Essay on Poetic Theory

Vancouver Lectures: from "Dictation and 'A Textbook of Poetry'" (1965)

by Jack Spicer

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 . . .

Q: Quasi-stars.(5)

JS: 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 want 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, per se 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.

Jack Spicer, "Vancouver Lecture: Dictation and ‘A Textbook of Poetry’” 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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