Saturday, December 27, 2008

If Helen Keller Could Get Through Life, We Certainly Can

I got my old copy of The Collected Books of Jack Spicer (Black Sparrow Press, 1975) off the shelf last night and looked through it; I'm thinking of trying to read at least some of it while I'm still on vacation. I bought it soon after its original publication, partly because I always liked Black Sparrow's book design and partly because Spicer was said to be gay. Back then it seemed possible to keep up with all the gay poets, and it even seemed important to do so, whether I liked their work or not. I kept meaning to read Spicer. His poetry looked interesting, if not exactly welcoming, but what with several thousand other books to read I never got around to it.

What led me to dig out that particular book was the news of the recent publication of My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (Wesleyan University Press), edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian. The new volume contains a lot more material than the earlier one, and maybe I'll look for it at the library after I read the Collected Books. I learned about My Vocabulary Did This to Me (the title is reportedly Spicer's last words; actually it was booze that did him in, at the age of 40) from a post at Christopher Hennessey's blog Outside the Lines. Hennessey quotes the New York Times review of My Vocabulary, which says that its editors "speak touchingly of his 'status as an unattractive gay man.'" So does the Time Out review. Rub it in, why don't you?

Y'know, I'm a well-known pervert, but from the photos I've found online I wouldn't say that Spicer was unattractive. (I found both here; the one on the left is credited to the collection of Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian, the one on the right to the photographer, Robert Berg.) I guess what these people mean is that he wasn't a gym-toned Adonis. If so, who among Spicer's contemporaries, gay or straight, was? Allen Ginsberg? Robert Duncan? Chester Kallmann? Frank O'Hara? John Ashbery? James Merrill had a sort of elfin cuteness about him, I suppose, but no one was going to put him in an Abercrombie ad. From these photos it looks to me as if Spicer had a sweetness and vulnerability that I find kinda sexy. No doubt the drinking didn't do his looks any good as he got older. And of course he's dead now, which I find a bit of a turnoff.

From the other stuff that Christopher Hennessey linked to, it seems that Spicer wouldn't have been the easiest person to love. (Not that I'm casting the first stone, mind you!) And like many people, he no doubt fell in love with people who didn't reciprocate, maybe even people whose value in the sexual marketplace was higher than his. Maybe, like many people, he went around complaining that he was unattractive and no one loved him, perhaps in hopes that this would make them feel sorry for him and see his inner beauty. I don't know much about Spicer's life, let alone his love life, so I can't say: I'm mainly generalizing from my own experience and that of other men I've known. But worse-looking men have found love, sometimes even with much better-looking men than they were. And I have to wonder why these reviewers, or Spicer's editors for that matter, felt it relevant to dwell on Spicer's looks. (He may have been a great poet but nyeah nyeah, Jack Spicer couldn't get laid!)

Somewhere Edmund White wrote, or said, that back in his most promiscuous days he still felt that he was getting hardly any sex, and that lots of other guys must be getting more. At some point he recognized that in fact he was getting a lot of sex, with hundreds or even thousands of partners, but he still felt deprived. I hope that Jack Spicer got his share of nooky and love; he seems, however, to have known with some confidence that he was writing good poetry. (At the site where I found those pictures you can find him speaking with assurance, in a public lecture, about his art and that of others.) If I had a time machine, I'd go back to 1955 and hit on him, but how much do you want to bet he'd turn me down?