Thursday, September 3, 2020

"The first adequate account of California's complex and contradictory literary life"

VISIONS & AFFILIATIONS ~ A California Literary Time Line: Poets & Poetry 1940-2005
is a two-volume chronoencyclopedia of a scene that stretches over sixty-five years. People, ideas, and stories appear, disappear, and reappear as the second half of the century moves forward. Poetry is a major element in this kaleidoscopic California scene. It is argued about, dismissed, renewed, denounced in fury, asserted as divine, criticized as pornographic. Poetry is as Western as the Sierra foothills, and the questions raised here go to its very heart. Beginning with the publication of Kenneth Rexroth's first book, this all-encompassing history-as-collage plunges us forward into the 21st Century. California authors keep generating massive anthologies in an attempt to tame the chaos of California, to pretend it isn't there. Yet there it is—staring them in the face like a great bear, alive, hungry and more than a little dangerous.

(publisher's summary)

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Chinese Scholar-Poet Zhang Ziqing on Jack Foley

I met Zhang Ziqing in 1994 when he came to the Bay Area to do research on poetry. I found him charming, intelligent, interesting, and I introduced him to various people, including Larry Eigner, Michael McClure, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I remember his asking me what "nerve" meant, as in Frank O'Hara's "You just go on your nerve." I very much enjoyed his company, and we have kept up the connection over the years.

Yesterday I received his extraordinary, three-volume, 2,080-page opus: A History of 20th Century American Poetry. I was, to say the least, stunned.

It's an extraordinary book, and I hope that someone will undertake its translation into English.

The book devotes several pages to my work. What follows is a translation of an article Zhang Ziqing published a few years ago. I believe the article is included in the book, though in an expanded version. I am deeply grateful to my friend for his kind words.


Title: "Jack Foley, the Most Active Post-Beat Poet in the West Coast." Author: Zhang, Ziqing (Institute of Foreign Literature, Nanjing University). An Explication.

Translation from the Chinese: Michael Yuan

A renowned major cradle of Beat poetry where Beat poets have held poetry readings, broadcast their speeches, and published their poems since the 1950s, Greater San Francisco remains as attractive as during its heyday to poets and their readers alike. Among the poets of the younger generation in the West Coast, Jack Foley is the luckiest one who has chances to meet, learn from, and interview almost all the major Beat poets. As a post-Beat poet, an inheritor of the Beat poetry wealth, he not only promotes the poetry activities in the area but also finds his own voice. Since 1988, Foley has been hosting a poetry program at KPFA, a radio station that has been a highly regarded stage of poetic creation. Undoubtedly, Foley is a living encyclopedia of late 20th-century poetry in the West Coast. In his two lengthy works, O Powerful Western Star: Poetry & Art in California,” and Foley's Books: Californian Rebels, Beats, and Radicals, he accurately describes, records, and evaluates all literary endeavors in which he has been personally involved. [Note: When this article was written, Visions and Affiliations had not yet appeared, though O Powerful Western Star contains a very early, very brief version of what would become that book.] Not surprisingly, these two books have received great acclaim from such influential critics as Dana Gioia and David Kipen.

As an important Beat poet, Foley shows a strong tendency against mainstream Caucasian literature, which finds powerful expression in his poetic work and daily conversations. For example, in his well known speech "Multiculturalism and the Media," he questions the very notion of the White American. Foley tends to consider himself a non-mainstream writer and befriends non-Caucasian writers. Indeed, he is a self-conscious practitioner and promoter of multiculturalism.

As a matter of fact, anyone who has any contact with Foley will find him a sincere, helpful, and open-minded poet-friend. His friendship with a disabled Black Mountain poet [Larry Eigner] is a touching story well known among all those belonging to his big poetic circle.

