Essay on Poetic Theory

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

by Jack Spicer

It’s the business of being a person, too. Now, as Tom told you, I went to Cal and I was one of the people who didn’t sign the oath in 1950.(4) So, a great deal. I didn’t suffer by it. I think that, on the whole, I gained by it, in an economic sense. But I was not really conscious of myself as a poet when I was not signing the oath, and I’m not at all sure that I wouldn’t have signed the oath had I been conscious of myself being a poet.

Now there is the lovely Free Speech Movement. Great, I guess. You can say the word “fuck” without any trouble whatsoever, as I did. But I don’t quite see that it was the same thing as the oath. The oath was something which actually would have made your professors really scared. There’ve been five oaths passed by state legislatures before ours, but there weren’t any other state legislatures after that that passed any kind of oath. The oath was meaningless. Of the people in the English Department who didn’t sign the oath, none of them had voted for Wallace in ’48. Two of them had voted for Dewey—God knows why—and the rest voted for Truman. I mean, you can’t get the individual politics, the politics you have as a poet, out of the national politics.

When I get upset by reading about Vietnam and what we’re going to do there, and so forth and so on, it hurts me as a poet. And—I’m trying to think of the right words for this—there’s a poet who’s writing poetry, who’s a conveyor of poetry, that doesn’t have anything to do with his poems if he’s a good poet. There’s the individual and then there’s this society he moves in. Now, Mao Tse said once, you swim in it, like a fish. You swim in whatever circumstance you are in. He’s talking about guerilla war at the time. You swim in it like a fish, but it’s pretty difficult to do. These people—these Johnsons or these Olsons or these Kennedys or these anythings—they’re better than you are at it. What you have to do is to somehow or other figure out some way to swim in the thing like a fish but not sell out. And I don’t know how you do that. I really don’t.

I’m getting a hundred dollars to give this lecture, which is extremely generous. But I don’t know if I wouldn’t have stopped giving this lecture if it had been no money at all, because I just don’t know how this society can be swum in, like a fish, to use that kind of phrase.

Now, I’d like, if it’s all right with you people, some questions, and then I can go back on to what I was talking about.

Q: It has been said that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the universe. Would you agree with this?

JS: I think Plato was much better on saying the thing, where he said that a poet shouldn’t be allowed in society. What I mean is, sure, Shelley had this great stuff of saying that, but where did Shelley land?

Q: Where we all do, I guess.

JS: No, not where we all do exactly. I mean, Shelley did land in Italy, and did have his heart saved by some guy who then made a lot of money out of saving his heart. But I don’t really think that we have anything to do with it. I would certainly like to, but I haven’t been elected by any body of anything to legislate, and the people who legislate are generally about as unpoetical as anyone could possibly be.

Willy Yeats did serve in the senate in Ireland, but Willy Yeats also didn’t do anything while he was there. He made about three speeches, which haven’t even been reprinted yet on account of the fact that they were so dull. And Willy Yeats I think is a great poet. I don’t think Shelley is, but I think that Willy Yeats is, and here’s a new nation, coming into being and all that sort of thing. All the place for the great poet to come in to be the great senator, and what happened? Nothing.

Q: But don’t they pull the strings behind, you know? They’re unacknowledged.

JS: Well, what poet do you think has pulled the strings? [Laughter] No, no, this is a serious question. No, of all the poets in the world, what poet has pulled the strings?

Q: Of the universe? [Laughter]

JS: Of the universe, yeah, but we’re talking about politics, which directly takes out the universe from the discussion. We’re talking about the poet, the individual who is a poet, and society. Now, who pulled the strings, of any poet that you’ve ever heard of, in any society you’ve ever heard of, even indirectly?

Q: Mao, maybe.

JS: Mao gave up being a poet when he was about twenty-five, and he didn’t pull any strings until then. He came, actually, from a fairly rich place in China, if there is such a thing as a rich place in China, which is doubtful. He was upper middle class. He wrote poetry like anyone else did. He wrote some damn good poetry. He wrote poetry after he’d left that, but the poetry was not really anything which, at least to me, had any political meaning. Sure, you celebrate five thousand miles or ten thousand miles or whatever the hell the march was.(5) But there was no meaning to it in the sense that a poet has. Of course, I can’t read Chinese. I may be absolutely wrong on all of this.

That was a lovely question because it did bring up an essential thing. Would someone else have a question?

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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