Essay on Poetic Theory

California Lecture: from “Poetry and Politics”


The backdrop of Lecture 4, “Poetry and Politics,” is the controversial and frightening reality of war and the escalation of American troops in Vietnam—two hundred thousand by the end of 1965. Spicer is addressing a student body at UC Berkeley, where one of the largest student anti-war activities in America was about to take place. In this lecture he speaks to current student issues like the Free Speech Movement as one who has experienced the inhospitable repercussions of administrative decisions. Spicer himself was a veteran of Berkeley’s controversial loyalty oath of 1950, one of a handful of people who didn’t sign, at a time when there wasn’t a unified student movement; he was basically alone in his resistance. Spicer is wary of movements, and he speaks to the students as someone who has experienced the loneliness of political conviction.

The Berkeley Poetry Conference (July 12 through 24, 1965) was a major gathering of poets from Donald Allen’s seminal anthology, The New American Poetry. Spicer was one of seven featured poets to give a lecture. The others were Robert Duncan, Gary Snyder, Charles Olson, Ed Dorn, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Creeley. Spicer’s lecture was given to a large audience on the Berkeley campus on Wednesday, July 14, at 10:30 A.M.

Because Spicer is addressing young poets, he tries to train his perspective on their point of view. Imagine Diogenes giving a freshman orientation. The lecture is filled with purpose, cynicism, and mother wit. In contrast to the more informal Vancouver Lectures he gave a month earlier, he is slow, precise, and methodical in his answers. He is speaking on his own turf, there is an element of caution to his talk, and, as with the Vancouver Lectures, it is evident from his tone that he feels his message is particularly important for the young.

In classic Spicerian form he takes an unpopular stance, given the political climate on campus and the students’ zeal for self-expression. Spicer’s argument that poetry does not in itself effect political change is, understandably, met with some resistance. His message is not against political activism but against having any illusions that poems in themselves have political effect. It is important to remember that while Spicer argues the futility of political poetry it is not because his poems are devoid of political content. While he suggests that overtly political poems seem to be more self-gratifying than effective, his poems and plays acknowledge war as the backdrop of all writing. As Zeus puts it in the prologue to Spicer’s unpublished play Troilus (1955):

The Trojan War has been going on for the last 3,000 years and it hasn’t stopped yet. All the stories you’ve heard about the destruction of Troy are just daydreams Ulysses invented to keep himself sane. You’ve probably dreamed like that yourselves, waiting for a war to come to an end. One thing, though—the people in the play don’t seem to know how long the war has lasted. They have the idea that it’s only been going on for nine years or so. I don’t know why. Human beings don’t have a very good time sense. (2)

Spicer asserts that writing poetry does not absolve one of political responsibility, but if one expects to use poetry as a vehicle for political activism, it is likely to be bad poetry. He is not against political action; on the contrary, he suggests that instead of writing a bad political poem one should write a letter to one’s congressman. This suggestion is not dismissive. Spicer himself wrote a number of such letters in his life, one of them to the San Francisco Chronicle protesting its racist coverage of the Vietnam War, which recounted overwhelming losses against the Viet Cong less sympathetically than much smaller losses among American troops (I, n. 24).

Political content finds its way into Spicer’s poems in a number of ways. His work often contains references to specific wars and war stories: World War II, the Trojan War, the Spanish Civil War, and the American Civil War are all embedded within his poems. As a given of human experience, war is one of the many grand narratives that inform and structure human meaning. Beyond the outrageous humor of having Lorca posthumously write the preface to his first book (After Lorca, 1957), Spicer’s invocation of Lorca is also an honorific summoning of someone who died for a cause; when Spicer, on his deathbed less than a decade later, says to Robin Blaser, “My vocabulary did this to me,” he proclaims himself a casualty of poetry, placing himself in correspondence with Lorca and even with Whitman as a politically subversive gay poet living in a time of civil war. But maintaining an absurdist’s sense of the Real, Spicer also crosses politics with dada; in his book The Holy Grail, the horse Lancelot rides is “Dada” and the Australian soldiers march into battle singing “We’re off to see the Wizard,” to name just two examples. As implied in his “Unvert Manifesto” (MVDTTM, 74), nonsense for Spicer is the overarching condition of the universe and war is its most evil and absurd manifestation in reality.

But the most important function of this lecture is to offer practical advice for young poets about how to “manage” themselves as artists within such uncertain times. Since war is perpetual, Spicer suggests that the dangers for the artist are not just the Vietnam War. He’s more interested in illuminating the politics within the poetic community which form a dark correspondence with political power structures, as he provocatively compares the visibility and power of Olson to that of LBJ and argues that Ginsberg’s popularity mars his later poetry. He wants to draw attention to the political aspects of all self-governing bodies and to point out that the poetic community is no exception; it has its own tyrannies of style and personality which are equally debilitating to the rank and file. His message is quite literally to “stay loose.” He reiterates that the enemy is whatever keeps the poet from making poems. But this lecture isn’t only admonishing. In the end, Spicer presents a positive model of poetic community through his assertion that “a magazine is a society,” as exemplified in the discussion of the project Open Space.