In particular, Foley is famous for his poetry reading performance. It is one of his strongest convictions that poets should read or recite their poems face to face with their readers. Once I had a chance to listen to him read his poetry in Berkeley. As he played his guitar and performed his poetry together with his wife, Adelle, Foley introduced his enchanted audience into a whole new poetic realm. Later he told me that what he was trying to do was to revive the oral tradition of Homer's age, and I informed him that there had been a long tradition of this kind in China. Given his natural and wonderful performance, it is little wonder that critics like Steven Hirsch have praised Foley highly.

According to Foley, poetry reading performance is an important tradition initiated by Ezra Pound. Put differently, it is from Pound that Foley has learned or inherited this great tradition. The fact that an ever growing number of poets have begun to perform their poetic works and release their poetry CD's in America clearly shows that what Foley is doing is at once orthodox and avant-garde.

As Foley has rightly pointed out, there is a dialectic interrelationship between performed poetry and written poetry. Just as oral poetry can be transmitted through printed words, written poetry can achieve transformation through performance.

Despite its great appeal and popularity, poetry performance represents only one aspect of Foley's poetic activities. In an electronic age, he has been promoting poetry actively through a variety of vehicles, for instance, reading or reciting poetry with music accompaniment, releasing poetry CD's, hosting poetry programs at the radio station, giving online Alsop book reviews, and guest-editing poems for Poetry Flash at Berkeley as well as publishing poetry in print.

Another important element of poetry Foley pays special attention to is the multi-voice through which he believes the poet should speak. His "Chorus: Gershwin" is particularly illustrative of the way Foley often speaks, as Pamela Grieman has noted, in a multi-voice. As a result, Foley's poetry is powerfully rich and has many possible layers of meanings at the same time.

For Foley, a single speaker's voice in poetry is a false interpretation of experience rather than a real or natural voice. Consequently, the "I" in his poetry is constantly changing and speaking in a different voice, as in the case of Eliot's Wasteland. More significant is perhaps Foley's unique world outlook. Although a white American, he has criticized the definition or construct of such a concept. As a Californian "rebel, Beat, and radical" himself, Foley sometimes makes fun of God as he does in his poem "ELI, ELI," where he was brave enough to show his sympathy for those Catholic fathers when sexual scandals about them became known to the American public. That his viewpoints are often disparately different from others’ can also be seen from his attitude towards his son's marriage. In his long poem "An Epithalamium for My Son Sean and His Bride, Kerry Hoke," which he read during their wedding ceremony, Foley talked about sexual desires and intercourses. Asked whether or nor he felt embarrassed, he answered that it was a perfectly natural thing to do on the occasion.

Foley's uniqueness became even more self-evident when he answered questions during an interview conducted by Morton. To the question of what was the worst mistake he had ever made as a poet, he frankly replied, "Being jealous of another poet." While this response is very different from that of Robert Frost, who would never have admitted this, Foley never tries to keep his age as a secret as most elderly Americans would do. In fact, he wrote a poem entitled "The Temptation of Sixty," in which he opens his heart wide to his readers. Deeply impressed by the way Foley never stops experimenting with new art forms and is always ready to say what others would or could not say, many Beat poets call him a "touching fire."

Equally intriguing to note is Foley's understanding of Chinese literature, which exemplifies how the original text can be misread or even recreated. A telling example is his essay "Words and Books, Poetry and Writing," in which he has quite a lengthy quote from Lu Ji. Some of the questions Foley raises about this passage are obviously responses made on the basis of a misinterpretation of the original text. However, such misreading is quite natural, especially when translation is involved. For instance, Pound's famous poem "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" is a poetic recreation based on a misinterpretation of Li Bai's original poem.

These and other similar examples reveal that some literary works can travel afar beyond temporal and spatial boundaries. A freelance writer, Foley obtained his BA from Cornell and MA from UC at Berkeley. His wife Adelle, also a poet who published a book of Haiku entitled Along the Bloodline in 2003, has contributed significantly to his poetry reading performance. In addition to the aforementioned two books, Foley has published many books of poetry. In 2000, he won an award as an accomplished literary and cultural figure.


