The amount of time I spend reading poetry for fun is inversely proportional to the amount of time my parents spend yelling at me to get a job. When I come home for a holiday, I can always feel my mother critically glancing over the bindings of my books. When the names imprinted on those bindings are Shakespeare, Frost, and Blake, she nods to my father in approval as if to say, Yes, darling, we have raised an astute and cultured daughter who will have no trouble finding a rich husband. When I come home with a TV Guide fresh off the presses I can see her aging right before my eyes. Gone is the loving and proud mother, and newly arrived is the irritated look of, Why can’t she read the Want Ads and get a job instead of sitting her ass on my furniture sucking up all the air conditioning?
That is how, on my last vacation, I found myself on my mother’s couch with a copy of Tony Hoagland’s Donkey Gospel in my lap, a leg of fried chicken in my spare hand. I had no intention of actually reading Hoagland, but rather hoped to achieve a faraway look of contemplation every time my mother decided to peek in. I opened to the first page with one greasy finger, and was greeted by the following:
You ask me to sing a sad song
How, motherfucker, can I sing a sad song
when I remember Zion?
– Jack Spicer
I nearly dropped my chicken leg as I reread the short quotation. Who is this man? I wondered. He seemed curmudgeonly, yet militantly upbeat. Surly, and simultaneously angry at others for being surly. There was a beautiful symmetry in his hypocrisy. It appeared I had inadvertently found my soul mate. Suddenly filled with the enthusiasm of discovery, I bounded to the nearest computer to Google my new best friend. As I skimmed distractedly through the search results I imagined the fun times Jack and I would soon be having … we would go camping in the wilderness together, we would stay in and watch B-Movies from the 50’s involving another planet, we would go out to sushi and call each other up in the early hours of the morning. All the while, we would be hating everything and everyone around us, and in our ceaseless bitching we would discover true friendship.
Turns out, he’s been dead for a couple decades. Crushed and seeking closure, I continued to read – Spicer, the Wikipedia entry told me casually, died of alcohol poisoning in the late 1960’s. His final words were, “My vocabulary did this to me.”
That sentence gave me pause. Obviously, Spicer didn’t think much of his career choice, or of language in general. Although mildly confounded, I gave only a passing thought to this cryptic warning before returning to my abandoned fried chicken. His last words were merely my clever cocktail-party offering … until one fateful day a few months back I had the temerity to root through my mother’s filing cabinet.
I found evidence there of my own inevitable doom. In a small file folder marked “Aptitude Testing”, I found test results printed neatly on countless sheafs of computer paper, all bearing the heading: “Subject: Montgomery, Katherine”. No doubt my parents squandered ridiculous amounts of money on the tests only to learn that their eldest was hopelessly below genius level. In their profound disappointment they filed away the tests in this very cabinet, and never spoke of it again.
I stared at the pie charts and bar graphs with ill-fated curiosity: “Color perception: 68th percentile”; “Syllogism: 92th percentile”; “Spacial Reasoning: 0.4th percentile” and so on. At the top of the first page, one bar loomed ominously: “Vocabulary: 99th percentile”. Spicer’s words came rumbling into my head as I studied the sinister number. I could almost taste the tequila-flavored bile in his mouth as he grabbed the hand of a nearby barmaid, gasping out through blood-flecked foam, “My vocabulary did this to me!” 99% suddenly looked very much like my future blood-alcohol level. Terrified, I did what any self-respecting person would have done: I furtively re-filed the test results and pretended they did not exist. Or at least, I tried to.
“Mom?” My mother was in the living room, plugged into her headphones. She does not often listen to music, but she’s clinically addicted to books on tape. She’ll “read” just about anything she can get her hands on.
My mother sighed and put aside her headphones. “Can I help you?”
“Yeah.” I licked my lips. “Did you ever have any … aptitude testing done?”
My mother flicked a cat hair from her blouse. “Yes, your father and I both did. That was a while ago, though.” She looked suspicious. “Why do you ask?”
