by Jack Spicer
[annotated, terms in dark red bold, mine]
Given on the hundredth anniversary of William Butler Yeats’s birth, the first of the Vancouver lectures begins with a mixture of humor, tension, and seance-like charm. The structural correlation of Yeats’s being visited by spooks and Spicer’s being visited by Yeats takes on a magical significance in the context of a lecture about poetic sources, voices, and ghosts: Spicer introduces Yeats as his poetic precursor—his ghost father—and his poetics perform a kind of serious play (like ) in which the living are responsible for carrying out the desires of the dead. Spicer presents his poetic practice as an act of “dictation” that engages the dead in the economy of the living. He describes it as both a “dance” and a “game,” but the dance is a and the game is a ball game in which you play for more than your life.
In the course of the lecture, Spicer places himself in opposition to both Romantic and symbolist poetics by disavowing the notion of the poet as a “beautiful machine … almost a perpetual motion machine of emotion until the poet’s heart broke or it was burned on the beach like Shelley’s”. Spicer insists that the poet does not drive the poem; the poem drives the poet. Instead of becoming a master of words, the poet is mastered by words, which “turn mysteriously against those who use them” (MVDTTM, 257).
The lecture also provides a useful account of Spicer’s sense of his own immediate context and perhaps for this reason it has been the most quoted of the four lectures, thanks to the printing of an earlier version in 12 (July 1970). Instead of focusing on poetic invention, Spicer introduces an idiosyncratic genealogy of poetic reception beginning with Yeats’s automatic writing on a train ride through California in 1918; backtracking to Blake; whistlestopping with Pound, Williams, and Eliot; moving on to Spicer’s contemporaries Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, and Robin Blaser; and arriving at Spicer’s reading from his own “A Textbook of Poetry.”
But the genealogy of poetry presented in the lecture is not simple, and Spicer uses the work of his peers to further define his own practice by negation. The only poet who escapes Spicer’s thorough critique is Robin Blaser, with whom he seems to be in such agreement that at times he speaks for both of them. It is important to note, however, that when Spicer spars with his contemporaries it is not to denigrate the work of his peers. His poetry and letters repeatedly make it clear that an exchange of poetic judgment is also a way of expressing respect and reciprocity.
In this light, one of the interesting moves in this lecture is Spicer’s identification of Olson as someone whose practice is closer to his own than Creeley’s or Duncan’s—an unusual assertion since in Lecture 4 he identifies Olson as one of the “bosses” of poetry, corresponding to President Lyndon Johnson. Likewise, while Spicer expresses dissatisfaction with Denise Levertov’s writing of poems around a “great metaphor,” he says so within the context of seeing her as a “good poet.” And his sparring with Creeley comes in the context of their common ground: they both use the same term—“dictation”—to describe their writing experience in different ways.
In discussing the poetics of his contemporaries, Spicer reveals the differences and affinities within their practices but keeps his own model of composition open and even contradictory. According to Spicer’s motley procession of metaphors, the poet is a host being invaded by the parasite of the dictating source of the poem; this source is “Martian”; the poem is the product of a dance between the poet and his “Martian” source; the poet is like a radio receiving transmissions; poets exist within a city of the dead; “spooks” visit poets with messages from hell; and the poem itself becomes a hell of possible meanings.
Within this agglomerate of multiple figures, Spicer opens the discourse of poetic composition by placing dictation outside of any fixed taxonomy and by refusing to claim his practice as an incontrovertible or absolute good. What distinguishes Spicer’s model from the “English department” version of poetic composition is in part its disruption of the hierarchy of inspiration. For Spicer, the dictating sources or “spooks” come across to the poet rather than coming down from an inspired and orderly Heaven. They are disruptive on every level—meaning, syntax, diction, narrative form—and are not easily dominated by theory. In fact, the game he has created is so good that not only poets are subject to the strange reversals of language; words turn against everyone who uses them. In this war of meaning, the critic gets drawn out of safe hiding and into the Open or Outer Space of Spicer’s vocabulary. By insisting on a “low” vocabulary to discuss his poetics, Spicer draws the critic outside the safe clinical territory of authorized critical discourses and into the language of baseball games, popular movies, TV, and bar talk. The purposeful absurdity of his terms of poetic composition are a kind of “no trespassing” sign, a Crowley-like warning to the uninitiated, or a Cerberus to the underworld of the poem.
