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Finding Aid to the Jack Spicer Papers, 1939-1982, bulk 1943-1965
BANC MSS 2004/209  
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Collection Details
 
Table of contents What's This?
  • Collection Summary
  • Information for Researchers
  • Administrative Information
  • Biographical Information
  • Scope and Content of Collection

  • Collection Summary

    Collection Title: Jack Spicer papers
    Date (inclusive): 1939-1982,
    Date (bulk): bulk 1943-1965
    Collection Number: BANC MSS 2004/209
    Creator : Spicer, Jack
    Extent: Number of containers: 32 boxes, 1 oversize box Linear feet: 12.8 linear ft.
    Repository: The Bancroft Library
    Berkeley, California 94720-6000
    Abstract: The Jack Spicer Papers, 1939-1982, document Spicer's career as a poet in the San Francisco Bay Area. Included are writings, correspondence, teaching materials, school work, personal papers, and materials relating to the literary magazine J. Spicer's creative works constitute the bulk of the collection and include poetry, plays, essays, short stories, and a novel. Correspondence is also significant, and includes both outgoing and incoming letters to writers such as Robin Blaser, Harold and Dora Dull, Robert Duncan, Lewis Ellingham, Landis Everson, Fran Herndon, Graham Mackintosh, and John Allan Ryan, among others. Also included are writings by other Bay Area writers, including Blaser, Duncan, and a significant amount by Stephen Jonas.
    Languages Represented: Collection materials are in English
    Physical Location: Many of the Bancroft Library collections are stored offsite and advance notice may be required for use. For current information on the location of these materials, please consult the library's online catalog.

    Information for Researchers

    Access

    Collection is open for research.

    Publication Rights

    Copyright has not been assigned to The Bancroft Library. All requests for permission to publish or reproduce must be submitted in writing to the Head of Public Services, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-6000. Permission for publication is given on behalf of The Bancroft Library as the owner of the physical items and is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the reader. Copyright restrictions also apply to digital representations of the original materials. Use of digital files is restricted to research and educational purposes.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item], Jack Spicer Papers, BANC MSS 2004/209, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

    Alternate Forms Available

    There are no alternate forms of this collection.

    Related Collections

    Jack Spicer papers, [1956]-1963, BANC MSS 99/94 c
    Jack Spicer letters to Allan Joyce : New York and Boston, 1955-1956, BANC MSS 71/288 z
    Jack Spicer letters to Myrsam H. Waxman, 1955-1956, BANC MSS 92/905 c
    Jack Spicer papers, 1954-1964, BANC MSS 71/135 c
    Smaller, yet still significant collections of Spicer material may be found in archives including the Poetry/Rare Books Collection at SUNY Buffalo; the Archive for New Poetry at UCSD, and Special Collections at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia.

    Indexing Terms

    The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in the library's online public access catalog.
    Spicer, Jack
    Authors, American--20th century
    Poets, American--20th century
    Poets, American--California--San Francisco Bay Area
    Spicer, Jack. Book of magazine verse
    Spicer, Jack. Language
    Spicer, Jack. Lament for the makers
    Spicer, Jack. Homage to Creeley
    Spicer, Jack. Admonitions

    Administrative Information

    Acquisition Information

    The Jack Spicer Papers were given to The Bancroft Library by Holt V. Spicer on March 10, 2004.

    Accruals

    No additions are expected.

    Processing Information

    Processed by Kevin Killian and Jocelyn Saidenberg in 2005.

