Essay on Poetic Theory

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

by Jack Spicer


Given on the hundredth anniversary of William Butler Yeats’s birth, the first of the Vancouver lectures begins with a mixture of humor, tension, and seance-like charm. The structural correlation of Yeats’s being visited by spooks and Spicer’s being visited by Yeats takes on a magical significance in the context of a lecture about poetic sources, voices, and ghosts: Spicer introduces Yeats as his poetic precursor—his ghost father—and his poetics perform a kind of serious play (like Hamlet) in which the living are responsible for carrying out the desires of the dead. Spicer presents his poetic practice as an act of “dictation” that engages the dead in the economy of the living. He describes it as both a “dance” and a “game,” but the dance is a danse macabre and the game is a ball game in which you play for more than your life.

In the course of the lecture, Spicer places himself in opposition to both Romantic and symbolist poetics by disavowing the notion of the poet as a “beautiful machine … almost a perpetual motion machine of emotion until the poet’s heart broke or it was burned on the beach like Shelley’s”. Spicer insists that the poet does not drive the poem; the poem drives the poet. Instead of becoming a master of words, the poet is mastered by words, which “turn mysteriously against those who use them” (MVDTTM, 257).

The lecture also provides a useful account of Spicer’s sense of his own immediate context and perhaps for this reason it has been the most quoted of the four lectures, thanks to the printing of an earlier version in Caterpillar 12 (July 1970). Instead of focusing on poetic invention, Spicer introduces an idiosyncratic genealogy of poetic reception beginning with Yeats’s automatic writing on a train ride through California in 1918; backtracking to Blake; whistlestopping with Pound, Williams, and Eliot; moving on to Spicer’s contemporaries Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, and Robin Blaser; and arriving at Spicer’s reading from his own “A Textbook of Poetry.”

But the genealogy of poetry presented in the lecture is not simple, and Spicer uses the work of his peers to further define his own practice by negation. The only poet who escapes Spicer’s thorough critique is Robin Blaser, with whom he seems to be in such agreement that at times he speaks for both of them. It is important to note, however, that when Spicer spars with his contemporaries it is not to denigrate the work of his peers. His poetry and letters repeatedly make it clear that an exchange of poetic judgment is also a way of expressing respect and reciprocity.

In this light, one of the interesting moves in this lecture is Spicer’s identification of Olson as someone whose practice is closer to his own than Creeley’s or Duncan’s—an unusual assertion since in Lecture 4 he identifies Olson as one of the “bosses” of poetry, corresponding to President Lyndon Johnson. Likewise, while Spicer expresses dissatisfaction with Denise Levertov’s writing of poems around a “great metaphor,” he says so within the context of seeing her as a “good poet.” And his sparring with Creeley comes in the context of their common ground: they both use the same term—“dictation”—to describe their writing experience in different ways.

In discussing the poetics of his contemporaries, Spicer reveals the differences and affinities within their practices but keeps his own model of composition open and even contradictory. According to Spicer’s motley procession of metaphors, the poet is a host being invaded by the parasite of the dictating source of the poem; this source is “Martian”; the poem is the product of a dance between the poet and his “Martian” source; the poet is like a radio receiving transmissions; poets exist within a city of the dead; “spooks” visit poets with messages from hell; and the poem itself becomes a hell of possible meanings.

Within this agglomerate of multiple figures, Spicer opens the discourse of poetic composition by placing dictation outside of any fixed taxonomy and by refusing to claim his practice as an incontrovertible or absolute good. What distinguishes Spicer’s model from the “English department” version of poetic composition is in part its disruption of the hierarchy of inspiration. For Spicer, the dictating sources or “spooks” come across to the poet rather than coming down from an inspired and orderly Heaven. They are disruptive on every level—meaning, syntax, diction, narrative form—and are not easily dominated by theory. In fact, the game he has created is so good that not only poets are subject to the strange reversals of language; words turn against everyone who uses them. In this war of meaning, the critic gets drawn out of safe hiding and into the Open or Outer Space of Spicer’s vocabulary. By insisting on a “low” vocabulary to discuss his poetics, Spicer draws the critic outside the safe clinical territory of authorized critical discourses and into the language of baseball games, popular movies, TV, and bar talk. The purposeful absurdity of his terms of poetic composition are a kind of “no trespassing” sign, a Crowley-like warning to the uninitiated, or a Cerberus to the underworld of the poem.

Since the poet’s dictating source is neither god nor muse, there is no way of knowing if the intruding figure (the radio broadcast, the parasite from outer space, the “Martian”) is any better or smarter than the poet caught in this outrageous entanglement. This game between the material and invisible worlds places the poet in the embarrassing position of merely following orders from a beyond. But, Spicer assures his young audience, the best condition for the poem is one of not-knowing, and the poet has a better chance of that with dictation than with self-expression. The better the poem, the less responsible the poet is for it. So Spicer wages battle with the creative ego in terms that remain provocative in an age still searching for poetic authenticity and identity.

In spite of his futuristic language, Spicer proposes an extremely traditional (not to say conventional) view of poetry, emphasizing the guild-like aspects of the art, and even using antique metaphors like mountain climbing throughout the lectures. He foregrounds the endurance it takes to wait for lines and to be generally available for the poem. Because the ground of poetic composition and community is difficult and unstable, Spicer’s proclaimed goal in this and other lectures is to prepare younger poets for the hardships of poetry, to help them manage themselves to become more durable and less afraid to fail against the absurd demands of the poem.—Peter Gizzi

JACK SPICER: Well, I really ought to explain the structure of the three lecture/readings, more than is on the flyer that some of you saw. Essentially what’s going to happen is that each evening I’m going to read some of my work. In each reading there’s going to be a discussion of the problems that have to do with poets as far as I see what the problems are with poets. And they’re pretty much in order of importance. I think the problem of poetic dictation is perhaps the first problem a poet has. The second problem—one you can’t really “get” too well without understanding what poetic dictation is or isn’t—is a serial poem. And the third lecture on Thursday night will be a sort of an autopsy or a looking at the growth of a poem I’m writing now—the problems of a person in the middle of a poem, what comes up to make things different. In other words, I’m rather assuming that all of you are interested directly as poets in the writing of poetry, and I’m not going to talk about aesthetic theory except where I think it has something to do with the problems of anyone writing poetry.

Now, tonight is rather an interesting time to discuss poetic dictation. It’s Yeats’s birthday. He’d be a hundred today if he weren’t up there with the big skywriters in the sky. And Yeats is probably the first modern who took the idea of dictation seriously. And he might be a good person to start out from, seeing as how—although I don’t know why a birthday should be so important—it still is his birthday.

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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