An Epithalamium for My Son Sean and His Bride Kerry Hoke (An excerpt)
Jack Foley

What does solitude signify?
And a man with such desire?
When it needs a spouse,
the world would tell you this:
marry someone, have children,
enjoy yourself, and death.
If any, solve your own problems.
What does solitude signify? Can it
follow you closely as you your faith or marriage?
Is there any lifelong solitude
that can never be solved
but can drive and divide love and pleasure?
(What does solitude signify?)
There is another solitude, at first
it appears as sexual desire,
but not the sexual intercourse satisfied in the end.
(What does solitude signify?)
There is another solitude,
which is no less than the pursuit of selfhood;
a disappointing pursuit made eventually in vain.
Because selfhood can only be created
rather than discovered,
the continuous destruction of one's self
the continuous destruction of one's self
is the self-search in another.
To seek one's self
and search another self in selfhood
is the task beyond all sensual pleasures.
What is the wedding?
It is not the combination of two persons,
one being dissolved in another;
but an ongoing dialogue
between equalities,
a solitude constantly terminated.


For Sean and Kerry,
we can sacrifice
our love, everything in life,
and all we can say--
Solitude has no ending
and neither does our love.
May your children
bring you happiness as you have done to us

Note: the above passage of selections is a translation of the Chinese translation of my poem. This is the original text of these selections:

What does it mean to be lonely?
What does it mean to be one--that longing?
The world
explains it
as desire for a mate:
find someone get married reproduce consume as much as possible die
and if you have problems, solve them
What does it mean to be lonely? Can it be held to
the way one holds to faith or to a marriage?
Is there a lifelong loneliness which no mate can solve
but which nonetheless
and extricates
(What does it mean to be lonely?) There is
another kind of loneliness
which appears initially
to be
but which cannot
be resolved
by sexuality.
(What does it mean to be lonely?)
There is another kind of loneliness
which is nothing less than
the search for self
a search which is finally
fruitless, frustrating
because selfhood
can only be created
not found
and so uncreates
It is the search for the self
in the other
the search for the other
in the self
which transcends
the task of pleasure.
What is a marriage?
It is not a union
of two
so that one dissolves in the other
but a constant conversation
among equals
a constant


To Sean
and Kerry
we give
whatever we can
of love
and a life lived
as well as we could
There is no end of loneliness
There is no end of love
May your children
give you the joy
that you gave

Jack Foley
January, 2020

Friday, September 13, 2019

writing / reading

Yesterday I had a discussion with a friend who remarked that radio allowed him to “use his imagination”—a familiar assertion which I continue to question: I’ve published an article arguing that radio depends upon the power of voices—disembodied voices—not upon our ability to “imagine” an image. My friend went on to suggest that the same thing happens when we read a book. His argument relied heavily on the notion of the “individual.” “In a sense,” he said, “we all read different books when we individually read a book: we all have individual histories, and we bring that history to our experience of reading.” I think this is true to a degree but not to a very significant degree. If it were true that our individual histories entered powerfully into our experience of reading, Madison Avenue would have great difficulty persuading vast numbers of people that it is telling the truth, and it is one of the calamities of our culture that people often believe media-generated things which, if they consulted their individual histories, they would know to be untrue. What happens is not that there is the book and there is ourselves as individuals and they are in a relationship: what happens is that we enter the field of language. Language generates a world in which it is the primary event—in which it postulates reality. The power of rhetoric is that it creates an area which depends upon its own contexts, its own connections. Though we may respond to a book about fathers with thoughts about our own father or a book about mothers with thoughts about our mother, that is not the primary thing that is happening to us. What is happening is that we are being pulled into a world that is deeply and essentially NOT this world—and we enter into it happily in order to escape what is precisely our “individuality.” All rhetoric is fiction: all reading is empathy and escape. That the world of reading may bring us to the perception of the possibility of a deeper, more generous world than the one we live in is certainly true, though it is also true that it may bring us into a world of lies and distortions. But both these worlds are fictions. What I am suggesting is the notion of writing as a “spell,” as “spelling,” rather than a neutral presenter of its contents. Christianity, with its belief in “another world,” a world in which we will continue to live even after our deaths, has a tangled relationship to writing, as Saint Augustine perceived in the sixth book of his Confessions when he confronted Saint Ambrose reading with his eyes alone: “Who durst intrude on one so intent?” Saint Ambrose was not affirming his individuality through reading; he was losing it through reading. He was, at that moment, “not of this world.” 

