Essay on Poetic Theory

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

by Jack Spicer

Q: I can see a difficulty in selling out your political ideas, but, as far as your poetry goes, I don’t quite understand the difficulty in selling your poetry. If somebody wants to pay you to print your poems somewhere, what’s the difficulty, except perhaps personal pride?

JS: It’s a good question. And that’s the thing I was trying to get at, but I obviously didn’t yet.

Well, take it just the most simple way possible. A poet is offered to go into an anthology and the anthology is done by a good person, or at least you think he’s a good person. Something like that. The kind of association of your poetry with the other people’s poetry makes an entire difference. You feel, when you’ve been coupled with the other people, kind of like, well, you’re a pimp.

Now, magazines, the same way. Sure Poetry magazine will pay you—what, a hundred dollars, something like that now, for a poem? So what? I mean, it’s not “so what” when you don’t have a hundred dollars, just like I’m lecturing here because I don’t. But a magazine is a society. I think Open Space proved that.(6) You have to behave within the rules of the society, and if you don’t, then there’s nothing else. In other words, if you publish in Poetry magazine, it’s great. You get paid money. You get people reading it all through the country. But, in the long run, in you’re participating in one of these things, then you have to say “yeah, I read Poetry myself”—Poetry magazine, that is—which I don’t, and wouldn’t, because I don’t believe in the society that it creates.(7)

That’s a rather vague answer to your question. Why don’t you ask me another question now, just to make it less vague.

Q: Well, it just seems to me that if you want to make a personal honor thing out of it . . .

JS: Not a personal thing, no. Let’s get that straight. I divided three classes of things. One was the poet, one was the individual who was writing the poems, and the third was society. It’s a business of the poet’s honor, not the individual one. As far as my individual honor, I couldn’t care less.

Q: And you think that the poem then is somehow tarnished by appearing in some commercial venue?

JS: No. I think the poet writing the poetry, receiving poetry, is not exactly tarnished, but is less able to write poetry than he was before, from this.

RONNIE PRIMACK:(8) What happens to a poet when he gets in cahoots with a non-poet or an anthologizer? When he gets sort of intimate . . . [Laughter]

JS:  You can see the answer. [Laughter] No, Ronnie, did you have something more to ask than that?

RP: I really struggled with that.

Q: Did you also mean that if a poet should become vitriolic or very much against a political objective, that he would also damage his other poetry? In other words, does he have any obligation to perhaps speak up against political acts that he doesn’t agree with? If no more than anything else, to get it off his chest?

JS: Yeah. Except it doesn’t work that way. Of all of the poems I’ve seen in the last ten years coming from this area, I haven’t seen one good political poem. And I think that that’s sort of an answer to you.

Q: Would you recommend that he write it and throw it away?

JS: Yeah, or write a letter to his congressman or something like that. It’s just as meaningless. I mean, I would bet that at least ninety-nine percent of you were against the Vietnam thing. Okay. So, what do you do? You write a letter to your congressman. You write it down in poetry. But it doesn’t come out right then. Again, I don’t know of any political poems which have worked. . . .

 

Notes:

1. Professor Thomas Parkinson testified on behalf of Ginsberg in the Howl trial. While he spoke out in favor of the Free Speech Movement (discussed below) he didn’t always agree with its methods. (See also Lecture 1, note 43.)

2. See especially “Either/Or,” where Luxemburg argues that political liberalism (as opposed to radical action) is the enemy of change. In the aftermath of World War I, she argues for transnational solidarity: even if German borders are secure, “what about the French, Belgian, and Serbian comrades who have the enemy in their country?” (339).

The line “the enemy is in your own country” appears in “The Book of Merlin” from The Holy Grail (MVDDTM, 348).

3. Spicer may be referring to the group of poets (including Stan Persky, Ebbe Borregaard, Bill Brodecky, Gail Chugg, James Alexander, and Larry Fagin) who worked at Merchandising Methods, a warehouse and printing business where Open Space (see note 6) was printed. The working conditions were such that they banded together to join a union, though it was not the IWW but the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU). (See also Ellingham and Killian.)

4. Since 1942, University of California employees have been required to sign an oath swearing them to support the national and state constitutions and to “faithfully discharge duties” of whatever their position entailed. In 1949 the oat was amended to include a patently anti-Communist clause, and beginning in June 1949 all University of California employees were required to sign the new Loyalty Oath or their paychecks would be withheld. The few faculty who refused to sign were dismissed in August 1950, among them Ernst Kantorowicz whose work on medieval and Renaissance history was a major influence on the thinking of young Blaser, Duncan, and Spicer. (See especially The King’s Two Bodies.) After several lawsuits, the new oath was repealed two years later. In 1949-1950 Spicer, then a graduate student at Berkeley, was employed as a teaching assistant and would have been pressured to sign or hose his job. Refusing to sign, Spicer left Berkeley with an M.A. in June 1950 and taught at the University of Minnesota for two years. Spicer returned to Berkeley in 1952 to enter a doctoral program at about the same time that the California Supreme Court ruled against the amended oath, and it was repealed (Goines, Gardner, passim).

5. Spicer is referring to “The Long March,” first published in October 1935. Mao would have been forty-two.

6. A poetry monthly designed to exist only for the calendar year of 1964. Open Space provided a context for many of the figures of the North Beach scene: Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, Stan Persky, Jess Collins, Helen Adam, Joanne Kyger, George Stanley, Ebbe Borregaard, Lew Ellingham, and Harold Dull.

7. Spicer did not reserve his critique of literary journals to “major” venues. In fact, he was outspoken on all forms of literary production, high and low. After receiving an unsolicited copy of the independent newsletter Floating Bear, for instance, Spicer responds by politely asking them not to send another issue and proceeds to critique their lack of either poetry or politics, signing the letter “Barely yours.”

The second section of Spicer’s Book of Magazine Verse is a series of “Six Poems for Poetry Chicago.” (MVDTTM 406) Each section of the book was ostensibly written for a publication that was certain to reject it.

8. Ronnie Primack (b. 1937), a younger poet of Spicer’s circle, was the author of For the Late Major Horace Bell of the Los Angeles Rangers published by White Rabbit Press in 1963.

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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Biography

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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