P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
No.14 - July 2017
On! On!: In Praise of Barry Spacks (1931-2014)
When a poet dies, there is always a good chance that his or her work will slowly or quickly begin to fade from the collective memory. With vanishingly few exceptions, this will happen to all of us, of course. (How many playwrights of Shakespeare’s era have you read lately? About as few as I have, I’ll bet.) Once we are not around to engage with the poetry world in person, the poetry world will tend to move on. There is never any shortage of new voices clamoring for attention.
This month I want to remember Barry Spacks, who died three years ago. He was a wonderful poet and a remarkable man, and as long as I’m alive I plan to try to keep his memory alive. I only met him twice face-to-face, but we were online friends for going on twenty years. (I’m sure I’m only one of many other younger poets he befriended in this way.) We collaborated on several projects, swapped poems often, and participated in a number of literary listservs. He was unfailingly generous, sharp, honest, curious, and kind in every interaction I observed over many years in various online venues, and when he came to Ripon College in 2008 as a visiting writer I was pleased but not surprised to find he was even better in person. I miss him greatly.
He was probably best known as a poet, but he also wrote fiction, plays, screenplays, and essays. And he was a visual artist. Meeting him, in person or electronically, you could see he was a born teacher whose wide range of interests was legendary. To use one of his favorite words, he was an “omnivore.” He capped a distinguished career by being named Poet Laureate of Santa Barbara, California.
At the time of his death we were working on a collaborative project that began after his Ripon visit. In the car driving to the airport we got to talking, as teachers will, about the inadequacies of textbooks, poems we loved, pedagogy, and so forth, and before I knew it we had a project. I’m pretty sure it was his idea. Our eventual title was 41 PERFECT SHORT POEMS IN ENGLISH, selected, with commentaries.
It didn’t start as a book. We began with an email swap, each of us in turn sending the other a “perfect” short lyric—mostly canonical, something we might teach—along with some brief commentary as poet-teachers. Barry was characteristically tickled by our use of the out-of-favor superlative “perfect”—it was, of course, his idea.
All of this happened quite sporadically via email, very informal, no rules or time limits, just a way to keep our dialogue going across the distances, trading enthusiasms and ideas about the craft. Barry liked to refer to it as ping-pong. I’d ping him with Gwendolyn Brooks, he’d pong back some Ted Kooser; he’d send me Ginsberg, I’d volley back Langston Hughes. We riffed on each other’s commentaries and selections. It was great fun, and for me at least, a real challenge to keep up with his wit and erudition.
After a while, though, we both sensed that this thing was getting pretty interesting, and could be more than an ephemeral email correspondence. Again, I’m sure the impetus was Barry’s. He began to envision a book that might attract both a general readership and the interest of poetry teachers seeking a short, inexpensive text on craft. So he wrote an intro, we kept ping-ponging back and forth, and at some point decided to call it quits at 41, lest it turn into too fat a tome. Barry took the lead and began sending queries and samples out to publishers—alas, with some close calls but ultimately no takers for our odd little production.
Anyway, the real joy of this project was that I got to work closely with Barry. He was one of a kind, and never failed to make me feel smarter and better than I suspect I am.
Our book discusses poems by others that we love to teach, but at some point Barry slipped one of mine into the flow. That frisky move was just like him, ever generous as he was. So of course I retaliated by selecting one of my own favorites from his work. Our work was interrupted by his death, unfortunately, and so remains unpublished. But let me conclude this homage by quoting his poem, followed by my commentary.
(My reference to fleas and ticks comes from Dan Gerber’s “To a Tick” that Barry had written about in his previous email, a poem which itself alludes to Donne’s “Flea.” For some reason, at that point in time we both were focusing on lyrics about mature love.)
Message To The Widower
In an envelope in a favorite book
she left him her final message: a lock
of her hair; and with it the thought that she knew
how surely one day he would find it there
and how he would feel
to find it there.
--Barry Spacks. The Hope of the Air. Michigan State UP, 2004.
Ticks, fleas: are we really talking about love? Language as ordinary as a phone call: can this be eternal art? As it happens, yes to both questions. In lyric poetry, as with most arts, possible strategies are as numerous as ways of gauging what's good. You will sometimes hear musicians remark that if you really want to know how good other players are, don't listen to their most breakneck solos; rather, attend to how well they handle a slow ballad. Any lapses of technique are glaringly obvious, to be sure, but also nakedly on display are matters of taste, maturity, and heart. Likewise with poetry: one of the hardest things to achieve is true simplicity—“true” in this case being both honest and clear, and resonantly suggestive rather than simplified.
As my selection from my fellow anthologist's voluminous, excellent, and varied work I've chosen yet another poem tackling the complexity of mature love. "Message to the Widower" has become a favorite, in part, because it is simultaneously elusive and lucid. At first glance it seems almost without strategy, and certainly displays none of the look-at-me cleverness so common to poets of any age. Of course, as any experienced maker of poems knows, economy, understatement and what Horace termed "the art that conceals art" are ultimately harder to achieve than more showy effects.
The good taste in Barry Spacks's slow ballad of a lyric comes in several flavors. First there is the poet's ability to wring maximum implication out of the plainest, most ordinary language. Note, for example, how of its forty-four words only five are longer than one syllable, none of these being esoteric or flashy in any way: envelope, message, final, favorite, surely. Not only is the vocabulary stripped down to primal directness, but there are no metaphors or other figures of speech, nothing to draw attention to the poet and away from the drama being sketched. The poem's music is likewise elegant in its simplicity, with internal rhymes and other aural echoes (hair/there/there; book/lock) to enrich the plain diction, and the rhythms of this one long sentence playing out via line- and stanza-break, rather like the overlapping and embedded realizations of husband and wife being dramatized.
Next we might attend to the radical economy of the narrative presented so glancingly but firmly here. As Robert Frost once remarked, "We shall be known by the delicacy of where we stop short." Marshaling the full dramatic effect of understatement, and with the most delicate touch, Barry Spacks presents a single, pregnant image to suggest the complexity of a whole marriage. The wife has left her husband a lock of her hair where she knows he will find it after her death, and she also knows, in the poet's marvelously reticent phrase, " how he would feel/to find it there."
It is a profoundly open-ended "message" she leaves behind, then, playing on several possible meanings for the "knowing" involved in this couple's final communication. ("Knowing" in this case possibly suggesting carnal, spiritual, companionable, and perhaps even accusatory meanings.) Nonetheless, this poet himself knows how to stop short of underlining, interpreting, or milking the situation for pathos or grand symbolic summary. It simply stands in all its spare power. Such potent minimalism only arrives after a lifetime of attentive crafting.
That’s what I wrote, sometime in 2013 or 2014. His death was a shock. But I like to remember what Arlo Guthrie said when Pete Seeger died: “Well of course he passed away!. . . .But that doesn’t mean he’s gone.” Or, to use Barry’s regular email sign-off, “On, on!”
© 2017 David Graham