John Lester Spicer was born on January 30, 1925, in Hollywood, California, where his parents managed a small hotel. Migrating north in 1945, he arrived on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley.
He formed enduring connections with two other students, the poets Robin Blaser and Robert Duncan, and studied Old Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and German to prepare for a career in linguistics. This putative career was blighted by Spicer's refusal 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.
He left the university and embarked on a number of low-paying, short-lived jobs in Minnesota, New York, and Boston. In 1957, he returned to San Francisco and began his mature career as a poet with the "dictated" poems of After Lorca (1957) and the eleven books that followed.
He maintained that he received his poems and outside forces dictated them. His controversial theories of dictation metaphorically reduce him to a "radio," picking up signals from the "invisible world," and indeed he sometimes joked that his poetry was really written by "Martians." The personality of the poet, he argued, should be kept out of the poem as much as possible.
Although writing and living in the middle of the Beat movement, Spicer stood oddly set apart from it, maintaining an approach to poetry and art that wedded aesthetics to intellect. Spicer's relations with his gay contemporaries Allen Ginsberg and Frank O'Hara remained antagonistic. Indeed, Spicer quarreled with almost everyone he knew, and as he reached his thirties, his incipient alcoholism became widely known and feared. Sober he could be the most gracious and loving of men, but he was an unpleasant drunk.
After forty years of living in California, Spicer decided to leave San Francisco and emigrate to Vancouver, British Columbia, in the summer of 1965. But before he could leave, he collapsed into a prehepatic coma in his building elevator and died several weeks later in the poverty ward of San Francisco General Hospital on August 17.
During his lifetime, his books were reissued in small editions by a variety of local presses; a natural anarchist, Spicer viewed copyright askance. All of his work has since been reissued or newly published to meet the rising interest in this brilliantly original gay poet.