Poetry as Magic
by Daniel Benjamin
Presented 27/10 at SDP Season of the Witch
"Your poetry is bullshit, just like your rituals, just like your cards."
(Charles Olson to Jack Spicer)
Yesterday I was in the library looking up a famous essay on Jack Spicer when I found, at the start of the volume that contained it, a short piece by Robert Glück called "Who Speaks for us: Being an Expert." Glück writes:
"most experimental writing has an adversary relation to professionalism, to work-ethic mentality, a resistance to fetishizing the ‘expert' or whatever is authoritarian...But when the avant-garde talks about itself, it becomes extremely professional. If the language that addresses experimental writing has any charm, it is often based on difficult syntax and terms that want to be technical, associated with science."(Writing/Talks 2-3)
This anti-expert orientation characterizes very well what I want to talk about tonight in Jack Spicer's orientation to the occult, along with some poets who I think we can read as working in his tradition-or perhaps, his non-tradition.
For Spicer was skeptical about "the tradition" of the occult. Here is an excerpt from Spicer's 1958 fragment on Tarot:
"It has never occurred to any [previous writers of books on tarot] to consult their own experience of the meaning of a puzzling card...Their solution, and it is an easy one, is to copy what their predecessors have said on the matter. No method is less likely to lead to knowledge.
But, someone is bound to ask, is not this after all the right method? Are not all books on occult parasciences written to preserve and keep pure the hidden traditions of the past? Isn't every innovation grafted onto the great traditions a dilution, even a perversion, of what was once pure knowledge? This, of course, is nonsense. There might be some point to this objection if there were any reason to believe that men read Tarot cards with more accurate results in the fifteenth century than they do today, that there was something lost in the past, some greater knowledge, that it is up to us to reconstruct as we would reconstruct the text of Homer. It would be pleasant if this were true, but...nothing much has been lost or gained in the reading of Tarot cards in the last six hundred years and...the practice was as difficult and as tentative for our forefathers as it is for us."
Poetry too, for Spicer, is such a practice: difficult, tentative. By yoking poetry and magic Spicer is not associating one tradition of knowledge with another. Rather he is asserting a kind of unknowing at the heart of both poetry and magic. Our practice might make us better at them, but we cannot rely on tradition to guide our way; rather we must move forward, difficult and tentative as this may be.
Tradition does not precede writing-but neither does inspiration. Language is not just an instrument for putting the vision into words; only engagement with language's materials can yield something indeterminate and magical. Spicer wrote to Allan Joyce in the winter of 1955-56:
"You've got everything assbackwards. One doesn't have a vision and then write poetry. It's just the opposite. One writes poetry and creates a vision. Life follows art...
A vision isn't something that comes to you when you're picking a nose or sucking a cock. A vision is something one patiently creates, panting all the while from the exertion. Poets make it look easy, but it isn't.
When a vision is created, people are transformed by it...
Sure your poems are short and bitter and probably now unimportant. Well, let them grow, for Christ's sake. Give them room. Learn to make a lie into the truth.
To sum it all up, this ain't the sort of thing you're going to learn from Bogart. You're going to learn it from your own poems or you aren't going to learn at all." (Sulfur 10)
The vision does not precede poetry, poetry creates a vision. In saying "life follows art" Spicer insists on art's capacity to change the world: language's capacity to transform. Like a promise, like a curse, like a spell, poetry's words become more than words when they enter into the world.
Near the end of Ariana Reines' poem "Save the World," in her book Mercury, Reines writes: "Poetry's not made of words". These 21 letters, one apostrophe, and four spaces appear alone on the page, 7 and a half inches of white below them. Now one could say that perhaps poetry is made up of the white space on the page, or perhaps poetry is made of symbols that have other than linguistic value-these are resources Reines uses in Mercury. But I think we have to let ourselves get booby-trapped by this sentence. It must be read as an anti-materialist claim about poetry: that poetry involves more than just the words on the page, that poetry includes some surplus beyond its material composition. But to understand this claim we have to understand these words. The immaterial element of poetry would be the magic surplus that allows a sentence like "Poetry's not made of words" to perform that contradiction. Are spells made of words? Are curses? In these performative utterances, words are already more than words: magical, invested with other powers, made of stuff beyond the material.
