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

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