Spicer, Burgess, and the ephemerality of coterie
In an unpublished letter to Robin Blaser and Jim Felts from the mid–1950s, Jack Spicer cautions his addressees against preserving their correspondence for posterity. “This will become a literary document,” he warns, “if you don’t burn it.” Similarly, in a list outlining “What to do with the Boston News Letter” scrawled in one of Spicer’s notebooks, he advises readers of the poetry pamphlet to “[p]ost whatever pages of it you think well of in the most public place you can find — i.e. an art gallery, a bohemian bar, or a lavatory frequented by poets,” and to “[b]urn or give away the pages you do not want to make public. Do not keep them.” In their biography of Spicer, Kevin Killian and Lew Ellingham refer to the Boston newsletter as an “exercise in poetic community” marked by “a curious blend of acid raillery and low camp.” If the target of Spicer et al.’s “raillery” was, often, the literary establishment — the canon-defining university literature department and the market-driven major publishing house — then keeping poetry ephemeral, disposable even, was a way to circumvent and to resist co-optation by literary institutions of the social and material sites of avant-garde poetry. And the campy combativeness of the newsletter thus hinges upon its preference for the ephemeral exchange over and above the precious “document.”
A passage from Charles Olson’s Maximus suggests that “the social function of the little magazine” was a preoccupation for many postwar poets:
A magazine does have this ‘life’ to it (proper to it), does have streets,
can show lights, movie houses, bars, and, occasionally,
for those of us who do live our life quite properly in print
as properly, say, as Gloucester people live in Gloucester
you do meet someone
and I met you
on a printed page.
Echoing Olson’s metaphoric mapping of the social space of the magazine, Jack Spicer declared, in his lecture on “Poetry and Politics” at the Berkeley Poetry Conference of 1965, that “a magazine is a society.” These references to the social spaces and chance meetings out of which poetry emerges speak to the tension — found in much of the coterie poetry of the postwar period — between an attempt to formally recreate the spontaneity of social relations on the page, and the impossibility of capturing in print something that is, by its very nature, fleeting. One thinks of Frank O’Hara’s breathless exchanges with friends on the street, or the brief and ultimately unfulfilling pleasure of a one-night stand that Spicer uses as a metaphor for his early lyrics. Thus, we might read coterie poems, poems that can seem almost exclusionary in their persistent references to people and places unfamiliar to the uninitiated reader, as extensions of social life and as forms of social relation in and of themselves. And the fact that the beautiful-but-slapdash mimeographed journals and small press editions in which many of these poems were initially published were so insistently transitory — meant to be exchanged among friends and cast aside, and avowedly out of place in the university archive — raises, in another register, the same question of futurity that the poems themselves often raise. In response to a question about “the nature of a society like the Open Space society” in the same lecture I quoted above (Open Space being one of the short-lived print organs of the Spicer circle), Spicer rejects “[t]he idea of making things last,” and asserts that any desire for endurance “is something which just has to be conquered. The idea of Open Space was that these things would not last.”
I want to locate a “secret history” of postwar coteries and their print media — in particular, the West Coast strain of the New American poetry — in the self-consciously ephemeral journals (or “bibelots”) of the fin de siècle. Though “bibelots” were in no short supply at the close of the nineteenth century (Moods, The Fad, Impressions, A Little Spasm, Snap Shots, and Whims, to list a few with particularly apt titles), I focus here on those produced by San Francisco poet and humorist Gelett Burgess and his circle: The Lark and its spinoff, Le Petit Journal des Refusées, a chapbook printed on wallpaper which claims to feature work that had been rejected by several other journals, but which contains, in actuality, work by Burgess and a few of his friends. Both publications foreground their own construction as material and social artifacts and document the humor, gossip, and ribaldry generated among Burgess’s lively gang of artists and writers. They are also, crucially, parodies of literary institutions on par with Spicer’s Book of Magazine Verse, and wry critiques of the ways in which certain literary forms and formats are gendered.