"I pass, like night, from land to land; / I have strange power of speech; / That moment that his face I see, / I know the man that must hear me: /To him my tale I teach." Poetry hears and says speech's strange power; poetry is the magic added to words, already in words, that unaccountably attracts tale to listener. Poetry's not made of words, so these are words that are not words. It's magic that can make poetry be made of words and also not made of words. Poetry leaves behind the law of non-contradiction as its force goes beyond the linguistic.
Spicer's lecture on dictation surrounds a reading of his poem "A Textbook of Poetry"; Spicer asks his listeners to find the contradictions between poem and lecture and says: "it is right where I am wrong" (The House That Jack Built 10). Here is section twelve of "A Textbook":
"Being faithful. And you are only being faithful to the shadow of a word. Once lost, once found-in the horny deeps below finding. Once cast ashore upon me in the heart's cargo.
And this is a system of metasexual metaphor. Being faithful to the nonsense of it: The warp and woof. A system of dreaming fake dreams.
Being faithful to it. All the ache of remembering the past, what the body doesn't know-the ache that isn't really there.
Sorry for themselves, the Words beckon terribly to me. They wave the past out the door: "Goodbye, I love you."
Being faithful. I pray hope to it. Not them. Not even the words." (Vocabulary 304)
To be faithful to words is to attend to their beyond, their beckoning, their wave to the future. In the lecture Spicer says that language is "an obstruction to what the poem wants to do" (30). But I think we can see poetry following language's centrifugal beckoning, its magic, to which we might be faithful.
"Beyond faith" is a key phrase for Jane Gregory's book My Enemies, loosely organizing a series of poems. (Eventually they are referred to in one of the poems' titles as "The BF poems.") There are perhaps three different loose series in My Enemies: the "books I will not write," the "beyond faith" poems, and poems that focus on a pair of words. The three sections are organized by a common analogy, that Jane provides at the end of the book in a quotation from Paul Valery: "Books have the same enemies as people: fire, humidity, animals, weather, and their own content." In these poems internal differentiation and an external contact with a dangerous beyond are a similar axis. The threat of what is not only a matter of faith, but so outside as to be beyond faith; and the threat of a violence within language itself: these are perhaps the same.
"Of the lion
the lion's wag
Can you see the line as wag?
The lines as insides
of the outside? Where
shudders that outside" (73)
To name what is beyond faith is to perform in language the extension of an inside line to an outside, a line to a lion. Already the use of language implies a move beyond faith. The internal plays of sense, interchanged vowels and sounds, pronoun jumbles, are all outside too. Language is beyond faith because language, even when most inside, is magic: it speaks an ever extending beyond.
"Get away from where you are
and it opens
to that keen that cool that oft
sets down in it
that what that
where that were
that what where
you were and will
as a fool, return
in kind, like wind" (74)
The magic of poetry here returns to the respiratory image of inspiration. Language gets us away from where we are. In language's internal differentiations, if we have faith in them, we are carried beyond.
Robin Blaser wrote of Spicer: "A reopened language lets the unknown, the Other, the outside in again as a voice in the language. Thus, the reversal is not a reduction, but an openness" (276). The metaphors of inside and outside can be deceptive: the "inside" of poetry is not a dark system of magic that we need to escape. It's the same bright magic of outside that opens.
"Love is not mocked whatever use you put to it. Words are also not
The soup of real turtles flows through our veins. Being a [poet] a
disyllable in a world of monosyllables. Awakened by the
distance between the [o] and the [e]
The earth quakes. John F. Kennedy is assassinated. The dark forest
of words lets in some light form its branches. Mocking them,
the deep leaves
That time leave us
Words, loves." (Vocabulary 402)