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Jack Spicer


Jack Spicer was born John Lester Spicer on January 30, 1925, in Los Angeles. He was the elder of two sons. His parents, Dorothy Clause and John Lovely Spicer, were Midwesterners who met and married in Hollywood and ran a small hotel business. They followed the era's conventional beliefs about child development and sent Spicer to Minnesota when he was three to live with his grandmother during his mother's pregnancy. This sudden rift left Spicer with a lasting resentment toward his brother and a sense of alienation from his family. Years later, when Spicer left his family in Los Angeles to attend the University of California at Berkeley, he refused to talk about his past and became so secretive that many believed him to be an orphan.

While in Berkeley, Spicer became involved in liberal politics and the local literary scene, particularly the group centered around Kenneth Rexroth. He quickly met other poets, including Robin Blaser and Robert Duncan, with whom he became close. Duncan, seven years his senior, had lived what seemed to Spicer the fantasy life of a poet: he had graduated from Berkeley, hitchhiked across the country, spent time with famous writers, and worked as an editor on the East Coast.

Duncan, who according to the poet Leonard Wolf was the "most 'out' man that ever lived," inspired the more timid Spicer to embrace his sexuality. The two poets, along with Blaser, were inventors of their own myth, humorously naming their culture and poetics the "Berkeley Renaissance." Later in life, Spicer would refer to the year he made these new friends, 1946, as the year of his birth.

Spicer left Berkeley after losing his teaching assistantship in the linguistics department for his refusal to sign a "Loyalty Oath," a provision of the Sloan-Levering Act that required all California state employees in 1950 to swear their loyalty to the United States. He briefly moved to Minnesota where a sympathetic professor helped him get a job in linguistics.

He soon returned to Berkeley in 1952, though Duncan had already moved across the Bay to San Francisco, a departure that Spicer considered a betrayal to their Berkeley Renaissance ethos. He resumed his academic work and completed all but his thesis for a Ph.D. in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse.

In 1953, he was hired as the head of the new humanities department at the California School of Fine Arts, a job that eventually brought Spicer to San Francisco. His role at CSFA connected him with a burgeoning arts community, and on Halloween in 1954, Spicer and five painter friends opened the "6" Gallery. Spicer soon left this position and moved east. In his absence, the "6" Gallery became the scene of the famous reading in October 1955 that featured the first public performance by Allen Ginsberg of "Howl" and helped launch the Beat movement.

During this same time, Spicer developed his practice of "poetry as dictation" and began to transcribe the poems that would become his first collection, After Lorca, which was published in 1957. He defined the poet as a "radio" able to collect transmission from the "invisible world," as opposed to believing that poetry was driven by a poet's voice and will.

Spicer despised New York City and relocated to Boston where he briefly worked in the rare books room at Boston Public Library. Blaser was also in Boston at this time, and the pair made contact with a number of local poets, including John Wieners. However, Spicer continued to suffer from alcoholism and depression, and once again lost his job. He then returned to San Francisco where Duncan was able to use his position at the Poetry Center at San Francisco State College to offer Spicer the opportunity to teach his own workshop. Titled "Poetry and Magic," the workshop had a notable influence on several enrolled poets, including Jack Gilbert, James Broughton, and Duncan himself.

Over the next few years, many followers were attracted to Spicer and the lyric beauty and formal invention of his work. This group, which became known as the "Spicer Circle," met in North Beach bars and San Francisco parks to discuss poetry and life. In 1960, much of his group left North Beach to pursue disparate interests and Spicer responded to the loss by drinking even more heavily. His increasing depression and alcoholism began to destroy even his closest friendships. He was cruel to Duncan, criticizing his desire for recognition, and their friendship rapidly dissolved. When he was once again fired in March of 1964, this time from a job at University of California in Berkeley, Spicer had nowhere to turn and few true friends to fall back on. The only job he could find was as a research assistant at Stanford, which proved unsatisfying.