~~ Jack Foley

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Visions & Affiliations to be featured on radio KPFA, Berkeley

Next Wednesday, September 18, from 3:00 –3:30 p.m. (California time),  the weekly KPFA radio show about poetry, "Cover to Cover with Jack Foley" will air the second in a series of shows presenting excerpts from Jack’s book, Visions & Affiliations: California Poetry from 1940 to 2005. 

In Jack Foley’s Unmanageable Masterpiece (Monongahela Books, 2019), Dana Gioia writes: 

“In 2011 a tiny press in Berkeley published Visions & Affiliations, an eccentric 1300-page chronology of post-war California literature in two massive paperbound folio volumes. 

"With no commercial distribution or publicity, the book sold about two hundred copies and soon vanished from sight—but not from the memory of the small audience that read it. Some of them considered the elaborate time-line the first adequate account of California’s complex and contradictory literary life. 

"Others recognized Foley’s radical innovation in changing how literary history could be written. A few even considered these strange and sprawling yet compulsively readable tomes an oddball masterpiece.”

The show will be broadcast at FM 94.1, and will also be available at the KPFA website.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Howl and the Howlers: Ginsberg's Poem Fifty Plus Years Later

An Essay on the Most Famous Poetry Reading ever to Occur in California and on the Most Famous Single Poem ever Written There

If it’s true that the road to originality lies in imitation, then it wasn’t an utter waste of time for a Catholic high school boy from the suburbs to try to sound in his poems like a downtown homosexual Jewish beatnik intimate in the ways of pot and Benzedrine.
                            —Billy Collins, “My ‘Howl’” (2006)

Don’t hide the madness.
                           —Allen Ginsberg, “On Burroughs’ Work” (1954) 

“The Beat Generation” was one of the most publicized, misunderstood, attacked, understood, deeply considered, cannibalized, ripped-off art movements of the twentieth-century. Its influence extends from the adolescent troubled about sexuality and identity to the dry-as-dust scholar looking for history and significance in old books and papers. Whereas the “hippies” seem somewhat passé, sentimental, and—worst of all—old, the even-older Beats (some of whom were also hippies) have passed into history as American artists of considerable importance. Like Elvis, Jack Kerouac is now forever young, intense and handsome—a symbol of American success—and only occasionally remembered as the middle-aged, fat, lonely man he became. He has in fact become exactly what he wished to be: a great American writer. But he has become more than that: an icon. If America has secular saints, he is surely one. But, like many prophets perhaps, he has become a saint of a religion he would have despised: his image is used to sell things; he is the American bourgeoisie raised to cosmic proportions.

From its inception, the Beat Generation was a testimony to the power of the fuzzy definition. Intensely meaningful—and with certain aspects continually but not always manifesting—“Beat” has never been adequately defined. Had it been adequately defined, it might have been long dead as a movement. Though everyone would agree that something took place in the middle of the twentieth century, after the war, it would be difficult to find agreement about exactly what that something was. Was it a rebellion, as people often claimed? Kerouac announced, with some justice, that he was never a “rebel.” In his late bitterness but with some irony still, he told Bruce Cook in The Beat Generation, “The Beat Generation?—That was just a bunch of guys trying to get laid.” He also wrote,

The Beat Generation, that was a vision that we had, John Clellon Holmes and I, and Allen Ginsberg in an even wilder way, in the late Forties, of a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, curious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way.

