Jack Spicer: 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.
He was on a train back in, I guess it was 1918. The train was, oddly enough, going through San Bernardino to Los Angeles
when his wife Georgie suddenly began to have trances, and spooks came to her. He'd married at the age of forty-five, something like that, a rather rich woman who everyone thought he married just because she was a rich woman and Lady Gregory was getting old and wasn't about to will him money. Georgie was in the tradition of the Psychic Research Society and all of that, and so naturally they would come in the form that the Psychic Research Society would think spooks would come. And she started automatic writing as they were going through the orange groves between San Berdoo and Los Angeles.
cover design of The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, ed. Peter Gizzi (Wesleyan/New England, 1998)
And Yeats didn't know what to make of it for a while, but it was a slow train and he started getting interested, and these spooks were talking to him. He still, I'm sure, thought that Georgie was doing all of this to diver him. He probably was in a nasty mood after having gone across the country on the Southern Pacific, which I imagine in those days was even worse than it is now. But he finally decided he'd ask a question or two of the spooks as Georgie was in her trance. And he asked a rather good question. He asked, "What are you here for?" And the spooks replied, "We're here to give metaphors for your poetry."
That's something which is in all English department lectures now, but it was the first thing since Blake on the business of taking poetry as coming from the outside rather than from the inside. In other words, instead of the poet being a beautiful machine which manufactured the current for itself, did everything for itself-almost a perpetual motion machine of emotion until the poet's heart broke or it was burned on the beach like Shelley's -instead there was something from the Outside coming in.
Now, the difference between "We have come to bring metaphors for your poetry" and what I think most poets who I consider good poets today believe-and this would include people as opposite in their own ways as, say, Eliot on one hand and Duncan on the other -is essentially that there is an Outside to the poet. Now what the Outside is like is described differently by different poets. And some of them believe that there's a welling up of the subconscious or of the racial memory or the this or the that, and they try to put it inside the poet. Others take it from the Outside. Olson's idea of energy and projective verse is something that comes from the Outside.
I think the source is unimportant. But I think that for a poet writing poetry, the idea of just exactly what the poet is in relationship to this Outside, whether it's an id down in the cortex which you can't reach anyway, which is Just as far outside as Mars, or whether it is as far away as those galaxies which seem to be sending radio messages to us with the whole of the galaxy blowing up just to say something to us, which are in the papers all the time now. Quasads, or ...
[Comment interjected from the audience:]
Jack Spicer: Something like that. At any rate, the first step is reached, I think, with Yeats. But the way that it works -- "We have come to bring metaphors for your poetry" -- this is like "we have come to bring fertilizer for your fields," that kind of thing. You know, "well, you have such nice poetry, Mr. Yeats, and we spooks have come down from above to give you metaphors to hang it on to."
Now this is not really what happens in my talking about my own experience most of the time. But I think I can also speak for the experience that others I know have had in dictated poetry. I think the first kind of hint that one has as a poet-and I must confess I was, as Karen [Tallman] would say, a retard in this respect-is after you've written poems for a while and struggled with them and everything else, a poem comes through in just about one-eighth of the time that a poem normally does. That's the first experience. And you say, "oh well gee, it's going to be much easier if I can just have this happen very often."
So then you write seventeen or eighteen different things which are just what you're thinking about at that particular moment and are lousy. It isn't simply the matter of being able to get a fast take. It's something else. But the fast take is a good sign that you're hooked up with some source of power, some source of energy.
Then the next thing is you suddenly figure out, well gee, when I've been wanting something, say I'm in love and I want to sleep with this person and, you know, the normal thing is, with a fast take, you write all these things down with an idea of, essentially, a way of selling a used car. [Laughter]
And this doesn't work.
So one day, after you've had this first experience, which just was something you couldn't imagine, and the poems haven't come this clean, this fast-and they don't usually, in dictated poetry anyway. Again, suddenly, there comes a poem that you just hate and would like to get rid of, that says exactly the opposite of what you mean, what you have to say, to use Olson's thing in one of its two meanings.
[Charles] Olson says the poet is a poet when he says what he has to say. Now, you can read that two ways: what he "has" to say, namely "I want to sleep with you honey," or "I think that the Vietnam crisis is terrible," or "some of my best friends are dying in loony bins," or whatever you want to say that you think is a particular message. That's the bad thing.
But what you want to say-the business of the wanting coming from Outside, like it wants five dollars being ten dollars, that kind of want- is the real thing, the thing that you didn't want to say in terms of your own ego, in terms of your image, in terms of your life, in terms of everything.
And how this operates, I haven't the vaguest notion. You could probably figure it out scientifically if you knew enough about the science of chance, combination, permutation, all of that. I don't know. But I know that it has happened. It's happened less to me than it has to other people, and I think it's happened more to Robin than to Duncan, who tends to fake up a few things like any good medium does. [Laughter]
Question: What happens if the poem wants you to happen?