Since the poet’s dictating source is neither god nor muse, there is no way of knowing if the intruding figure (the radio broadcast, the parasite from outer space, the “Martian”) is any better or smarter than the poet caught in this outrageous entanglement. This game between the material and invisible worlds places the poet in the embarrassing position of merely following orders from a beyond. But, Spicer assures his young audience, the best condition for the poem is one of not-knowing, and the poet has a better chance of that with dictation than with self-expression. The better the poem, the less responsible the poet is for it. So Spicer wages battle with the creative ego in terms that remain provocative in an age still searching for poetic authenticity and identity.
In spite of his futuristic language, Spicer proposes an extremely traditional ( to say conventional) view of poetry, emphasizing the guild-like aspects of the art, and even using antique metaphors like mountain climbing throughout the lectures. He foregrounds the endurance it takes to wait for lines and to be generally available for the poem. Because the ground of poetic composition and community is difficult and unstable, Spicer’s proclaimed goal in this and other lectures is to prepare younger poets for the hardships of poetry, to help them manage themselves to become more durable and less afraid to fail against the absurd demands of the poem
: Well, I really ought to explain the structure of the three lecture/readings, more than is on the flyer that some of you saw. Essentially what’s going to happen is that each evening I’m going to read some of my work. In each reading there’s going to be a discussion of the problems that have to do with poets as far as I see what the problems are with poets. And they’re pretty much in order of importance. I think the problem of poetic dictation is perhaps the first problem a poet has. The second problem—one you can’t really “get” too well without understanding what poetic dictation is or isn’t—is a serial poem. And the third lecture on Thursday night will be a sort of an autopsy or a looking at the growth of a poem I’m writing now—the problems of a person in the middle of a poem, what comes up to make things different. In other words, I’m rather assuming that all of you are interested directly as poets in the writing of poetry, and I’m not going to talk about aesthetic theory except where I think it has something to do with the problems of anyone writing poetry.
Now, tonight is rather an interesting time to discuss poetic dictation. It’s Yeats’s birthday. He’d be a hundred today if he weren’t up there with the big skywriters in the sky. And Yeats is probably the first modern who took the idea of dictation seriously. And he might be a good person to start out from, seeing as how—although I don’t know why a birthday should be so important—it still is his birthday.
He was on a train back in, I guess it was 1918. The train was, oddly enough, going through San Bernardino to Los Angeles when his wife Georgie suddenly began to have trances, and spooks came to her.(1) He’d married at the age of forty-five, something like that, a rather rich woman who everyone thought he married just because she was a rich woman and Lady Gregory was getting old and wasn’t about to will him money.(2) Georgie was in the tradition of the Psychic Research Society and all of that, and so naturally they would come in the form that the Psychic Research Society would think spooks would come in.(3) And she started automatic writing as they were going through the orange groves between San Berdoo and Los Angeles.
And Yeats didn’t know what to make of it for a while, but it was a slow train and he started getting interested, and these spooks were talking to him. He still, I’m sure, thought that Georgie was doing all of this to divert him. He probably was in a nasty mood after having gone across the country on the Southern Pacific, which I imagine in those days was even worse than it is now. But he finally decided he’d ask a question or two of the spooks as Georgie was in her trance. And he asked a rather good question. He asked, “What are you here for?” And the spooks replied, “We’re here to give metaphors for your poetry.”
That’s something which is in all English department lectures now, but it was the first thing since Blake on the business of taking poetry as coming from the outside rather than from the inside.(4) In other words, instead of the poet being a beautiful machine which manufactured the current for itself, did everything for itself—almost a perpetual motion machine of emotion until the poet’s heart broke or it was burned on the beach like Shelley’s—instead there was something from the Outside coming in.
Now, the difference between “We have come to bring metaphors for your poetry” and what I think most poets who I consider good poets today believe—and this would include people as opposite in their own ways as, say, Eliot on one hands and Duncan on the other—is essentially that there is an Outside to the poet. Now what the Outside is like is described differently by different poets. And some of them believe that there’s a welling up of the subconscious or of the racial memory or the this or the that, and they try to put it inside the poet. Others take it from the Outside. Olson’s idea of energy and projective verse is something that comes from the Outside.
