Loving the Alien
Poetics involves both “transcription” and “recollection”, exteriors internalized and interiors exteriorized. Each process involves the assimilation of interior and exterior elements, “the ineffable In of Out and Out of In”. Maybe we could call this point of in/out convergence meta-rational . We recognize the “rightness” of Out becoming In and In becoming Out, but we don't know exactly how or why it happens. Pursuant to this, it's possible to construct a neat little binary from the compositional theories of Jack Spicer and William Wordsworth. On the one hand, we have Spicer, “spooky” California poet maudit , with his transcription theory— everything worthy to be written is “dictated” by an unknown (alien) Other. On the other hand, Romantic man-of-Earth Wordsworth posits a poetry of recollection (introspective and otherwise). Wordsworth's famous “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” is ancillary to this. Yet, if we throw Jack and William into a dialectic blender, we see that each theory leaves something unaccounted for; transcription must be done from an inside (with what Spicer calls “furniture”, whether the space is den or living room apparently doesn't matter), and recollection must be inspired by outside things (Tintern Abbeys or Candlestick Parks, numinous or sub-numinous things-in-themselves). It becomes clear that Wordsworth and Spicer fit together like puzzle pieces, but the puzzle is larger than them.
Certain things seem apparent. If we “transcribe”, it's because we feel the Martians have something worth saying (else why would we do it?) Let's call this “Martian empathy”. The Martian isn't strictly Other, but is both potentially comprehensible and definitely social; “transcription” is, in a sense, “recollection” of our interactions with the Martians. The dialectic knot tightens and the meta-rational comes into play again; we feel the “rightness” of the interaction without seeing how it is or isn't logically determined. Conversely, “recollection” is transcription of outside things (persons or the inanimate Natural forms Wordsworth loves), what they've “told” us merely by existing in the manner they do. This is the “language of voiceless things”, not Martians but certainly things that aren't “given” to human consciousness, things that can only be “seen into” with conscious effort. Because the experience is heightened and changed during the compositional process, “recollection” is also meta-rational. The raw experience is “charged into life” by being put in verse, by the “spontaneous overflow” that may or may not have been felt at the “encounter point”, but which is discovered in recollection (“mind associating ideas in a state of excitement”). What transcription and recollection share is the experience of the alien becoming familiar in a moment of meta-rationality.
Spicer's poem “Thing Language” bears this out:
This ocean, humiliating in its’ disguises
Tougher than anything.
No one listens to poetry. The ocean
Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
Or crash of water. It means
Is bread and butter
Pepper and salt. The death
That young men hope for. Aimlessly
It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
One listens to poetry.
Spicer uses “ocean” as a metaphor for the vast universal body of poetry, “art-language”. There must be some “recollection” here— that the ocean is “tougher than anything” is a subjective pre-value judgment, obviously born out of lived (“recollected”) experience. The only way to know how tough the ocean is is to swim in it! Spicer's poet-life, rather than his Martian-encounters (however indistinguishable the two may seem to him) allow him the luxury of this large, authoritative utterance. He's “recollecting in tranquility” the tumultuousness of the creative process. Any feeling of a “beyond-Jack” speaking through him would not be distinguishable to even a preternaturally close reader. Likewise “no one listens to poetry”, a maxim meant rhetorically with years of hard poet-living behind it. The Martians, should they have dictated this to him, would've been telling him what he already knew (and had worked into gist-rhetoric) before. Tinges of Mannerism here, “I'm lovin' it” grandiosity transposed into a minor key (and intermixed with a few flatted fifths)— the exaggeration of “tougher than anything” and “no one”. The poem fits in so well with what Spicer said in his lectures (poetry as meaningless conglomerate of contingencies, not for pleasure, essentially a negative apparition), that one feels the presence of a hyper-personal “schtick” that Spicer developed in all areas of his literary practice. The hyper-personal is what Spicer wanted most to avoid, maybe because he knew that it'd be impossible. The boundaries between “Zen emptiness” and hyper-personality are paper thin— both are exaggerated (“Mannerist”) states, extremes. The “ocean”, seen in its' totality, has a “blankness”— the subject objectifying the ocean, on the other hand, has only his developed sense of self (“personality”) with which to counter (or reflect or balance) the blankness. Spicer isn't in the poem but directly behind it, which is really just as visible. The bind of ineluctable “Self-hood” was familiar to him, “transcription” being the surest antidote. Yet the obvious preponderance of recollection (at least in “Thing Language”) makes the entire intellectual construct behind “transcription” seem strained.
On to W.W. Here's his famous short poem “A slumber did my spirit seal”:
A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
First, a digression…one way “transcription” is supposed to happen is through metaphor. The spirits “told” Yeats (in the anecdote delivered by Spicer in his lectures) “We're giving you metaphors for your poetry”. That would be a good “furniture arranging strategy”, no? Wordsworth's poem is (it seems to me) essentially metaphoric— “slumber” is a metaphor for lover/love interest (possibly “Lucy”, could be anyone), revealed in third-person signifying “she” used from the third line on. A love affair, or “being in love”, awakens us on certain levels, on others “puts us to sleep”. So, while part of the poem is “recollection” (Wordsworth is talking, albeit metaphorically, about a relationship he's had), in using “slumber” as abstract personal pronoun (highly unusual for him), one could argue that Wordsworth was mitigated by Martian influence, i.e. he was transcribing a metaphor the Martians gave him.
The difference that leans me towards Wordsworth's base position (poem-as-recollection) is that, while the metaphor used in this poem might be Martian inspired (transcribed), everything else about it (its' tone, form, subject and object) came from Wordsworth's furniture (recollection-material). Both transcription and recollection are often operative in poetry, but recollection is both more necessary and more ubiquitous. Poets write about what they know about and what they know about is their furniture. Spicer's error was to choose the metaphor of something inanimate (furniture) for what is actually most animate in the poet's consciousness. This is what we can classify as all “recollection material”— thoughts, feelings, dreams, whims, etc. Transcription becomes problematic if the Martians have to deal with reactive , rather than inactive material. Not that Spicer's perceived Other isn't a provocative thought— it is— just that Wordsworth's ideas have superior grounding and superior relevance. You can get away from transcription anytime you like (maybe even use your favorite lines), but recollection is unavoidable. This begs the question that each poet must answer for him or herself— to what extent should Martians be sought? They do seem to have some good ideas.