“No reason. I was just curious about your, um, your aptitudes and how they, um … how they relate to your, like, your … um. Stuff.” Shit. Shit shit shit.
“Is this about the papers you found in the cabinet the other day?”
“What?” I twitched. “What papers?”
“Honey,” my mother looked at me sadly. “You refiled them in my Tax Returns folder.”
Well shit. “Okay.” I attempted to redirect. “So, um, okay.”
“Sweetheart, we did those tests a long time ago.” She fidgeted with her headphones. “The doctors just thought it would be best if –”
“Wait, what?” I shook my head. “There were doctors? When were there doctors?”
“Well, when you were small, the doctors thought you might be ..” She trailed off.
“Might be?” I waited. “Mom? Might be …?”
She folded her hands in her lap. “… might be … special.”
I could hear my brother Evan snickering in the next room. “What?”
“Well, sweetie,” she said, “you were very slow to speak and you weren’t any good with shapes. Or … colors. Or … motor skills. And you fell down a lot. And I don’t think you–”
“Great! I get it!” I paced the living room carpet.
“So we had you tested every once in a while when you were younger. Just in case.”
My mother wrinkled her nose. “And what?”
“Am I special, or what?”
My brother sounded like he was choking on his own incessant laughter. “Breathe! I can’t breathe!” he gagged.
“Well, you’ve always been special, honey,” my mother smiled.
“Katie,” my mother sighed as she donned her headphones, “you are not retarded.”
There’s a rumor going around that vocabulary is linked to success in life. I suppose there is a perceived correlation between vocabulary and comprehension, eloquence, interaction with your fellow man, and so forth. But there’s also a rumor going around that if you give mentally challenged students a vocabulary test, their results will often be misleadingly high. In other words, a diverse vocabulary does not a healthy brain make. Who was to say that Jack Spicer and I didn’t both suffer from some strange mental disorder that had gone untreated due to the oversight of our vocabulary-crazed physicians?
I kept having this one damn dream where Jack Spicer was sitting in his living room, cocktail in hand, Vocabulary sneaking up on him slowly with a crowbar. “Behind you!” I’d scream. “Run! Run for your life!” Sometimes I’d even yell instructions, “Get the kneecaps! Claw his eyes out! Get up, you bastard!” But I never made it in time, and I always woke up right as Vocabulary was bringing his crowbar down on Spicer’s inebriated skull.
I began to ponder Vocabulary’s M.O. Did Vocabulary cause “accidental” deaths? Did it just trip you on the subway platform, or did it ruin your life and propel you towards suicide? Oh God. What if Vocabulary was a terminal illness? Was I going to end up like those women in the made-for-TV movies on the Lifetime Channel? Was Vocabulary irrevocably linked to alcoholism somehow, and if so, was I going to have to stop drinking?
I tried not to panic. Instead, I monitored my speech to ensure that my vocabulary did not increase in proportion to the number of drinks I had. One Tuesday (it was Long Island night), as I was hanging by my knees from the roof of my carport, I decided to seek a second opinion. I craned my neck towards the nearest objective party.
Luke was sitting on the far edge of the car port, sipping from a paper sack. That was his favorite activity, it seemed; in all frankness, I wouldn’t have been surprised to discover that Luke had one day climbed head-first out of a Hemingway novel. In my company, he could be bitingly honest. If anyone was going to give me the raw truth, it was Luke.
I asked him, “D’you think … I talk funny when I’m drunk?”
Luke blinked. “No, you’re not really slurring at all, actually.”
“Screw you,” I said as I craned my neck towards him. “What I mean t’say is, m’I the kind of person who uses SAT words a lot? Is it annoying?”
I held my breath as he considered my question. (By the by, if you’ve been drinking and you happen to be hanging upside down by your knees, holding your breath is a very bad idea.)
“Well.” Luke took another sip from his paper sack. “You aren’t any more annoying than anyone else I know.” Below us, Luke’s friend Tom was urinating on the neighbor’s bushes and Kyle was riding around a stolen pink bike that, from the sound of it, had no brakes to speak of. “And I can’t say I’ve noticed a distinct change in your drunken speech versus sober. Why?”