                “About the Beat Generation” (1957) 

           On October 7 or October 13, 1955, a poetry reading was held at The Six Gallery, a cooperative art gallery in San Francisco. Different sources list different dates. Allen Ginsberg’s postcard announcing the event says October 7th–and that is almost certainly  the correct date–but his biographer, Barry Miles, says October 13th. (I’ve been told that Ginsberg claimed that the reading had to be postponed for six days—so the postcard was inaccurate. No one else seems to mention the postponement.) The featured readers were Allen Ginsberg (the organizer), Michael McClure (whose first reading it was), Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Philip Lamantia. Jack Kerouac was visiting Ginsberg at the time and attended, though he did not read. Kenneth Rexroth was Master of Ceremonies.

Ann Charters writes in The Beat Reader, “The ‘Six Poets at the Six Gallery’ reading was the catalyst that dramatically revealed what Ginsberg later called the ‘natural affinity of modes of thought or literary style or planetary perspective’ between the East Coast writers and the West Coast poets.”

Both Jack Kerouac and Michael McClure wrote about the Six Gallery event, Kerouac in The Dharma Bums (1958)—in which he calls the Six Gallery the Gallery Six—and McClure in Scratching the Beat Surface (1982). The event soon became famous as the first public reading of “Howl” (though Ginsberg read only the first section of the poem that night). Ginsberg’s poem created a sensation. Kerouac collected money for wine and passed around gallon jugs of California Burgundy. When Ginsberg’s turn came, writes Barry Miles, “he read with a small, intense voice, but the alcohol and the emotional intensity of the poem quickly took over, and he was soon swaying to its powerful rhythm, chanting like a Jewish cantor, sustaining his long breath length, savoring the outrageous language.  Kerouac began cheering him on, yelling ‘Go!’ at the end of each line, and soon the audience joined in.  Allen was completely transported. At each line he took a deep breath, glanced at the manuscript, then delivered it, arms outstretched, eyes gleaming, swaying from one foot to the other with the rhythm of the words.”

All descriptions of the Six Gallery event emphasize the transformative character of Ginsberg’s reading.  Michael McClure writes that “‘Howl’ . . . was Allen’s metamorphosis from quiet, brilliant, burning bohemian scholar trapped by his flames and repressions to epic vocal bard.” Kerouac’s communal wine-drinking gave the event a Bacchanalian, Dionysian quality. (Wine is of course associated with various religions, including Kerouac’s own, Catholicism; in a 1958 letter to John Hollander, Ginsberg himself refers to “Howl” as “rather like a jazz mass.”) Barry Miles too attests to both transformation and religious associations. These various elements coalesce into a single image: what the audience at the Six Gallery was witnessing was the metamorphosis of Allen Ginsberg, “hornrimmed intellectual hepcat with wild black hair” (in Kerouac’s phrase), into Allen Ginsberg, “epic vocal bard.”

Ann Charters remarks that Ginsberg “found the audience so fervently sympathetic to his words that he discovered his unrecognized talents as a performance artist”; his “predecessor as an incandescent performer of poetry was the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, whose widely acclaimed reading tours of American cities in the early 1950s . . . and his best-selling recordings had revolutionized the way his audiences thought of poetry.”

True enough, but Kerouac’s and the audience’s shouts of “Go!” indicate that Ginsberg had taken on the persona not only of the rhapsodic poet but of the jazz musician. Though Ginsberg wasn’t reading his poem to jazz accompaniment (as ruth weiss, Kenneth Rexroth and others were soon to do at The Cellar), his unaccompanied reading was alive with a sense of music—even with a sense of bebop: “who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz.”

In his notes to the LP album, Allen Ginsberg Reads Howl and Other Poems (1959), Ginsberg describes his poem as full of “long saxophone-like chorus lines” and suggests that writing it was equivalent to the experience of a jazz musician improvising. Like the hipster, who, Norman Mailer wrote in “The White Negro” (1957), “absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro,” Ginsberg’s performance at the Six Gallery took on the aura of the hippest of public performers: in Mailer’s formulation, “for practical purposes [he] could be considered a white Negro.” Instead of being the observer of what Kerouac called in On the Road “the happy, true-hearted Negroes of America,”  Ginsberg became the authentic conveyer of their power. Like Neal Cassady—the “secret hero of these poems”—the sensitive, gay, bespectacled, hustling, funny, lonely, fiercely intellectual, convivial, drug-taking ex-student of Lionel Trilling’s stood before his audience as something equivalent to Charlie Parker. For one of the very few times in the twentieth century, poetry seemed cool.