    Biographical Information

    John Lester Spicer was born on January 30, 1925, in Hollywood, California, where his parents managed a small hotel. He attended Hollywood and Fairfax High Schools from 1939 to 1943, then University of Redlands, California from 1943 to 1945.
    After a brief period as a private detective (1943-1944), Spicer attended the University of California at Berkeley, from 1945 to 1950, receiving his B.A. in 1947 and his M.A. in 1950. As a young Berkeley student in the late 1940s, Spicer quickly met other gay male poets, including Robin Blaser, Robert Duncan, and Landis Everson. They began a lifelong association which Spicer half-seriously called The Berkeley Renaissance. His poetry of this period is elegiac, lyrical, magic-with little of the formal innovations developed later in the 1950s-and heavily homoerotic. He studied Old Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and German to prepare for a career in linguistics.
    After graduating, Spicer found work as a teaching assistant at UC Berkeley, from 1947 to 1950 and 1952 to 1953. Politically an anarchist, Spicer found his academic career stalled after he refused 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. Just as problematic in terms of a career was his open and avowed homosexuality.
    He left the Bay Area in 1950 to teach at the University of Minnesota from 1950 to 1952. He returned to the Bay Area as a lecturer in English at California School of Fine Arts (now San Francisco Art Institute) from 1953-55. During this period, he was a founder and part proprietor of 6 Gallery, San Francisco (1954-1956). Spicer once again left San Francisco to make a career as a poet in New York City where, with the aid of a Berkeley friend, the painter John Button, he encountered the poets of the so-called "New York School" and their circle, among them Frank O'Hara, Barbara Guest, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and Joe LeSueur. Within months however, Spicer left New York to join the staff of the Rare Book Room at the Boston Public Library, though this position lasted less than a year.
    In 1957, Spicer returned to the Bay Area. He worked once again as a lecturer at San Francisco State University, then as a researcher in the Linguistics Department at University of California, Berkeley from 1958 to 1964. A burst of activity ensued, and a new writing practice began, first with the imitations and translations of After Lorca (his first published book) which, he claimed, had been "dictated" to him, if not by Garcia Lorca, then by a mysterious unknown force he sometimes said might be "Martians." In this conceit he was greatly influenced by the French poet Jean Cocteau, whose 1950 surreal film Orphee explores the notion of a poetry given from beyond the grave, and by his poetic hero Yeats, whose experiments in automatic writing fascinated Spicer. These poems rarely came singly; with Robert Duncan, Spicer conceived of and developed the 'serial poem': a book-length progression of short poems which combine and re-order themselves into a whole in the same way that individual words and lines alter one another in a single poem. Spicer's finest early poems are the Imaginary Elegies, which became his contribution to Donald Allen's influential anthology The New American Poetry 1945-1960. "When I praise the sun or any bronze god derived from it," he wrote in the first elegy, "Don't think I wouldn't rather praise the very tall blond boy/ Who ate all of my potato-chips at the Red Lizard./ It's just that I won't see him when I open my eyes/ And I will see the sun."
    In San Francisco, Spicer began teaching and young poets flocked to him. He wanted to develop a magic school of writing, a kreis modeled on the Georgekreis, the mystic cult of poetry and love organized by the modernist German poet Stefan George to preserve the memory of a dead boyfriend. In the last nine years of his short life, Jack Spicer completed a dozen books of poetry (and left incomplete at least half a dozen more), establishing a poetic tradition on the West Coast that ran parallel, yet counter, to the contemporaneous Beat movement. Unlike many of his poetic contemporaries, Spicer insisted that poets should avoid writing from their own experience, since the poet's subjectivity "got in the way of" the poem itself. His anarchist convictions led him to refuse copyright on his poetry since he believed that he was in no sense its owner, hardly even its creator. Spicer's own students came to include many of the finest poets, both gay and straight, working in San Francisco. He founded the magazine, J, in 1959, to publish their writing, alongside his own, and in 1964 oversaw another influential monthly journal, Open Space. Spicer died in San Francisco on August 17, 1965.
    - Kevin Killian

