Jack Spicer: Correspondence and the Serial Poem
Spicer, theorizing the act of writing poetry, states that poetry comes “from the outside rather than from the inside” and that a poet should not be considered “a beautiful machine” that historically “did everything for itself — almost a perpetual motion machine of emotion until the poet’s heart broke or it was burned on the beach like Shelley’s” (House that Jack Built 5). Spicer’s comments draw from the poet Charles Olson’s essay “Projective Verse”, in which Olson states “[a] poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it […] by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader” (40). Poetry as an act of creation originating from the poet is displaced; instead, words and their relational webs of meaning are the signposts that form a poem: they are sources that shape the poet’s mood from the outside, and prompt emotion through their deferral of meaning. Consequently, the transferral of poetic energy – “the kinetics of the thing” (40) – from source to reader positions the poet as a conduit for those sources to pass through.
In a 1965 series of lectures in Vancouver, Spicer articulates the movement of energy through the act of writing a collection of poetry as the “serial poem”: a series of poems that uses “the book as its unit” (House that Jack Built 52), running chronologically with recurring and interdependent variations of themes. He states:
I think for the ideal serial poem you don’t reread the poems before it. In other words, if you’ve gone, say, five poems and you’re beginning to have a suspicion that there’s a section. […] There’s a great temptation to look back and see what material you have to connect together. […] Not looking backwards. Letting the poem look forward. Just following the bloody path to see where it goes. And sometimes it doesn’t go anywhere (House that Jack Built 54).
It is in the movement forward, the “[n]ot looking backwards”, that the “kinetics of the thing”, as Olson puts it, are able to transfer through the poet to be translated onto the page. Yet Spicer’s admission that “sometimes [the path] doesn’t go anywhere” is seemingly a contradiction of the “forward” motion of poetic energy. If the energy derived from sources “doesn’t go anywhere”, then the production of poetry must surely respond to that stasis.
Through the lens of this kind of translation of energy, of sources and STs, Spicer’s collection After Lorca – a collection that presents a playful relationship between Spicer and Federico García Lorca’s ghostly figure through the translation of Lorca’s poetry – can be framed as a serial poem. In doing so, the questions I want to pose are: first, what does Spicer imply by a path that “doesn’t go anywhere”? And second, what does Spicer’s method of translational practice and of the serial poem offer for poet-translators? I propose that the nature of the serial poem (only looking ahead and not back to that which has already been written) generates writing from protention and retention (as with la trace), and that this is a result of the recurrence and adaptation of poetic imagery as the collection progresses.
It can be evidenced that the activity of the serial poem, as Spicer defines it, is present in After Lorca because the poet writes with a sense of duration. This is punctuated by interspersed letter poems that become increasingly disaffected with the poet’s project, most poignantly culminating with “Dear Lorca, / This is the last letter. The connection between us, which had been fading away over the summer, is now finally broken” (My Vocabulary 153). Spicer’s need to declare the mode of thought, the impetus, or energy with which he composed each translation to be “broken” should perhaps – if taken as a full stop to the collection – be the final piece written. However, it is not. The final “postscript” poem in After Lorca, “Radar” (a poem written by Spicer and not Lorca), functions not so much as a full stop but as an ellipsis:
No one exactly knows
Exactly how clouds look in the sky
Or the shape of the mountains below them
Or the direction fish swim
They are going on a journey
Those deep blue creatures
Passing us as if they were sunshine (My Vocabulary 154).
The lack of finality in each image is telling, as “No one exactly knows / exactly how” introduces uncertainty to the poem’s temporal structure. To not know is ambiguous and indeterminate; an ongoing process of internalized thought from the feedback of outward perception. Spicer’s use of the image of radar in the poem’s title is therefore entirely appropriate: the searching sweep of radar can be compared to the poet’s own scoping of his problematized landscape, awaiting a response.
One is presented with fish, although Spicer goes on to strip out their identity by referring to them as “creatures”; they are moving “on a journey” which is inscrutably vague, and they are “passing”, elapsing like the flow of time. Through writing a collection of translations of García Lorca’s poetry, Spicer is confined to rewriting poetry of the past, stripping down its identity and replacing parts with his own lexicon. Yet as time moves on, so does the poet’s relationship to the poetry being translated. Consequently, as Spicer notes, the “connection between” the poet, his own poetry and the translation becomes “broken” as he looks out in search of new poetic territory. Images become self-doubting and wandering: they are elliptical, pushing onwards, outwards, yet also recurring as they move through the lines and poems in different forms.