In February of 1965, Spicer was invited to give a reading at the University of British Columbia. He returned that summer to give a number of talks now known as Spicer's "Vancouver Lectures." The success of these events gave Spicer a renewed sense of accomplishment: he made new contacts with poets; he was invited to return to Vancouver and was even offered a teaching job; and his alcoholism seemed to be waning. But before he could emigrate, Spicer collapsed into a coma in his building elevator on the last day of July 1965. He died on August 17 in the poverty ward of San Francisco General Hospital.

Selected Bibliography


After Lorca, 1957
Homage to Creeley, 1959
Billy the Kid, 1959
The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether, 1962
Lament for the Makers, 1962
The Holy Grail, 1964
Dear Jack: The Spicer/Ferlinghetti Correspondence, 1964
Language, 1965
Book of Magazine Verse, 1966
A Book of Music, 1969
A Red Wheelbarrow, 1971
15 False Propositions Against God, 1974
Admonitions, 1974
The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, 1975 (ed. by Robin Blaser)
One Night Stand and other Poems, 1980 (ed. by Don Allen)
Golem, 1999


The Tower of Bable: Detective Novel, 1994


The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, 1998 (ed. by Peter Gizzi)

Further Reading

Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance, by Lew Ellingham and Kevin Killian, 1998

Jack Spicer
Photo credit: Helen Adam

By This Poet


Psychoanalysis: An Elegy

What are you thinking about?

I am thinking of an early summer.
I am thinking of wet hills in the rain
Pouring water.  Shedding it
Down empty acres of oak and manzanita
Down to the old green brush tangled in the sun,
Greasewood, sage, and spring mustard.
Or the hot wind coming down from Santa Ana
Driving the hills crazy,
A fast wind with a bit of dust in it
Bruising everything and making the seed sweet.
Or down in the city where the peach trees
Are awkward as young horses,
And there are kites caught on the wires
Up above the street lamps,
And the storm drains are all choked with dead branches.

What are you thinking?

I think that I would like to write a poem that is slow as a summer
As slow getting started
As 4th of July somewhere around the middle of the second stanza
After a lot of unusual rain
California seems long in the summer.
I would like to write a poem as long as California
And as slow as a summer.
Do you get me, Doctor?  It would have to be as slow
As the very tip of summer.
As slow as the summer seems
On a hot day drinking beer outside Riverside
Or standing in the middle of a white-hot road
Between Bakersfield and Hell
Waiting for Santa Claus.

What are you thinking now?

I’m thinking that she is very much like California.
When she is still her dress is like a roadmap.  Highways
Traveling up and down her skin
Long empty highways
With the moon chasing jackrabbits across them
On hot summer nights.
I am thinking that her body could be California
And I a rich Eastern tourist
Lost somewhere between Hell and Texas
Looking at a map of a long, wet, dancing California
That I have never seen.
Send me some penny picture-postcards, lady,
Send them.
One of each breast photographed looking
Like curious national monuments,
One of your body sweeping like a three-lane highway
Twenty-seven miles from a night’s lodging
In the world’s oldest hotel.

What are you thinking?

I am thinking of how many times this poem
Will be repeated.  How many summers
Will torture California
Until the damned maps burn
Until the mad cartographer
Falls to the ground and possesses
The sweet thick earth from which he has been hiding.

What are you thinking now?

I am thinking that a poem could go on forever.

Improvisations On A Sentence By Poe

"Indefiniteness is an element of the true music."
The grand concord of what
Does not stoop to definition.  The seagull
Alone on the pier cawing its head off
Over no fish, no other seagull,
No ocean.  As absolutely devoid of meaning
As a French horn.
It is not even an orchestra.  Concord
Alone on a pier.  The grand concord of what
Does not stoop to definition.  No fish
No other seagull, no ocean—the true

A Book of Music

Coming at an end, the lovers
Are exhausted like two swimmers.  Where
Did it end?  There is no telling.  No love is
Like an ocean with the dizzy procession of the waves' boundaries
From which two can emerge exhausted, nor long goodbye
Like death.
Coming at an end.  Rather, I would say, like a length
Of coiled rope
Which does not disguise in the final twists of its lengths
Its endings.
But, you will say, we loved
And some parts of us loved
And the rest of us will remain
Two persons.  Yes,
Poetry ends like a rope.

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