Important Moments in American Poetry (Pt I)
from Vancouver Lecture I
June 13, 1965
But [W.B. Yeats] 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 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 seems 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. . .
JS: 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 own experience, and I’ll be talking about my own experience most of the time. But I think I can also speak for the experience that others I now 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 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 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.
Olson says the poet is a poet when he says what he has to say. Now, you can read the 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 I think the second step for a poet who’s going on to the poetry of dictation is when he finds out that these poems say just exactly the opposite of what he wants himself, per so poet, to say. Like if you want to say something about your beloved’s eyebrows and the poem says the eyes should fall out, and you don’t really want the eyes to fall out or have even any vague connection. Or you’re trying to write a poem on Vietnam and you write a poem about skating in Vermont. There things, again, begin to show you just exactly where the road of dictation leads. Just like when you wrote the first poem which came easily and yet was a good poem, a poem beyond you. In the second stage you then say, oh, well, then I’ll just write this thing and I’ll take a line from someplace or another, or use a dada or a surrealist technique (in a different way that I’m going to use the word “surrealism” tonight, but the French surrealist way of placing things together, taking the arbitrary and all of that) and that won’t be what I want to say, and so that’ll be great. That’ll be hunky dory.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t work terribly well either. You have to no really want not what you don’t want to say. It’s a very complicated kind of thing. You can’t play tricks on it. That’s the second stage.
The third stage I think comes when you get some idea that there is a difference between you and the Outside of you which is writing poetry, where you feel less proud of the poem that you’ve written and know damn well it belongs to somebody else, that your wife had the child by another father, and the wife being inside you, which makes the metaphor rather bad.
But the you start seeing whether you can clear your mind away from the things which are you, the things that you want, and everything else. Sometimes it’s a twelve-hour struggle to get a ten-line poem, not changing a single word of it as you’re writing, but just as it goes along, trying to distinguish between you and the poem. The absolute distinction between the Outside and the inside.
And here the analogy of the medium comes in, which Yeats started out, and which Cocteau in his Orphee, both the play and the picture, used a car radio for, but which is essentially the same thing. That essentially you are something which is being transmitted into, and the more that you clear your mind away from yourself, and the more also that you do some censoring – because there will be all sorts of things coming from your mind, from the depths of your mind, from things that you want, which will foul up the poem.
For example, mediums always have to have the accents that they were born with. There’s a medium who’s supposed to have been in contact with Oscar Wilde, and she – I think mediums are almost always, if not always fake, but just pretend that mediums were real because some of them may be, particularly in primitive tribes – she got all sorts of epigrams and they came out in Cockney because she only spoke Cockney.
Now, if you have a cleft palate and are trying to speak with the tongues of men and angels, you’re going to still speak through a cleft palate. And the poem comes distorted through the things which are in you. Your tongue is exactly the kind of tongue that you’re born with, and the source of energy, whatever it is, can take advantage of your tongue, can make it do things that you didn’t think it could, but your tongue will want to return to the same normal position of the ordinary cleft-palate speech of your own dialect.
And this is the kind of thing that you have to avoid. There are a great many things you can’t avoid. It’s impossible for the source of energy to come to you in Martian or North Korean or Tamil or any language you don’t know. It’s impossible for the source of energy to use images you don’t have, or at least don’t have something of. It’s as if a Martian comes into a room with children’s blocks with A, B, C, D, E which are in English and he tries to convey a message. This is the way the source of energy goes. But the blocks, on the other hand, are always resisting it.
The third step in dictated poetry is to try to keep as much of yourself as possible out of the poem. And whenever there’s a line that you like particularly well, which expresses just how you’re feeling this particular moment, which seems just lovely, then be so goddamn suspicious of it that you wait for two or three hours before you put it down on paper. This is practical advice and also advice that makes you stay up all night, unfortunately.
But even if you’re not interested in poems as dictation, you will find, two or three years later, that the lines you liked best when you wrote them were the ones that screwed up the poem. The poem was going one way, and you had this beautiful line. Gee, it was a lovely line, and just expressed how you felt at the particular moment – and oh lord, how lovely!
But at the same time, you are stuck with language, and you are stuck with words, and you are stuck with the things that you know. It’s a very nice thing, and very difficult thing. The more you know, the more languages you know, the more building blocks the Martians have to play with. It’s harder, too, because an uneducated person often can write a better poem than an educated person, simply because there are only so many building blocks, so many ways of arranging them, and after that, you’re through. I mean, the thing behind you is through. And it can make for simplicity, as in good ballads, American and English. In the long run, it can make for a really good poetry. And sometimes for great poetry, an infinitely small vocabulary is what you want. Perhaps that would be the ideal, except for the fact that it’s pretty hard to write a poem that way.
But the more building blocks, the more you have to arrange your building blocks and say to the Martian, “Oh no, Mr. Martian, it doesn’t go this way. That the spelling p-r-y-d-x-l doesn’t make any sense in English at all. We’ll change it around.” And then you make an anagram of it, and you spell what the Martian was trying to say. The more building blocks you have, the more temptation there is to say, oh yes – yes, yes, yes – I remember this has to do with the Trojan War, or this has to do with this, this has to do with that, and so forth.
But on the other hand, given a source of energy which you can direct, you can direct yourself out of the picture. Then given the cooperation between the host poet and the visitor – the thing from Outside – the more things you have in the room the better if you can handle them in such a way that you don’t impose your will on what is coming through.
And that’s the whole problem you have in modern poetry – the fact that most poets from, say, nineteen to twenty-seven that I know, who are good in San Francisco, are really against education because they know that education is essentially going to fuck them up because they can’t resist, if they have all of these benches and chairs in the room, not to arrange themselves instead of letting them be arranged by whatever is the source of the poem.
BONUS: Here’s a link to an excerpt from Vancouver Lecture III: