Although the American poet Jack Spicer was born in 1925 in Los Angeles, California, he claimed his birth year to be 1946, when he met the poets Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser at the University of California, Berkeley. Out of the intense fraternity of these three eccentric young men, dubbed the "museum poets" for their bookishness, was born the "Berkeley Renaissance." Spicer would spend the rest of his life in the San Francisco Bay Area, with only a few brief departures. Most notably his excursion to New York and Boston in 1955-56 would prove to be a defining moment in the development of his poetic vision, as it further solidified his allegiance to the American West and his identity as a California poet. He lived in San Francisco and worked as a researcher in linguistics at UC Berkeley until shortly before his death by alcohol poisoning in 1965 at the age of forty. He is survived by roughly four hundred pages of poetry, some still unpublished; a detective novel; a handful of essays; some two hundred letters; at least three plays; four lectures, which were given shortly before he died; and a legacy of poets and readers to whom these lectures were and are delivered.
The four lectures took place within a thirty-day period from June 13 to July 14, 1965. The casual seriousness of these talks is typical of Spicer's public style and should not be interpreted as offhand; they are the only authoritative account of his poetics outside of his poems and letters. Athough Spicer was noticeably intoxicated and disheveled, he took these events seriously and made sure that they were being taped. As transcriptions of oral texts recorded at the end of the poets life, the lectures gain a certain oracular power and finality: Spicer's statements are not prophetic but contrary, allusive, and purposeful. His humor or "wicked wit," as Warren Tallman put It, is charismatic. He has that particular gift of being both irreverent and to the point. As a public speaker he is not the "roman "can type, as he disarmingly claims in the second lecture; instead, he says, he simply wants to be honest, and this struggle sometimes ties his sentences in knots. He writes to Graham Mackintosh before giving a lecture in 1954: "There's a big difference between talking as a teacher, which is easy, and talking as a poet, which is heartbreakingly difficult if you want to talk honestly." Because of the difficult honesty of their pitch, these talks are also riddled with disappointment and uncertainty about the future of the poet -that is, the poet as a cultural figure in general and the poet as Jack Spicer in particular, a highly intelligent, lonely, middle-aged, gay, baseball-loving alcoholic, one of the great poets of his time, recently unemployed, dying, and at the height of his poetic powers.
...In the context of his times, Spicer was not beatnik but bohemian, a mixture of California "funk" or "junk" assemblage and high aesthetic practice. Like the compositions of the visual artists Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner, and George Herms his poetry dissembles and rearranges rather than declaims. Spicer wasn't easily assimilable even within the counterculture of the period, represented at the 1965 Berkeley Conference by Allen Ginsberg oil one hand and Charles Olson on the other. What John Ashbery says of Frank O'Hara can be applied to Spicer in his time: he was "too hip for the squares and too square for the hips ... a category of oblivion which increasingly threatens any artist who dares to take his own way, regardless of mass public and journalistic approval" (6).