    Scope and Content of Collection

    The Jack Spicer Papers, 1939-1982, document Spicer's career as a poet in the San Francisco Bay Area. Included are writings, correspondence, teaching materials, school work, personal papers, and materials relating to the literary magazine J. Spicer's creative works constitute the bulk of the collection and include poetry, plays, essays, short stories, and a novel. Correspondence is also significant, and includes both outgoing and incoming letters to writers such as Robin Blaser, Harold and Dora Dull, Robert Duncan, Lewis Ellingham, Landis Everson, Fran Herndon, Graham Mackintosh, and John Allan Ryan, among others. Also included are writings by other Bay Area writers, including Blaser, Duncan, and a significant amount by Stephen Jonas.
    Comprising approximately thirty boxes of material, the collection includes manuscripts and typescripts for nearly every one of his major projects, with the exception of The Holy Grail (1962, published 1964), already in the Bancroft's possession and the manuscripts for his two final books, Language and Book of Magazine Verse, which are owned by Simon Fraser. In addition, there are papers representing nearly a dozen projects previously unknown, or thought lost in the general messiness that was Spicer's life. Among them are (each described in more depth later in this finding aid) Phases of the Moon, The Clocks, A New Poem, Helen: A Revision, A Birthday Poem for Jim (and James) Alexander, Dignity, For Major General Abner Doubleday, Spider Music," Ten Hokkus for Dorrie (part of an extensive project of "hokku," a Japanese poetry form in which Spicer took a great interest during 1959), For Harris," and Map Poems. Beyond these larger works there are hundreds of drafts of single poems known and unknown, doubling or perhaps tripling the number of poems written by Spicer. At least some of them Spicer himself apparently considered worthy of publication. In his lifetime he saw to press only a handful of books: After Lorca, Billy the Kid, Homage to Creeley, The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether, Lament for the Makers, The Holy Grail, and Language. Since his death an equal number have appeared in various small press editions.
    Spicer's composition notebooks show us how he wrote his poems and, just as importantly, when. Many tangles in a hitherto mysterious career chronology straighten themselves out as one peruses the notebooks and discovers the procedural matrix/matrices. Apparently he could juggle many projects at once, and it was not unusual for him to be composing several serial poems at the same time. Following the evidence of these notebooks, we can now gather that The Red Wheelbarrow, for example, followed The Heads of the Town and Lament for the Makers--i.e., it can now be thought of as a 1960s poem, not a 1950s poem.
    The typescript from which Lewis Ellingham and I prepared our edition of Spicer's incomplete, yet seminal detective novel (published in 1994 as The Tower of Babel) is here, and even more amazing, here are the seventeen notebooks in which Spicer wrote it out by hand, composing many of the poems from Admonitions, A Book of Music, and Billy the Kid sometimes literally in the margins. The manuscripts of many unpublished short stories and short plays (and for his major theatrical work, Troilus) shed new lights on Spicer not only as poet but as fiction writer and dramatist. Also included are Spicer's translations of Stefan George, and of the Beowulf poem (nearly 2,800 lines complete of the 3,182 line original).
    The collection preserves the editorial work performed by Robin Blaser, Spicer's closest friend and literary executor, while preparing his landmark edition of The Collected Books of Jack Spicer (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1975). Blaser spent the better part of ten years in assembling, editing, curating, and theorizing his late friend's work, and we can follow his intricate, multifaceted decisions right from the start. Blaser also preserved what he could of Spicer's incoming correspondence, and apparently solicited from Spicer's friends a good number of his original letters to them, so that in several cases we have both sides of the correspondence (and often enough the notebooks show us first and second drafts of letters now lost). To a biographer, or social historian, this alone is a great treasure, and the icing on the cake is that Spicer's letters are themselves often as "poetic" and/or poetically useful as his poems.
    The sheer number of drafts and revisions available help give shading to Spicer's theories of "dictation" and show us that, at any rate, he didn't always practice the doctrine of "first thought best thought." Certainly he did not hesitate to revise, sometimes drastically, the texts of even his most famous poems: witness how the 1940s poem One Night Stand" gets whittled down to the tiny, minimalist Leda" ten years later.
    The collection also contains Spicer's side of the editing of the influential mimeo magazine J, which he shared with Fran Herndon (SUNY Buffalo holds Fran Herndon's J materials). This includes, most notably, a large amount of poetry submitted to J by members of the larger Bay Area poetry scene of the late 1950s. Though much of it is dross, it gives a sense of the diamond-out-of-coal editorial inspirations that J represented. In the related subseries Works by Others, Spicer used large manila envelopes to hold what he labeled "O.P.P"- apparently, "Other People's Poetry" - in which he collected the very best poems of the poets in his circle, and includes many rare, unpublished, and previously unknown poems. This archive alone is a remarkable record of a particularly rich flowering in the postwar West Coast division of U.S. poetry. The larger cultural context in which Spicer wrote and thought and moved is preserved in multiple directions and elaborated with a scope unusual for any collection.
    - Kevin Killian