Larry Kearney arrived in San Francisco in 1964. He was a hard drinking good looking young man interested in books, particularly poetry. He met poet Jack Spicer at Gino & Carlo’s bar in North Beach nearly immediately upon arriving in town.
Spicer was within months of dying from alcoholism at age forty. He had completed the majority of his now ubiquitously influential work, yet at the time his influence extended not far beyond the barroom. Spicer’s poems breathe loss and heartache, often with a scathing intensity that is nonetheless subdued beneath a slightly surrealist nod to “the Real” embedded within imagination’s fancy. He invited “aliens” to “move the furniture” around in his head “dictating” his poems. His first book After Lorca (1955) has an introduction penned by Federico García Lorca direct from his unmarked Spanish grave.
Rather than appearing interested in understanding the intricacies of interpersonal relations and accompanying emotions Spicer could often come across as more preoccupied with the mysteries behind the ground rules of baseball and beating the pinball machine at its own game; however, he nonetheless deeply loved several men and sought long-term companionship he never managed achieve.
When Kearney stepped into Spicer’s circle (which included the likes of Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, Ebbe Borregard, Joanne Kyger, David Meltzer, Jim and Fran Herndon, Graham Mackintosh, Richard Duerden, and Lew Ellingham) he became a final would-be lover for the poet. That is, if only he had not been decidedly straight.
Here is Kearnery’s recollection of their first meeting:
First time we talked, we talked about baseball. Graham said, ‘Larry’s been a Giants fan all his life,’ and when Jack said, ‘Well golly gee,’ again, I said, ‘1951,’* and he said, ‘Oh, here we go,’ and I said, ‘No, no. It was a good time, though.’
[*Author’s note: a reference to the year the then New York Giants took the National League pennant from their bitter rivals, the then Brooklyn Dodgers.]
Talking baseball might seem just typical ‘guy stuff’. But it was more than that. Kearney makes it clear there was a definite connection between the two men. In this first meeting he recalls sensing there was more going on than mere fronting and one-upmanship:
Then we looked at each other, purely as a matter of recognition. By recognition I don’t mean anything to do with status of any sort but merely the deep ‘oh, yeah, I know you.’
For the last fifty plus years he’s lived with the ramifications of all that “recognition” proved was readily there between the two of them.
As Kearney states, with nod to Fielding Dawson’s enthralling book on Franz Kline, this is an Emotional Memoir, only where Dawson’s book lays things out pretty direct, Kearney is far more enigmatic in his approach. His writing has a manner of breaking off at points to only return to the same scene later on but from a different angle, revealing another feature of the exchange at hand. Memories arise in passing swirls of recollection as the narrative snatches at them, sometimes only getting them down one piece here, another there. So a couple dozen pages or so prior to the above “first time we talked” scene, Kearney tells of being introduced to Spicer:
Jack came in the bar and as it turned out I was sitting at his table. He and Graham Mackintosh. They sat down. Lew Ellingham was there and there were a couple of chairs open and Lew said, ‘Jack, this is Larry Kearney. He’s just in from Brooklyn.’
‘Golly gee,’ Jack said, and I smiled at him prettily which threw him a half-step off. My bar instincts were pretty good. God knows I’d been in bars for a long time and I knew some fancy defensive footwork.
Jack and I started arguing immediately. Don’t remember what about. ‘Bare ruined choirs where once . . .’
I remember there was something about those lines but can’t imagine what the point was or might have been. Round and around. Went up to get a drink and Graham followed me said, ‘Do you have poems?’ and
I said ‘Uh, yeah,’ and he said, ‘I’ll print them.’
‘Cause you’re arguing Jack to a standstill.’
Poetry or baseball: poetry and baseball. If these aren’t beginning sound like scenes out some kind of distorted Western, they probably should: Spicer’s Billy The Kid (1959) is a prime poetics-erotica exploration of his imagining of the historical mythic gunslinger’s aura as the poet’s young lost lover. Spicer had played out the role of being the rejected older man pursuing the younger man across the page of The Poem on many a prior occasion. When he became entangled with Kearney through the Imagination of the Poem, it was familiar territory. Kearney recalls:
The physical eroticism got quickly tangled with the recognitions jumping back and forth across the table and suddenly I was being barraged with the Love Poems in Language and wondering how the hell I could keep what we had without having to directly reject his physical advances.