In this lecture Spicer reminds us that poetry has always been threatened by the overpopularity of movements, individual star machines, the misappropriation of the academy, and general misguidedness; that to be a poet is an enormously difficult and vulnerable position to occupy; and that, finally, there is no better (or worse) time than the present to be a poet, when it couldn’t be more inappropriate.—Peter Gizzi

THOMAS PARKINSON:(1) I think we can start the lecture now. This seems to be old home week. We have Jack Spicer with us, as we have off and on now for about twenty years, and it’s always a pleasure. Jack first came here in 1946 as a student and stayed on here for some time doing research work and has traveled widely.

JACK SPICER: Really? I got as far as Vancouver. [Laughter]

TP: Well, there are people who are under the illusion that Jack Spicer was in Boston . . .

JS: Oh, well, yeah. [Laughter]

TP: . . . and Minnesota, and even once went as far as Palo Alto.

JS: Yeah. That was the worst.

TP: That was going pretty far.

JS: Yeah. That was absolutely the worst. The aborigines there were just terrible.


TP: His only foreign country. Now, Jack seems to be eager to talk . . .

JS: No, not particularly.

TP: . . . and I’m not going to stop him. I think I’ve created enough silence so that we can get on with the business of the day. You all know Jack’s bibliography. His latest book is Language. Some of you already know Jack, and the rest of you will soon have some idea of Jack. Isn’t that right?

JS: I guess so. I hope so anyway.

Well, when you talk about poetry and politics, it gets pretty desperate.

You’ve all read your morning paper, and you know what’s happening as far as our escalator or whatever it’s called in Vietnam. This is not what I’m trying to talk about. What’s I’m trying to talk about is for you people who are poets and want some idea about how the strategy is for you to become poets who both write good poetry and also don’t sell out to the bosses. There are bosses in poetry as well as in the industrial empire and everything else, and what I want to talk to you about today is simply that—how to manage yourself in your own individual way, I guess, since no poet who’s worthy of the term doesn’t. But also, where to avoid mistakes that one has, say, the mistake of saying “Gee, I’m a great poet and somebody wants to print me.” And you have say, five, six poems. They’re good, but they aren’t that good, and so forth. What do you do?

The point is that, essentially, the enemy—as I think I quoted in one poem from Rosa Luxemburg—is in your own country.(2) I mean, you’re not going to be able to do a good goddamn thing about Vietnam—that’s absolutely out—because President Johnson is not terribly interested in whether intellectuals don’t like Vietnam or not. As a matter of fact, I imagine he thinks whenever an intellectual says something about Vietnam, that it’s a very good thing for him. [Laughter]

No, I mean seriously just that. Seriously, there is no possible way of getting at anything about the American system that I’ve been able to figure out in forty years. Maybe you people can. It would be marvelous if you could, but I don’t think so.

The point is then, if you’re poets—not too many flashbulbs, huh?—you ought to figure out what the power system is within your own community. Your enemy is simply something which is going to try to stop you from writing poetry.

So what do you do then? It’s a good question, and being battered around for forty years, I’m not sure of the answer. But one of the things I do know is that you try to figure out the terrain. This is, I’m sure, subversive jungle fighting—Mao Tse, who was a damn good poet, and probably still is, and also Ho Chi Minh. You have to blend with the scenery, but at the same time not open yourself up to the kinds of attacks which these very lovely people, reasonable people, nice people, people who believe in poetry, want to give you.

It’s a terribly hard thing to be a young poet—I’m a young poet, I have two poems, four poems, whatever the hell it is—and say no to various publishers. But I think you ought to. It’s hard to say, because I’ve been talking about poets being united for years and they aren’t united. They have some silly-assed thing with the IWW now that might unite them, and if so, I’m all for it.(3)

But the point is that most people will exploit poets. They’ll exploit the older ones for the knowledge they have, and they’ll exploit the younger ones for the promise they have, which somehow or other gives the people some kind of thing that maybe they have promise too, which they don’t.

Essentially, what I mean is, stay loose. Stay absolutely loose, and don’t accept any offers whatsoever.

But you’re not just a poet. You’re also a human being who wants to be recognized and everything else. One of the best things that I heard on that was last night on KCBS where some guy—his name was Anderson—was talking about peach farmers, and he said the peach farmers didn’t know a good goddamn thing about the number of peaches that were needed in the market. In other words, they would send in peaches, and peaches would go down to one cent a peach, or whatever it was, and that this had a great deal to do with farm labor.

What I’m saying is that you’re going to sell out eventually. You have to, just for economic reasons. But when you sell out, know exactly what your peaches cost. Know exactly how many peaches there are on the market. Know exactly what is the price you can sell out for.