“I don’t know,” I said helplessly as I flopped back over the edge of the carport. “Let me ask you something – do you think it’s possible that a person’s life could be made miserable by vocabulary words?”
Luke laughed raucously. “You ever met a law student?”
I paused. “Good point.”
Sometimes I’d listen for vocabulary words in the speech of friends and family, secretly hoping for reassurance that in the event of a Vocabulary Holocaust my loved ones would die with me. I played the scenario over in my mind many times: a man would jump from an unmarked van, chloroform me, and drag me in for questioning. In my best-case scenario, the F.B.I. would just lobotomize me and leave me for dead in an alley. Worst-case … well, let’s just say you don’t want to hear the worst case.
In an attempt to rationalize my fears, I asked myself: “Katie, what would make Spicer claim, after downing more than a fifth of tequila in one sitting, that he was murdered by his vocabulary?” Placed in that same situation I might lay blame at the doorstep of, say, the cactus plant from which tequila is made. After a few hours of reflection I decided that his vocabulary must have, in some sense, set him to drinking … but how? I closed my eyes and tried to imagine:
Spicer walks into a bar wearing Madras pants, a Stetson hat and a good, clean Christian smile. He sits down, intending in his youthful enthusiasm to capture a slice-of-life scene in a public place. He motions for the waitress to bring him a dram of something; anything will do. He sits absorbed in choosing the perfect words for every image in the room – and before long he finds a glass at his elbow. At first he ignores it, but soon he finds that writing good poetry is thirsty work. He gulps down a glass before his throat can register the burning sensation and orders another. And so he continues. Before long his lovely meter has broken down, his lines are any old length, and his careful images have removed their ties (and their pants, for that matter). Bleary eyed, he surveys his poem, spilling from the paper onto the tablecloth and a few napkins, and he decides that getting tight really loosens up his writer’s block.
It could have happened. It has happened. It will continue to happen. As long as there is booze in the world, there will always be people who think it can make them dance, look, talk and write better. And maybe it can. Therein lies the question – did Spicer really need all that booze to unleash the “vocabulary within”? Or did vocabulary drive him to alcoholism in another fashion?
Spicer walks into a bar. At the far end, he spots a beauty in a black dress. She is tall and dark. Spicer saunters over (all 98 pounds of him) and says in his deepest voice (with the sonority of a 2nd grade clarinet), “Excuse me, Miss, but I couldn’t help noticing from over there – you have the most extraordinary mammary glands.” The woman turns, baffled. “I mean, your bosom is positively capacious,” Spicer tries again. Still no luck. Spicer decides to try the brash approach. “Your female organs fill me with felicity.” The beautiful woman, confused and mildly concerned, removes herself from the bar. Spicer takes her place, and motions for the waitress to bring him a dram of something; anything will do.
This, too, has happened and will happen again. Problem is, it never quite happened to Jack Spicer. In an unprecedented fit of curiosity, I decided to go looking for Jack as opposed to speculating idly from underneath my bedsheets. As I searched for details on his death, I found a number of details on – of all of things – his life. Turns out, Spicer was indeed a small man with a reedy voice – awkward, harshly intellectual – but mammary glands held no interest for him, if you take my meaning. Happily for Jack, he was well known on the poetry scene by his late twenties, and never lacked company.
So. Spicer walks into a San Francisco bar. He sits down, notebook in hand, and is immediately ambushed by disciples hoping to glimpse a word or two over his shoulder. He distractedly motions for the waitress to bring him something to drink. He smiles at a blond across the room. The boy returns his smile. Spicer tries to focus on his blank notebook, surrounded by avid admirers and now very aware of the blond in the corner. He finds himself stopped up and self-conscious, like a man trying to urinate in a public place. He finds a glass at his elbow, and what do you think he does?
