Jack/Mr. Spicer

Today’s NYT has a review (by Dwight Garner) of My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian; Wesleyan University Press): “Sometimes Love Lives Alongside Loneliness”. Two things: Spicer’s poetry (which will have some surprises for people who aren’t familiar with it) and the way the review refers to Spicer (and others).

Garner’s review has a fascinating capsule treatment of Spicer’s life and accomplishments. The treat for linguists is that his little book Language (White Rabbit Press, 1965 [listed as 1964 in Robin Blaser’s now-out-of-print The Collected Books of Jack Spicer (Black Sparrow Press, 1975), but that book lists dates of writing, not publication]) is possibly the only book of poetry with a photocopy of a cover of Language (the journal of the Linguistic Society of America) on its own cover — that because the issue (July-September 1952) included a paper by David W. Reed and John L. Spicer on “methods of comparing idiolects in a transition area” (from Spicer’s student days at Berkeley, before he had to leave because he refused to sign a loyalty oath). (Oh yes, he was also a very early gay activist.)

You can see one piece of this book, from the section entitled “Phonemics”, in section 13.6 of my booklet Mistakes, viewable here. Almost all of Spicer’s work is now out of print and not well known (though there is The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer (1998)), but Garner’s review concludes by suggesting that readers will “finish the book thinking that these poems are ready to find a new audience”. May it be so.

On to a picky point of copy editing. After the first mention of the poet, as “Jack Spicer”, the review consistently uses the “courtesy title”: “Mr. Spicer”. (On newsroom conventions regarding courtesy titles, see Language Log postings here and here and John McIntyre’s posting on his Baltimore Sun blog here.) There are three other people who are mentioned more than once in the review, and their names are treated in two different ways.

First, there’s “the archivist Henry Smith.” (Check out the link to the page on “experimental filmmaker and notable eccentric” — also magician — Harry Smith.) Spicer “assisted Mr. Smith in the compilation of his classic Anthology of American Folk Music (1952).” That’s a courtesy title.

But a bit later come two other names. First: “With five visual artists, he [Spicer] opened the Six Gallery, where Allen Ginsberg first performed “Howl”.” Followed by: “He had other contacts with Ginsberg.” No courtesy title.

Then: “Mr. Spicer was as much in love with sound as with sense, agreeing with Archibald MacLeish that “A poem should not mean/But be.”.” Followed by: “Mr. Spicer’s poetic notions could be wackier than MacLeish’s, however.” No courtesy title.

My guess is that this is the Historical Figure Rule in operation. The HFR says that second mentions of historical figures — people who are well-known and also dead, especially long dead — don’t get courtesy titles. Ouch. Spicer and Smith don’t count as historical figures, because they’re not famous enough, even though they were rough contemporaries of Ginsberg and MacLeish (and all of these people are now dead).

(Some dates:

MacLeish 1892-1982
Smith 1923-1991
Spicer 1925-65
Ginsberg 1926-1997

MacLeish was by far the longest-lived, Spicer by far the shortest, but they certainly overlapped substantially.)

The result is that so-called “courtesy titles” can function not as courtesy/politeness, but as (patronizing) put-downs: Ginsberg and MacLeish make the cut, Spicer and Smith do not. That’s just perverse.

(I have no idea where the titleful vs. the titleless distinction comes from in this case — whether it was the reviewer’s work or an editor’s.)

[Digression: the existence of courteous/polite ways of speaking is always open to exploitation as disapproval, derision, contempt, subversion: “Mr./Dr./Prof. Schmaltz” understood: ‘AS IF this person really deserved respect or distinction; sniffy spit’). There’s some literature on the subject, though I don’t command it. But the central idea is that such uses are sarcastic, though often not marked as such prosodically — and of course in writing you have no prosodic signals. The result is that, especially in writing, I sometimes don’t know whether I’m being venerated or reviled by the use of courtesy titles. Incense or piss: sometimes, how can you tell?]