Last reviewed: June 2018
January 30, 1925
Los Angeles, California
August 17, 1965
San Francisco, California
California poet Jack Spicer attended the University of Redlands from 1943 to 1944, transferring to the University of California at Berkeley, where he earned his BA in 1947. His first poems appeared in The Occident (1946) and Contour 1 (1947), in which he introduced his oft-repeated imagery of chess, cards, baseball, and other games. While earning his MA, which he received in 1950, he formed important friendships with fellow poets Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser, whom Spicer dubbed the core of the “Berkeley renaissance,” each poet contributing much to the others’ subsequent poetic careers. At Berkeley, Spicer studied linguistics and poetic history, contributing to the Linguistic Atlas of the Pacific Coast from 1958 to his death. His linguistic studies led to many other scholarly works and influenced his poetic doctrine that the meanings of words are arbitrary and changeable.
From 1940 to 1950, Spicer also worked as a radio announcer for KPFA in San Francisco. His work there provided the imagery for Billy the Kid, considered an allegory on death and homosexuality representing Spicer’s early interest in writing imaginary elegies. His refusal to sign a loyalty oath at Berkeley effectively ended Spicer’s mainstream academic career. Dividing his life between academic studies and poetic concerns, he became a local poet in bars and helped form the historic Six Gallery. This small art gallery hosted poetry readings and would become the setting for the launch of the Beat generation, of which Spicer was a marginal member, although he later became the leader of the “anti-Beat” poets in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In 1957, a pivotal year for Spicer, his poems appeared in the important Evergreen Review. He formed the influential “Magic Workshop” teaching sessions in San Francisco, and he prompted poet and publisher Joe Dunn to establish the White Rabbit Press, a small press that became noted for its publication of works by Spicer and others in his circle. In 1958, Spicer briefly took over as editor of the press. After his death, it would evolve into a major printing house, Black Sparrow Press.
Spicer wrote prolifically over the next several years, employing a difficult and discontinuous style. His books frequently were in epistle form, with titles that indicated the thematic content. Beginning with After Lorca, Spicer wrote what he called “serial poetry,” which included translations and fake translations of the work of Federico García Lorca and other past poets. The “Fake Biography of Arthur Rimbaud” appears in The Heads of the Town up to the Aether. Regarded as his most important work, this book is often compared to Dante’s Inferno (c. 1320). Spicer claimed that, in this three-part descent into the underworld, each poem was a ghost speaking to other ghosts, living and dead. This work was an important turning point for Spicer, who began using poetic dictation or “automatic writing,” influenced by poets William Blake, William Butler Yeats, and friend Robert Duncan. Spicer’s gnostic religious beliefs and independent poetic philosophy also helped shape the poems that he claimed were mysterious codes or messages received from an outside force. In lectures addressed to other poets, Spicer advocated that, instead of exerting control as authors, they allow alien and ghostlike languages to enter them.
Admonitions, written in 1958 but not published until 1974, is a book on music. Its poems act as mirrors reflecting personal allusions in what Spicer called “false connections.” Throughout his career, his themes often focused on love and the dialectic between language or poetry and experience, exploring the relationship between the self and the outside world in surreal forms and imagery. Fifteen False Propositions About God reflects Spicer’s Calvinist debate with “big huge loneness,” a God that he felt was an absolute gamemaker detached from human life. Book of Magazine Verse shows a decline in Spicer’s powers; for example, he attacks T. S. Eliot, as he had done in earlier works, but here he uses techniques that are no longer innovative.
During the late 1960s, Spicer published frequently in Open Space, a Bay-Area magazine published by White Rabbit. During his lifetime, Spicer was well known only in his home region. After alcoholism led to his death, he gained a larger audience through The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, published posthumously by his friend Robin Blaser. Spicer is regarded as an important influence on poets Richard Brautigan, Lew Welch, Michael McClure, and Bob Kaufman, who were students in Spicer’s “Magic Workshops.” Poet Thomas Parkinson published Homage to Jack Spicer, and Other Poems in 1970, and in 1974 Robert Duncan published “An Ode and Arcadia,” a poem cowritten with Spicer. Still, Spicer has been largely ignored by mainstream scholars and is rarely anthologized.