And—most importantly—if Ginsberg could do it, so could we.

Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues had already presented the jazz musician as analogous to the poet, but Kerouac was not yet widely known. (On the Road did not appear until 1957; Mexico City Blues was not published until 1959.) “Howl” was written at a time when influential critics such as Arthur Mizener were saying, “The age of Yeats is over; we are in the age of Auden”—by which Mizener meant that Romanticism had been replaced by irony and sotto voce. Ginsberg sent “Howl” to a critic even more distinguished than Mizener, his old Columbia mentor Lionel Trilling. Trilling was—as the poet knew he would be—horrified:

I’m afraid I have to tell you that I don’t like the poems at all. I hesitate before saying that they seem to me quite dull, for to say of a work which undertakes to be violent and shocking that it is dull is, I am aware, a well known and all too easy device. But perhaps you will believe that I am being sincere when I say they are dull. They are not like Whitman….

Poet John Hollander, writing in the Partisan Review, was even harsher:
It is only fair to Allen Ginsberg…to remark on the utter lack of decorum of any kind in his dreadful little volume.

In “The White Negro,” Norman Mailer asserted that after the Second World War and the revelation of what went on in concentration camps “one could hardly maintain the courage to be individual, to speak with one's own voice”: these years, he complained, are “the years of conformity and depression. A stench of fear has come out of every pore of American life, and we suffer from a collective failure of nerve…The only courage, with rare exceptions . . . has been the isolated courage of isolated people”:

If the fate of twentieth century man is to live with death from adolescence to premature senescence, why then the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self.

In such a climate, Ginsberg could appear not only as an immensely talented poet but as a harbinger of cultural change. “Howl” too “lives with death as immediate danger” and insists on “the rebellious imperatives of the self.” The poet’s LP liner notes indicate that writing “Howl” was a kind of conversion experience, a personal transformation: “I suddenly turned aside in San Francisco . . . to follow my romantic inspiration—Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath.” The extraordinary thing about the event at the Six Gallery was that the audience could witness Ginsberg’s transformation: they could actually see the poet become jazz musician. Ginsberg’s powerful reading, “arms outstretched, eyes gleaming,” was not only the presentation of a poem but a living emblem of the possibility of change. Through rhythm  (the “beat”) it turned being “beaten down” (“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”) into, in Kerouac’s French pun, “béat”—blessedness. The poet’s longing for the visionary transforms him, through the jazz musician, into active, epic, Whitmanic, visionary bard. This transformation experience is at the absolute center of “Howl” and is in fact its primary subject. 

~~ Jack Foley, from Beat (The Beat Scene Press, 2003)

(This essay in its entirety may be read here.  Warning: the full essay includes lengthy quotations from "Howl" with language which may be offensive to some readers).

Whitman's "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (Expoesis)

In his great poem, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (1859), Walt Whitman constantly seeks a name for the kind of language he has invented for his complex, multi-voiced, multi-selved poem, resonating with echoes from the Bible (particularly the Psalms), from the highly theatrical opera of his day—the notion of the “aria” is central to the piece—even from the world of the newspaper, which was one of the places in which Whitman developed his understanding of writing. The term he chooses for this language, which is alive with the notion of performance, is not verse or poetry or prose or prose poetry—the term “free verse” was not available to him—but song. This notion of song was a redefinition of the possibilities of language in a specifically American context. In his extraordinary essay, “Projective Verse” (1950), Charles Olson extends Whitman’s insights into techniques partially gleaned from the French Symbolist movement, in which the silence and whiteness of the page is not neutral but an active element in the meaning of what the poet intends. In addition, breath—the breathing of syllables—becomes a central issue in the enunciation of the work. Together, Whitman and Olson—with, no doubt, some help from William Carlos Williams, among others—give living poets, and particularly American poets, a medium in which they can find their own erratic, imaginative way.


