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My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (Wesleyan Poetry Series) Hardcover – November 30, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The Los Angeles–born Spicer died young, at age 40 in 1965, of acute alcoholism. In his lifetime, he published six books of poems with tiny presses. Though he was influential, he operated in a small circle, mostly in Berkeley. It was at the Six Gallery he cofounded that Ginsberg gave the first reading of Howl in 1955; he was very close to the poets Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser, but as the editors of this extraordinary collection point out, Spicer was never fully embraced within the official culture or counter-culture of the period. This remarkably fresh assemblage, which gathers from two earlier posthumous (and now out-of-print) collections and adds many unpublished poems and sequences, will dramatically expand Spicer's influence. Like the work of Emily Dickinson and W.B. Yeats, Spicer's poems still seem to come from somewhere else (in fact, Spicer claimed he received Martian signals). But what a reader finds here is a poet deeply engaged with language, a gay man consumed by desperate affairs of the heart and flesh, a lover of jazz and baseball and weather, and possessed of the tenderest lyricisms and biting wit. His After Lorca series still shocks with its bold presumption of the dead Lorca's voice; many of the previously unpublished one-night stand poems are marvelous (see Any fool can get into an ocean...) and the Letters to James Alexander, found by the editors amid the Spicer collection at Berkeley, is Spicer at his best—rendering letters as poems, cauterizing the wound of a love affair: Dear James/ It is absolutely clear and sunny as if neither a cloud nor a moon had ever been invented. (Dec.)
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“As a measure of our historical distance from Spicer’s personality, a new generation of editors, the poets Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, moves beyond the Spicer ‘legend’ in order to present the full range of his poetry to readers both familiar and unfamiliar with his work.”―Zach Finch,

“My Vocabulary Did This To Me...These final words serve as an apt title for Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian’s wonderfully edited Spicer collection, the first thorough gathering of the poet’s extraordinary and challenging writing to appear since the ‘70s.”―Erik Davis,

“You finish My Vocabulary Did This to Me feeling you’ve come in contact with an original artist and a genuine one, a writer who is, to borrow from Wordsworth, ‘fierce, moody, patient, venturous, modest, shy.’ You also finish the book thinking that these poems are ready to find a new audience.” ―Dwight Garner,

“His vocabulary did indeed do this to hi, but perhaps with this handsome edtion, love and reappraisal will let him go on.”―Edward Champion,

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Product Details

  • Series: Wesleyan Poetry Series
  • Hardcover: 508 pages
  • Publisher: Wesleyan (November 30, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0819568872
  • ISBN-13: 978-0819568878
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.2 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #988,298 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Ted Burke on April 21, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I am just finishing the "must read" poetry volume of the year, "My Vocabulary Did this To Me", an anticipated republication of the poems by the late Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, and I have to admit that Spicer's writing has me momentarily forgetting my prejudice against poems about poetry and poets and allowing myself to be knocked by the author's third-rail wit. A singular figure, who didn't fit in with the Beats, the New York School, nor the San Francisco Renaissance, Spicer's poems were a set of marginalia at the edges of the principle discussion as to what poetry was and ought to be, and as becomes clear as we read, his counter assertions, his asides, his declarations had more self contained clarity and vision than much of the stuff he looked askance at.

Interrogation of received notions was his on going theme, and `though the practice of making literary practice the unifying metaphor in a body of work tends to seal off poetry from an readership that could benefit from a skewed viewpoint--unlocking a door only to find another locked door, or a brick wall, ceases to be amusing once one begins to read poets for things other than status--Spicer rather positions the whole profession and the art as an item among a range of other activities individuals take on to make their daily life cohere with a faint purpose they might feel welling inside them. Spicer, in matters of money, sexuality, poetry, religion zeros on the neatly paired arrangements our language system indexes our hairiest ideas with and sniffs a rat when the description opts for the easily deployed adjectives, similes and conclusions that make the hours go faster.

