Jack Spicer

(30 January 1925 - 17 August 1965 / Los Angeles, California)

Jack Spicer
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Jack Spicer was an American poet often identified with the San Francisco Renaissance. In 2009, My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer won the American Book Award for poetry.

Life and Work

Spicer was born in Los Angeles where he later graduated from Fairfax High School in 1942, 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 ... more »

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  • Ken Bullock (5/16/2010 5:03:00 PM)

    Most of the bios & commentaries on Jack Spicer read like sad sack pulp writing parodies of the old cliche' about the bitter loner, the awkward loser with a soul full of poetry.

    This's been grafted onto an older urban myth of Spicer as the secret postmodern before-the-letter hero of Beat San Francisco.

    (I can almost see Spicer laughing at a couple of the links in the More Info section on this site: one to a kind of Goth Anime blog bearing his name, another to a Facebook page for Jack Spicer, who looks like a regular guy from Westchester, NYC's equivalent of SF's Marin, who likes Pink Floyd, Betty White, Mad Men & Ireland.)

    Spicer's rather whimsical poetics-of which there's been more talk, if anything, than of his poems-boil down to something else, altogether: the Serial Poem, an 'unmapped-out, ' somewhat narrative sequence of poems, against the paradigm of the stand-alone lyric poem ('There really is no single poem') -something like the sad loner Spicer was supposed to be-in the belief 'poems should echo and reecho against each other. They should create resonances. They cannot live alone anymore than we can.'... & 'Dictation, ' Spicer's 'via negativa' of composition, an attempt to get the poet out of the way of the poetry-which almost sounds like a quote of Philip Whalen (who dedicated a poem on angels to Spicer) : 'get out of my own way.'

    Spicer commented once that there really wasn't a market for poetry, but there was for poets. 'The big lie of the personal, ' he called it in After Lorca, his break from writing what he called 'one-night stands.'

    Reading his poems out of sequence of the books he started to write them in, with After Lorca, is something like saying you've read Blake, when you've only read a few lyrics in some monstrous Norton compendium, not the books of the Songs, much less the Prophetic Books. Or Nerval's sonnets apart from the sequence of Les Chimeres (which Spicer's old companion in the serial poem & literary executor Robin Blaser translated) .

    And saying you've read Spicer without at least dipping into his 'detective novel of poetry' send-up of both the late 50s San Francisco scene (there's a hilarious caricature of Kenneth Rexroth in it) & the roman-a-clef, Tower of Babel (as it was titled for posthumous publication by Kevin Killian) , is like reading Blake sans The Marriage of Heaven & Hell or An Island in the Moon-hard to tell what he was really up to, in situ, if you wasn't there...

    The best way to read Spicer begins & ends with The Collected Books, edited by Blaser-worth every penny you'll pay for it online-which begins with Garcia Lorca's letter from beyond the grave, refusing to comment on the idiosyncratic (& doctored) translations of his poems that follow, cut with letters from Spicer to Lorca, calling for a poetry of the real, against the imagism of the time that dominated poetry & the postwar translation boom of foreign-language modernism. The Collected Books give a real ride, from After Lorca through other books including Billy the Kid and The Holy Grail, to the very end, Spicer's 'metaphysics of place'-the West Coast-
    '... We are a coast people/there is nothing but ocean out beyond us. We grasp/the first thing coming.'-& his admonition to Allen Ginsberg, just declared King of the May ('A title not chosen for dancing.') in Prague '65: '... Why/Fight the combine of your heart and my heart.People are starving.'

    In the back of The Collected Books are Blaser's essay on Spicer's poetry, 'The Practice of Outside, ' & much more, including James Herndon's wry memoir of Spicer (his 'Unpopualar Front campus anarchist association of one at UC Berkeley; his 'greatest folksong program West of the Pecos, ' on KPFA-fm, which drunkenly falsified both songs & accounts of how they were 'collected.')

    Another Herndon memoir, Everything As Expected, can be found in part online, with pictures of the artwork his wife Fran did in collaboration with Spicer. About that artistic friendship-one of many for Spicer-it also shows his 'unalienated' quality, his closeness (strange for this purported bitter loner) with the Herndons. (Their first son Jay figures, along with his baby talk, in Spicer's poems.)

    'Constantly oppositional, ' Blaser called Spicer's poetry. A poet almost unique in America in his combination of playfulness & dead seriousness, making poetry out of spoofs of the games of modern life, besides from the act of making poetry itself-only Poe comes to mind as a real parallel-Spicer had a sense both of the tragic, and (in Pirandello's sense, 'what you find instead of what you expect to find... a sense of the opposite') -a sense of humor.

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