Burgess and his band of pranksters quip, in the poem “Our Clubbing List,” from Le Petit Journal: “E is for Editor; what does it mean? / Everyone now runs his own magazine.” Though it was published in 1896, this could just as easily be a tongue-in-cheek assessment of the period roughly between 1960 and 1980, when the ubiquity of mimeograph and xerox machines allowed poets to quickly and cheaply publish and distribute new work. Later in the same poem, Burgess et al. seem at once to satirize and to embrace the ephemerality of their contribution to American letters: “O’s for Oblivion — ultimate fate / Of most of the magazines published of late.”
My sense of what these unusual publications share with Spicer’s work as a poet and editor began to crystallize around a curious biographical detail. In Poet, Be Like God, Killian and Ellingham mention the Spicer’s use of the term “goops” to refer, somewhat derogatorily, to his intimate, and often incestuous, cohort. George Stanley, one of the poets in the Spicer circle, is quoted as saying that Spicer’s derision was a response to one of the many romantic disappointments that punctuated his life (and helped generate some of his best work). In 1959, Spicer’s then lover and muse, the much younger Jim Alexander, began an affair with one of the comparatively few women in Spicer’s orbit. This woman, Dora Geissler, was also the partner of poet Harold Dull — the “Hal” of Spicer’s poem “For Hal” in Admonitions. That Spicer’s response to sexual betrayal was a brief disavowal of his (too?) closely-knit coterie and its claustrophobic insularity is not particularly surprising given Spicer’s ambivalence about collectivity (see, as example, the final poem in A Book of Magazine Verse). What is striking about Spicer’s wounded dismissal of the members of his coterie is the curious term he uses to slur them: “goops.” Ellingham and Killian indicate in their footnote that an acquaintance of Spicer’s told them, “without factual support, only [from] memory,” that Spicer associated the term with Alfred Hitchcock’s film The 39 Steps. But they also speculate that Spicer may have been familiar with Burgess’s 1900 book Goops and How to Be Them. It seems fairly likely that Spicer was at the very least aware of Burgess’s writing, and of the arabesque, humanoid illustrations that grace the pages of his books and comprise the colophon for The Lark — figures that Burgess referred to as “goops.” Burgess’s goops are indistinguishable from one another in appearance and are often depicted in circular configurations, the limbs of one figure flowing seamlessly into those of another. Spicer’s use of the word “goop” in his poem “They Came to the Briers and the Briers Couldn’t Find ’Em” suggests that he might have derived the term from Burgess rather than from Hitchcock: “The goop is an international criminal organization / that talks to each other, makes passes at each other, / sings to each other, clings to each other, is as / absolutely alien to each other as a stone in Australia.” The gloss that lurks spectrally below the poem proper — “In hell it is difficult to tell people from other people” — further reinforces the connection between Burgess’s goops and Spicer’s biting critique of coterie. It is a slippery slope, Spicer seems to warn in “They Came to the Briers,” from collectivity to alienation, from consensus to homogeneity. And Burgess’s illustrations serve as an apt metaphor for the circle of poets so closely abutted as to have congealed into a single, sticky mass.
“Les Jeunes,” the moniker for the somewhat fluid group of writers, artists, and bohemians in league with Burgess — including Bruce Porter, Willis Polk, Porter Garnett, and Yone Noguchi, among others — cleverly riffs on “yellow” (“jaune” in French) journalism (the sensationalism of which was often parodied in The Lark’s advertisements), and the freewheeling bohemian youth culture (“jeune” being French for “young”) the group can be said to embody, despite the fact that Burgess was nearly thirty in 1895, the year The Lark was founded. Like “Les Jeunes” before them, Spicer and his cohort of self-proclaimed initiators of the “Berkeley Renaissance” were integral to the Bay Area bohemian milieu of the mid-twentieth century. The names that both coteries gave themselves reflect the combination of ribaldry and serious literary commitment, of self-parody and self-conscious mythmaking, that they share — indeed, the tongues of the original Berkeley Renaissance troika of Spicer, Duncan, and Blaser were only partially in their cheeks when they dubbed their nascent scene a “Renaissance.”