I think the source is unimportant. But I think that for a poet writing poetry, the idea of just exactly what the poet is in relationship to this Outside, whether it’s an id down in the cortex which you can’t reach anyway, which is just as far outside as Mars, or whether it is as far away as those galaxies which seem to be sending radio messages to us with the whole the galaxy blowing up just to say something to us, which are in the papers all the time now. Quasads, or . . .
: Something like that. At any rate, the first step is reached, I think, with Yeats. But the way it works—“We have come to bring metaphors for your poetry”—this is like “we have come to bring fertilizer for your fields,” that kind of thing. You know, “well, you have such nice poetry, Mr. Yeats, and we spooks have come down from above to give you metaphors to hang it on to.”
Now this is not really what happens in my own experience, and I’ll be talking about my own experience most of the time. But I think I can also speak for the experience that others I know have had in dictated poetry.
I think the first kind of hint that one has as a poet—and I must confess I was, as Karen [Tallman](6) would say, a retard in this respect—is after you’ve written poems for a while and struggled with them and everything else, a poem comes through in just about one-eighth of the time that a poem normally does. That’s the first experience. And you say, “oh well gee, it’s going to be much easier if I can just have this happen very often.”
So then you write seventeen or eighteen different things which are just what you’re thinking about at that particular moment and are lousy. It isn’t simply a matter of being able to get a fast take. It’s something else. But the fast take is a good sign that you’re hooked up with some source of power, some source of energy.
Then the next thing is you suddenly figure out, well gee, when I’ve been wanting something, say I’m in love and I want to sleep with this person and, you know, the normal thing is, with a fast take, you write all these things down with an idea of, essentially, a way of selling a used car. [Laughter]
And this doesn’t work.
So one day, after you’ve had this first experience, which just was something you couldn’t imagine, and the poems haven’t come this clean, this fast—and they don’t usually, in dictated poetry anyway. Again, suddenly, there comes a poem that you just hate and would like to get rid of, that says exactly the opposite of what you mean, what you have to say, to use Olson’s thing in one of its two meanings.
Olson says the poet is a poet when he says what he has to say. Now, you can read that two ways: what he “has” to say, namely “I want to sleep with you honey,” or “I think that the Vietnam crisis is terrible,” or “some of my best friends are dying in loony bins,” or whatever you want to say that you think is a particular message. That’s the bad thing.
But what you want to say—the business of the wanting coming from Outside, like it wants five dollars being ten dollars, that kind of want—is the real thing, the thing that you didn’t to say in terms of your own ego, in terms of your image, in terms of your life, in terms of everything.
And I think the second step for a poet who’s going on to the poetry of dictation is when he finds out that these poems say just exactly the opposite of what he wants himself, poet, to say. Like if you want to say something about your beloved’s eyebrows and the poem says the eyes should fall out, and you don’t really want the eyes to fall out or have even any vague connection. Or you’re trying to write a poem on Vietnam and you write a poem about skating in Vermont.(7) These things, again, begin to show you just exactly where the road of dictation leads. Just like when you wrote the first poem which came easily and yet was a good poem, a poem beyond you. In the second stage you then say, oh, well, then I’ll just write this thing and I’ll take a line from someplace or another, or use a dada or a surrealist technique (in a different way than I’m going to use the word “surrealism” tonight, but the French surrealist way of placing things together, taking the arbitrary and all of that) and that won’t be what I want to say, and so that’ll be great. That’ll be hunky dory.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t work terribly well either. You have to not really want not what you don’t want to say. It’s a very complicated kind of thing. You can’t play tricks on it. That’s the second stage.
The third stage I think comes when you get some idea that there is a difference between you and the Outside of you which is writing poetry, where you feel less proud of the poem that you’ve written and know damn well it belongs to somebody else, that your wife had the child by another father, and the wife being inside you, which makes the metaphor rather bad.
But then you start seeing whether you can clear your mind away from the things which are you, the things that you want, and everything else. Sometimes it’s a twelve-hour struggle to get a ten-line poem, not changing a single word of it as you’re writing, but just as it goes along, trying to distinguish between you and the poem. The absolute distinction between the Outside and the inside.
