Review of Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance by Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian

Originally published in Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review 1/31/99, Vol. 6:1

“Why would anyone want to publish a biography of Spicer?” Lawrence Ferlinghetti asked Kevin Killian in a 1990 interview. “He’s almost forgotten nowadays, isn’t he?” Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance is Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian’s response to Ferlinghetti’s flippant question. It has been over thirty years since his death in 1965, and it’s taken that long for Spicer, considered by many to be one of America’s finest poets, to be the subject of a full-length biography.

In the mid 1940’s, Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, and Jack Spicer formed an uneasy triumvirate, establishing the core of what became known as the “Berkeley Renaissance.” After the phenomenal success of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1955, Spicer was to maintain that the poetic elements of Howl — “his open homosexuality, his obscenity, his defiant mix of symbolist, biblical and surrealist energies” — had been the personal property of the Berkeley Renaissance. Howl’s success and Spicer’s bitter reaction to it characterized the remainder of Spicer’s career.

Spicer is an unlikely and, at times, unlikeable protagonist. Blaser describes him in the following way:

As a gay male writer, a poet, an alcoholic, an intellectually subtle, widely read man, Spicer struggled from outcast positions for most of his career, rejecting systematically all acceptance that came his way. He had certain physical disabilities, an almost spastic characteristic. He saw himself as unattractive and he dramatized and played that out.

Though by many accounts not without his charms, Spicer was accused at various times of anti-Semitism, misogyny and alcoholic paranoia supplementing his unsavory personal habits and a vicious temper. Ironically, while Spicer considered drugs a crime against poetry, he became increasingly dependent: on Rainier ale and brandy.

Perversely self-defeating, Spicer insisted that his books and publications not be distributed outside the San Francisco Bay Area. Robert Duncan saw Frank O’Hara’s scene in New York and Spicer’s in the Bay Area as “homosexual cabals threatened by mavericks.” In reference to the feuds instigated and/or maintained by Spicer, David Meltzer referred to “being caught in the barbed-wire flak of bitchery.”

Spicer was usually attracted to straight young men, which caused considerable romantic anguish. In addition, his complicated personal friendships were fraught with as much friction as those with his professional colleagues in the poetry communities. When, in 1962, the San Francisco State College Poetry Festival offered Philip Whalen $10 to read, Jack offered him $11 not to read. In a now-famous letter Jack claimed that “SF State College would like, to turn all poets into cable cars.” Spicer became so identified with this episode that his obituary mentioned it, while Whalen dismissed him as “unpleasant to everyone.”

Descriptions of and brief excerpts from Spicer’s work cannot convey the excitement that they stirred at the time. His untimely death at the age of forty in 1965 assured his obscurity vis-à-vis a larger public, but those aware of the rumors and legends of Spicer’s life have perpetuated his status as a gay cult figure. Ellingham and Killian have meticulously set the sad story straight. even if their detailed descriptions sometimes fail to convey a sense of what North Beach must have been like during the 1940’s, 50’s, and early 60’s. We also find Spicer running the Humanities Department at the California School of Fine Arts (now the S.F. Art Institute), holding forth Sunday afternoons in Aquatic Park, and frequenting Gino & Carlo’s almost every night until 2:00 AM, at which point he would stumble home drunk through the Broadway Tunnel to his basement apartment at California and Van Ness.

The copious source notes are fascinating: using many interviews conducted by Ellingham in the 80’s and 90’s, supplemented by Killian’s recent interviews, the authors also make excellent use of the published and unpublished writings of Spicer and his contemporaries. Over two dozen photographs, many of them snapshots, help conjure the scene. Despite my quibbles with the book, it is finally a well-crafted biography that will help to make sure that the legend of Jack Spicer endures.