Thing Language

By Jack Spicer

This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.
Read more ›
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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Dmitry Portnoy VINE VOICE on December 21, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In the decades following WWII, a tremendous amount of complex, appealing, outward-facing, socially engaged and universally relevant poetry was written in the United States by poets who more or less all knew each other, wrote about each other, and went to the same parties. Ferlingetti published Allen Ginsberg, who staged a happening at the funeral of Frank O'Hara, who was a close friend of John Ashberry, who promoted the books of Kenneth Koch, and so on. Together, these poets' work influenced everything from political speeches to hip-hop, and perhaps more importantly, their eclectic, immediate, deeply personal, free-spirited outpourings drowned out the recondite, referential, fascist, formalist modernism exemplified by Eliot and Pound, and cured American poetry of the disease that continued to plague our architecture and our prose. (Notice there's no "postmodernism" in poetry--"Howl" made it irrelevant.)

Jack Spicer is the self-selected black sheep of the group. His poems are stubbornly self-reflexive: they are about poetry and poets, and the struggle to the death between them. He likes to quote Pound. He disses New York. He writes "A band of faggots. . .cannot be built into a log-cabin in which all Western Civilization can cower." (Take THAT Ginsberg and O'Hara.) He talks about being in hell. He sees ghosts.

In his pity, privacy, and focus on writers and death, he reminds me of Roberto Bolano and David Markson. But there is also an energy, a wealth of invention, and a darn human likeability to his work that. . . well, maybe there was something in the air in mid-twentieth century America, which we can all breathe even now by reading these poems. "Love makes the discovery wisdom abandons." Ahh--joy. "Two loves I had, one rang a bell/connected on both sides with hell." Who of us hasn't been there? And as for modernism--"Love ate the red wheelbarrow." Yes again. Thank the ghosts. Read this and breathe.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By dpk on December 5, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This gorgeous new collection is superbly presented and edited, and contains a great deal of previously unpublished material, as well as the contents of both "The Collected Books" and "One Night Stands." An outstanding edition of an astonishing poet, whose importance is increasingly coming to be recognized.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By justinez on May 26, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
before this was published, i had been searching for it everywhere. it had been stolen out of all the libraries in chicago. i even met someone at a rare book store (not an employee) that admitted to stealing one of the very few copies in circulation, because he felt Entitled to it.
being so deprived -- as is anyone who is denied the opportunity to read spicer -- i hit the bryant park branch of the new york public library on my next visit to the east coast. there, i photocopied every page of spicer poetry the kept in their research library. (yea, i can afford photocopies galore, but not rare original editions on collectors' sites.)
now that i have this precious compilation, it is the tome that i drag with me everywhere, my dada cheerleader, my barometer by which to measure creative work. spicer does orpheus better than rilke, browning, sitwell, graham, atwood, and hughes. this book is magnificent and a joy. it sparkles with wit and stands apart from every other modern literary work. i will not profane it with a quote, but his images are tactile, cinematic and immediately relatable. his language is wry, sexy, despairing, and spare.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By buyer on September 12, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"If someone doesn't fight me I'll have to wear this armor / All of my life," says Jack Spicer, speaking here with his usual trenchant yet wounded wit in the voice of the Arthurian knight Percival. Indeed, Spicer did spend his short life--he died of alcohol-related complications in 1965 at the age of forty--encased in a kind of metaphorical armor, purposely keeping the business of poetry far from the act of writing it; with the exception of his appearance in Donald Allen's groundbreaking 1960 anthology The New American Poetry 1945-1960, his works were disseminated during his lifetime through a coterie of initiates and small presses. Along with friends Robin Blaser and Robert Duncan, Spicer came to be known as a foundational figure of the so-called San Francisco Renaissance, contemporaneous to the Beats but without the bells and whistles of widespread public acclaim. There is a prophetic and telling moment, one which reveals much about the precarious nature of literary reputations, in Poet Be Like God, the decade-old biography of Spicer written by Killian and Lewis Ellingham, where famous beat poet and publisher of City Lights Lawrence Ferlinghetti asks: "Why would anyone want to publish a biography of Spicer? He's almost forgotten nowadays, isn't he?" Were it not for the acumen and diligent grunt work of friends, associates, and admirers, Spicer's now-growing legacy as a seminal twentieth-century poet might have remained an insider's secret. Here, Gizzi and Killian draw on both The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, edited by Robin Blaser for Black Sparrow in 1975, and Donald Allen's editing of One Night Stand & Other Poems in 1980, both long out of print, along with the discovery of a veritable goldmine of notebooks and other ephemera in the Spicer archives to create the definitive and lasting collection of Spicer's poetry. The secret is finally out and it's spreading like wildfire. Ferlinghetti who?
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