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  • From Typology to Topology:On Jack Spicer
  • Geoffrey Hlibchuk (bio)

Though the poetry of Jack Spicer has accrued a deserved amount of critical attention in recent years, the best treatment of his work is still Robin Blaser's seminal essay, "The Practice of Outside." In this study, first published in The Collected Books of Jack Spicer (1975), Blaser lucidly details Spicer's specific method of composition, summarizing it as "the dictation, the unknown, or the outside" (115). Essentially, Spicer's poetics sees the poet as passive, inflicted by a sort of "divine possession," as Plato's Socrates characterized the performances of the rhapsode (222). Rather than emanating from a subjective source, poetry is instead the result of an unknown energy communicated through the poet. Against "the push of contemporary poetics towards locus, ground" and a sense of "where we are" (Blaser 133), Spicer's work dissipates into air, frequencies, and radio waves. His poetry indexes a mysterious outside, a force threatening to break into our own world in the form of curious linguistic configurations through the conduit of the poet. The poet, then, is never fully in control of the poem but rather is a medium for whatever unholy energies are on the verge of erupting into our domain. Poets can shut off the subjective instinct and instead take dictation from these forces reaching out to them; in an oft-used metaphor, Spicer says that "poems are delivered very much like a message that's delivered over a radio and the poet is the radio" (House 168). The simplicity of this description belies the fact that the received signal is far left on the dial. [End Page 310]

Although Blaser correctly takes the concept of the outside to be central to Spicer's poetry, he nevertheless resists the temptation to sharply demarcate it from the interiority of subjectivity. He thereby avoids a dichotomous reduction that other treatments of Spicer are often guilty of perpetuating.1 Instead, Blaser describes the boundary between interior and exterior as porous and flexible: "The outside invades and doubles over us" (124). In other words, Spicer's outside is not absolutely exterior to what lies inside but is instead typified by a curious reversibility. This outside is not one half of a strict binary; it forms part of a reversible topos in which it becomes impossible to properly tell inside from out. Implicit in Blaser's insistence on these "immediately reversible" (119) characteristics of Spicer's poetry is a shift from typology, the study of pure types that follow the logic of the excluded middle, to topology, the study of amorphous shapes where dualities such as inside and outside become essentially meaningless. Topology, as Bruce Morrissette explains, "represents the primary intellectual operation capable of revealing the modalities of surfaces, volumes, boundaries, contiguities, holes, and above all of the notions of inside and outside" (47). This latter emphasis is key to understanding the complex work of Jack Spicer.

With this essay, I intend to sketch an affiliation between Spicer's poetry and these topological features, and to further examine Blaser's astute investigation into the reversible features of inside and outside in Spicer's writing. I propose that there is a Möbius-like quality to Spicer's work, given the ways it twists exterior and interior until they are indistinguishable. This much is suggested in Blaser's sustained examination of Spicer's ability to merge disparate elements in his poetry (collected in My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer [2008]), [End Page 311] where even the most "inconsequential things can combine together to become a consequence" (My Vocabulary 164). For Blaser, this ability to compose in simultaneities is what makes Spicer an exceptional poet: within a brief, though profoundly complex, poetic oeuvre, he seamlessly combines "visibility and invisibility" (118), "life and death" (121), and the "simultaneously true and false" (114).

The Call of the Outside

Spicer's compositional approach was the result of a shift in his poetics that occurred sometime around 1957. Spicer's annus mirabilis saw him founding the Poetry as Magic workshop, a kind of secret cabal of some of San Francisco's most promising poets. This fixation...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9949
Print ISSN
0010-7484
Pages
pp. 310-340
Launched on MUSE
2010-12-10
Open Access
No
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