POET BE LIKE GOD by Lewis Ellingham


Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance
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Beat insider Ellingham and novelist Killian (Shy, 1989, etc.) have here embraced a most resistant, though not unworthy, subject in poet Jack Spicer. Spicer catalyzed the development of the Beat Generation in 1950s San Francisco. Though few literary tales have been told more often (or more tediously) than those pertaining to the Beats, Spicer’s own has been at best ill served, and at worst wholly ignored, by the prevailing mythologies of the time. The authors have thus been admirably careful to keep their focus on the enigmatic Spicer, whose life and verse grew progressively more estranged, indeed bitterly so, from those of his more visible peers. In following Spicer’s California odyssey—ending brutally in San Francisco, where he died from alcohol-induced liver failure in 1965, aged 40—Ellingham and Killian tread too lightly on their subject’s more troublesome personality traits, e.g., his entrenched anti-Semitism and boorish bad will toward those poets daring enough to court his approval. This largesse would rankle less, however, had they not chosen to extend it to the poetry itself, which, while capable of startling effects and moving lyricism, frequently succumbs to the same narcissistic bloat that long ago rendered the Beat temperament clichÇ. Instead, the authors have provided, albeit in impressive detail, a cosmology of poetic egotism, with Spicer’s now the origin. Ultimately, Spicer’s legacy, like that of any devalued artist, must endure the trial of rigorous critical appraisal. Despite the current academic fashion, literary resurrections of this sort cannot be taken on faith, but rather require a proof that the authors, true believers both, fail to supply in this otherwise well-researched and readable biography. (30 b&w photos)

Pub Date: May 22nd, 1998
ISBN: 0-8195-5308-5
Page count: 486pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1998