• The Spirit-Lyre and the Broken Radio: The Medium as Poet From Sprague to Spicer

      Henry, Katherine, 1956-; Newman, Steve, 1970-; Osman, Jena (Temple University. Libraries, 2021)
      The origins and ongoing legacies of American Spiritualism in their relations to mainstream religion, science, and politics are by this point well-charted. As a vector between, on one side, esoteric philosophy and diffuse pseudo-scientific and occult disciplines, and, on the other, exoteric mass culture and the 19th century groundswell of popular progressive rhetoric, Spiritualism as a historical phenomenon has in the past decades become more legible than ever as a religious, political, and social movement. Less thoroughly studied, however, is the enormous mass of print culture left behind by Spiritualists. Spiritualist newsletters, journals, and small presses printed vast quantities of written matter, running from the obvious sermons, lectures, and seance transcriptions to Spiritualist novels, Spiritualist hymns, and, in particular, Spiritualist lyric verse. While critics like Helen Sword in Ghostwriting Modernism have begun to approach this archive as literary matter and not merely as the incidental byproduct of the movement, much work remains to be done. In this dissertation I want to draw connections from this mass of widely read, but little remembered, Spiritualist poetry to the late 19th century and early 20th century’s proliferation of occult and metaphysical poetry. In doing so I hope to illuminate the recurring esoteric streak running from high modernism to, in fits and spurts, the present. The crux of this dissertation pursues the trail of breadcrumbs leading from Spiritualist poet-mediums like Achsa Sprague and Lizzie Doten to the mediumistic elements of 20th century poets H.D. and Jack Spicer, before arriving in the conclusion at the 21st century and its fresh proliferation of esoterically inclined medium-poets. I propose that there is a meaningful thread wending from the 1850s to the present, and that this thread can be tracked by taking seriously the claims made by these poets regarding the composition of their verse, no matter how outrageous or unlikely those claims may at first seem. What would it mean to interrogate in earnest the logistics of authorship when a poem is attributed to a ghost? How do Spicer’s extraordinary claims about Martians and angels inflect how we read his body of work? What complications emerge from H.D.’s World War II-era poems of grief and trauma if we grant her the premise that their composition was saturated with the tangible presence of the dead? These allowances-- or at least the agreement to take these writers seriously in their compositional, metaphysical, and aesthetic claims-- reveals intriguing and consistent fissures in the normative understanding of the lyric. While Sprague and Doten, along with other Spiritualist poets, largely sought to write verse recognizable in terms of form and content as “lyric verse,” they began from first principles seemingly dramatically opposed to the received 19th century wisdom regarding what constituted the lyric and how it functioned. By contrasting these poets, who sought to write and publish from a position of authorial multiplicity and supernatural collaboration, with the lyric philosophy of thinkers such as John Stuart Mill, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hegel, and Poe, I hope to demonstrate the theoretical radicalism quietly bubbling away under the sometimes deceptively staid and conventional surface of these poems. I track these fissures as they widen and grow more unruly in their contours, underlying the daring and experimental poetry of H.D. and Spicer, for whom the grounds staked by the category of the “lyric” exist in productive tension and conflict with the desire to complicate, subvert, and sidestep the attending assumptions about subjectivity, audience, and the stability of the figure of the author. By rejecting the Millsian atomism of the writing self, and opening the position of authorship to both supernatural gnosis and abject supplication, these practices of the “mediumistic lyric” offer an apophatic poetics embraced by over a century of poets eager, for one reason or another, to locate alternatives to the model of the lyric subject as persistent, singular, masterful, and solitary. In doing so I propose that it becomes an attractive, durable, and remarkably flexible model for queer writers, writers orienting themselves against the subject of colonialism, and writers otherwise displaced from lyric stability and sovereignty. Chapter One: “Voices From the Other Sphere”: The Poet in Emerson and Sprague: This chapter begins by offering a comparison between two near-contemporary texts with identical titles but drastically different aspirations. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Poet” provided a sturdy blueprint for American Romanticism by drawing on the example of European poets as well as esoteric philosophers contemporaneously in intellectual circulation such as Swedenborg and Boehme. Achsa Sprague’s verse drama “The Poet,” on the other hand, is a full-throatedly Spiritualist didactic narrative, offering amidst its supernatural and allegorical narrative, a domestic plot strikingly attuned to class and gender-based inequalities. I use these two texts as a springboard to begin to delineate the differing trajectories of their respective authors-- Emerson the public intellectual and religious progressive, Sprague a rural school teacher turned radical activist and spirit medium-- as well as the considerable overlap in their essential reference points. Chapter Two: “The Harp-Strings of My Being”: Lizzie Doten and the Phenomenology of Spirits: The next two chapters focus on major Spiritualist woman poets who in quite different