In After Lorca , Jack Spicer purports to translate Lorca’s poems or to transcribe poems sent to him from Lorca after Lorca’s death. The ideas explored in this book eventually led to Spicer’s “poetics of dictation.” I couldn’t help but see the parallels between Spicer’s poetics of dictation and automatic writing. On Spicer’s poetics of dictation, for instance, Peter Gizzi writes:
This game between the material and invisible worlds places the poet in the embarrassing position of merely following orders from a beyond. But, Spicer assures his young audience, the best condition for the poem is one of not-knowing, and the poet has a better chance of that with dictation than with self-expression. The better the poem, the less responsible the poet is for it. So Spicer wages battle with the creative ego in terms that remain provocative in an age still searching for poetic authenticity and identity.
All perfectly aligned to surrealism. Except not:
In spite of his futuristic language, Spicer proposes an extremely traditional (not to say conventional) view of poetry, emphasizing the guild-like aspects of the art, and even using antique metaphors like mountain climbing throughout the lectures.
Spicer inserts himself into modern poetry’s agony of inspiration, expression and craft and gives a compelling, disruptive alternative to conventional poetics. So I couldn’t resist thinking about the connections with the ways surrealism seeks disruption. And that’s what lead to these thoughts. I have much more to learn about Spicer, so this is a thinking board, not a position. Admittedly, it’s a meditation on surrealism more than Spicer.
I. Ventriloquism v Sampling
Is Spicer’s dictation a superior version of the remix and cut up techniques surrealism (and Uut) focus on? Is not the imitation of a voice/the other a more difficult and noble activity than snipping, stealing?
Spicer’s dictation presents a paradox. It enacts the imitative/guided function new writers default to as they aspire to the elevated language pulling at them from the past, their favorite, adolescent reading experiences. But it is also doing something more than naively grappling, no doubt, and contacts the same liberating premise, the same idea, that the surrealists had discovered when they proclaimed automatic writing: announced that You don’t have to be Yourself. That you don’t have to be original. That you can be not-you, a collection of voices, sound bytes, a collage. Aren’t both surrealists and Spicer drawing the up the rules for the brave new game of writing as collection, curation, composition?
Surrealism/sampling: Crass materialism. Snipping and rearranging the bits that the Great Machine spits out. When all the bits of the machine are used up, arranged into something new, the Machine is transformed into a Madonna.
Spicer/ventriloquism: Uploading the algorithms of genius (Lorca’s) to the writers’ brain (Spicer’s) in order to generate new text—theoretically an inexhaustible amount of it—all of which contains the genetic markings of both writers.
Are the sources the collagist employs being honored or mocked? Despite the seemingly parodic overtones to most collage works, there is also a tendency toward a neutrality or negation, an absence of intertextuality / subtext. The law of sampling. The collage work brings materials forward, pushes them into the present and somehow out of history, transforms them without changing them. A kind of Futurism.
Spicer’s channeling of Lorca is a talking back, an intimate relation with the past. Echoes reverberating and reshuffling the previous texts as precursors to present texts. He gives us a way of re-seeing or re-reading the past.
None of this is active in the surrealist/dada work. Surrealism’s indifference to the past is blasphemous and impersonal. It’s to the side of or under, rather than within, the canonical time stream. How do you read such texts? Not as literature. (But Spicer is doing literature.)
So surrealism defines a space where texts can live in isolation, heightened, atemporal, immanent-and-yet-distant. What poetry was supposed to be. What poetry has always been. (Despite or because of politics?)
There are two important exceptions to this rule:
- By transmuting materials into marvelous encounter, the surrealist inadvertently comments on the materials and the influences that gave rise to them. It shows them to be lowly, mundane (especially when the sources are capitalist detritus: hats, automobiles). Or at least it shows them to be incomplete, lacking. But of course no consumer object can be wonderful, and no work of art can be all-meanings, all-texts. This is because in capitalism objects are experienced as the Real, whereas surrealism aspires to a better, older, future world. Surrealist collage criticizes its materials for being real.
- By extension, the frustration and despair of the real breaks through in the voice of many surrealist texts. Dissatisfaction with the world, particularly with the utilitarian and rational version of it that has been thrust on us. When surrealist texts sound like they are whining, you are hearing the sublimated version of the Dada scream.
Many philosophers argue postmodernism is no different than modernism, has never existed. This is good news. It means surrealism still says things to us and that we need to listen.
Surrealism was born within and from modernism, and while modernism still exists, surrealism will exist. When the modern has been superseded, surrealism will cease to be, having fulfilled its purpose.
“A poet is
a time mechanic not an embalmer.”
― Jack Spicer, After Lorca
I have never seen Spicer as a Surrealist, that Jungian discipline
obsessed with the subconscious and automatic writing, since the
process he advocates falls more into the Romantic notion of Negative
Ecstasy, that is, the releasing of the ego to let something else,
something more, in. To address a different part of Peter Gizzi’s
Introduction to Vancouver Lectures: from “Dictation and ‘A
Textbook of Poetry’ (1965):
According to Spicer’s motley procession of metaphors, the poet is a
host being invaded by the parasite of the dictating source of the
poem; this source is “Martian”; the poem is the product of a
dance between the poet and his “Martian” source; the poet is like
a radio receiving transmissions; poets exist within a city of the
dead; “spooks” visit poets with messages from hell; and the poem
itself becomes a hell of possible meanings.
Again, this is no different from Federico Garcia Lorca’s theories on
Duende. In 1933 he gave a lecture in Buenos Aires entitled, Play
and Theory of the Duende, where he addressed the spirit behind
what makes great art disturb the emotions:
The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a
thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ”The duende
is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles
of the feet.’ Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of
true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of
spontaneous creation … everything that has black sounds in it, has
What I like about After Lorca is that it’s a fitting document
for Spicer to have produced, since the two men do not, “[Snip
and rearrange] the bits that the Great Machine spits out,”
rather, they become possessed by the ghosts in said Great Machine and
translate from there. If every creative act is simply a matter of
translation, if one is trying to make sense of the “black
sounds” that you hear, then Spicer and Lorca come from the same
root as Rimbaud, when he said “I is another” (Je est un
autre, or as they say in Armenian, Yes urish yem, ես ուրիշ
եմ). While no artistic movement will ever be dead as long as its
followers champion it, the Surrealists weren’t the first or last to
discover, “You don’t have to be Yourself,” to create.
You just have to keep listening for the transmissions.