Essay on Poetic Theory

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

by Jack Spicer

TP: His only foreign country. Now, Jack seems to be eager to talk . . .

JS: No, not particularly.

TP: . . . and I’m not going to stop him. I think I’ve created enough silence so that we can get on with the business of the day. You all know Jack’s bibliography. His latest book is Language. Some of you already know Jack, and the rest of you will soon have some idea of Jack. Isn’t that right?

JS: I guess so. I hope so anyway.

Well, when you talk about poetry and politics, it gets pretty desperate.

You’ve all read your morning paper, and you know what’s happening as far as our escalator or whatever it’s called in Vietnam. This is not what I’m trying to talk about. What’s I’m trying to talk about is for you people who are poets and want some idea about how the strategy is for you to become poets who both write good poetry and also don’t sell out to the bosses. There are bosses in poetry as well as in the industrial empire and everything else, and what I want to talk to you about today is simply that—how to manage yourself in your own individual way, I guess, since no poet who’s worthy of the term doesn’t. But also, where to avoid mistakes that one has, say, the mistake of saying “Gee, I’m a great poet and somebody wants to print me.” And you have say, five, six poems. They’re good, but they aren’t that good, and so forth. What do you do?

The point is that, essentially, the enemy—as I think I quoted in one poem from Rosa Luxemburg—is in your own country.(2) I mean, you’re not going to be able to do a good goddamn thing about Vietnam—that’s absolutely out—because President Johnson is not terribly interested in whether intellectuals don’t like Vietnam or not. As a matter of fact, I imagine he thinks whenever an intellectual says something about Vietnam, that it’s a very good thing for him. [Laughter]

No, I mean seriously just that. Seriously, there is no possible way of getting at anything about the American system that I’ve been able to figure out in forty years. Maybe you people can. It would be marvelous if you could, but I don’t think so.

The point is then, if you’re poets—not too many flashbulbs, huh?—you ought to figure out what the power system is within your own community. Your enemy is simply something which is going to try to stop you from writing poetry.

So what do you do then? It’s a good question, and being battered around for forty years, I’m not sure of the answer. But one of the things I do know is that you try to figure out the terrain. This is, I’m sure, subversive jungle fighting—Mao Tse, who was a damn good poet, and probably still is, and also Ho Chi Minh. You have to blend with the scenery, but at the same time not open yourself up to the kinds of attacks which these very lovely people, reasonable people, nice people, people who believe in poetry, want to give you.

It’s a terribly hard thing to be a young poet—I’m a young poet, I have two poems, four poems, whatever the hell it is—and say no to various publishers. But I think you ought to. It’s hard to say, because I’ve been talking about poets being united for years and they aren’t united. They have some silly-assed thing with the IWW now that might unite them, and if so, I’m all for it.(3)

But the point is that most people will exploit poets. They’ll exploit the older ones for the knowledge they have, and they’ll exploit the younger ones for the promise they have, which somehow or other gives the people some kind of thing that maybe they have promise too, which they don’t.

Essentially, what I mean is, stay loose. Stay absolutely loose, and don’t accept any offers whatsoever.

But you’re not just a poet. You’re also a human being who wants to be recognized and everything else. One of the best things that I heard on that was last night on KCBS where some guy—his name was Anderson—was talking about peach farmers, and he said the peach farmers didn’t know a good goddamn thing about the number of peaches that were needed in the market. In other words, they would send in peaches, and peaches would go down to one cent a peach, or whatever it was, and that this had a great deal to do with farm labor.

What I’m saying is that you’re going to sell out eventually. You have to, just for economic reasons. But when you sell out, know exactly what your peaches cost. Know exactly how many peaches there are on the market. Know exactly what is the price you can sell out for.

This is something that most young poets don’t do, and this doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with the writing of poetry, but it does. The writing of poetry, essentially, is something which you really can’t say anything about except that if you violate something deep inside you—maybe even something that you didn’t know was deep inside you—you’re lost. You don’t write, or you write bad poetry. Or you write for the market, which is another nice thing. You manufacture artificial peaches to go to the market at the high price. And all of these things are just not really things to do. But I think of all of the young poets here, just about every one of them will make at least two or three mistakes in this line before they realize it. But what I’m trying to do is say don’t make any more than two or three mistakes.

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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