Epilogue: The Vancouver Lectures and Related Thoughts

In the Socratic dialogue called the Vancouver Lectures, Spicer faces an audience which embodies the orthodoxies of modernism. The topic, text in question is the meaning, explication, clarification of the word “Outside” (dictational writing against the grain). By the end of three days, the audience still does not know what Spicer is talking about, as these grim words indicate: “Nobody believes me when I say there is a distinction [between outside and the poet]. I still believe there is. But I don’t believe it’s a psychological distinction or anything else. I don’t think it’s something the electroencephalogram would get. I don’t think it has anything to do with what’s in my skull. I think there is something Outside. I really believe that, and I haven’t noticed really, in all these people who come here, who did seem to believe that I believed it, but I do.” (p. 134, The House that Jack Built)

Throughout the lectures, the audience tries to understand the Outside in terms familiar to itself, converting it into various currents in 20th century modernism. Spicer rejects them all, calling each furniture.

The first occurs with Creeley’s a “poem following the dictation of language,” a phrase which may define a good portion of the poetics of our last thirty years. Spicer says no; language is part of the furniture, within the system. The mother lode of surrealism, dreams, is also furniture; craft (the poetics of workshops, based on repetition, like mastering a musical instrument) is furniture, since writing against the grain is an unlearning experience. Tradition is furniture; strikingly, a poetics formed through connotation of words, Duncan’s “shadows of words,” is furniture. Any rhetoric of discourse is furniture since it involves “looking back” and inadvertently joins a system.

Only Elliot Gose, one of his most ardent attackers, hits on the word “meditative” (in the sense of contemplative) which surprises Spicer, and which he first misunderstands as “meditative verse,” another piece of furniture. Next day Spicer returns to the word, understanding and adopting Gose’s meaning. It is, to me, the crucial outcome of Vancouver Lectures to discover that contemplation (Loyolan, idealist, Taoist, Sufist or of a text in another language, doesn’t matter) is the first step to writing against the grain, stepping from discourse within modes of intention into the mind’s eye.

The attempt to domesticate, make part of furniture, Spicer’s elusive, gnostic concept of the Outside still continues. Surprisingly, Robin Blaser spends a good part of his essay, The Practice of Outside, connecting Spicer to Foucault, implying that their similarity showed that Spicer was part of a “serious” discourse, disregarding that the building of discourse was what most Spicer was against. Peter Gizzi’s essay, Jack Spicer and the Practice of Reading, asserts that After Lorca creates a “community of poets,” ignoring the reverse reality of the poem, the dynamics of destruction, tearing apart (in this case, of Lorca’s autonomy) the poem and the genre of translation involve.

I will end by mentioning two omissions, which clarify Spicer’s radical position as a poet and thinker. Jerry Rothenberg and Pierre Joris’s two volume anthology, Poems for the Millenium, does not include Jack Spicer. This anthology purports to represent the on the edge poetry which will take us to 21st century. I think it represents an “enlightened orthodoxy” and is the swan song of 20th century modernism.

Close Listening, the collection of essays on poetic performance edited by Charles Bernstein, contains an essay by Johanna Drucker, Visual Performance of the Poetic Text, on visual poetry. This anthology also claims to embody the latest ideas on poetic performance. Drucker’s essays depicts in detail the visual element in modern poetry, starting with Mallarmée’s iconic A Coup de Dés, including Appolinaire’s calligrams, concrete poetry, Kurt Schwitters, etc., ending with the present tensions, which are outgrowths of previous movements. She does not mention Jack Spicer either.

These two omissions should tell us something.