I don’t think there is another poem
More unique
And, simultaneously,
More representative of
What we may call the American spirit
Than this amazing
Presentation of the making of a poet
Of the transformation of anyone
From childhood to a condition of knowledge
How do we enter the world in a deep way
It is an aria, a performance
Something Whitman saw in the opera houses,
It is a multi-voiced, multi-selved poem in which
All sorts of styles and “voices” are brought together
(Including the hissing voice of the old crone, the sea, and the voice of the bird, “my dusky demon and brother,” “the lone singer wonderful”)
It is a poem about family (the he-bird, the she-bird)
It is a poem about the stunning fact of Death the Opener
And the great representation of the sea (Melville)
(The sea is the openness of consciousness)
It is a nature poem
In which the “outsetting bard” merges with what he sees
It includes Quakers (“Ninth-month midnight”)
And Native Americans (“Paumanok”)
It is Whitman giving himself over to the sheer possibilities of music
As world becomes word (“translating”)
It is an act of marvelous empathy and compassion in the literal sense, “feeling with”
It is a poem about the body and its transformation
Even as Whitman speaks of the soul
It is a poem in which the lorn bird and the transforming boy
Move us to what Wallace Stevens called
A new representation of reality.
This, camerados, is the great mythic moment of American letters
And it takes place not at a desk but outside,
Not as writing but as brilliant spontaneous unexpected utterance.
It ushers in (under the magical multivalent moon, in the presence of the vast, talkative sea)
Nothing less than the world as song.

~~Jack Foley

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Gioia on Jack Foley's Visions & Affiliations

Dana Gioia
Jack Foley has been such an active figure in California letters over the past forty years that it would seem impossible to make sense of West Coast poetry without reference to him. Yet most critics do exactly that. Foley has published on the margins of official literary life. Conventional critics don’t know his work. Time will correct the oversight, but there is no harm in speeding up the process by offering a few observations on his prolific career. There are singular aspects of his work that deserve attention, especially his experimental poetry written for and performed by multiple voices. But poetic innovation is what one expects from a Bay Area Beat. What astonishes the reader is Foley’s critical prose. No one expects a Beat poet to write a major work of literary history or to develop a radically new and revelatory approach to the genre.

          Literary history is an academic enterprise, something done on a Mellon grant in a research library by a tenured professor with a book contract from Oxford. On my shelf I see thick volumes with titles such as The Columbia History of American Literature or Oxford History of English Literature. There is good reason that publishers name such books after universities. The genre seems inherently institutional. The volumes resemble collectively compiled reference works more than expressions of personal critical engagement. Literature is an affair of individual sensibility—both in its creation and criticism. Literary history, however, requires the author to reconcile personal opinions with the broader external consensus. That is one reason why such books date quickly; collective opinions change as intellectual fashions change.

          There are a few glorious exceptions—literary histories that combine scholarship and personality, virtues that give them considerable longevity. George Saintsbury’s three-volume History of English Prosody (1906) is one conspicuous example—a study that still feels alive more than a century after its publication. The reader may disagree with Saintsbury on a particular point, but the author remains a vital and provocative presence. Likewise René Wellek’s monumental eight-volume History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950 (published from 1955 to 1986) presents formidable  scholarship with a gentle human touch. As polyglot Professor Wellek surveys two hundred years of Western intellectual history, he never forgets that the students in his imaginary seminar are a bit embarrassed at not having done all the assigned reading. Such erudite but engaging books prove not merely useful but invaluable. They provide comprehensive accounts of complex subjects in which the authors communicate their passions, puzzlements, and prejudices.

