Essay on Poetic Theory

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

by Jack Spicer


(1) See Yeat’s account in A Vision (8-9). Yeats recalls the incident as occurring on “the afternoon of October 24th 1917, four days after my marriage.” While the precise date is open to debate (Harper, Vol. 1, 1-49), placing this event on a train between Los Angeles and San Bernardino is evidently Spicer’s innovation. In his Introduction to A Vision Yeats places his visti to California in early 1919, but his papers indicate the trip took place in 1920.

(2) Augusta, Lady Gregory (1852-1932), the Irish playwright, codirected with Yeats and J. M. Synge the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Her patronage of Yeats seems to have begun shortly after they met, around 1896 (Yeats, Memoirs, 99 ff.).

(3) The Society for Psychical Research was formally established in London in 1882, but it developed out of a group of Cambridge intellectuals including Henry Sidgwick, Henry Jackson, F. W. Myers, and Edmund Gurney during the 1870s. Its members and proponents in England included Ruskin, Tennyson, Lewis Carroll, and William Gladstone. William James was at the forefront of the SPR in America. The early SPR tended to investigate the physical phenomena of rappings, table tilting, and slate writings, but after a number of hoaxes and sleights of hand were exposed, its focus shifted to the manifestations of “mental mediums”: visions, automatic speaking, and automatic writing. One of its declared long-term goals was to establish a kind of rational groundwork for religious belief (Gauld, 353, etc.). The SPR provided an interesting intersection of religion, science, literature, pragmatism, and the history of magic and charlatanism. Some of the “physical mediums” that generated the initial interest in psychic phenomena were amateur and professional “conjurers” who were able to distract audiences long enough to accomplish a slight of hand without their realizing it. The medium’s supposed authenticity was contingent entirely upon effect—the ability to make physical magic pass for psychical experience, which on one level, of course, it was. A point of correspondence to Spicer’s poetic practice would be the legerdemain in the time and timing of his lines, invoking one narrative, quickly switching to another, then another, so that the reader is thrown off by the poem’s repeated foiling of readerly expectation. Contrast this to the more Romantic surface of Duncan’s poems or the formal invocation that authenticates the blur between past and present in H.D.’s Helen in Egypt, or the authenticity of place that “speaks in Olson’s Maximus. Not only does Spicer take on the lowest popular-culture version of  “dictation” by talking about composition in terms of “Martians” but he debunks the very notion of authenticity since the process is unknowable—it cannot be authenticated—no matter how you represent it. In many ways Spicer’s talk is in keeping with the goal of the SPR, which is to attempt to explain materially a phenomenological experience.

(4) Blake’s poetics of visitation are recorded in both his poems and his letters. “Europe: A Prophecy” and “Jerusalem” both begin with announcements that they are “dictated” poems (Blake, 60, 146).  But Blake’s letters give more detail. He writes, for instance, to William Hayley: “Thirteen years ago. I lost a brother & with his spirit I converse daily & hourly in the Spirit… I hear his advice & even now write from his Dictate─” (Blake, 705). To John Flaxman, he writes: “Milton lovd me in childhood & shewd me his face” (707). To Thomas Butts (great-grandfather of the poet Mary Butts), he writes in detail about the composition of two different poems: “my Abstract folly hurried me often away while I am at work, carrying me over Mountains & Valleys which are not Real in a Land of Abstraction where Spectres of the Dead wander,” and “I have written this Poem from immediate Dictation twelve or sometimes twenty or thirty lines at a time without Premeditation & even against my Will” (716, 729).

(5) Quasars were discovered in 1963. Also known as “quasi-stellar radio sources,” they are objects emitting significant amounts of radio energy several billion lights years from earth.

(6) Karen Tallman is the daughter of Ellen and Warren Tallman. She befriended Spicer when he was staying at their house during the month of the lectures. She was twelve at the time.

(7) I offer the following correspondence as an unlikely but interesting possibility: Spicer may be referring here to John Ashbery’s long poem “The Skaters” published in the magazine Art and Literature in the previous year. The title, “The Skaters,” obliquely picks up on the last line of Stevens’s “Of Modern Poetry” which rehearses what poetry must be in the present. Most notably, “it must speak about war” and can be about “a man skating, a woman combing (239).”

(8) A surprisingly large number of mediums in both England and America claimed beyond-the-grave contact with Oscar Wilde, and a number of them were published. See, for instance, Smith, who ends her account by promising that Wilde “has suggested that he is in a position to resume some of his literary work again; but, knowing as I do the difficulties and uncertainty of automatism, I dare not promise anything definite” (164).

(9) See Creeley’s letter to the editor printed in Contact in 1953, reprinted in A Quick Graph, where he discusses the problem of imagining a printed poem as simply a transcription of speech: “This is why line is a problem, an immense one. We let it dictate to us─bend us into a formal structure not at all our own, as words would otherwise find their relations. We let it block the actual impulse” (27).

(10) This sentiment is reminiscent of William Burrough’s dictum, “Language is a virus from outer space.”

(11) See, for instance, Duncan’s “Passage 15: Spelling” as an example of the concept of words and their sources or shadows (Bending the Bow, 48-50). See also his discussion of chiaroscuro in “Ideas of the Meaning of Form” (Fictive Certainties, 91).

(12) For Olson on “energy” and “kinetics” see his essay “Human Universe”: “There is only one thing you can do about kinetic, re-enact it… Art does not seek to describe but to enact. And if man is once more to possess intent in his life… he has to comprehend his own process as intact, from outside, by way of his skin, in, and by his how powers of conversion, out again” (Collected Prose, 162). In “Projective Verse,” he writes that “a poem is energy transferred form where the poet got it… by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. Okay. Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge” (240).

In a letter to Charles Olson that accompanied his first book, After Lorca, Spicer writes: “I’ve discovered what I owe to you and hate owing it.” In 1946 Olson writes a Poundian radio broadcast as William Butler Yeats speaking from the grave, called “This is Yeats Speaking,” which corresponds with Spicer’s use of Yeats in Lecture 1 and his “Introduction” from a posthumous Lorca in After Lorca.

In San Francisco in 1957 Olson presented a version of his lecture, “The Special View of History,” in which he makes a not to Yeats’s practice of dictation: “The messengers which came to Yeats through his wife’s voice as a medium, and through whose instructions he wrote the Vision─a spiritualistic Spenglerism of time─Yeats was honest enough to quote in these words, ‘We come to bring you images for your verse.’ It may turn out in the end that his dogmatic system of mine is no more” (Special View, 35-36).

Of further correspondence: in 1953 Olson wrote a book review about The Saga of Billy the Kid by Walter Noble Burns, which at times even sounds Spicerian: “All we got is what the best men have kept their eye on. No figures, no forms, no known largeness whatsoever. Zero. Not even a digit, no string tie. Perfect… The time hasn’t come when we are that sure, that we can ask a question, and live. We are still more masters of the outside, still (like heroes of the woods, and these gunmen) we don’t break a twig.” (Collected Prose, 312-13). Spicer’s serial poem “Billy the Kid” was published in 1959.

(13) As an example of Spicer’s own take on “thingness,” see one of his most often quoted works, the first poem from “Thing Language” (MVDTTM,373). Of the many discussions of this poem, see especially Conte, McGann, and Silliman. See also Spicer’s serial poem A Red Wheelbarrow (MVDTTM,325-327).

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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