Sunday, October 03, 2004

Well, here's Spicer paper number two. Warnings: it is long, & it is a reaction paper, so partial. So, with that in mind, if you're of a mind to, enjoy. If you think reading other people's class essays is boring (i.e. you've just graded seventy this weekend), well, that's what the warning's for.

Reaction Paper to the Jack Spicer of The House That Jack Built With an Eye to What Has Come

Q: But would the location that you changed to, would it be quite familiar or quite like the situation or place that you normally use?

JS: Well, no. The situation is not familiar. But I certainly try to make it as familiar as possible—just like a cat when he goes to a new house—try to get things which are like the old house and get associations and all that.

Q: But she means a place you feel easy in.

JS: I think she means more than that, a place where you can actually get something coming.

Q: I mean, is it almost like a physical situation—I’m finding it very hard to express.

JS: I know what you’re talking about, and I just am not sure what the answer is because I think that a lot of my thing is laziness. I certainly prefer the same situation for writing poems of the same book and all of that, but I think that’s probably just real laziness, acedia, the kind of thing I really shouldn’t do. I should probably climb a mountain writing one poem and go to Death Valley in another, but I’m too lazy to do that. I don’t really think it makes that much difference because your laziness simply opens your mind. But I really don’t think that this has anything to do with any advice to any other poets.

GH: Still, laziness is a habit?

What I find remarkable about this passage is that Spicer is (in apparent contradiction with a poem like “Thing Language”) resting on pure personality. He avoids abstraction at every turn (and I mean the ‘he’ of that sentence as active as well as passive). What he means by empty, it strikes me, is what the Taoists mean by empty, in that he is exactly what he is and nimbly avoids the reordering/self-alienating pull of the social machine around him; not what a Cartesian would mean by empty, which is vegetal. And his advocacy is for each to follow each their sensitivity, not him. Brave man.

Throughout this lecture, questioners question him as to generalities and he counters with ‘well, me, I . . .” Which is a very interesting tactic for someone who advocates, in writing poetry, the escape of the dross of the self which he calls, earlier and throughout, pungently, ‘furniture.’
He goes so far as to call the future, if it could be foreseen, furniture, compared to poetry and Outside. Which means that when he says Outside, he means outside of whatever there is to be conceived. Which again strikes me as a peculiar move for a poet of his bent to make (again, regarding “Thing Language,” that language is an ordering of things), revealing a severe Platonism on his part (that is, an overriding concern with not the order of things, but with what lies behind the order of things; Ahab-y).

In his purity of this, Jack Spicer seems alienated (pun intended) from himself—he locates his wilderness/SPACE/voice/nature in a nonhuman beingness—Martians—from a nonhuman locale—East Mars. Along with this affective structure, his attendant anxiety manifests itself in a semi-combative jokesiness, the taolike, tricksterish agility I noted above, which is where I also locate his profound Protestantism (emphasis on the first two syllables of that word). Nothing attempts to locate him that he doesn’t assert himself against; except for the call of the Martians. “My way of singing is always peculiar.”

JS: What I’m trying to say is that I think that the difference that a town makes in poetry is this kind of way of walking, and this probably doesn’t have anything to do with dictation at all. It’s just that if the green Martian tells you to walk somewhere, you walk different if you have seven ribs broken than if you don’t. . . . It doesn’t really matter. What matters is getting from place A to place B, and you do that whatever gait you use.

It seems to me he’s alienated from what I will call his soul, and trying to negotiate his terms of survival with that alienation, that overpowering alienation, within its terms. He seems absolutely pessimistic about personality ever being more than a joke, though he rests his entire strategy on it—but he goes on about it in a way that suggests an image from physics to me, that of light, as it passes through different mediums, adjusting to that medium though unaffected by it in the way that, a sunbeam broken by a crystal prism can, with an appropriately-shaped prism, be reconstituted into white light unbroken. So personality, furniture, all the things a cat might look for assurance in its new home in, are the prism. The Martians’ message, the poem’s impetus (and, in its ideal state, the poem itself), is the cat.

JR: Your mind is a blank?

JS: No, it isn’t, unfortunately. It’s trying to be a blank. And trying to be a blank is utterly different from being a blank. Again, the guy who was talking about Jesuit exercises was absolutely dead right, on course, on the thing. The point is that you can’t really make your mind a blank. . . . You can’t. It’s impossible. There’s this utter animal spirit which is coming out and saying, well, gee, can I lay this person if I write this line, and all sorts of things like that. It’s just impossible to make your mind a blank.