          Yet how seldom is literary history done well. Years of fastidious scholarship and editorial toil often deaden the author who must diligently push the project to its contractual end, even though passion died in chapter three. Academic conventions also weigh upon the style and structure. Critical fashions mire it in short-term concerns. The genre’s problems have increased in recent years, as more surveys have been written not by individuals but committees of experts. Hefty official histories now appear without any unifying narrative line or organizing principle. Written by different authors, each chapter exists in intellectual and stylistic isolation. Pursuing their individual interests, scholars leave gaps in the historical record omitting major writers and subjects. If the genre isn’t dead yet, we can hear the carpenter sawing boards for the coffin.

If literary history in general is in trouble, the history of California letters has never been out of it. No state has had a richer legacy over the past 125 years. Starting with Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, Bret Harte, John Muir, Mary Austin, and Frank Norris, California letters began with explosive originality. Thousands of miles from the arbiters of good taste, the West Coast fostered generations of innovative writers who would not have emerged elsewhere. The California canon includes authors as different as Robinson Jeffers, Dashiell Hammett, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Nathanael West, John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair, Josephine Miles, Ray Bradbury, Yvor Winters, William Everson, Richard Rodriguez, Kenneth Rexroth, Raymond Chandler, Amy Tan, Robert Duncan, Charles Bukowski, Joan Didion, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Maxine Hong Kingston, John Fante, Octavia Butler, and Kay Ryan. No one has ever adequately explained how this immense literary upheaval occurred. Most scholars have sought to define the state’s literary character by ignoring the writers who don’t fit into their theories. It is easier to explain Rexroth in isolation than to account for the simultaneous presence of Jeffers, Winters, and Duncan. Other critics have tried to construe California letters from the perspective of charismatic outsiders, such as Scott Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley, Henry Miller, or Allen Ginsberg, who came into the state with agenda of their own and captured important historic moments in their work. California literary history has mostly been the history of cultural simplification. No one knows what to do with the complex and contradictory writing the state has produced. It doesn’t fit pre-existing patterns.

There is another basic problem with California literary history. There is little documentation for many writers and movements. Ten years ago when I compiled the anthology, California Poetry: From the Gold Rush to the Present, I was stymied by the lack of reliable information for many of the 100 writers my co-editors and I selected. There were no biographies or critical studies. The poets did not appear in reference books, nor had they been covered in earlier anthologies. The situation was especially bad for the women writers. Where did one find reliable information on Adrian Stoutenberg, Rosalie Moore, Violet Kazue de Cristoforo, Myra Cohn Livingston, Helen Pinkerton, or Josephine Miles? We had to track down primary sources—often searching out surviving family members and friends—just to establish basic facts. Moreover, since misinformation abounds, we needed multiple sources to assure accuracy. Except for the Gold Rush poets and Beats, there was little critical or biographical writing. Research is easier now, but only a little, despite the vast resources of the internet. 

Why is there no adequate account of Activism, a major Bay Area movement of the 1950s? Why is there no history of Yvor Winters and his influential Stanford School of poets? Why is there still no comprehensive account of Ishmael Reed and Al Young’s multicultural Yardbird movement? For many Los Angeles poets, there is little public material beyond dust-jacket bios and obituaries. It is not just poets who lack documentation. The extraordinary emergence of science fiction in L.A. in the decades following World War II changed the nature of the genre as well as transformed global entertainment. Yet this creative renaissance has been covered haphazardly, mostly by fanzines, pop profiles, and amateur websites. Literary historians generally select and shape their material from copious secondary sources. Californians writing about their native state still have to do primary research to tell the basic story.

          It will seem supremely odd to any academic that Jack Foley, an Oakland poet without any institutional support or university connection, has written the most comprehensive history of post-war California poetry—a study that not only surveys the lives and work of hundreds of literary figures but also cogently addresses the contradictory impulses in the state’s creative psyche. Moreover Foley has fashioned his chronicle in an innovative way that is both engaging and unabashedly experimental.”

Dana Gioia 

(from his essay,  " 'Just One Damned Thing After Another,'
 Jack Foley's Literary Time Line")