In the preface to After Lorca, Spicer masquerades as the deceased poet Lorca and states: “these poems are not translations. In even the most literal of them Mr. Spicer seems to derive pleasure in inserting or substituting one or two words which completely change the mood and often meaning of the poem” (My Vocabulary 107). While Spicer is primarily being droll here, putting indignant words in the mouth of Lorca, this is a coded message about Spicer’s own translational practice: that of “change” through “substituting” words, distorting images, and therefore creating new meaning. As a further clue, Spicer (as Lorca) states that his poems are “not translations” even though in terms of the movement of meaning through form, they are. The mask of Lorca enables Spicer to issue a challenge to his own translational practice, thus performing a covert attack on translation orthodoxy. Yes, of course “Radar” can be at the end of a collection of translations. Yes, it can be Spicer’s own poem. Yes, Spicer can also speak as Lorca, denouncing his own poetry in translation. There are no boundaries because a translation is a distortion of a source text’s relationships of meaning, and because translation is both a retentive and protentive act of creation.
This is also evident in Spicer’s thoughts on translation: to establish equivalence between poetic images runs counter to what Spicer believes about the interrelation of poems. In his third letter poem, he writes: “[t]hings do not connect; they correspond. That is what makes it possible for a poet to translate real objects, to bring them across language as easily as he can bring them across time” (My Vocabulary 133). Spicer makes an emphatic push towards the idea that translation operates through correspondence rather than exactness and the specificity of connection. The poet-translator, rather than saying: “the source image must mean this; I have connected it to the closest, most exact word I can in my language”, instead says: “this image is impossible to equate to anything I know of in my language; I will instead use the form of another image that is a corresponding likeness”.
Clayton Eshleman recognizes this in Spicer’s translation of Lorca’s poem “Debussy”: “Spicer seems to enjoy mistranslating a word in such a way that the ghost of the equivalent is present, e.g., ‘acequia’ (canal) is rendered as ‘ditch.’ While ‘ditch’ is hardly even close to ‘canal’ in meaning, their shapes do correspond” (100). If After Lorca is about correspondence of images, meaning, and indeed the poets themselves, and not an exactitude of translated connections, then it is worth considering how Spicer’s creative agency in the collection troubles the process of translation through the activity of the serial poem; how the rough form of “shapes” that superimpose but do not elicit an exactness of meaning affect the serial poem’s forward motion.
At the mid-point of the collection, Spicer prompts a shift in the focus of After Lorca, as he begins to allow his personal poetry to move into the foreground. Marked by the poem “Aquatic Park”, the contextual bearings of Spicer’s life seep into his process of poetic composition. Below is the poem in full:
A translation for Jack Spicer
A green boat
Fishing in blue water
The gulls circle the pier
Calling their hunger
A wind rises from the west
Like the passing of desire
Two boys play on the beach
Their gangling legs cast shadows
On the wet sand
Sprawling in the boat
A beautiful black fish (My Vocabulary 131).
Spicer dedicates this poem as a translation to himself, which clearly denotes the beginning of a directional change for the collection that has thus far has only dedicated translations of Lorca to others. “Aquatic Park” is the only poem in the whole of After Lorca to be dedicated to Spicer himself; such is the importance of its statement. Furthermore, “Aquatic Park” is not a translation of any of García Lorca’s poetry, although it is a translation in the sense of the transferal of meaning through form; it attempts to find a tone and process that facilitates a clear continuation of the mode of thought that Spicer, as poet-translator, was driven by while composing the collection.
The gulls “calling their hunger” introduce a sense of urgency – a suggestion of Spicer’s voraciousness to write a personal poem that is freed from Lorca – yet this is immediately dampened by the lines “A wind rises from the west / Like the passing of desire”. Spicer’s “hunger” to write is swept by the “passing of desire”, the shadow of having to translate Lorca, which is a constant check on that urge. This is an apt presentation of image, as the boys’ legs that “cast shadows / on the wet sand” in the following lines serve as a reminder that the act of translation is still heavily pervasive in Spicer’s writing methodology. This is noted by Ignacio Infante, who comments: “the poem [‘Aquatic Park’] is populated by boys equivalent to those who were singing and showing their bodies in [‘Ode for Walt Whitman’]” (Infante 108); the boys persist like a hangover from the previous translation in the collection through their “gangling”, maturing presence.