My daydreams about Spicer became increasingly vivid, and with them my obsession grew. On top of everything else I was now terrified of Language Link, my workplace. My sole purpose at Language Link was to expand the vocabulary of non-native English speakers. For several hours every day I found myself surrounded by vocabulary manuals, flash-cards, video tapes and CDs. I began to question their validity. “So Hyun,” I asked a student, “what do you think of vocabulary?”
So Hyun stared at me, squinting her already thin eyes to the point of blindness. “What .. do I think of … vocabulary?”
“Yeah,” I said impatiently, “do you like vocabulary?”
So Hyun looked disturbed. “Learning it, or using it?”
“Both.” I had begun gnawing nervously at my pencil.
She stared at me for a long, long time – probably wondering (not for the first time) what on earth she was paying me for. “I don’t know,” she said slowly. “It’s just … there.”
“But what’s the point?” I asked, throwing up my arms. “What’s the use? What’s wrong with using nice, simple words?”
So Hyun shrugged. “Say more in less time?” she offered. “To say prettier?”
“To speak more elegantly,” I corrected her automatically. I bit my tongue in horror – this place was actually making me worse. I briefly considered quitting.
“Katie?” So Hyun looked concerned.
You’re done, I wanted to say. You’re perfect. Go back to Korea while there’s still time.
I was frustratedly trying to fall asleep after yet another Spicer-related nightmare. As I stared up into the darkness I asked myself, Why me? This wouldn’t be a problem if I hadn’t picked up this damn vocabulary in the first place. Why? I silently lamented. Why couldn’t I be plagued with something simple and treatable, like syphilis? I remember where the trouble started. It began when I was a little girl, cruelly tricked into reading Shakespeare. My mother and father bought a collection of leather-bound classics. These books all had delicately thin pages, and every single one was edged in gold leaf so that, when closed, the books appeared to be made out of solid gold. I was eight then. Like a raccoon, I found myself irresistibly drawn towards “shiny things”. The Babysitter’s Club books, while popular, were not shiny.
I started with Jane Eyre and worked my way into Uncle Tom’s Cabin. From there, The Golden Chalice, Rebecca, Gone With The Wind, and The Way of All Flesh. When I had exhausted myself with the vernacular, I turned to the only remaining shiny pages. These volumes were written in a strange language – not quite English, not quite gibberish. My dad explained to me that it was a secret language – one that only very special little girls spoke. Once I learned it, I would be able to join their ranks.
Imagine my surprise when, having mastered Twelfth Night, Much Ado, Hamlet and Richard III, I still had not received my invitation into this secret guild. “Daddy!” I called as I padded into his office wearing my bunny pajamas, “I finished As You Like It!” I waved the heavy book in the air as proof – the gold leaf caught the lamplight.
“And did you like it, little princess?” my father asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think I liked it.”
“Well, what did you learn?” my father asked.
“I don’t know,” I repeated. “I think I learned … some new words. Look, I’ve already read a lot of these. Am I special yet?”
“Little princess,” my father lifted me onto his lap, “you’ve always been special.”
That was when I realized I’d been had.
In a private letter to his editor, Jack asks, “Are not these poems all things to all men, like Rorschach ink blots or whores? Are they anything better than a kind of mirror? In themselves, no. Each one of them is a mirror, dedicated to the person that I particularly want to look into it. But mirrors can be arranged. The frightening hall of mirrors in a fun house is universal beyond each particular reflection.” Mirrors are ‘universal’ alright – they afford no perspective of their own. Spicer wants to create things that will think autonomously: little bits of paper that will reflect the reader as if it there had never had a subjective author.
So, how about this: Jack walks into a bar, and drinks until he no longer knows himself. And then, in that “derangement of the senses”, alcohol writes his poetry for him.