While I can only speculate about whether or not Spicer actually read Burgess, the uncanny biographical parallels between the two writers reveal certain shared sensibilities vis-à-vis coterie and career. While neither Spicer nor Burgess was born in the Bay Area, both considered the region their spiritual home. Born in Los Angeles, Spicer spent his first two years of college at the University of Redlands. In the fall of 1945, he transferred to UC Berkeley, and during that academic year, met Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser and later referred to that transformative year and the relationships it nurtured as the year of his birth. If somewhat less mythologized, Burgess’s relocation to the Bay Area was no less of a homecoming. “One finds in San Francisco,” he once remarked, “whatever one looks for. I was young and ardent. I found Romance. I found Adventure. I found Bohemia.” I can’t help but hear an echo of Burgess in Spicer’s repurposing of W. B. Yeats’s praise for philosopher George Berkeley (“All the philosophy one needs is in Berkeley”) as an epigraph to “Imaginary Elegies.” The in-jokey humor of this sleight-of-hand recontextualization of a proper name wittily highlights the centrality of the poet’s locale, and of the coterie networks that flourished within it, to his creative and intellectual practice. And since the energy generated in the apartments, seminar rooms, and bars of Berkeley and San Francisco’s North Beach could not, for Spicer at least, be separated from the persistent sense of its being always-about-to-end or always-already-over, a poetic tone I want to describe as insouciantly elegiac comes to characterize much of Spicer’s work. “Berkeley in a Time of Plague” and “A Postscript to the Berkeley Renaissance,” short lyrics written early in Spicer’s career, evoke losses not utterly irrevocable, but wistful, at times painful, all the same. Not irrevocable because, in the former, the speaker (a collective “we”) addresses us from a time after plague has come and gone and “taken [them]” to an otherworldly place — a kind of ghost Berkeley in the sky — from which poetry might still be written and transmitted. The shift from lament in the first stanza (“Plague took us and the land from under us, / Rose like a boil, enclosing us within”) to something like a cautious celebration of the generative power of transformation in the last (“Plague took us, laughed and reproportioned us, / Swelled us to dizzy, unaccustomed size. / We died prodigiously; it hurt awhile / But left a certain quiet in our eyes”) feels more like an embrace of the ephemerality of social relations than a fist raised, raging against it.
The first lines of Spicer’s “Imaginary Elegies” (a series begun in 1948 and completed in 1954) overturn the classical conceit of poetry as preservation fantasy: as, in other words, a medium that — unlike love, friendship, flesh, etc. — endures. Instead of the “living record of … memory” in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 54, or the “black lines” that keep the speaker’s beloved “green” in Sonnet 63, Spicer gives us “Poetry [that], almost blind like a camera / Is alive in sight for only a second.” A little later in the poem, he writes: “One can only worship / These cold eternals for their support of / What is absolutely temporary.” “These cold eternals” refer here to what Spicer calls, elsewhere, “pure poetry”: poetry devoid of the warmth and vitality of the friends, lovers, and fellow travelers for and about whom it ought to be written. The following poem, from Spicer’s 1957 book Admonitions, gives us a more fully articulated version of Spicerian ephemerality:
Is no excuse for such things
Weigh like strawberries
On a shortcake.
To the root of the matter
Have a friend
But be a free fucking agent.
Has lots of them
Lays or friends or anything
That can make a little light in all that darkness.
There is a cigarette you can hold for a minute
In your weak mouth
And then the light goes out,
Rival, honey, friend,
And then you stub it out.
Written for and addressed to one of the young poetic initiates who formed the small circle around Spicer during the decades following WWII, the poem links mortality to poetic ephemerality (poem as lit cigarette), and both of those things to coterie (having a few friends or lays), as well as to something like political autonomy (“free fucking agent”). This special collocation of concerns could be said to emerge in part from Spicer’s interest in the poem as an occasion rather than an artifact, as one friend (or rival, or lover) talking to another.
