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This review is taken from PN Review 188, Volume 35 Number 6, July - August 2009.

A LOVER’S QUARREL WITH THE WORD JACK SPICER , My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian (Wesleyan University Press) $35

Jack Spicer, a Bay Area poet and literary activist, died in 1965, aged forty, of complications from alcoholism. His last words were, ‘My vocabulary did this to me.’ That Spicer’s collected poems should take this lament as its title is a bittersweet acknowledgement of the pathos of a writer whose experiments, both as poet and as linguist, made him wonder if he was being heard. That words were on his mind when he collapsed is no surprise. Spicer was obsessed with writing both as a form of artistic expression and as an epistemological problem of communication. In linguistics, Spicer was a pre-Chomskyian as he did not conceive of grammar as imprinted - ‘hard-wired’ - in innate cognitive functions. Instead, he conceived of the writer as analogous to a radio receiver that passed on in altered form whatever sensations it picked up by being receptive to the environment around him.

At one point he described the poet as someone who took dictation from Martians, a formulation that pushes the boundary of the rational and raises the question of how much of Spicer’s poetic theory was simply a provocation. Poetic theatricality aside, the idea that the artist can only be a receptacle for speech raises troubling questions not just about creativity but about mental stability. The tragic irony for Spicer is that in his obsession with words, words blocked his self from himself; as he put it in one of his love poems, ‘get those words out of your ...

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