Thursday, September 26, 2002

Patrick Herron writes to ask about my comment that “irresolvable conflict is the primary Spicerian theme.” It seemed to me, as I wrote that comment a week ago, thumbing through my dog-eared (indeed, nearly dissolving with use) copy of the Collected Books obvious enough – it hadn’t occurred to me that the observation might be in any way unusual. I had been skimming through the baseball poems from Book of Magazine Verse, especially the second one – they’re love poems, of course, but love poems that presume the impossibility of any successful relationship. It’s a position that Spicer held with remarkable consistency throughout his life. About god: “If there isn’t / A God don’t believe in Him.” About human relations:

They say “he need (present) enemy (plural)”
I am not them. This is the first transformation.

About poetry: “No / One listens to poetry.”

Spicer is quintessentially a poet of emotion precisely because that is the surfeit left unassimilated whenever impossible forces meet.

Not that Spicer is necessarily all that different in this – think of the underlying bitterness and anger implicit in so many of Creeley’s early love poems, as in The Warning:

For love – I would
split open your head and put
a candle in
behind the eyes.

Love is dead in us
if we forget
the virtues of an amulet
and quick surprise.

Indeed, one of the secrets of Creeley’s early poems is the association it consistently makes between rhyme and violence, as though rhyme itself were an expression of force.

Conflict is the fundamental narrative engine – it is the element that insists, even in a still life, that something will have to give & that change is inevitable.* In his excellent ethnography, “Peaks of Yemen I Summon”: Poetry as Cultural Practice in a North Yemeni Tribe (University of California, 1990), Steven Caton repeatedly notes how many ways in which poetry functions among the al-Yamāniyatēn of Khawlān at-Tiyāl as a ritualized surrogate for combat. Our own earliest texts, such as Beowulf, are replete with blood and gore.

I think about Caton’s book, which suggests without ever quite saying so that poetry itself is a kind of blood sport, whenever one of the several poetry listserv discussion groups dissolves into petty verbal warfare. If nothing else, Caton’s thesis suggests the normalcy of the problem. Indeed, it implies that if there were not combative “camps” in contemporary poetry, we might be forced to invent them.

This of course is not an optimistic view of human behavior or its potential. Right now with the political situation being what it is – as an illegitimate President crawfishes over from an unavoidable war against al-Qaeda into a nebulous “war on terrorism,” a metaphor that can & does extend outward in all directions, enabling the Administration to simply sweep away Constitutional protections of individual liberty, & also to an unrelated threatened assault on Iraq aimed at instilling a Pax Americana on the entire Middle East – the question of conflict is in no way abstract.

While it is not evident what Spicer would have made of all this, it seems likely that he would not have been surprised. I imagine that there might have been a serial poem about the crusades. If ever we had a poet in touch with the infinite sense of hurt that accompanies people who believe they are still suffering from battles waged hundreds or even thousands of years ago, for whom the logic of Kosovo, Chechnya, Kurdistan and the Left Bank exposes its lethal gears as if to a watchmaker, it was this cantankerous alcoholic linguist who once identified himself as a member of the “California Republican Army.”

* Think of Edward Hopper’s paintings, for example. This is why figurative paintings are often characterized as narrative.