Spicer was not alone in his opinion that alcohol totally rocks. The legacy of drinking amongst writers is a powerful one. When one looks back over the obituaries of literature, one finds a laundry list of alcoholics: Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, Edgar Allen Poe, Ring Lardner, Sinclair Lewis, Dorothy Parker, Stephen Crane, Robert Lowell, Eugene O’Neill, Theodore Rothke, John O’Hara, Herman Melville, O. Henry, Conrad Aiken, John Berryman, Delmore Schwartz, Edmund Wilson, Scott Fitzgerald … stop me any time, people. Hell, William Faulkner was so drunk when he accepted his 1950 Nobel Prize that no one knew what he had said in his speech until the following morning when they published it in the papers. It was only then that his audience was able to translate “Aihdeeeclai t’sssept the enduv man,” as “I decline to accept the end of man.”
It doesn’t take much to see the correlation between successful writers and alcoholism. But that doesn’t explain the true cause of Jack’s demise … if it had been an open-and-shut case of tequila overdose, Jack Spicer’s final words probably would have been, “Bomb Mexico”. I needed to know the exact circumstances surrounding his death. How could it have been related to vocabulary, of all things? Was it circumstantial, something I could perhaps escape? Had he been accidentally bludgeoned with a falling dictionary earlier that day? Had a lover left him, citing verbosity as a catalyst? Had so much been crammed into his head that he forgot the words “check, please”?
His biographies insist that it was none of the above.
California was in mid-summer swing and full of young men who had thrown Jack off for Ginsburg and his so-called Beat Generation. Fed up, Spicer was preparing his visa for Canadian citizenship after a lifetime of hanging around Berkley. One evening he stumbled into his building elevator, smacked his lips, and passed into a prehepactic coma. An ambulance rushed him to the nearest hospital, where a white-clad doctor carefully looked him over, shook his head, and dictated solemnly to his nurse, “Patient is noticeably intoxicated.”
No shit, Sherlock.
No wonder Spicer drank himself stupid. It was probably an attempt to communicate more successfully with the rest of the human race. “Noticeably intoxicated”? “Noticeably intoxicated?” Is that the eloquence, the articulation of profound understanding and knowledge that is supposedly afforded by a large vocabulary? My God. In the moment when Jack passed out and wet himself, I imagine the door man stood there in dead shock for a few seconds. His panicked silence better spoke to the gravity of the situation than “noticeably intoxicated”. Our doctors, our lawyers, our scientists, our Scrabble champions – are they socially adept, as a rule? More importantly, are they eloquent?
My father is a professor of geology at a little university in New Jersey. I saw a couple yearbook pictures of him once, and I feel confident that he was the kind of kid who read the dictionary for fun. His favorite word is ‘facetious’. When my brother and I used to attempt to kill each other on road trips, my father would lean over the car seat, put on a severe face and say, “No physical contact.”
Whatever happened to, “Katie, stop stabbing your little brother” and “Evan, my golf club is not a toy”? Sure, it’s a few more words to spit out, but those words are more accessible to children with a collective age of 10. “No physical contact” sounds like it belongs in a lease agreement, not in a parenting manual.
No one ever explained to my father that talking to a child is not like talking to a colleague at work. When you mention groundwater levels and coastline erosion to a child, he is probably going to stare at you for a while before attempting to set something on fire out of boredom. Daddy becomes angry – Is this how you thank me for nurturing you, you set my wardrobe on fire? he wonders. The child cries, and tries in vain to explain – but he doesn’t even have the facility yet to explain to Daddy why big words are frustrating and alienating, scary and mean. I understand now that my father was trying to be a good parent; he wanted to lift us up and give us respect when he spoke, not condescend. He did not understand, however, the fundamental difference between vocabulary and tone. It is one thing to treat your child as an equal, but quite another to remind him of his intellectual inferiority. After all, what could have been more belittling than listening to words I didn’t understand and being too ashamed to ever ask what they meant?
Once while I was trapped in an Atlanta airport, I watched an educated businesswoman fume at a helpless desk clerk for 34 minutes exactly – oh yes, I timed it. “I find this delay simply unacceptable,” the businesswoman said, “I’m outraged at the utter inefficiency within this operation. I have never seen such incompetence!” Etcetera. After she stormed off, the clerk turned to a nearby stewardess, blinked, and said real low, “Sheeeeeeeeeeit.” In that single word she communicated more frustration and anguish than the angry businesswoman probably had in her entire being. Then she turned to her next customer with a smile.