ways drew on the mythic figure of Poe as compositional grist, offering two disparate models of how a Spiritualist metaphysics could inform an aesthetic orientation towards imitation, influence, and the knotty category of “originality.” Chapter Four takes up Lizzie Doten, whose 1863 Poems From the Inner Life contains a mix of original poems and poems allegedly dictated by controlling spirits, including Poe. I discuss how imitation functions in these poems, and in particular how the desire to replicate the stylistic and formal tics of well-known authors interacted with the desire to produce didactic religious verse in which the post-mortem reform and uplift of seemingly morally vexed poets like Poe, Burns, and Byron. In this verse, deceased poets were represented as writing not as themselves but as better versions of themselves, creating a rich juxtaposition between the formal challenge of imitation and the didactic demands of poetic content. I also discuss her essay “A Word to the World,” a strikingly thorough prose exposition of what, in her framing, mediumship felt like and how the linguistic output of spirits filtered through the mortal hands of the poet. Chapter Three: Sarah Helen Whitman’s Poe: Performing Spiritualism: This chapter juxtaposes Doten’s explicitly supernatural and metaphysical understanding of imitation with the more socially mediated practice of Sarah Helen Whitman, a poet who maintained a somewhat wider distance between her poetics and her participation in Spiritualist mediumship and seances. A former lover of Poe and one of his primary early literary executors, Whitman’s Spiritualism can be read in the context of her widely circulated “secular” Poe imitations, situating them, after the pattern of Eliza Richards’ Gender and the Poetics of Reception in Poe’s Circle, in a social and aesthetic milieu in which mimicry and virtuosic copy-catting was not only expected of woman poets but imposed as a closed formal horizon. I argue that Spiritualism offered an avenue in which female poets could leverage the formal games of imitation so foregrounded in contemporaneous practices of poetic reading and writing towards wider modes of didactic and polemical expression, a method, in other words, of “hijacking” imitation’s limits and turning these assumed voices towards their own ends. Chapter Four: “Why Should We Not, At a Certain Stage, Remember?”: H.D. and the Echoing Other: Here I turn from the 19th century to the 20th, beginning with H.D. and concluding with the Berkeley Renaissance poet Jack Spicer. Chapter four offers a brief overview of H.D.’s history in esoteric and occult research and a survey of her contemporary milieu. It revolves around the 1919 prose work Notes on Thought and Vision, an intense description of an early visionary experience and a sustained exegesis of her thinking, at that time, on the intersection of visionary experience and privileged, quasi-mediumistic states of knowing. I read these texts and other early explorations of these themes as H.D.’s experimental studies on writing the self seemingly overdetermined by socialization and history, as well as on fashioning a generative middle-ground between spiritual supplication and modernist theories of mastery. I then track these motifs through the vision of gnosis described in her later text, the World War II-era The Flowering of the Rood. In short, I propose that H.D. leveraged the language and practices of mediumship as a vehicle for a novel species of autobiographical writing, one which might simultaneously privilege to a heightened degree the phenomenology of knowing, thinking, and perceiving, while offering a vantage point from which to observe the position of selfhood from a distance. Chapter Five: “The Ghost Is a Joke”: Jack Spicer and the Bathos of Outside: Chapter five centers on Jack Spicer and broadly, his mediumistic theory of poetic dictation (what his peer Robin Blaser dubbed his “practice of Outside”) and the playful, punning language of Martians, angels, and ghosts in which he scaffolded it. I argue that for Spicer, “dictation” provides not only a means for him to explore an abject, apophatic queer poetics, but to articulate his sense of longing for a poetics of proximity between the world and the word that was otherwise impossible, repeatedly linking the linguistic communion between poet and received language as a fantasized analogue to the gulf between signifier and signified, desirer and object of desire, and life and death. Chapter Eight introduces the figure of the “Martian” in Spicer’s poems and lectures, along with the models of bodily sovereignty he inherited from his early studies with Kantorowicz, arguing that the loss of physical agency and the absence of semantic meaning are two elements of a broader poetics of absence throughout his career. Conclusion: “A House That Tries to Be Haunted”: The conclusion revisits the arguments of the dissertation as a whole, retracing the line of lyric development and subversion from the 19th century Spiritualists to Spicer, before ending with a brief survey of the continuing diffusion of mediumistic lyric into the 21st century. First I gesture to the mediumistic writing of several 20th century poets not included in this project-- e.g., Robert Duncan, Nathaniel Mackey, Hannah Weiner, and James Merrill-- before describing the influence of mediumistic ideas on contemporary poets such as CA Conrad and Ariana Reines, for whom the occult and metaphysical themes of mediumship are just as important as its potential for lyric modes outside of the discourse of mastery and agential authorship. I thus end by positing this new flourishing of poet mediums as not only a continuation of a long tradition, but as a final example of such mediumship’s position at the intersection of lyrical and vanguard writing practices.