This is something that most young poets don’t do, and this doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with the writing of poetry, but it does. The writing of poetry, essentially, is something which you really can’t say anything about except that if you violate something deep inside you—maybe even something that you didn’t know was deep inside you—you’re lost. You don’t write, or you write bad poetry. Or you write for the market, which is another nice thing. You manufacture artificial peaches to go to the market at the high price. And all of these things are just not really things to do. But I think of all of the young poets here, just about every one of them will make at least two or three mistakes in this line before they realize it. But what I’m trying to do is say don’t make any more than two or three mistakes.

It’s the business of being a person, too. Now, as Tom told you, I went to Cal and I was one of the people who didn’t sign the oath in 1950.(4) So, a great deal. I didn’t suffer by it. I think that, on the whole, I gained by it, in an economic sense. But I was not really conscious of myself as a poet when I was not signing the oath, and I’m not at all sure that I wouldn’t have signed the oath had I been conscious of myself being a poet.

Now there is the lovely Free Speech Movement. Great, I guess. You can say the word “fuck” without any trouble whatsoever, as I did. But I don’t quite see that it was the same thing as the oath. The oath was something which actually would have made your professors really scared. There’ve been five oaths passed by state legislatures before ours, but there weren’t any other state legislatures after that that passed any kind of oath. The oath was meaningless. Of the people in the English Department who didn’t sign the oath, none of them had voted for Wallace in ’48. Two of them had voted for Dewey—God knows why—and the rest voted for Truman. I mean, you can’t get the individual politics, the politics you have as a poet, out of the national politics.

When I get upset by reading about Vietnam and what we’re going to do there, and so forth and so on, it hurts me as a poet. And—I’m trying to think of the right words for this—there’s a poet who’s writing poetry, who’s a conveyor of poetry, that doesn’t have anything to do with his poems if he’s a good poet. There’s the individual and then there’s this society he moves in. Now, Mao Tse said once, you swim in it, like a fish. You swim in whatever circumstance you are in. He’s talking about guerilla war at the time. You swim in it like a fish, but it’s pretty difficult to do. These people—these Johnsons or these Olsons or these Kennedys or these anythings—they’re better than you are at it. What you have to do is to somehow or other figure out some way to swim in the thing like a fish but not sell out. And I don’t know how you do that. I really don’t.

I’m getting a hundred dollars to give this lecture, which is extremely generous. But I don’t know if I wouldn’t have stopped giving this lecture if it had been no money at all, because I just don’t know how this society can be swum in, like a fish, to use that kind of phrase.

Now, I’d like, if it’s all right with you people, some questions, and then I can go back on to what I was talking about.

Q: It has been said that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the universe. Would you agree with this?

JS: I think Plato was much better on saying the thing, where he said that a poet shouldn’t be allowed in society. What I mean is, sure, Shelley had this great stuff of saying that, but where did Shelley land?

Q: Where we all do, I guess.

JS: No, not where we all do exactly. I mean, Shelley did land in Italy, and did have his heart saved by some guy who then made a lot of money out of saving his heart. But I don’t really think that we have anything to do with it. I would certainly like to, but I haven’t been elected by any body of anything to legislate, and the people who legislate are generally about as unpoetical as anyone could possibly be.

Willy Yeats did serve in the senate in Ireland, but Willy Yeats also didn’t do anything while he was there. He made about three speeches, which haven’t even been reprinted yet on account of the fact that they were so dull. And Willy Yeats I think is a great poet. I don’t think Shelley is, but I think that Willy Yeats is, and here’s a new nation, coming into being and all that sort of thing. All the place for the great poet to come in to be the great senator, and what happened? Nothing.

Q: But don’t they pull the strings behind, you know? They’re unacknowledged.

JS: Well, what poet do you think has pulled the strings? [Laughter] No, no, this is a serious question. No, of all the poets in the world, what poet has pulled the strings?

Q: Of the universe? [Laughter]

JS: Of the universe, yeah, but we’re talking about politics, which directly takes out the universe from the discussion. We’re talking about the poet, the individual who is a poet, and society. Now, who pulled the strings, of any poet that you’ve ever heard of, in any society you’ve ever heard of, even indirectly?

Q: Mao, maybe.

JS: Mao gave up being a poet when he was about twenty-five, and he didn’t pull any strings until then. He came, actually, from a fairly rich place in China, if there is such a thing as a rich place in China, which is doubtful. He was upper middle class. He wrote poetry like anyone else did. He wrote some damn good poetry. He wrote poetry after he’d left that, but the poetry was not really anything which, at least to me, had any political meaning. Sure, you celebrate five thousand miles or ten thousand miles or whatever the hell the march was.(5) But there was no meaning to it in the sense that a poet has. Of course, I can’t read Chinese. I may be absolutely wrong on all of this.

That was a lovely question because it did bring up an essential thing. Would someone else have a question?

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. . . .



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 29th, 2009

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....