In the closing lines of the poem, Spicer’s presentation of the “beautiful black fish” corresponds with recurring images in After Lorca that act as partial echoes: a subsequent letter poem states that “[e]ven the objects change. The seagulls, the greenness of the ocean, the fish…” (My Vocabulary 150), and this is qualified by the ambiguous “direction fish swim” in presented through “Radar” (My Vocabulary 154). It is poignant that Spicer specifically documents the phrase “objects change”, as it is not only his relationship with and reference to translation that change over the span of After Lorca; his manipulation and deployment of images (for instance, “fish”, “water” and “shadows”) also shifts over time. There are instances where the motif of movement in and out of water is initially conjured in translations such as “Debussy”: “My shadow moves silently / Upon the water in the ditch” (Vocabulary 112), and in “Frog”: “And a climax means a splash in the pool […] And your heart is full of water” (Vocabulary 113), but it feels as if the thought — the image itself — has yet to fully emerge from beneath the surface of these premonitions.
The “black fish” is “sprawling” across the whole of After Lorca, not only on the boat’s deck in “Aquatic Park”: it surfaces in Spicer’s thoughts at the critical mid-point in the chronology of the collection to become centre-stage and, in a sense, arrives with perfect timing. One can detect something below the surface stirring long before the fish is reeled in. Even then, once surfaced, Spicer playfully describes the fish as “black” — as inscrutable and shadowy as if it were still beneath the water’s surface — a suggestion that translation can only correspond to the form of the fish’s shadow: it cannot be described with exactness.
These instances of image correspondence, Infante claims, “turn [‘Aquatic Park’] not so much into a hybrid ‘unwilling centaur,’ but rather into a literal ‘time mechanism’ established through a series of striking poetic correspondences produced by Spicer” (Infante 108). Consequently, the real significance of “Aquatic Park” is that it indicates After Lorca is a serial poem precisely because the poem simultaneously moves forward along “the bloody path” (House that Jack Built 54) yet it is laid on top of and corresponds with parts of what has come before it, also reverberating through that which is yet to come. Spicer’s “Aquatic Park” can be seen as a translation of his personal lifestyle, places of familiarity, his mood, and methodology of working with translation. It is written for and dedicated to himself: an expression of self, deep in the imaginative realm of Lorca’s imagery rather than the specifics of Lorca’s text. It is Spicer’s attempt to reel himself out of that realm while still sitting in a boat that bobs on its sea. I argue that this is what Spicer means when he states that the path sometimes “doesn’t go anywhere” (House that Jack Built 54): the poet is increasingly confined to a methodology as time moves on. The images that recur, adapt, distort and correspond are caught in an imagistic cycle, symptomatic of that confinement. Hence, Spicer eventually ends his translational relationship with Lorca because it is creatively restrictive rather than productive.
This is how I believe Spicer views the serial poem: a book-length “unit” with an internal chronology that tracks the tone and trajectory of the poet’s work as it progresses. If the poet looks back, attempting to edit and rearrange its arc or structure, the chronology is broken and the serialization is falsified. After Lorca, in this sense, seeks to defy that paradox: it tries to look back to its source, to Lorca’s poetry, while simultaneously moving ahead in series through Spicer’s own poetry. As a result of the manipulation and transformation of like imagery, one is dragged along the “bloody path” while still retaining a sense of the past, a sense of Lorca’s poetry.
For a poet-translator, this retentive and protentive space that After Lorca creates as a longer unit – a serial poem – is a demonstration of a poetic form that translation can produce: a form that manifests translation as a transference of energy from the ST through the poet to the reader; as a correspondence of imagery between texts; and as a representation of the flow of a translator’s methodology and practice over time. “Aquatic Park” is a sea change of expression in that transferal of energy. It is Spicer’s desire to write a personal serial poem that, while masquerading as Lorca, originates from him, surfacing like the “beautiful black fish”.
 Spicer’s postscript poem forms the basis of 4.4, p. 147.
 As discussed in 1.4 (p. 48) and 3.4 (p. 116), where retention and protention are attributes of trace.
 As in the basis of non-equivalence between languages and texts (1.2, p. 33).
 Aquatic Park in San Francisco was one of Spicer’s habitual haunts. It was a place of liberation where homosexuals could gather free from persecution (Infante 106).
Dr Simon Everett is a poet and poet-translator. His latest pamphlet of poetry, Tamám (Litmus Press, 2020), is an experimental reimagining of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. His translations of Chinese T’ang dynasty poetry have been published in magazines such as STAND, and his translations of contemporary Chinese poet Zhang Yangyang appeared in Chinese Arts and Letters journal. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Essex, funded by the Consortium for the Humanities and the Arts South-East England (CHASE). Simon was also the Layout Editor of the Brief Encounters open access journal from 2017-2019, and is currently Editor-in-Chief of Muscaliet Press.