JACK SPICER V. LESLIE SCALAPINO: NERD POETRY

 

The unloved nerd in poetry is a tradition that only began recently: the Greek and Roman boasts, the Italian loves, the English ballad-making, poetry of wars and romances and images…love may have been crippled or mad in old poems, but T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock may have been the first to manifest what is now commonplace: the poet so estranged and miserable they create new aesthetics.

The nerd’s self-torture is an endless field for poetic creation.

The alienation of Leslie Scalapino’s narrator obviously shapes the writing:

that they were at the beach (excerpt)

Playing ball— so it’s like paradise, not because it’s in the past, we’re on a field;
we are creamed by the girls who get together on the other team.
They’re nubile, but in age they’re thirteen or so—so they’re strong.

(No one knows each other, aligning according to race as it happens, the
color of the girls, and our being creamed in the foreground—as part of
it’s being that—the net is behind us)

A microcosm, but it’s of girls—who were far down on the field, in another
situation of playing ball—so it was an instance of the main world though
they’re nubile but are in age thirteen or so.

My being creamed in the foreground—so it’s outside of that—by a girl
who runs into me, I returned to the gym.

—Leslie Scalapino

The adolescent team-sports setting is classic nerd territory: this is where we typically first comprehend that we are nerds.

The narrator lacks confidence—the vision is recorded not with clarity or gusto—but obsessively, with frequent repetition,desperately and passively: passive not only in terms of the narrator’s actions, but in the syntax itself: “my being creamed,” etc.

One gets the idea these are not aesthetic choices by Scalapino, but psychological ones.

Psychology eclipses art: this may be the key to modern art and the nerd artist.

Like pleasant melancholy discords in music, Scalapino’s poetry is deliciously self-wounding. There is something organic and cinematic about Scalapino’s work; an experiment in making poetry come alive, albeit on a fragmented, deranged, fearful, and obsessive level.

Art is not considered ill by society as it once was; brute life has been tamed by civilization and schools and art; but art, to succeed, has lost its ability to surprise, to radically differentiate itself from itself; the psychological ‘sees through’ art and life tamed by art, and the psychological vision returns life (and art) to scary sensation, to the elements of the primitive, the crazy, the longing, the way art must have seemed to the ancients when it emerged as tragedy.

Jack Spicer’s poem is nerd literature as well, from the title to the end:

A Poem Without A Single Bird In It

What can I say to you, darling,
When you ask me for help?
I do not know the future
Or even what poetry
We are going to write.
Commit suicide. Go mad. Better people
Than either of us have tried it.
I loved you once but
I do not know the future.
I only know that I love strength in my friends
And greatness
And hate the way their bodies crack when they die
And are eaten by images.
The fun’s over. The picnic’s over.
Go mad. Commit suicide. There will be nothing left
After you die or go mad
But the calmness of poetry.

–Jack Spicer

With “I don’t know the future,” Spicer invokes the first Great Nerd Poem, Prufrock’s “am no prophet.”

“Go mad. Better people than either of us have tried it” is nerdy defeatism.

MARLA MUSE: I find the Scalapino more interesting, though the Spicer has a certain Baudelaire Lite quality I like.

Scalapino is a force, and she easily defeats Spicer, creaming him, 91-66.

13 Comments

  1. Mark said,

    March 29, 2011 at 3:20 am

    Dude,

    Spicer managed to get the nerds and communists at Berkeley to play football then went on to spend most of his afternoons/evenings drinking and talking baseball.

    Spicer was the man.
    If you want nerds look at the Romantics:

    Wordsworth hung out with his sister all the time
    Byron had a gimpy leg
    Keats was a sickly asthmatic
    and Shelley couldn’t swim

    In the high-school cafeteria of poetry, the nerd table is populated solely by the Romantics.
    End of story.

  2. thomasbrady said,

    March 29, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    Wordsworth had five children—and not with his sister, either
    Byron: don’t even need to argue that one. He wasn’t a nerd.
    Keats was not asthmatic and his nickname as a youth was ‘the bantam rooster’ for getting into fights all the time.
    Shelley gave up a sizable inheritance for his beliefs and traveled over mountains on horseback with Byron.

