Jack Spicer [More from Vancouver Lecture I]
from Vancouver Lecture I
June 13, 1965
[Here’s a bit more from the lecture]
Language is part of the furniture of the room. Language isn’t anything of itself. It’s something which is in the mind of the host that the parasite (the poem) is invading.
I don’t think that anyone who’s a practicing poet, even a practicing bad poet, who’s done it for a long enough time, would disagree with the fact that there is something from the Outside. [. . .] But I do think that an awful lot of poets feel at the back of their minds that they would really rather express themselves. “This poem is me. I am this poem,” you know, and so forth.
[Spicer was very against the idea of the poet expressing her or himself.]
I think it is true . . . that anyone who’s doing anything more than just dabbling on the surface, trying to write diaries essentially, and so forth, has this feeling, and even if he tries to resist it, it’s pretty hard.
[E]verybody as a host to this parasite has a different reaction.
[T]here 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 out . . . which is which. And it’s a dance in some way, between the two.
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.
[I]t’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 . . . . So it is in this sometimes horrible interlocking of you and the poem. And the you just has to—well, it doesn’t lead.
I really honestly don’t feel that I own my poems . . .
I don’t think that any intellectualization of the thing really matters too much, but I do think that if you keep your ideas closed and your mind open, you have a better chance by and large.
When I’m writing a poem, I always try not to see the connections.
What I’m saying is—just like I said the Martians could take these alphabet blocks and arrange them in your room—you have the alphabet blocks in your room: your memories, your language, all of these other things which are yours which they rearrange to try to say something they want to say. They are using my memories. In the dictated poems of any poets I know, their memories are used, naturally, because that’s all there is to it.
I mean, when I say Martians, it’s just to be funny. But just to make it even funnier, suppose Martians were trying to communicate. They couldn’t really say “pnixlz on the prazl” and so forth and so on. They would have to use your own memories of what your things were rather than theirs.
And so, the nearest relationship I can see—or that the Martian can see is, that if my grandmother chewed up the jigsaw puzzle, which was in her bedroom when she died in the livingroom, it could mean, in different people’s memories, different people’s terms, almost anything. Which is why poetry is so hard to translate.
Q: What happens when the sources disappear?
JS: You either write bad poetry or you stop writing. Until they come back.
Q: Well, what I was directing the question at simply was your tension about finding out what the sources are. You say you don’t ask questions.
JS: You have to be much more gentle. Otherwise they destroy you. And I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that because time destroys you anyway. In the meantime, though, you do get some poems when you have a nonaggression pact with whatever it is.
I mean, philosophy about it is fine. Making lovely statements, writing essays doesn’t hurt anybody. But the closer you get to it the worse off you get, and the more it eats into you.
Q: Are you saying that all poetry has to be written this way, or that some poetry is written this way, or what?
JS: If you mean it as a recipe for baking a cake, obviously no. If you mean believing in all of this, obviously no. But it’s my firm conviction that all poetry, good poetry, is written this way, in spite of the poet.
I don’t think there’s one formula, but I do think that the simplest thing for a poet is not to try to say I have a great metaphor, and I’m going to put it down on paper and expand it.
Words are things which just happen to be in your head instead of someone else’s head, just like memories are, various other pieces of furniture in this room that this Martian has to put the clues in.
That you can follow a word back to its source. You can’t, unfortunately. But even assuming you could, you’d get something which was, well, some nice furniture to work with, but no more than furniture, as history is.
And the business of history is an important thing, but essentially it’s furniture.
I can’t remember any good advice I’ve gotten from one of my poems . . . . The advice they give is just not interested. It’s like someone treating you fairly abstractly. At least I’ve never had any experience with a poem that I wrote that was really interested in my welfare, namely what I want, my happiness, or anything else.
I don’t really know what [poems] are for. I can’t imagine why these dumb Martians are doing all of this. It’s probably some funny game they play.
I’m not sure there is any sense for a poem’s existence.
[W]hen Blake really was sure that the angels were speaking to him, they stopped speaking.
I think he got the idea that he was writing prophetic books all right. And so he started writing prophetic books. I think the angels had already left him.
I think you have to get your house prepared for [the Martian]. And the thing that you’re most comfortable with. It doesn’t really matter terribly. That sort of formalism is just a question of where you have the most freedom and where you don’t.
[R]hyme . . . is like wearing a straightjacket in order to restrict you from scratching your nose.
As long as [your formal restraints] free your mind from what you want to say instead of what you need to say, what the poem needs you to say, anything which takes out the trap of the personal is all to the good. . . . Anything, if it works. But that’s just furniture.
[T]hings that you ought to be suspicious of are things that you can use for your own personal interests rather than anything else.