I want to devote the remainder of this essay to The Lark and to the ways in which its editors’ remarks in the journal’s final issue — known as the “Epi-Lark” — register, both rhetorically and tonally, their sense of the “ultimate fate” referred to in the lines from “Our Clubbing List”: “O’s for Oblivion — ultimate fate / Of most of the magazines published of late.” Johns Hopkins University’s Special Collections owns all but five of The Lark’s twenty-five issues. They are ephemeral in every sense. No matter how delicately I handled them, their brittle edges and spines inevitably cracked and crumbled, due in part to their age but also to the gossamer bamboo paper on which the journal is printed. Since the pages are nearly transparent — more reminiscent of rough silk than of paper — each is printed on one side only. The epigraph (from The Taming of the Shrew) on the cover of the ninth issue — “What, is the jay more precious than the lark, because his feathers are more beautiful?” — seems a celebration of the magazine’s understated, homely charm. While typographical features like the “ragged right-hand margin” distinguish it, as the editors indicate in the “Epi-Lark,” from most other publications of the era, to a contemporary reader, there is a kind of beauty in its playful asymmetries.
The advertisements for Le Petit Journal des Refusées featured in The Lark are at once mock-sensationalist and self-effacing. An advertisement in issue thirteen boasts that the forthcoming publication will feature “A new Size. A new Paper. A new Shape. A new Type. … A new EVERYTHING!” and will be “The Sensation of the Century!” Its editors insist that it will be “More artistic than a Bicycle Catalog. More ingenious than the Lark. Weird as a Hasheesh Dream, or a Circus Dodger. An impossible Literary Prodigy.” These humorously bombastic claims for the magazine’s exemplarity are tempered in another ad, which markets Le Petit Journal as “the smallest and most extraordinary magazine in existence … [t]he margins … very, very wide, the cover almost impossible.” It was small in the sense of there being only one issue, and very few copies of it at that, but this curious description of the projected publication — with its “impossible” combination of Lilliputian dimensions and gargantuan margins — evokes something like the inverse of Mallarmé’s equally impossible Livre. Burgess gives us the little magazine as a self-consciously and exaggeratedly marginal, minor enterprise, as rare and “homegrown” as an iris on the slopes of the Presidio (which was Bruce Porter’s metaphor for the magazine in his statement in the “Epi-Lark”), with a lifespan almost as brief and a circulation limited to the “blessed few” of the editors’ coterie.
In his editorial statement for the “Epi-Lark,” Burgess attempts to situate the magazine’s minority as particularly timely — befitting an era punctuated by a series of fashions and fads:
For it has been a decade of small things and minor poesy, and the Lark was too amateurish an effort to stand for much more than a sincerity of impulse. But, though small, it has been a positive protest, — not in the debased meaning of the word, but in its original significance. It has protested the joy of life, the gladness of youth and love, and the belief that these shall endure.
But what I want to call The Lark’s radical ephemerality was not merely symptomatic of a general trend — the decade of decadence’s “craze for odd sizes and shapes, freak illustrations, wide margins, uncut pages, Jenson types, scurrilous abuse and petty jealousies, impossible prose and doggerel rhyme,” as Burgess puts it — but a “revolt against the commonplace [which] aimed to overthrow the staid respectability of the larger magazines and to open to younger writers opportunities to be heard before they had obtained recognition from the autocratic editors.”
Burgess begins his final remarks on the magazine by comparing it to a piece of music — a “short score” or a “brief song.” The figurative language employed in the closing paragraphs, however, is distinctly martial, as phrases like “riot of Decadence” and “revolt against the commonplace” thicken into a tableau of naval onslaught and retreat which serves as an extended metaphor for avant-garde fomentation:
But the war is almost over now, and the little wasp-like privateers that have swarmed the seas of Journalism are nearly all silenced; the freak fleet has disarmed, but who knows how many are missing? Not a port but gave help to the uprising and mustered its volunteers in the fight against Convention. It was a tea-pot tempest that made them and wrecked them, and yet, when the history of the Nineteenth Century decadence is written, these tiny eruptions of revolt, these pamphleteering amateurs cannot remain unnoticed, for their outbreak was a symptom of the discontent of the times, a wide-felt protest of emancipation from the dictates of the old literary tribunals. Little enough good has come of it that one can see at present, but the sedition is broached, and the next rebellion may have more blood to spill.
It is difficult not to hear in Burgess’s fevered rhetoric the words of Mallarmé, another fin-de-siècle maverick whose influence on the print media of the period continues to be the subject of scholarly investigation: “I know of no other bomb but the book.” I also hear something along the lines of Rob Halpern’s coda to his 2009 book of poems, Disaster Suites. Halpern’s closing remarks speak, I think, to the contradiction at the heart of Spicer’s and Burgess’s preoccupation with ephemerality: that it is at once a state of affairs about which we are likely to feel ambivalent, perhaps even dismayed, and one that is also desirable. Desirable because whether a poem or a magazine endures or not depends at least in part upon the endurance of the historical conditions that make the poem or the magazine (or the friendship or the coterie) possible and necessary in the first place. This ambivalence is captured in Spicer’s second letter to Lorca, in which he writes that “[a] poet is a time mechanic not an embalmer,” and more movingly still in Halpern’s: “I hope these poems don’t persist. Or rather, I hope the conditions that make them readable do not.” If coterie writers like Burgess, Spicer, and others between and since battle against “Convention,” against the “dictates of the old literary tribunals,” against “the English Department of the spirit,”— and if poems, magazines, and coteries act as forms of resistance against things as they are — then an embrace of transience might reveal a more hopeful than resigned, a more cautiously utopian than nihilistic attitude about things as they might someday be.
7. This is not to overlook the fact that many modernist magazines were, to a certain extent, ephemeral — precarious operations with limited budgets and short life spans. As the editors of American Prefaces observed in 1940, “the average influential little magazine flashes brightly for a year, like Seven Arts, then passes. For those who survive the first winter, the fourth-year mortality is a fearful danger; Emerson’s Dial fell victim to it.” (Theodore Peterson, Magazines in the Twentieth Century, qtd. in Suzanne W. Churchill and Adam McKible, eds., Little Magazines and Modernism [Ashgate 2007], 9). Part of the difference, I think, between the modernist magazine and the postwar variety has to do with the latter’s self-awareness about the aesthetics and politics of ephemerality and its links to coterie. Some recent studies that marry close attention to the hybrid forms of postwar American poetry with informed considerations of the social, political, and personal milieus out of which it has emerged include Lytle Shaw’s Frank O’Hara: Poetics of Coterie (2006), Andrew Epstein’s Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry (2009), Stephen Voyce’s Poetic Community: Avant-Garde Activism and Cold War Culture (2013), and Among Friends: Engendering the Social Site of Poetry (2013), a collection of scholarly essays about the often messy relations among poetry, gender, and sociality, edited by Anne Dewey and Libbie Rifkin.
8. James Marrion, ed., Le Petit Journal des Refusées (San Francisco, 1896). James Marrion was one of Burgess’s pseudonyms. High resolution scans of Le Petit Journal are available online at the Modernist Journals Project. For more on Burgess and Le Petit Journal, see Johanna Drucker’s “Bohemian by Design: Gelett Burgess and Le Petit Journal des Refusées.”
18. Spicer complained, in a short presentation for a symposium on “The Poet and Poetry” in 1949, that the New Critics “have completed the job of denuding [poetry] of any remaining connection to person place and time. What is left is proudly exhibited in their essays — the dull horror of naked, pure poetry.”
21. The phrase “blessed few” comes from Burgess’s poem “Ballade of the Cognoscenti: To an Unknown Correspondent,” from issue 21 of The Lark. The poem depicts a friendship between two individuals whose “souls illumined” serve as a metaphor for the knowledge shared among a small group of initiates. Though Burgess’s diction is more reminiscent of Duncan than of Spicer, the poem’s depiction of friendship and/or coterie as gnosis is very much in the proverbial wheelhouses of both postwar poets:
So soul to soul doth boldly kinship claim
For them that know the Master Word and Clue;
So secret friendship kindles into flame