Spicer was born in Los Angeles where he later graduated from Fairfax High School, and attended the University of Redlands from 1943-45. He spent most of his writing life in San Francisco and spent the years 1945 to 1955 at the University of California, Berkeley, where he began writing, doing work as a research linguist, and publishing some poetry (though he disdained publishing). During this time he searched out fellow poets, but it was through his alliance with Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser that Spicer forged a new kind of poetry, and together they referred to their common work as the Berkeley Renaissance. The three, who were all gay, also educated younger poets in their circle about their "queer genealogy", Rimbaud, Lorca, and other gay writers. Spicer's poetry of this period is collected in One Night Stand and Other Poems (1980). His Imaginary Elegies, later collected in Donald Allen's The New American Poetry 1945-1960 anthology, were written around this time.
In 1954, he co-founded the famous Six Gallery, the scene of the famous October 1955 Six Gallery reading that launched the West Coast Beat movement. In 1955, Spicer moved to New York and then to Boston, where he worked for a time in the Rare Book Room of 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, Stephen Jonas, and Joe Dunn.
He returned to San Francisco in 1956 and started working on After Lorca. This book represented a major change in direction for two reasons. Firstly, he came to the conclusion that stand-alone poems (which Spicer referred to as his one night stands) were unsatisfactory and that henceforth he would compose serial poems. In fact he wrote to Blaser that 'all my stuff from the past (except the Elegies and Troilus) looks foul to me.' Secondly, in writing After Lorca, he began to practice what he called "poetry as dictation". His interest in the work of Federico García Lorca, especially the canto jondo, also brought him near the poetics of the deep image group. The Troilus referred to was Spicer's then unpublished play of that name. The play finally appeared in print in 2004, edited by Aaron Kunin, in issue 3 of No - A Journal of the Arts.
In 1957, Spicer ran a workshop called Poetry as Magic at San Francisco State College, which was attended by Duncan, Helen Adam, James Broughton, Joe Dunn, Jack Gilbert, and George Stanley. He also participated in, and sometimes hosted, Blabbermouth Night at a literary bar called The Place. This was a kind of contest of improvised poetry and encouraged Spicer's view of poetry as being dictated to the poet.
Spicer's view of the role of language in the process of writing poetry was probably the result of his knowledge of modern pre-Chomskian linguistics and his experience as a research linguist at Berkeley. In the legendary Vancouver lectures he elucidated his ideas on "transmissions" (dictations) from the outside, using the comparison of the poet as crystal set or radio receiving transmissions from outer space, or Martian transmissions. Although seemingly far-fetched, his view of language as "furniture", through which the transmissions negotiate their way, is grounded in the structuralist linguistics of Zellig Harris and Charles Hockett. (In fact, the poems of his final book, Language, refer to linguistic concepts such as morphemes and graphemes). As such, Spicer is acknowledged as a precursor and early inspiration for the Language poets. However, many working poets today list Spicer in their succession of precedent figures.
Spicer died as a result of his alcoholism. Since the posthumous publication of The Collected Books of Jack Spicer (first published in 1975), his popularity and influence has steadily risen, affecting poetry throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. In 1994, The Tower of Babel, Jack Spicer's Detective Novel was published. Adding to the Jack Spicer revival was the publication in 1998 of two volumes: The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi; and a biography: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance by Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1998).
A collected works entitled My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, editors) was published by Wesleyan University Press in November 2008, and won the American Book Award in 2009.
Further Readings :
My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian
Paperback: 508 pages
Publisher: Wesleyan; 1 edition (August 15, 2010)
Amazon: My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer
In 1965, when the poet Jack Spicer died at the age of forty, he left behind a trunkful of papers and manuscripts and a few copies of the seven small books he had seen to press. A West Coast poet, his influence spanned the national literary scene of the 1950s and '60s, though in many ways Spicer's innovative writing ran counter to that of his contemporaries in the New York School and the West Coast Beat movement. Now, more than forty years later, Spicer's voice is more compelling, insistent, and timely than ever. During his short but prolific life, Spicer troubled the concepts of translation, voice, and the act of poetic composition itself. My Vocabulary Did This to Me is a landmark publication of this essential poet's life work, and includes poems that have become increasingly hard to find and many published here for the first time.
Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance by Lewis Ellingham Kevin Killian
Hardcover: 459 pages
Publisher: Wesleyan; 1st edition (May 15, 1998)
Amazon: Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance
Jack Spicer, unlike his contemporaries Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder, was a poet who disdained publishing and relished his role as a social outcast. He died in 1965 virtually unrecognized, yet in the following years his work and thought have attracted and intrigued an international audience. Now this comprehensive biography gives a pivotal poet his due. Based on interviews with scores of Spicer's contemporaries, Poet Be Like God details the most intimate aspects of Spicer's life--his family, his friends, his lovers--illuminating not only the man but also many of his poems.
Such illumination extends also to the works of others whom Spicer came to know, including the writers Frank O'Hara, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Helen Adam, Robin Blaser, Charles Olson, Philip K. Dick, Richard Brautigan, and Marianne Moore and the painters Jess, Fran Herndon, and Jay DeFeo. The resulting narrative, an engaging chronicle of the San Francisco Renaissance and the emergence of the North Beach gay scene during the 50s and 60s, will be indispensable reading for students of American literature and gay studies.
This journal is friends only. This entry was originally posted at http://reviews-and-ramblings.dreamwidth.org/2921214.html. If you are not friends on this journal, Please comment there using OpenID.