Well, yes, you can make your mind a blank, if by blank he means awareness without words, or reaction. Enough non-Western traditions (and Western esoterics) have established that. But, I know what he means; often (and though rare, when it happens it feels like a compositional secret revealed never to be forgotten; as if at any moment one could dive down through any contingency of weather and find the deeps teeming with deep words; though it’s hard to return to that sense, or maybe just to truly remember that it is so) it’s a restraint of self to give to a poem space, but only, I believe, because what we call ‘self’ is a constant grimace—it’s the restraint of not grimacing, of letting your face relax out of a tension it’s been held in for so many years.

Where his extreme Protestantism (an intellectual Puritanism of the moment, one might say) combines with the moment is for-exampled when he says “Well, I’m trying to become an orange,” referring back to a previous exchange about baseball and citrus fruit combined in a pitched metaphor meant to convey his peculiar sense of composition. Here he’s turning it on wit’s head, and you really have to be with his consciousness to get meaning from it, and his consciousness at this point, in the exchange, is inseparable from the exchange—he’s appropriated the ‘furniture’ and rearranged it to comport with some Platonic communication he’s trying to get across with any means possible, though he keeps asserting that those means themselves subvert what it is he’s trying to say, though they really have nothing to do with it at all. It’s very confusing. It’s like he’s trying to destabilize any potential stable construction a reader/listener may take away from the exchange, any stable contribution to a closed world-perception.

When a questioner tries to play his game (gamely, I might add), saying “But you’re a poet who does funny things with bats,” Spicer resists, “I think our baseball thing has gotten all confused.” At first read it seems maybe he means the metaphors have gotten crossed, etc, and have overburdened themselves beyond utility, but I think maybe he means ‘no, no, you stay on that side of the inventive-manipulative line, and I stay on this one. You’re confusing the rules of the game.’ Another audience member, DL, responds in a manner suggesting at least subconscious apprehension of this role-rule-making, “Basically, we don’t know anything about baseball,” assenting to his Spicer-assigned role.

But this discourse is I imagine a far more democratic process than Hutchinson’s (his antinomian spiritual predecessor) famed meetings were, however much it is the result of all the participants being completely alienated from that sensibility they are trying to gain access to (an access gained successfully, I might add, in their/our own peculiar way of tacking into the wind of denial bit by bit), which Hutchinson brought into being for her congregation. Which is part of Spicer, too, that is his ‘resistancism’ (what I’ll coin for his brand of Protestantism) is a must for an existing person to continue existing in society. All must resist each other as nimbly as possible in order to co-exist. Co-exist truly, that is, as opposed to subsume oneself to another’s purpose and method. Spicer resists, in his perversity, even the impulse to align others into like-him. Which is admirable, though it smells like the urge is strong in him. He still brings ‘down’ something of the ineffable spirit Hutchinson must have, though the mechanism of authority (she may have been an antinomian, but she had followers. I don’t know, can one properly say Spicer had followers?) is complicated by/in his evasions as such, less simple than fervency would have allowed.

WT: I suppose you’ve answered this fifteen different times in other ways, but does the thing that’s speaking or dictating work through what the poet happens to know?

JS: Furniture, yeah.

WT: Say baseball was not an interest of yours. Say hockey was.

JS: Or schkertl, which is a Martian sport played on Mars.

Shifting back a little, here we see his interest in transcending frames-of-reference, in triangulating specificity away to find what is essential, the determining pattern. (Seemingly paradoxical, that he would do so simultaneous to, in converstion, constantly asserting his peculiar personality and habits as the basis of his composition. ) This is a Modernist technique (exemplified for me by Joyce’s use of ‘parallax’ in Ulysses), here applied to/by a robust Platonic sensibility. A sensibility which feels out that poetry can be the hinge upon which many specificities can swing, and that if you can transcend your own you get to see it so. Platonic, and mystic too (I’d say theological if I was more familiar with the distinction between mysticism and theology), an attempt to see the “form of forms,” the everchanging is-that-is-is. That Spicer references it so with schkertl, absurd self-belittling and self-alienating humor, is part of his ‘resistancism’, his evercontrarian project. He chooses a game, baseball, to carry so much of his poetry; why? I’m not sure yet I fully understand his gameplaying yet; I’m not sure I ever will (I’ve never been much for baseball), but these are notes towards an understanding, not fully even so yet, so.

