Essay on Poetic Theory

California Lecture: from “Poetry and Politics” (1965)

by Jack Spicer


The backdrop of Lecture 4, “Poetry and Politics,” is the controversial and frightening reality of war and the escalation of American troops in Vietnam—two hundred thousand by the end of 1965. Spicer is addressing a student body at UC Berkeley, where one of the largest student anti-war activities in America was about to take place. In this lecture he speaks to current student issues like the Free Speech Movement as one who has experienced the inhospitable repercussions of administrative decisions. Spicer himself was a veteran of Berkeley’s controversial loyalty oath of 1950, one of a handful of people who didn’t sign, at a time when there wasn’t a unified student movement; he was basically alone in his resistance. Spicer is wary of movements, and he speaks to the students as someone who has experienced the loneliness of political conviction.

The Berkeley Poetry Conference (July 12 through 24, 1965) was a major gathering of poets from Donald Allen’s seminal anthology, The New American Poetry. Spicer was one of seven featured poets to give a lecture. The others were Robert Duncan, Gary Snyder, Charles Olson, Ed Dorn, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Creeley. Spicer’s lecture was given to a large audience on the Berkeley campus on Wednesday, July 14, at 10:30 A.M.

Because Spicer is addressing young poets, he tries to train his perspective on their point of view. Imagine Diogenes giving a freshman orientation. The lecture is filled with purpose, cynicism, and mother wit. In contrast to the more informal Vancouver Lectures he gave a month earlier, he is slow, precise, and methodical in his answers. He is speaking on his own turf, there is an element of caution to his talk, and, as with the Vancouver Lectures, it is evident from his tone that he feels his message is particularly important for the young.

In classic Spicerian form he takes an unpopular stance, given the political climate on campus and the students’ zeal for self-expression. Spicer’s argument that poetry does not in itself effect political change is, understandably, met with some resistance. His message is not against political activism but against having any illusions that poems in themselves have political effect. It is important to remember that while Spicer argues the futility of political poetry it is not because his poems are devoid of political content. While he suggests that overtly political poems seem to be more self-gratifying than effective, his poems and plays acknowledge war as the backdrop of all writing. As Zeus puts it in the prologue to Spicer’s unpublished play Troilus (1955):

The Trojan War has been going on for the last 3,000 years and it hasn’t stopped yet. All the stories you’ve heard about the destruction of Troy are just daydreams Ulysses invented to keep himself sane. You’ve probably dreamed like that yourselves, waiting for a war to come to an end. One thing, though—the people in the play don’t seem to know how long the war has lasted. They have the idea that it’s only been going on for nine years or so. I don’t know why. Human beings don’t have a very good time sense. (2)

Spicer asserts that writing poetry does not absolve one of political responsibility, but if one expects to use poetry as a vehicle for political activism, it is likely to be bad poetry. He is not against political action; on the contrary, he suggests that instead of writing a bad political poem one should write a letter to one’s congressman. This suggestion is not dismissive. Spicer himself wrote a number of such letters in his life, one of them to the San Francisco Chronicle protesting its racist coverage of the Vietnam War, which recounted overwhelming losses against the Viet Cong less sympathetically than much smaller losses among American troops (I, n. 24).

Political content finds its way into Spicer’s poems in a number of ways. His work often contains references to specific wars and war stories: World War II, the Trojan War, the Spanish Civil War, and the American Civil War are all embedded within his poems. As a given of human experience, war is one of the many grand narratives that inform and structure human meaning. Beyond the outrageous humor of having Lorca posthumously write the preface to his first book (After Lorca, 1957), Spicer’s invocation of Lorca is also an honorific summoning of someone who died for a cause; when Spicer, on his deathbed less than a decade later, says to Robin Blaser, “My vocabulary did this to me,” he proclaims himself a casualty of poetry, placing himself in correspondence with Lorca and even with Whitman as a politically subversive gay poet living in a time of civil war. But maintaining an absurdist’s sense of the Real, Spicer also crosses politics with dada; in his book The Holy Grail, the horse Lancelot rides is “Dada” and the Australian soldiers march into battle singing “We’re off to see the Wizard,” to name just two examples. As implied in his “Unvert Manifesto” (MVDTTM, 74), nonsense for Spicer is the overarching condition of the universe and war is its most evil and absurd manifestation in reality.

But the most important function of this lecture is to offer practical advice for young poets about how to “manage” themselves as artists within such uncertain times. Since war is perpetual, Spicer suggests that the dangers for the artist are not just the Vietnam War. He’s more interested in illuminating the politics within the poetic community which form a dark correspondence with political power structures, as he provocatively compares the visibility and power of Olson to that of LBJ and argues that Ginsberg’s popularity mars his later poetry. He wants to draw attention to the political aspects of all self-governing bodies and to point out that the poetic community is no exception; it has its own tyrannies of style and personality which are equally debilitating to the rank and file. His message is quite literally to “stay loose.” He reiterates that the enemy is whatever keeps the poet from making poems. But this lecture isn’t only admonishing. In the end, Spicer presents a positive model of poetic community through his assertion that “a magazine is a society,” as exemplified in the discussion of the project Open Space.

In this lecture Spicer reminds us that poetry has always been threatened by the overpopularity of movements, individual star machines, the misappropriation of the academy, and general misguidedness; that to be a poet is an enormously difficult and vulnerable position to occupy; and that, finally, there is no better (or worse) time than the present to be a poet, when it couldn’t be more inappropriate.—Peter Gizzi

THOMAS PARKINSON:(1) I think we can start the lecture now. This seems to be old home week. We have Jack Spicer with us, as we have off and on now for about twenty years, and it’s always a pleasure. Jack first came here in 1946 as a student and stayed on here for some time doing research work and has traveled widely.

JACK SPICER: Really? I got as far as Vancouver. [Laughter]

TP: Well, there are people who are under the illusion that Jack Spicer was in Boston . . .

JS: Oh, well, yeah. [Laughter]

TP: . . . and Minnesota, and even once went as far as Palo Alto.

JS: Yeah. That was the worst.

TP: That was going pretty far.

JS: Yeah. That was absolutely the worst. The aborigines there were just terrible.


Jack Spicer, "California Lecture: Poetry and Politics." from The House that Jack Built, edited by Peter Gizzi, published by Wesleyan University Press. Copyright © 1998 by the Estate of Jack Spicer. Reprinted by permission of Peter Gizzi.
Originally Published: December 29, 2009

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Audio Article
 Jack  Spicer


Although known primarily among a coterie of poets in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time of his death in 1965, Jack Spicer has slowly become a towering figure in American poetry. He was born in Los Angeles in 1925 to midwestern parents and raised in a Calvinist home. While attending college at the University of California-Berkeley, Spicer met fellow poets Robin Blaser and Robert Duncan. The friendship among these three poets . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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