“A hell of a thing to say” - The Poet & Society

As the semester closes up we’re reading Jack Spicer in my Modern Poetry course. Naturally, I’ve been gorging on Spicer’s voice via PennSound. Until a few days ago I hadn’t thought about Spicer in a while, so it’s refreshing to be with Spicer and the Martians once again.

One of my favorite books of his is Language. I wasn’t aware that there are two readings on his page where he reads this book in its entirety. The one I’m digging now is this one, a radio program that begins with an excerpt from his Vancouver lectures. Curiously, but not surprisingly, Spicer insists in this excerpt that the reading of poetry benefits no one other than poets. Poetry, as Spicer sees it, has done nothing for humanity. As refreshing as Spicer is for my ears and mind, I have a hard time with the skepticism of his view here. To me, this isolates, or cuts off, the poet from society. Sure, poetry doesn’t register as significant for a large portion of our society, but poets need not be isolated. Is this true? I’d like to think so, especially because I feel alienated quite often. I’d like to think it’s a choice - to be isolated - we make. Certainly, there are a number of additional factors that could contribute to one’s isolation, sexuality, race, religion, etc. For Spicer, I can’t help but think that his homosexuality informs his position. How could it not? Being a poet simply adds to the tension between sexuality and society. A poet is attuned to nuances in language. The insight that can come from this can lead to feelings of alienation without a doubt. Poets, perhaps, see what non-poets miss. Likewise, non-poets see what we don’t. I’d like to see it that way.

As I was thinking about this issue throughout the day, I got to thinking that a poet may have been more likely to feel in mid-century America that poetry benefits no one other than poets and that the poet, by society’s decree, is alienated because there were fewer ways to interact with poetry and poets. Today, we’ve got so many electronic ways to interact. Blogs, online magazines, and Facebook for instance. I remember Eliot Weinberger mentioning to a group of us once that it’s easier nowadays to be a poet in isolated parts of the country, or world for that matter, provided that one has access to the internet. If memory serves, Weinberger was talking specifically about the impact he felt the original Jacket had on the reading public. For him, the magazine got the work out there so that more people could read and respond to it. Would Spicer maintain his view in light of this difference? I wonder, too, if there is something to Spicer’s comments that I’m missing.

Another way I went about getting at the heart of my disagreement with Spicer was the fact that I have twenty-five students in my Modern Poetry course. Not all of them are poets, or even want to be one. Some of them are there because they have a deep interest in poetry, a deep interest, that is, in reading it. Over the course of one semester I can see how these students have stretched the ways they think about language, what it does, what it can do, etc. This is an obvious benefit. If, as a poet, I can help foster an environment where people think more deeply about language, then I think the poet certainly can do something for humanity. Whether poets are in the classroom or not, I see this as one of the fundamental roles of the poet. Poetry, for Spicer, was of the utmost importance to his daily life. And as a linguist as well as a poet, he was profoundly aware of the workings of language, I would presume. In light of this, I am shocked that he didn’t think more highly of poetry’s life and potential beyond its obvious significance for poets. Though maybe it’s this insight that dampened his view.

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