And here the analogy of the medium comes in, which Yeats started out, and which Cocteau in his , both the play and the picture, used a car radio for, but which is essentially the same thing. That essentially you are something which is being transmitted into, and the more that you clear your mind away from yourself, and the more also that you do some censoring—because there will be all sorts of things coming from your mind, from the depths of your mind, from things that you want, which will foul up the poem.
For example, mediums always have to have the accents that they were born with. There’s a medium who’s supposed to have been in contact with Oscar Wilde, and she—I think mediums are almost always, if not always fake, but just pretend that mediums were real because some of them may be, particularly in primitive tribes—she got all sorts of epigrams and they came out in Cockney because she only spoke Cockney.(8)
Now, if you have a cleft palate and are trying to speak with the tongues of men and angels, you’re going to still speak through a cleft palate. And the poem comes distorted through the things which are in you. Your tongue is exactly the kind of tongue that you’re born with, and the source of energy, whatever it is, can take advantage of your tongue, can make it do things that you didn’t think it could, but your tongue will want to return to the same normal position of the ordinary cleft-palate speech of your own dialect.
And this is the kind of thing that you have to avoid. There are a great many things you can’t avoid. It’s impossible for the source of energy to come to you in Martian or North Korean or Tamil or any language you don’t know. It’s impossible for the source of energy to use images you don’t have, or at least don’t have something of. It’s as if a Martian comes into a room with children’s blocks with A, B, C, D, E which are in English and he tries to convey a message. This is the way the source of energy goes. But the blocks, on the other hand, are always resisting it.
The third step in dictated poetry is to try to keep as much of yourself as possible out of the poem. And whenever there’s a line that you like particularly well, which expresses just how you’re feeling this particular moment, which seems just lovely, then be so goddamn suspicious of it that you wait for two or three hours before you put it down on paper. This is practical advice and also advice that makes you stay up all night, unfortunately.
But even if you’re not interested in poems as dictation, you will find, two or three years later, that the lines you liked best when you wrote them were the ones that screwed up the poem. The poem was going one way, and you had this beautiful line. Gee, it was a lovely line, and just expressed how you felt at the particular moment—and oh lord, how lovely!
But at the same time, you are stuck with language, and you are stuck with words, and you are stuck with the things that you know. It’s a very nice thing, and a very difficult thing. The more you know, the more languages you know, the more building blocks the Martians have to play with. It’s harder, too, because an uneducated person often can write a better poem than an educated person, simply because there are only so many building blocks, so many ways of arranging them, and after that, you’re through. I mean, the thing behind you is through. And it can make for simplicity, as in good ballads, American and English. In the long run, it can make for really just good poetry. And sometimes for great poetry, an infinitely small vocabulary is what you want. Perhaps that would be the ideal, except for the fact that it’s pretty hard to write a poem that way.
But the more building blocks, the more you have to arrange your building blocks and say to the Martian, “Oh no, Mr. Martian, it doesn’t go this way. That spelling p-r-y-d-x-l doesn’t make any sense in English at all. We’ll change it around.” And then you make an anagram of it, and you spell what the Martian was trying to say. The more building blocks you have, the more temptation. The more you know, in a university sense, the more temptation there is to say, oh yes—yes, yes, yes—I remember this has to do with the Trojan War, or this has to do with this, this has to do with that, and so forth.
But on the other hand, given a source of energy which you can direct, you can direct yourself out of the picture. Then given the cooperation between the host poet and the visitor—the thing from Outside—the more things you have in the room the better if you can handle them in such a way that you don’t impose your will on what is coming through.
And that’s the whole problem you have in modern poetry—the fact that most poets from, say, nineteen to twenty-seven that I know, who are good in San Francisco, are really against education because they know that education is essentially going to fuck them up because they can’t resist, if they have all of these benches and chairs in the room, not to arrange them themselves instead of letting them be arranged by whatever is the source of the poem.
Now, Creeley talks about poems following the dictation of language.(9) It seems to me that’s nonsense. Language is part of the furniture in the room. Language isn’t anything of itself. It’s something which is in the mind of the host that the parasite (the poem) is invading.(10) Five languages just makes the room structure more difficult, and also, possibly, more usable, but it certainly doesn’t have to do with any mystique of English or anything else.
