Essay on Poetic Theory

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

by Jack Spicer

And here the analogy of the medium comes in, which Yeats started out, and which Cocteau in his Orphée, both the play and the picture, used a car radio for, but which is essentially the same thing. That essentially you are something which is being transmitted into, and the more that you clear your mind away from yourself, and the more also that you do some censoring—because there will be all sorts of things coming from your mind, from the depths of your mind, from things that you want, which will foul up the poem.

For example, mediums always have to have the accents that they were born with. There’s a medium who’s supposed to have been in contact with Oscar Wilde, and she—I think mediums are almost always, if not always fake, but just pretend that mediums were real because some of them may be, particularly in primitive tribes—she got all sorts of epigrams and they came out in Cockney because she only spoke Cockney.(8)

Now, if you have a cleft palate and are trying to speak with the tongues of men and angels, you’re going to still speak through a cleft palate. And the poem comes distorted through the things which are in you. Your tongue is exactly the kind of tongue that you’re born with, and the source of energy, whatever it is, can take advantage of your tongue, can make it do things that you didn’t think it could, but your tongue will want to return to the same normal position of the ordinary cleft-palate speech of your own dialect.

And this is the kind of thing that you have to avoid. There are a great many things you can’t avoid. It’s impossible for the source of energy to come to you in Martian or North Korean or Tamil or any language you don’t know. It’s impossible for the source of energy to use images you don’t have, or at least don’t have something of. It’s as if a Martian comes into a room with children’s blocks with A, B, C, D, E which are in English and he tries to convey a message. This is the way the source of energy goes. But the blocks, on the other hand, are always resisting it.

The third step in dictated poetry is to try to keep as much of yourself as possible out of the poem. And whenever there’s a line that you like particularly well, which expresses just how you’re feeling this particular moment, which seems just lovely, then be so goddamn suspicious of it that you wait for two or three hours before you put it down on paper. This is practical advice and also advice that makes you stay up all night, unfortunately.

But even if you’re not interested in poems as dictation, you will find, two or three years later, that the lines you liked best when you wrote them were the ones that screwed up the poem. The poem was going one way, and you had this beautiful line. Gee, it was a lovely line, and just expressed how you felt at the particular moment—and oh lord, how lovely!

But at the same time, you are stuck with language, and you are stuck with words, and you are stuck with the things that you know. It’s a very nice thing, and a very difficult thing. The more you know, the more languages you know, the more building blocks the Martians have to play with. It’s harder, too, because an uneducated person often can write a better poem than an educated person, simply because there are only so many building blocks, so many ways of arranging them, and after that, you’re through. I mean, the thing behind you is through. And it can make for simplicity, as in good ballads, American and English. In the long run, it can make for really just good poetry. And sometimes for great poetry, an infinitely small vocabulary is what you want. Perhaps that would be the ideal, except for the fact that it’s pretty hard to write a poem that way.

But the more building blocks, the more you have to arrange your building blocks and say to the Martian, “Oh no, Mr. Martian, it doesn’t go this way. That spelling p-r-y-d-x-l doesn’t make any sense in English at all. We’ll change it around.” And then you make an anagram of it, and you spell what the Martian was trying to say. The more building blocks you have, the more temptation. The more you know, in a university sense, the more temptation there is to say, oh yes—yes, yes, yes—I remember this has to do with the Trojan War, or this has to do with this, this has to do with that, and so forth.

But on the other hand, given a source of energy which you can direct, you can direct yourself out of the picture. Then given the cooperation between the host poet and the visitor—the thing from Outside—the more things you have in the room the better if you can handle them in such a way that you don’t impose your will on what is coming through.

And that’s the whole problem you have in modern poetry—the fact that most poets from, say, nineteen to twenty-seven that I know, who are good in San Francisco, are really against education because they know that education is essentially going to fuck them up because they can’t resist, if they have all of these benches and chairs in the room, not to arrange them themselves instead of letting them be arranged by whatever is the source of the poem.

Now, Creeley talks about poems following the dictation of language.(9) It seems to me that’s nonsense. Language is part of the furniture in the room. Language isn’t anything  of itself. It’s something which is in the mind of the host that the parasite (the poem) is invading.(10) Five languages just makes the room structure more difficult, and also, possibly, more usable, but it certainly doesn’t have to do with any mystique of English or anything else.

Duncan’s business of words and their shadows and sounds and their shadows seems to me again taking the things which are in the room rather than the things which are coming into the room. And it seems to me that, essentially, you arrange. When you get a beautiful thing which uses the words and the shadows of the words –the fact that “silly” once meant “blessed” instead of “silly” as it now does, something like that—you ought to be very distrustful, although at the same time the thing which invades you from the Outside can use it.(11)

Now the other kind of thing, other than Olson’s energy, which to him is not something from a great galactic distance out there but something you plug in the wall, and it’s really the machine which is the converter of the electricity which makes another machine work, and so forth. And I don’t agree with that either, but I go nearer to that.(12)

Then there’s finally Williams, who sees in objects essentially a kind of energy which radiates from them. The fact that this chair has a chairness, a nimbus around it, a kind of electrical thing which gives energy enough so that it can be transformed almost directly—it, the thing that the chair in its chairness radiates—into poetry.(13)

And all of these things I think are perfectly useful explanations of it. I prefer more the unknown. . . .

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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