It doesn’t take much. Dogs communicate with their eyes and their tails. Birds and whales sing. Humboldt squid change color at will to signify complicated emotions. Words are, to a large extent, a luxury. When we abuse that luxury (and we all do) words become meaningless and wasteful. Yet when we take it and ourselves a little less seriously, the natural grace of language can shine through in a single word – be it a name, a prayer, or an obscenity. Spicer, it appears, understood this and struggled with it.
In a letter to Frederico Garcia Lorca, Spicer confides, “When I translate one of your poems and I come across words I do not understand, I always guess at their meanings. I am inevitably right. A really perfect poem (no one yet has written one) could be perfectly translated by a person who did not know one word of the language it was written in. A really perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary.”
At the end of the letter, he writes, “I repeat – the perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary.”
Within my immediate family, the joke goes that my brother Evan is my mother’s son, and that I am my father’s daughter. I have inherited his quick temper, his loud voice, his tactlessness, his self-centeredness, and his vocabulary. My father’s speech pattern is an odd combination of 19th century English lord and used car salesman. He is authoritative and the tiniest bit condescending, and yet (oddly) sympathetic. He is genuine; when he gets angry in traffic he flicks off everyone on the road and when he is happy all the neighbors know why. He cried when my cat died. He is fiercely loving; it is considered a mortal sin to imply in his presence, to even imply, that my mother has ever done anything imperfectly. He is a good man, no doubt – but let’s face it. Pedantry isn’t just a river in Egypt.
For a fairly young woman, it is an eerie, alarming experience to feel oneself personifying a 50-year-old male college professor. My father has the habit of beginning a conversation and then wandering into the next room, still talking. As his voice fades away, his listener gives up and goes back to whatever activity was interrupted. Sometimes I feel an indescribable urge to walk into another room while having a conversation. After a few moments of fervent spiritual struggle, the urge fades. Then I swear, cross myself, and check a mirror for reassurance that I am not yet balding and bearded.
My brother, on the other hand, has inherited my mother’s subtler qualities: unassuming grace, a welcoming expression, shrewdness, and a vocabulary that better befits these traits. Evan is never accused of elitism or of judgmentalism … he is gentle and self-deprecating. When we were in high school together, Evan was always typified as the “main-stream” sibling. I seemed to fit into another, more rabidly intellectual category. I never achieved the breadth of my brother’s appeal.
When Evan and I are shoulder-to-shoulder, our genetic similarity is readily apparent. We have occasionally been accused of twindom. Early standardized tests reveal a mental similarity as well. While our strengths may vary, Evan matches me point for point in IQ. Why is it, then, that I am reportedly the ’smart’ one, and Evan is the ’sociable’ one? Why, in movies and books, is there always a smart one and a sociable one? Is it an inescapable eventuality that siblings must fulfill one role or the other, but never both simultaneously?
Evan, like most younger siblings, has struggled to gain and maintain his individuality. He chose to become the sociable sibling in part because the intellectual role was already spoken for. He tried a little less, he partied a little more, and he wielded his charm when he could. Sometimes I would awkwardly try to interact like Evan did with friends – but I missed out on the understated sarcasm, the references to the latest band, the allusion to last weekend’s adventure. I frustratedly withdrew, cursing my brother for his popularity. Now I wonder if he didn’t sometimes curse me for having stolen the role of the intellectual. What would he have studied, where would he have gone in life, had our roles been somehow reversed?
A few nights ago at Luke’s lake house, I shared an evening of beer and ill-advised boating. I was stretching on a porch chair among the rest of Luke’s friends with a nice, warm glass of scotch. A young man I’d never met before was yelling at no one on the lawn. “Jesus,” Luke muttered, “if this fucker keeps it up I’ll call the cops myself.” He paused to light his cigar with a hand-held propane torch.
“His mom’s hot, though,” another guest offered. We agreed that the fucker’s mom was very hot. I was distracted from conversation by the propane torch.
