Spin: Poetics (1999)

Jack Ross, ed.: Spin 33 (March 1999)


The shit is a poet. She’s a poet because she tells everyone to go to hell.
– Kathy Acker

Jack is an idiot, so he needs an idiot’s guide. Some of the rest of you might benefit from it, too. Nor is he especially afraid of stating the obvious. Here goes, then:

Any genre of writing – political analysis, romantic novels, mathematical proofs, Ronald Reagan’s vomittings – as soon as its meaning is destroyed becomes literature.
– Kathy Acker

The three most-often-quoted Modernist mantras about the Art of Poetry [Greek: poïesis = “making”] are:

feel mad incurable wants for sex (symbols) you can’t have.
– Kathy Acker

  1. “No ideas but in things” (William Carlos Williams).
  2. “Nothing you couldn’t, in the stress of some emotion, actually say” (Ezra Pound).
  3. “Great poetry can communicate before it is understood” (T. S. Eliot).

I’m not claiming any originality here. I’m just in love with the late Kathy Acker, which is why I keep on quoting from her. Why shouldn’t I? I’m not a Modernist. I like destroying meaning because meaning keeps me in my place. I want to create a universe where I get enough of everything. But it has to be convincing enough to fool me as well as you.

  1. What’s a thing? Does it have to be physical? Is the number seven a thing, or an idea? “I refute it thus,” said Doctor Johnson of Berkeleyan Idealism, kicking a stone. Boswell pointed out that this was not logical. Sam was one ahead of him there, though. By worrying about the nature of a thing, you’re already worrying at what poetry is and should be.

  2. What can you actually say? Jack has said some pretty odd things in his time, in a variety of different tongues, and has earned himself some pretty funny looks. He’s even said “forsooth,” and (at least once): “Some, when the bagpipe sings i’ the nose, cannot contain their urine.” You do have to watch out what you say, though, if you want to be understood. If you say the wrong thing, sometimes people burst into tears. Maybe even when you say the right thing.

  3. How can something communicate before it is understood? Can’t see it. It don’t make no sense. When Jack was younger he had a Russian teacher who credited this doctrine, and who accordingly read Goethe’s ballad “Der Erlkönig” out loud to the class, in German. There was a squeaky voice for the little boy and a growly voice for the rest – occasionally the word “farter” came up. And that was that.

I’m more interested in exterminating rational thought, the sleep of reason which breeds monsters, than in wit. Trying to be witty never made me any happier, and the only point of any poem I write/make is to find models which make happiness (however defined) – for me or others – more probable.

But is that really the point? Jack doesn’t claim to understand Wallace Stevens, but he thinks that “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts” is a beautiful title, even though he doesn’t have the faintest idea what it means. Jack likes music, too, without having to have it explained to him.

There are 6 quotes in this essay, which should suggest to you the absence of a 7th.

Jack’s own axioms come down to a few words, therefore:

  • Dislocate your sense of language.

  • If it isn’t unsettling, then it’s not really alive, not interesting. The complexities of existing inside language – that’s our subject-matter.

  • Idea + idea = spark.

  • You can see the spark as an electrical connection, as an explosion, as a chemical reaction. The point is that it must be strong enough to cross the empty air between you and your other (reader/audience). Etheric projection, that’s what we have to achieve. It’s not really possible, of course, but people keep on doing it anyway.

    As for larger implications, Jack has one more proposition to make up the three:

  • All poets secretly believe themselves to have some conduit to forces beyond themselves.

There are 2 columns, which implies that everything worth saying is in the gap between them.

You can call it History, the Muse, God, Inspiration, but try writing poetry without it and see how far you get. It doesn’t excuse you any lapses, of course, but it means you’ve got to clean out your cloth ears and listen. “You must change your life,” as Rilke’s archaic Apollo urged (through the medium of Kendrick Smithyman).

I told you Jack wasn’t afraid of stating the obvious.


Spin 33 (1999): 58-59.
[Available at: Writers’ Web Zine (24/2/2000)].

[757 wds]

Spin 33 (1999)

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