Duncan’s business of words and their shadows and sounds and their shadows seems to me again taking the things which are in the room rather than the things which are coming into the room. And it seems to me that, essentially, you arrange. When you get a beautiful thing which uses the words and the shadows of the words –the fact that “silly” once meant “blessed” instead of “silly” as it now does, something like that—you ought to be very distrustful, although at the same time the thing which invades you from the Outside can use it.(11)
Now the other kind of thing, other than Olson’s energy, which to him is not something from a great galactic distance out there but something you plug in the wall, and it’s really the machine which is the converter of the electricity which makes another machine work, and so forth. And I don’t agree with that either, but I go nearer to that.(12)
Then there’s finally Williams, who sees in objects essentially a kind of energy which radiates from them. The fact that this chair has a chairness, a nimbus around it, a kind of electrical thing which gives energy enough so that it can be transformed almost directly—, the thing that the chair in its chairness radiates—into poetry.(13)
And all of these things I think are perfectly useful explanations of it. I prefer more the unknown. . . .
(1) See Yeat’s account in (8-9). Yeats recalls the incident as occurring on “the afternoon of October 24 1917, four days after my marriage.” While the precise date is open to debate (Harper, Vol. 1, 1-49), placing this event on a train between Los Angeles and San Bernardino is evidently Spicer’s innovation. In his Introduction to Yeats places his visti to California in early 1919, but his papers indicate the trip took place in 1920.
(2) Augusta, Lady Gregory (1852-1932), the Irish playwright, codirected with Yeats and J. M. Synge the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Her patronage of Yeats seems to have begun shortly after they met, around 1896 (Yeats, , 99 ff.).
(3) The Society for Psychical Research was formally established in London in 1882, but it developed out of a group of Cambridge intellectuals including Henry Sidgwick, Henry Jackson, F. W. Myers, and Edmund Gurney during the 1870s. Its members and proponents in England included Ruskin, Tennyson, Lewis Carroll, and William Gladstone. William James was at the forefront of the SPR in America. The early SPR tended to investigate the physical phenomena of rappings, table tilting, and slate writings, but after a number of hoaxes and sleights of hand were exposed, its focus shifted to the manifestations of “mental mediums”: visions, automatic speaking, and automatic writing. One of its declared long-term goals was to establish a kind of rational groundwork for religious belief (Gauld, 353, etc.). The SPR provided an interesting intersection of religion, science, literature, pragmatism, and the history of magic and charlatanism. Some of the “physical mediums” that generated the initial interest in psychic phenomena were amateur and professional “conjurers” who were able to distract audiences long enough to accomplish a slight of hand without their realizing it. The medium’s supposed authenticity was contingent entirely upon effect—the ability to make physical magic pass for psychical experience, which on one level, of course, it was. A point of correspondence to Spicer’s poetic practice would be the legerdemain in the time and timing of his lines, invoking one narrative, quickly switching to another, then another, so that the reader is thrown off by the poem’s repeated foiling of readerly expectation. Contrast this to the more Romantic surface of Duncan’s poems or the formal invocation that authenticates the blur between past and present in H.D.’s , or the authenticity of place that “speaks in Olson’s . Not only does Spicer take on the lowest popular-culture version of “dictation” by talking about composition in terms of “Martians” but he debunks the very notion of authenticity since the process is unknowable—it cannot be authenticated—no matter how you represent it. In many ways Spicer’s talk is in keeping with the goal of the SPR, which is to attempt to explain materially a phenomenological experience.
(4) Blake’s poetics of visitation are recorded in both his poems and his letters. “Europe: A Prophecy” and “Jerusalem” both begin with announcements that they are “dictated” poems (Blake, 60, 146). But Blake’s letters give more detail. He writes, for instance, to William Hayley: “Thirteen years ago. I lost a brother & with his spirit I converse daily & hourly in the Spirit… I hear his advice & even now write from his Dictate─” (Blake, 705). To John Flaxman, he writes: “Milton lovd me in childhood & shewd me his face” (707). To Thomas Butts (great-grandfather of the poet Mary Butts), he writes in detail about the composition of two different poems: “my Abstract folly hurried me often away while I am at work, carrying me over Mountains & Valleys which are not Real in a Land of Abstraction where Spectres of the Dead wander,” and “I have written this Poem from immediate Dictation twelve or sometimes twenty or thirty lines at a time without Premeditation & even against my Will” (716, 729).
