What do we mean when we say a poem is a machine? Part 5. (Happy Birthday, Jack Spicer.)
Jack Spicer begins the first of a series of lectures in a living room in Vancouver in 1965 explaining his belief in dictation, specifically that a poet is a kind of conduit between the poem and the source of the poem, which is an external, inexplicable thing. He begins by telling the story of how Yeats, when on a train in California in 1918, witnessed his wife fall into a trance in which she “started automatic writing as they were going through the orange groves.” What got into her head were “spooks,” as Spicer calls them, and they were talking to Yeats through his wife. When Yeats asked them, “What are you here for?” they said, “We’re here to give metaphors for your poetry.” Spicer then explains the significance of this event, saying “it was the first time 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 – 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.” In order to write a good poem you have to be “hooked up with some source of power, some source of energy” that moves via the “current” to the poet.
Radically opposed to the aesthetics of Confessionalism, which was then basking in its popular glow, Spicer believed that a poem was not an expression of personal experience and emotion but rather a kind of spiritual communication between the poet and a “source,” which Spicer calls “ghosts” and “Martians” among other things, to purposefully humor (and frustrate) his audience. The basic formula for writing a poem, says Spicer, is “to not really want not what you don’t want to say,” (i.e., to not really want what you want to say) and then whatever is coming in from the Outside can use what’s in your head – thoughts, memories, experiences, emotions, and language, your “furniture” – and move that around to make a poem. When asked by a member of the audience how a poet could not be the creator of their own poem, Spicer explains himself by asking, “Well, is a radio set a creator of the radio program?” He continues, “I don’t think that messages [what comes from the source] are for the poet any more than the radio program is for the radio set. And I think the radio set doesn’t really worry about whether anyone’s listening to it or not, and neither does the poet.” Tune in to the ether and put your shoulder to the weird wheel.
But as far-out as Spicer’s ideas about dictation might sound, the idea that a poem is a release of external energy is damn close to an elucidation of aesthetic beliefs that heavily influenced American poetry in the second half of the 20th century, Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse” essay: “[O]ther than [Charles] Olson’s energy, which to him is not something from a great galactic distance out there but something you plug in the wall, and it’s really the machine which is the converter of the electricity which makes another machine work, and so forth. And I don’t agree with that either, but I go nearer to that.” Here’s a smash-up of important things from the beginning of Olson’s essay, which is required reading (or give up):
“(1) the kinetics of the thing. A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. Okay. Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge…ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION…So there we are, fast, there’s the dogma. And its excuse, its useableness, in practice. Which gets us, it ought to get us, inside the machinery, now, 1950, of how projective verse is made.”
Spicer’s comparison of his beliefs compared to Olson’s, that dictation is cosmic and projective verse is mechanical/electrical, is apt, and reveals the exciting breadth of Spicer’s vision of what a poem, and a poet, is. Instead of talking about a poem as a machine, which he does not do, (though he makes it clear that’s how projective verse works (“the machine [‘the several causations’] is the converter of the electricity [the energy/language] which makes another machine [the poem] work”)) Spicer refers to poets themselves as machines, but, as we’ve seen, only to define his beliefs against a Romantic notion that a poet is “a beautiful machine,” a starry-eyed conduit of internal turmoil. Instead, poets are radios, (he’ll slightly contradict himself later, e.g. Whitman, but it’s all good) and for Spicer that’s not a metaphor. A radio is certainly a machine, but it’s not the kind of elaborate, mechanized contraption we typically imagine when we call up an image of a machine. Spicer’s “poet as machine” idea is more about translation than production, and his work (see After Lorca, or give up) bears this out, albeit in a much more complicated, bizarre, interesting way.
Intermittently during his lecture, Spicer reads from his poem “A Textbook of Poetry” to support his ideas about dictation, and as he makes clear he will do, openly contradicts himself. But, as he says, the poems get it right where he doesn’t. This is the fourth section of “A Textbook of Poetry,” and I’m not going to rip it apart, but what build here does give a clear idea of what Spicer means when he says a poem is what happens between a source and the furniture in your head, and this also connects him with the OBERIU via rejection of metaphor.
“Taught. As a wire which reaches. A silver wire which reaches from the end of the beautiful as if elsewhere. A metaphor. Metaphors are not for humans.
The wires dance in the wind of the noise our poems make. The noise without an audience. Because the poems were written for ghosts.
The ghosts the poems were written for are the ghosts of the poems. We have it second-hand. They cannot hear the noise they have been making.
Yet it is not a simple process like a mirror or a radio. They try to give us circuits to see them, to hear them. Teaching an audience.
The wires in the rose are beautiful.”
In the introduction to the first lecture in The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, Peter Gizzi writes that “Spicer insists that the poet does not drive the poem; the poem drives the poet. Instead of becoming a master of words, the poet is mastered by words, which, ‘turn mysteriously against those who use them.’” Spicer reminds us we’re not in control of the machine, and the machine is us, which like a poem, like language (Spicer is also a linguist), is “[a]n argument between the dead and the living.” Transmission, both as message and engine. The alphabet is very busy and we don’t have anything to do with it.