The fucker’s yelling was getting louder as he began to approach the house, perhaps in search of further libation. “Moms are hot,” the fucker was mumbling.
“What’s that play?” I asked as the fucker stomped up the porch steps. “The one where the king murders his father and marries his mother?” The fucker paused on the top step.
“Oedipus,” Luke answered.
“What the fuck, man,” the fucker exclaimed. “Why are we talking about this bullshit? Jesus, let’s talk about some real shit, man. Something real.”
I could feel myself blushing. I checked my chin for a beard and my head for a bald spot. Perhaps I was the bore of every engagement – maybe I was already pompous and pedantic at the ripe age of twenty-two. It was a sickening thought.
One of Luke’s friends came to my rescue. “Oedipus rex,” he said. “He gouged his eyes out with broaches. That was always my favorite part.” Darling boy, he came too late – the damage had been done.
Here is the dirty truth: I am my father’s daughter. Even if I had chosen the role of social butterfly, I never could have fulfilled it; I gave that up the day I let my parents trick me into reading Shakespeare. The fucker may have been, well, a fucker – granted, he was not the most cultured and open-minded of men. But to be fair, was Sophocles really an appropriate late-night party topic? My brother has read Sophocles but wouldn’t dream of referencing him. Evan would sit on the porch, sip his beer, and be content to communicate with a retiring smile. He understands far better than I that language is an obstruction.
During a lecture in Vancouver, Spicer said, “Words are things which just happen to be in your head instead of someone else’s head. The words,” he said, “are counters and the whole structure of language is essentially a counter. It’s an obstruction.”
For me, language is a defensive reflex. I throw up a barrier of cold elitism that can only be forded by other cold elitists. We gather together in places where we can get drunk, tell war stories, and match wits. We display our vocabularies like peacocks show plumes. Each cold, unsmiling mouth hopes to be the quickest. We cannot be the sociable ones with mouths like those, so we shoulder the role of the intellectual. We must not, above all things else, ever be stupid – our self-worth is measured in wit. In our collective isolation we cannot be honest, we cannot be vulnerable. We cannot ever surprise one another, for fear of being left speechless. We settle for drunk and clever.
On August 7th, 1967, Jack Spicer died in the poverty ward of the San Francisco General Hospital. I like to think that he came out of his coma just long enough to grab the hand of an old friend and to really look in his eyes. I’m sure he saw pity, and confusion, and sadness in them. I’d like to think that he breathed his last words not in bitterness, but rather in explanation. Sober at last, perhaps Spicer sensed the distress of his friend, smiled kindly, explained his predicament in simple terms: “My vocabulary did this to me”, and then slipped back into a long sleep.
Vocabulary never meant anyone any harm. It was just trying to help. Like all well-meaning friends, however, it can sometimes be overbearing. Spicer found his vocabulary to be the meddling kind of friend that often needs to be shushed. So he drank. But perhaps not all of us cursed with the burden of vocabulary need bury ourselves in oblivion – perhaps one can enjoy vocabulary in moderation.
I went back through my mother’s files the other day looking for a copy of my birth certificate. Along the way, I paused to look through my aptitude tests one more time. As I stared at the longest bar, I found myself with an odd, warm feeling in my stomach not unlike dysentery. I think it was fondness. I could now look on Vocabulary as a jungle tarantula with jewel-colored fur; I knew its venom intimately and could still call it beautiful.
In his letter to Lorca, Jack writes, “Words are what sticks to the real. We use them to push the real, to drag the real into the poem. They are what we hold on with, nothing else. They are as valuable in themselves as rope with nothing to be tied to. ” Language is at its most divine when it is useful, modest, and selfless. It is divine until we say otherwise.
Spicer understood even this. In a particularly famous poem, he tells his fellow writers, “They dream about themselves. They dream of dreams about themselves. They dream they dream of dreams about themselves. Splash them with twilight like a wet bat. Unbind the dreamers.” “Poet,” Spicer says, “Be like God.”