will.

  2. I often thought it would be interesting to do a small press magazine whose contributors would remain anonymous -- not very successful, I'd imagine!
    To advertise Spicer as gay and alcoholic in order to gain attention to his work has of course nothing to do with his competence as a poet.