Valentina Mele (University of Leeds)


Valentina Mele is British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Leeds, where she is currently working on a project titled ‘Sighs, voice, and poetic subjectivity. The reception of Medieval culture in the San Francisco Renaissance’. She was previously Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at University College Cork, where she worked on her first monograph (Lyric Subjectivity in the poetry of Guido Cavalcanti, forthcoming with Legenda). Valentina completed her PhD at the University of Cambridge, after spending periods at the universities of Warwick, Oxford, and Notre Dame (IND). She is co-director of the Center for Dante Studies in Ireland and her work mainly focuses on lyric subjectivity and intersections between Italian, English, and American literature, with particular attention to the reception of Dante in twentieth century Anglo-American poetry.

“«The Poet is a Radio»: Medieval Culture and ‘Dictated Poetry’ in the Work of Jack Spicer”

In the work of Jack Spicer (1924-1965) the poet is described as no more than a radio transmitting messages (“we are irritable radio sets” (The House that Jack Built, p. 209); “The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar.” (The House that Jack Built, p. 374)), and poetic inspiration becomes a complex practice of channeling and transmitting a dictated message coming from an “outside”. Even more strikingly, rather than being the magnified and multiplied vocal source, the poet is attributed the somewhat inglorious role of what Spicer calls the receiver. While the Hegelian lyric ‘I’ stands as the purest expression of a subject’s interiority, Spicer undermines this notion by staging porous forms of subjectivity, or by postulating an external source to their poetry, or even experimenting with modes of writing in which subjectivity is “pluralised” and articulated as an intersubjective process of transmitting and receiving the voice of an “other”. An emblematic defeat of the lyric ‘I’ is epitomised in Spicer’s techniques of mistranslations and pastiches. For Spicer, translation is the privileged means by which textual, subjective, and erotic displacement occurs, as well as representing a strategy for self-inscription into a literary genealogy. This paper seeks to analyse the trope of the radio in Spicer’s poetry and poetics. On the one hand, it shall contextualise Spicer’s references to the radio in the light of the broader modernist discourse (with specific attention to Ezra Pound’s oeuvre) as well as considering Spicer’s dictated poetry as descending from Yeats’ automatic writing (as Spicer’s himself declares (The House that Jack Built, pp. 4-5)). On the other hand, the discussion shall examine the role of medieval culture (and especially of Dante’s poetic inspiration) to Spicer’s own definition of his “derivative” and almost “passive” poetic practice, as emblematised by the metaphor of the radio. Commenting on Spicer’s “dictated poetry”, Blaser himself observes: “it begins, as Spicer well knew, with Dante” (The Fire, p. 257), a poet Spicer read and studied at Berkeley, under the medievalist and historian Ernst Kantorowicz. The goal of the paper is ultimately to expand recent studies which have investigated Spicer’s development of Poundian poetics by exploring the uncharted reception of Medieval Italian literature in Spicer’s poetry.