Jack Spicer: I think both you and the poem explode. [Laughter] No, really, it's like saying what happens if a farmer wants a cow to happen, you know. The farmer wants to milk the cow. The cow Is to be milked. And I suppose there could be a kooky farmer that wanted the cow simply to remain in its cowness. But I don't really know what would happen except the cow would get awfully sick after a few days of not being milked.
I just don't think that whatever the source of energy is gives really very much of a damn about you. It wants to keep you in good condition, just like the farmer wants to keep the cow in good condition. Or the butcher, or the rancher, and then the butcher wants to keep the steer in good condition until it's butchered.
Gladys Hindmarch from the audience: Jack, I was going to ask you if you've ever had the experience of having a line that you're satisfied with at the time that then you did like later, and that wasn't going in the other direction -- a direction other than what the poem was. I think you're so definite about, if you're pleased with it, then it is wrong.
Jack Spicer: Well, everybody as a host to this parasite has a different reaction. But my thing is that I write it down too fast to be pleased with it. If it's really a good line that I liked, then I'd see that I liked it after the whole thing was through. In other words, if there's no resistance, if the thing saying the thing is exactly what the host wants to say, the host just doesn't have any feeling that he's said anything. It goes through like a dose of salts.
Question: That could sound as if you were so busy writing it that you had no time to stand back and make a judgment on it.
Jack Spicer: Yes, but on the other hand, there are plenty of times when you're so busy writing it and you have to wait for two hours because the thing is coming through in a way that seems to you wrong. It may be that you hate the thing that's coming through so much, and you're resisting it as a medium. Or it may be that the thing which is invading you is saying, "yeah, well that's very nice but that hasn't anything to do with what this is all about." And you have to figure that out, and sometimes it takes a number of cigarettes, and occasionally a number of drinks, to figure out which is which. And it's a dance in some way, between the two. And you often fall on your ass - hit the wrong one.
Gladys Hindmarch: What you're saying is that you shouldn't interfere with it?
Jack Spicer: No. You have to interfere with yourself. You have to, as much as possible, empty yourself for this. And that's not noninterference. I mean, it's almost an athletic thing. It takes a huge amount of practice to be able to avoid blocking a person when you're not supposed to block the person on the play, when you're supposed to let him in to be mousetrapped. It takes a huge amount because you have this natural impulse. You know. Anyone's coming by, you block him. And the business of being able not to do something, especially things which are so important to you, are you, takes a tremendous amount of patience. And it doesn't take humility, since I've never seen a humble poet.
Jack Spicer: Well, it's the rhythm between you and the source of the poetry. You have to dodge here, it has to dodge there, and all of that. And you're going to make some missteps. And maybe the source is just as bad as you are. I've never been able to figure that one out. I mean, this Martian, this ghost, this whatever the hell it is, may be just as dumb in its own way as you are and may misstep too. But since, when you're dancing you worry about where you misstep, not how your partner does, you try to adjust your step to your partner's. So it is in this sometimes horrible interlocking of you and the poem. And the you just has to-well, it doesn't lead.
Question: Then would the poet not be a creator? But the poem itself would exist outside the poet in sort of a spiritual existence, wouldn't it?
Jack Spicer: You mean can we take credit for our poems? Well, is a radio set a creator of the radio program?
Question: No. Well, that's what I mean.
Jack Spicer: Yeah. But at the same time you don't get the radio program if the radio set has static in it.
Question: Oh no, no. But the poet is an agent then, or . . .
Jack Spicer:: Well yeah, like a mother is, yeah. But you know, it's pretty hard for a father to have a baby. I mean, good agents are kind of hard to find these days. I don't really see that it's anything less to be proud of to be a good agent.
Question:: Oh no.
Jack Spicer: No. I really honestly don't feel that I own my poems, and I don't feel proud of them.
Question: Well, you start saying, well, I'm going to write a poem, you know, and sit down to accomplish that, and you're just letting yourself interfere completely.
Jack Spicer: Not necessarily. It depends. I'm usually suspicious if I want to write a poem, if I figure, oh this would be just a great time. I've had a lousy time at the bar. I'm frustrated, everything else. I'd feel great in the morning if I had a poem.
Well, I know very well that this is a lousy, lousy time to write a poem. But occasionally, after an hour or so of me trying to write the poem for the poem, a poem nudges me on the back and starts coining through. And by that time it's sun-up and I'm real pissed off at the whole thing because, really, if I'd known it would be that late that I'd have to work, I'd rather have gone to sleep instead, and not have the glory of it, you know.
But it depends, I think, on the person. Everyone's a different kind of host, and I can just tell you about my own experiences and no one else's. And I think that the general things I've outlined are true about dictated poetry.
Question: Is it the great poem that scares the poet?
Jack Spicer: Yeah. It says something that the poet not only didn't mean to say but doesn't quite understand, or draws back from and says, "oh yeah? But this isn't right." Or the poem, when you're trying to seduce somebody, will make the person run five miles away screaming.