(5) Quasars were discovered in 1963. Also known as “quasi-stellar radio sources,” they are objects emitting significant amounts of radio energy several billion lights years from earth.
(6) Karen Tallman is the daughter of Ellen and Warren Tallman. She befriended Spicer when he was staying at their house during the month of the lectures. She was twelve at the time.
(7) I offer the following correspondence as an unlikely but interesting possibility: Spicer may be referring here to John Ashbery’s long poem “The Skaters” published in the magazine in the previous year. The title, “The Skaters,” obliquely picks up on the last line of Stevens’s “Of Modern Poetry” which rehearses what poetry must be in the present. Most notably, “it must speak about war” and can be about “a man skating, a woman combing (239).”
(8) A surprisingly large number of mediums in both England and America claimed beyond-the-grave contact with Oscar Wilde, and a number of them were published. See, for instance, Smith, who ends her account by promising that Wilde “has suggested that he is in a position to resume some of his literary work again; but, knowing as I do the difficulties and uncertainty of automatism, I dare not promise anything definite” (164).
(9) See Creeley’s letter to the editor printed in in 1953, reprinted in , where he discusses the problem of imagining a printed poem as simply a transcription of speech: “This is why is a problem, an immense one. We let it dictate to us─bend us into a formal structure not at all our own, as words would otherwise find their relations. We let it block the actual impulse” (27).
(10) This sentiment is reminiscent of William Burrough’s dictum, “Language is a virus from outer space.”
(11) See, for instance, Duncan’s “Passage 15: Spelling” as an example of the concept of words and their sources or shadows (, 48-50). See also his discussion of chiaroscuro in “Ideas of the Meaning of Form” ( , 91).
(12) For Olson on “energy” and “kinetics” see his essay “Human Universe”: “There is only one thing you can do about kinetic, re-enact it… Art does not seek to describe but to enact. And if man is once more to possess intent in his life… he has to comprehend his own process as intact, from outside, by way of his skin, in, and by his how powers of conversion, out again” (, 162). In “Projective Verse,” he writes that “a poem is energy transferred form where the poet got it… by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. Okay. Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge” (240).
In a letter to Charles Olson that accompanied his first book, , Spicer writes: “I’ve discovered what I owe to you and hate owing it.” In 1946 Olson writes a Poundian radio broadcast as William Butler Yeats speaking from the grave, called “This is Yeats Speaking,” which corresponds with Spicer’s use of Yeats in Lecture 1 and his “Introduction” from a posthumous Lorca in .
In San Francisco in 1957 Olson presented a version of his lecture, “The Special View of History,” in which he makes a not to Yeats’s practice of dictation: “The messengers which came to Yeats through his wife’s voice as a medium, and through whose instructions he wrote the Vision─a spiritualistic Spenglerism of time─Yeats was honest enough to quote in these words, ‘We come to bring you images for your verse.’ It may turn out in the end that his dogmatic system of mine is no more” (, 35-36).
Of further correspondence: in 1953 Olson wrote a book review about by Walter Noble Burns, which at times even sounds Spicerian: “All we got is what the best men have kept their eye on. No figures, no forms, no known largeness whatsoever. Zero. Not even a digit, no string tie. Perfect… The time hasn’t come when we are that sure, that we can ask a question, and live. We are still more masters of the outside, still (like heroes of the woods, and these gunmen) we don’t break a twig.” ( , 312-13). Spicer’s serial poem “Billy the Kid” was published in 1959.
(13) As an example of Spicer’s own take on “thingness,” see one of his most often quoted works, the first poem from “Thing Language” (MVDTTM,373). Of the many discussions of this poem, see especially Conte, McGann, and Silliman. See also Spicer’s serial poem A Red Wheelbarrow (MVDTTM,325-327).
Although known primarily among a coterie of poets in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time of his death in 1965, over time, Jack Spicer has become a towering figure in American poetry. His numerous poetry collections include the posthumously published , edited by…