In his interview with Miriam Nichols (TCR 3.24), George Bowering says, of Robert Duncan’s and Jack Spicer’s estimation of Robin Blaser’s poetic talent, “I’m sure that, and you probably are too, that Duncan and Spicer thought of him as the younger, more lightweight,” and Nichols replies, “Yeah.”
I don’t think this is true, at least not about Spicer. But first off, I can’t imagine Duncan and Spicer ever having had the conversational exchange that is implied by this remark: one where they would judge their friend and fellow poet so objectively and coolly.
Spicer was not in the habit of ranking poets. For Jack, you were a poet if you had written just one good poem. Otherwise, Jack wasn’t interested – there were poets whose reputations were flourishing – like Philip Whalen or Lawrence Ferlinghetti – that Jack would never speak of, except derisively. Blaser was, no doubt, in Jack’s heart as well as his estimation, the prince of poets. In the Magic Workshop of 1957, Jack handed out copies of Blaser’s beautiful poem, “The Hunger of Sound,” as an instance of true poetry (Blaser was at that time in Boston).
All of Jack’s short life Robin was his closest poet-friend. Even if they were ‘not speaking’ (for whatever trivial reason, not having to do with poetry), if Robin had a new poem, Jack hastened to his apartment to hear it. Jack, I believe, would never have put Robin down.
Duncan was different. Six years older than Jack and Robin (yes, Robin was the youngest, but only four months younger than Jack), Duncan was always seen at one remove, a separate presence, by the other two. In the last years of Jack’s life, he was often harshly critical of Duncan for excessive literaryism* in his poetry, and for his careerism, courting recognition in the great world of New York and Paris, which Jack despised. Robin was not so openly critical of Duncan, but I think he shared Jack’s distaste for his ambition. I recall once walking with the three of them on the Berkeley campus, on our way to a reading by Duncan. Duncan, in a black cloak, was walking a few paces ahead of us, and Robin said, sotto voce, to Jack, “I think now we’re seeing the great Duncan.”
As for the likelihood that Duncan held a disparaging view of Blaser’s poetic talent, I at first thought there might be something to Bowering’s statement. Although I had no memory of his having said any such thing, I knew Duncan was not a kind man. I had heard at least one story (from Berkeley days) of his cruelly making fun of Robin’s oversensitivity. However, in Lisa Jarnot’s biography of Duncan, she makes no mention of Duncan expressing any negative opinion of Robin’s poetry, with the single exception of the local controversy over the two poets’ rival translations of Gérard de Nerval’s serial poem (avant la lettre), Les Chimères.
Blaser published his translation in Open Space magazine in 1964, and it was almost immediately followed (I think that same year) by Duncan’s. (We must have seen Duncan’s version in typescript, since according to Jarnot, it was not published until 1968, in Bending the Bow.) Without going too deeply into comparing the two translations (without being able to, having neither Duncan’s version nor the Nerval original at hand), I think it fair to say that Blaser’s version departed far more widely from the original than Duncan’s. Blaser’s was a kind of imitation (in Robert Lowell’s sense of the word, where the poet-translator has a dual task, to bring across the essence of the original, but also to make his translation a poem in its own rights). Duncan’s translation was more literal; some called it a crib. The North Beach poets (Spicer included, I’m sure) saw Duncan’s move as condescending, an attempt to “show” Blaser how translation was done. But if that was Duncan’s intention, it backfired on him, since we all agreed that Blaser’s version was far superior as a poem.
* A wonderful word. It’s in the OED, dating from 1879, but in Webster’s 3rd International Dictionary, the citation is from Ezra Pound: “every . . . fritters away a scrap of the reader’s patience.”
Image: White Rabbit Symposium / Jack Spicer Conference, San Francisco, June 1986, poster by Graham MacIntosh, White Rabbit Press.