From Guy Tiphane: Letter from San Francisco
28 September 2011

This first letter really is from Berkeley, where I live and walk, a town across the bay from San Francisco and dominated by the University. I walk every day to any of my favorite cafés, where I put pen to paper as a morning ritual. I go to the little grocery store up the street and stop on the way back at the wine store that used to house a water pump.

Berkeley is a very walkable city in a country where people dislike being away from their cars, and it seems most appropriate that this is where one can find a Poetry Walk, the city's response to the trend of engraving mostly entertaining words in the sidewalk. The Addison Street Anthology, curated by local poetry star – and former poet laureate -- Robert Hass, has also been published in book form by Heyday Books (you can order it online here).

It's no surprise then that I discovered what has become one of my favorite poems while waiting for a friend outside the theatre on Addison Street.

Hold to the future

With firm hands.

The future of each afterlife, of each ghost, of each word that is about to be mentioned.

It was “A Textbook of Poetry, 21,” by Jack Spicer. It spoke to the geek in me that is fascinated by the passing of time – and by “That future is continually in the past.” And here I was, on the sidewalk, waiting for the future to happen, and somehow looking forward to seeing a play which may or may not have been as memorable, or impressive, as the words embossed on this bronze plaque at my feet. It had even been soiled by the passing of time in the form of gum, bird droppings, spilled soda, and I suppose an occasional spray washing. My eyes rested on the last words.

               The words go swimming past you as if they were blue fish.

Charmed, I was. Having read this one first, the other plaques could wait. That’s what you do when you think you’ve tasted the best part of a meal.

I returned in ideal daylight to take a photo of the poem. It became part of my collection of computer desktop images, between flowers and beach creatures, one of the surprises that appears occasionally, at random, when I’m closing a window. [You can find some of those images here.]

“That pathology leads to new paths and path-finding,” the poem had said, and on my path appeared Robin Blaser, who also had a poem on a plaque, reading in the Morrison Library on campus (it's on youtube). If you ever visit Berkeley on the first Thursday of the month, you should go to the Library at noon for Lunch Poems, where you'll be certain to sit next to poetic celebrity.

There, Blaser read other Jack Spicer's poems, the last time he was here. The two poets were friends in the 1950s, when they were part of the Berkeley Renaissance (apparently the seed for the San Francisco Renaissance) and then the Beat generation, most famously known for Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, which was written in Berkeley (and yes, Ginsberg has a plaque too). Jack Spicer died in 1965, and Robin Blaser went to Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. He died in 2009, not long after his reading.

The fact that these cast-metal plaques are set in concrete gives them permanence beyond the life expectancy of paper. These days, as we transition to other forms of media that feel like thin air (I can only assume that, 100 years from now, one will still be able to read these words), we can fantasize that archaeologists of the future will find these poems here on these plaques.

Which prompts me to wonder if more plaques will be cast over the next decade or two as more poetry is written in Berkeley. Will the plaques go around the block, or up and down the street from the University to the bay? I can't imagine a day when this city will have changed and no longer care. Just look at the calendar of readings in Poetry Flash, the local poetry newspaper which has been running for nearly four decades: poetry is read out loud almost daily in bookstores and pubs.

“Berkeley is a city of walkers,” writes Robert Hass in his charming introduction to the anthology. He enumerates the various strolls one can take around here, to which I could add my own discoveries. If you visit, find a bookstore, and ask for the biking and walking map, or just any of the several books inviting you to discover more about this city. And who knows, you could run into poet Julia Vinograd on Telegraph Avenue. She has a poem plaque called “In these Dark Times,” and you can buy her books directly from her as well as from Zeitgeist Press “You are loved,” says her poem on the plaque. What's not to love about that?

© Guy Tiphane 2011

Guy Tiphane writes short stories and poetry at He lives in Berkeley, California.

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