    These guys lived in much tougher times and they probably averaged 50 miles walking a day.

    Spicer was a college ‘zine writer and a drunk.

  3. Mark said,

    March 29, 2011 at 1:26 pm

    Man, “bantam rooster” is the worst nickname ever… I don’t care how you got it… (and since when is traveling on horseback “cool”?) :)
    I’m just saying that if we were picking teams for football Spicer would get picked before the guy with the club foot and his friend Percy.

    That said, I was actually just poking fun at how stupid it is to relegate historical figures to some lame 80′s teen comedy jocks vs nerds dichotomy.
    …Just being ironical and all…

    (Plus Spicer worked on the American Music Anthology with Harry Smith and that’s 10 kinds of cool in my books).

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 29, 2011 at 3:02 pm

      “how stupid it is to relegate historical figures to some lame 80′s teen comedy jocks vs nerds dichotomy.”

      Oh Mark, you’re just jealous. I think it’s clever. What’s wrong with looking at poets and poetry from different angles? And “lame 80′s teen comedy” is your addition.

      • Mark said,

        March 30, 2011 at 12:06 am

        “Oh Mark, you’re just jealous.”
        :D

        I’m just curious to know when ‘walking a lot’ became the measuring stick for coolness? I guess the homeless guys that hang out near my work are some pretty cool cats…

        That is, unless you’re suggesting that walking a lot made them tough and that being tough is cool… which would just serve to reassure me that this blog is on the wrong track – with more consideration given to poets than to poems and a reactionary level of discourse.

        (Plus, we all know that the tag team of Olson and Creeley – in their prime and with 3 eyes between them – would handily kick the asses of the entire second wave of Romantic Poets… Olson probably had 200 pounds on your “bantam rooster”. Hell, you could even throw Wordsworth and Coleridge (the guy gave up drugs to be a lecturer and you’re still going to claim that the Romantics aren’t nerds?) into the mix if you let Creeley keep his knife) :P

  4. Poem support said,

    March 29, 2011 at 10:54 pm

    A Poem Without A Single Bird In It

    What can I say to you, darling,
    When you ask me for help?
    I do not know the future
    Or even what poetry
    We are going to write.
    Commit suicide. Go mad. Better people
    Than either of us have tried it.
    I loved you once but
    I do not know the future.
    I only know that I love strength in my friends
    And greatness
    And hate the way their bodies crack when they die
    And are eaten by images.
    The fun’s over. The picnic’s over.
    Go mad. Commit suicide. There will be nothing left
    After you die or go mad,
    But the calmness of poetry.

    sent to Robin Blaser in Boston 12/13/56

    Jack Spicer

  5. March 29, 2011 at 11:25 pm

    Still… I never really feel the need to go back to Scalapino very often, whereas I frequently pick up my copy of “My Vocabulary Did This To Me.”

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 30, 2011 at 1:45 am

      I hear ya, coffee. Scarriet March Madness is really a tourney of individual poems, not poets. But poems and poets are inevitably linked…

      What’s Spicer’s best poem?

      • Rectrix said,

        June 11, 2011 at 7:20 pm

        The Holy Grail

  6. June 11, 2011 at 9:21 pm

    Link to webpage with audiofiles of Spicer reading “The Holy Grail”:

    http://www.writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Spicer.html

    • thomasbrady said,

      June 12, 2011 at 7:58 pm

      Nice. I wonder if Spicer was more intoxicated in that reading of “Holy Grail,” or when he composed it? His morphemes of pause. My favorite bit was ‘he was a funny man because his mother’s womb was funny.’

      Jack Gilbert, who studied with Spicer at SF State and Gilbert’s one-time wife, Linda Gregg, are also in the APR anthology, “The Body Electric.” None of their poems are impressive. The poems of Gilbert and Gregg in this anthology sound like poems of people who want so badly to be poets, but they are not poets, and their poems sound like the ramblings of bookish half-wits. One shouldn’t blame one for trying?


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