Taking Dictation from a Martian Muse
While I am still in the hospital, I'm having Robert post this piece:
Jack Spicer’s notion of poetry as dictation is hardly original (and originality is a notion Spicer would quarrel with in any case), but Spicer acknowledges its sources and rings his own changes on them: Yeats’ spooks bringing him metaphors for his poetry, or Cocteau’s Orphée writing down poems broadcast on the ghost radio. That the idea of dictation can itself be read as dictated makes perfect sense. Part of the point of Spicer’s poetics is that everything comes from the outside; there’s no romantic interiority generating poems in the sensitive soul. This is a useful corrective to the fetishization of personal creativity, proposing instead what Robin Blaser calls the practice of outside. As Spicer writes of his posthumous collaboration with Garcia Lorca, “It was a game made out of summer and freedom and a need for a poetry that would be more than the expression of my hatreds and desires. It was a game like Yeats’ spooks or Blake’s sexless seraphim” (After Lorca).
I like the idea of poetry as dictation, because writing does feel like that sometimes. I’ve had at least one poem that was literally dictated to me—I woke up and the poem was reciting itself in my head, though I had to come up with my own ending. Don't we all? In that sense Spicer conveys what it often feels like to do poetry. The recent history of the study of the mind, from Freud discovery/invention of the unconscious to breakthroughs in the biochemical understanding of the brain, certainly supports the idea of dictation, from some source or another. It has certainly revealed just how little of what we think or do is really under our control, though that’s a pretty old idea dressed up in some new clothes. For the ancient Greeks, after all, the poet was a person possessed by a daimon, which is one of the reasons that Plato distrusted poets: they were not ruled by reason.
I also admire Spicer’s ambition to make poems out of real objects, to “put the real cliff and the real ocean into the poem,” and his conception of words as what sticks to the real, though I don’t think that’s possible, except to the extent that words are real objects out of which we build real poems. Language is a thing in the world as well as a thing about (in both senses) the world. Poetry, at least in part, is made out of the attempt to achieve that identity between word and world even while knowing that such a goal is unattainable. If you don’t try, you’re just playing games, doing parlor tricks (what Eliot meant when he said that poetry was a sophisticated diversion—luckily, he was lying). If you don’t realize that it’s impossible, then you end up with religion or dogma. Allen Grossman speaks of poetry as an impossible goal that every poem tries to achieve. If only every poem did so try! That dovetails with what Spicer writes that he learned from Robert Duncan, “not to search for the perfect poem [which doesn’t and can’t exist except as an aspiration] but to let your way of writing of the moment go along its own paths, explore and retreat but never be fully realized (confined) within the boundaries of one poem.” That seems to balance the exploratory, experimental impulse with the recognition that failure is inevitable, that judgments still can and must be made. There are, after all, greater and lesser degrees of realization.
Interesting and even inspiring though Spicer’s notion of dictation is, with its promise of escaping what he calls "the big lie of the personal," I wonder if it’s not simply the mirror image of romantic inspiration. Instead of coming from deep within one, from one’s soul or innermost self, the poem comes from outside one, from the Martians or the spooks. In either case, the poet is passive, and abdicates thought and responsibility. He listens for the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is. This can be seen as a kind of askesis, an emptying out of the self so that some Other can occupy that space, if only temporarily. It can also be seen as an evasion, since no one truly has the mind of winter of Stevens’s snow man, at one with what surrounds him. Spicer’s Martians seem to be the Muses dressed up in space suits, another way to preserve the romantic (small “r”) notion of the poet as a specially inspired individual with access to the transcendent, and to preserve both the notion that there is a transcendent (Derrida's transcendental signifier?) out there waiting to be tapped into and the confidence that it can be reached. As Spicer insists in his Vancouver lectures, there is “a difference between you and the outside of you which is writing poetry,” but the poet is still the radio. Not everyone receives these transmissions, after all. Capital “R” Romanticism, in its various incarnations, too often betrays the transcendent by identifying the poet’s inspiring genius with his or her ego.
We ourselves are the real, part of a reality and a reality in ourselves. (Are we ourselves?, as The Fixx asked in song long ago.) That desire to connect with something outside us is also a desire to connect with something inside us (and vice versa—the way in is the way out, as Heraclitus might have said). We are part of what we see and talk about, but we are also inaccessible to ourselves in the same way and to the same degree that the “real world” is inaccessible to us. This idea of an internal and inaccessible real, an internal transcendent, is very Lacanian: for Lacan, the always lost Real is the level of immediate and unitary somatic experience, absent lack and lacking absence, from which language inevitably and necessarily alienates us. It is literally unspeakable.
So poetry is both about eroding boundaries and borders and about recognizing borders and boundaries that were invisible, and the poem isn’t a representation of the world but an analogy of it. The materials out of which the poem is built (words, sounds, images, lines, phrases) are analogous to the materials out of which the world is made (bricks and rocks and twigs and leaves and mites and midges). If words are objects in the same way that bricks are, with their own heft and palpability, then that is the way (the one possible way) to make poems out of real objects. Analogy is one of Spicer’s favorite words, and one of Stevens’s.
The poem, when it is at its best, when we are at our best, is a kind of agon between the poet and the language, and the poet has to bring all his or her resources to bear, or it’s not a real struggle at all, just a performance. After all, Stevens did say that the poem has to resist the intelligence almost successfully. For that resistance to be meaningful, the pressure of the intelligence must be strong. As Spicer notes, “The more you know…the more building blocks the Martians have to play with.” Perhaps in reaction against Modernist “intellectualism,” too many American poets from the Forties onward (beginning with the generation of Lowell and Bishop and Jarrell) have surrendered or renounced their intelligence, which too often has resulted in taking dictation not from the Martians but merely from the culture at large, or (as too often) small. But poetry demands better listening than that.
Poet and editor Reginald Shepherd was born in New York City in 1963 and grew up in the Bronx. He earned a BA from Bennington College and studied at Brown University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first collection, Some Are Drowning (1994), won the Associated Writing Program’s Award in...