I shouldn’t have worried. There were difficult and miserable occasions compounded of anger and occasional insult, but Jack was a gentleman and wouldn’t force himself on anyone. So things jumped in the bar, and sometimes it was as if everything had been scripted, fleetingly lit up in moving planes down a hallway.
Yet be aware this is not any sort of juicy tell all, full of poetryworld gossip. At least not in any obvious sense. As should by now be apparent, Kearney’s prose is decidedly poetic in nature and veers away from any conventional narrative. It’s obvious nothing is plotted out ahead of being written down. Kearney gives himself the leeway to veer in and out of composing poems of his own as he goes, as well as including pieces of his life both before and after knowing Spicer. But he always returns to poignant memories of Spicer, dropping in crucial details from out of distant scenes:
This is all from memory, as I’ve already said. I should also say that the deep and deeply Celtic recognition is that everything is from memory.
Jack walking into the bar. Jack at the entrance to the Broadway tunnel with—swear to God—The Boy’s King Arthur under his arm.
And Kearney doesn’t back away from calling out Spicer on not fully acknowledging all his literary influences, “Jack was a little duplicitous about Stevens and you could hear it in his voice. Kind of the way he was about Eliot—formally disapproving but influenced up to the eyeballs.” He imparts some sense of what it was like to just be around Spicer. “Everything around Jack crackled.” There’s clear sympathy for where Spicer was coming from. Humanizing the doomed finality that is easily gathered from reading his work: “Talking to Jack there was always a faint and occasionally sulfurous odor of hermeticism, but with it came the sad cold recognitions of a guy who’d been watching the three card Monte hucksters all his life, and wasn’t buying in.”
The popular culture references are common, easily locatable for the unfamiliar:
In [John] Ford’s movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, James Stewart is on a train riding back to Washingon DC from the small-town funeral of the man who’d saved his life by actually killing Liberty Valance, and the conductor says in passing ‘Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance,’ and the look that comes across Stewart’s face is a map of Jack’s world, its central misunderstandings.
This hopefully will get any reader of Spicer who hasn’t watched Liberty Valance to do so right away. In another train scene from the film a drunken journalist exclaims to Stewart, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, you print the legend.” Kearney isn’t interested in contributing to any legend of Spicer. He also isn’t so much interested in facts. As the journalist’s comment demonstrates, in reality they have a way of over time becoming entirely something else. On a recent visit to San Francisco Kearney was hanging out with poet Duncan McNaughton discussing the writing of this book and McNaughton advised “Don’t lose the encryption.” A modest directive intended to avoid selling out. Don’t ever be of “use” to whatever “authority” gathers attention around your work. In other words, don’t buy into the legend and don’t peddle it either. Kearney isn’t about to. He shares why he has a distaste for what’s become rather an academic millhouse of criticism on Spicer:
I don’t read the critical commentary because I’ve never talked to anyone in the last few generations of American poets who seemed to recognize the sheer carnivorous passion of the work, it’s simple, simpler, simplest tap root down to grief and the initial and extended ache of those who haven’t bought in. Those who have bought in, too, but in the ironic mode that distances, masquerades and holds up pithy signs at the gangplank.
As he states:
I wouldn’t say that what happened between Jack and me was learning. It was more a matter of a simple confirmation that there was someone out there whose relationship to the poem was something I could honor if not always quite understand—then—and whose occasional bravery was cut of pretty much of the same cloth as my own—wanted, untrusted, and an endless source of trouble.
Kearney’s memoir is certain to be judged a rather haphazard affair. It wanders on its own terms. Offering glimpses of passing moments that have stayed with him a lifetime. Reading this book you won’t learn anything much about Spicer’s poetry. But what is there to learn that isn’t already sitting there on the page in the poems themselves? This is a book about what it means to be alive. About managing to get through life in one piece. About how there are occasions worth remembering. About experiencing that kind of relationship in life that means absolutely everything for the rest of your life.