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literature

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Spicer, Jack (1925-1965)  

A brilliantly original gay writer, Jack Spicer wrote poetry noted for its lyric beauty, intellectual power, and formal invention.

Spicer was born John Lester Spicer on January 30, 1925, in Hollywood, California, where his parents managed a small hotel. Migrating north in 1945, he arrived on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, a gay if virginal male, a poet for life.

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He formed enduring connections with two other students, the poets Robin Blaser and Robert Duncan, and studied Old Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and German to prepare for a career in linguistics. This putative career was blighted by Spicer's refusal to sign the "Loyalty Oath," a provision of the Sloan-Levering Act that required all California state employees (including graduate teaching assistants at Berkeley) to swear loyalty to the United States.

He left the university and embarked on a number of low-paying, short-lived jobs in Minnesota, New York, and Boston. In 1957, he returned to San Francisco and began his mature career as a poet with the "dictated" poems of After Lorca (1957) and the eleven books that followed.

Spicer's controversial theories of dictation metaphorically reduce the poet to a "radio," picking up signals from the "invisible world," and indeed he sometimes joked that his poetry was really written by "Martians." The personality of the poet, he argued, should be kept out of the poem as much as possible.

Such an argument ran directly counter to prevailing American poetic practice, then (as now) largely a poetry of voice. "If you want to write opinions, write a letter to the editor, don't write a poem," he insisted.

The lyric beauty, intellectual power, and formal invention of Spicer's poetry attracted a core of disciples who met in the North Beach bars and the San Francisco parks he favored. The open homosexuality of his core group, the "Spicer Circle," resulted in the marginalization of some of the most moving love poetry produced in this century.

Spicer's "Several Years' Love," for example, commemorates his tumultuous love affairs of the period with a nod toward Shakespeare's Sonnet 144:

Two loves I had. One rang a bell
Connected on both sides with hell
The other'd written me a letter
In which he said I've written better
They pushed their cocks in many places
And I'm not certain of their faces
Or which I kissed or which I didn't
Or which of both of them I hadn't.
     (The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether, 1960-1961)

Although writing and living in the middle of the Beat movement, Spicer and Duncan stood oddly set apart from it, maintaining an approach to poetry and art that wedded aesthetics to intellect. Spicer's relations with his gay contemporaries Allen Ginsberg and Frank O'Hara remained antagonistic: Ginsberg was too "populist"; O'Hara a superficial versifier.

Indeed, Spicer quarreled with almost everyone he knew, and as he reached his thirties, his incipient alcoholism became widely known and feared. Sober he could be the most gracious and loving of men, but he was an unpleasant drunk. Still, his "derangement of the senses" provided a fertile field for the outside forces that, he claimed, wrote his poetry for him.

After forty years of allegiance to California, Spicer decided to leave San Francisco and emigrate to Vancouver, British Columbia, in the summer of 1965. But before he could leave, he collapsed into a prehepatic coma in his building elevator and died several weeks later in the poverty ward of San Francisco General Hospital on August 17.

During his lifetime, his books were reissued in small editions by a variety of local presses; a natural anarchist, Spicer viewed copyright askance. All of his work has since been reissued or newly published to meet the rising interest in this brilliantly original gay poet.

Kevin Killian

     

    
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    Bibliography
   

Davidson, Michael. The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Dorbin, Sanford. "A Checklist of the Published Writings of Jack Spicer." California Librarian (Sacramento) (October 1970): 251-261.

Foster, Edward Halsey. Jack Spicer. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Western Writers Series, 1991.

Killian, Kevin. Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1998.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Killian, Kevin  
    Entry Title: Spicer, Jack  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 23, 2002  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/spicer_j.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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