Q: This change of geography—is it important to most poets, and to yourself specifically? Does it bring about this change that Allen has noticed and other people have noticed, the measure and all that?

JS: I’d say so. “Gait” is maybe a better word than “measure.”

Again, his sensitivity to surroundings (as well as to resisting/controlling his social surroundings) is striking—he is not only the medium for poetry, he is what passes through different mediums. He is very sensitive to the relationship of medium and what passes through it, and how each expresses the other. This points back to his Martians, to his Platonic ocean of “Thing Language.” I suppose it is an easy answer to say he covers his hyper (nearly paranoid) sensitivity with his tough talk. This comes up over and over in this lecture. That it is your gait that the Martians (rather, their transmission) comes through.

Q: Well, I was a little confused. Are you concerned right now that the ghosts aren’t operating you? Or do you want to be totally operated by the ghosts?

JS: I just want to lead a simple life. [Laughter] I mean, the question is sort of ridiculous. I don’t know what I want myself, and if I did know what I want, it would be the wrong thing to want.

Q: Now this is what I don’t understand. If you know what you want, why is it wrong?

JS: Well, on account of the fact that I ain’t myself only. I’m a member of the team.

Again, he is constantly returning to the ‘pattern’ whereby consciousness of the relationship of a medium to what passes through it is a necessity for free will—that is, to understand oneself you must see from otherness. The self-enclosed is always a tangent to the Self. Any controllable perfection will strangle what it purports to improve. To understand free will, you must understand what you are. And to understand what you are, you must understand what you aren’t. (I’m afraid I may be too earnest a reader to fully appreciate Spicer’s capriciousness; but I do what I can.)

JS: I think that any poet who doesn’t sing off key ought to be very careful because singing on key is . . . Well, all poets sort of know that, nowadays. One of the few things we have learned is that you have to learn to sing off key in someway or another. Again, you have your infinite resources in the furniture. You can make the vocabulary the off-key thing, like Crane did, or you can make the metrics the off-key thing, or you can make the whole structure, or anything else, and then the ghosts come and decide differently.

Off-key is open, Olson’s openness, open to Olson’s ENERGY, receptive. To paraphrase Nietzche by way of the Thoreau of “Walking,” when you walk through the woods, the woods walk back through you. For this purpose, Spicer preaches the necessity of individuality, for song passing through a person-medium must bear some stamp of that passage—to be allowed passage, and not mere repetition which entails the person putting aside their totality, which the putting-aside-of includes the putting aside that individual’s beyond-them, their Outside. This may seem paradoxical, but it is not, though it is, in the proper sense of the word, mysterious; open; Negative Capability is what mere reproduction entails putting aside so as to mimic, instead of passing on/through what the poem is, the ocean’s tossing, or the orange’s, or the ball’s.

Commodius vicus, brings us back to Thoreau, “Walking,” where we (I) started years ago. Though Thoreau is less nervous than Spicer (‘sauntering’ being the the gait proper Thoreau adopted though the open fields and woods which were his medium, he was medium of), one can’t but be struck generally by the similarity of each’s civic positioning to Milton’s Abdiel, that paragon Protestant—one’s obligation to contextualize oneself, as far as meaning and existence go, to the absolute, and not to limit one’s definition (in both word-senses) to the societal and relative civil moment; to resist the easiness which crowd-definition offers. Thoreau does so by turning to what is most physical and resists closed interpretation, nature. “Thing Language” can be properly seen as a radical extension of this practice, and Spicer’s edginess with the attention of his audience seems in direct descent from Thoreau’s. As does the impulse behind “Book of Magazine Verse.”

Yet Thoreau drew such peace from his practice. From Thoreau to Spicer, a profound alienation seems to take hold, one it looks, in hindsight, traced by us through this course. The argument after argument is against American materialism, commercialism, sentimentality, conformity, the thick hide we (we poets, that is) somehow never grew successfully as the polis tried to foster us to. We seem to lack a certain base to which we can return to. As time goes on, our retreat becomes more desperate (remote?). So we tether more tightly to now, outside of historical time, like any exile the future ever-now, “So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn.” Thoreau says a good saunterer never loses the way but by not straying; yet this bankside is no Martian, but Earthly, landscape.

Now whither?

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