Jack Spicer

(1925 - 1965)

Jack Spicer was born John Lester Spicer in Los Angeles, California, to a family with roots in the Midwest. Before his younger brother’s birth, he was sent to live with his grandmother in Minnesota for a time, a separation that left Spicer coping with feelings of alienation for the rest of his life. He graduated from Fairfax High School and attended the University of Redlands from 1943 to 1945 before transferring to the University of California, Berkeley. There, he met two other queer young poets, Robin Blaser and Robert Duncan. Together, the three were the seed of a literary movement that they jokingly named “The Berkeley Renaissance.” This evolved into a part of the famed San Francisco Renaissance, which also included Kenneth Rexroth, William Everson, and others, once the poets relocated there in the 1950s.

Between 1945 and 1950, Spicer acquired his B.A. and M.A. from Berkeley, where he also studied linguistics and completed all but his dissertation for a PhD in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse. He lost his teaching assistant role for refusing to sign a United States loyalty oath. Over the next few years, he taught linguistics and Old English at the University of Minnesota, taught at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, and briefly moved to New York City and to Boston, where he worked in the Boston Public Library’s Rare Book Room. While on the East Coast, he joined up with five artist friends to found the Six Gallery, where Allen Ginsberg first read Howl, launching the Beat movement. (Spicer had no interest in the Beats, and later criticized their self-promotion and their appropriation of the California arts scene.) Over the course of his short life, Spicer rubbed shoulders with cult figures of many types: he roomed in the same boarding house as Philip K. Dick, recorded his poetry with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, and helped music archivist Harry Smith to assemble his famous Anthology of American Folk Music.

In 1956, Spicer returned to San Francisco, where he would remain for the rest of his life. There, he reconnected with the literary movement he’d helped to begin, founding magazines, hosting readings and legendary workshops, and teaching younger poets about craft, with a focus on Rimbaud, Lorca, and other writers in the queer tradition. Prior to 1957, Spicer had written standalone poems, but in that year, he began writing After Lorca and shifted to what he termed “dictated” poetry, in which the poet channels language as a host or “radio” rather than generating it themself. He wrote five other books after After Lorca, all published with small local presses. Spicer was stalwartly against the idea of poetry as a commercial venture: he refused to publish outside of California and stopped copyrighting his poetry in 1960. He considered the famous City Lights Bookstore to be a tourist-facing business venture and opted not to sell his work there; however, late in life he ended up working there as a bookseller, after being fired from or frustrated by various other jobs.

Spicer died in San Francisco in 1965 after a long struggle with alcoholism. A true iconoclast, he nevertheless influenced a generation of writers with his teaching and inventive kind approach to poetry, including luminaries such as Jack Gilbert and Richard Brautigan. He came to more widespread fame posthumously, with friends, younger poets, and scholars publishing numerous new editions of his work and lectures, beginning with The Collected Books of Jack Spicer (ed. Robin Blaser, 1975). My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, won the American Book Award for poetry in 2009. He is now considered a major figure of the American poetry scene.


More Jack Spicer

Audio: Listen to Spicer's readings of his poems and lectures

Text: Read poems by Spicer at the Academy of American Poets


Photo by Peter Gizzi.