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Jack Foley: California Poets Part 7, Five Poems


Jack Foley


July 1st, 2024

California Poets: Part VII

Jack Foley

Five Poems



I ONLY

 

“Neeli

was one of us”

said Iván Argüelles

when he learned

of Neeli Cherkovski’s death—

outsiders

who persisted

in imagination.

I remember

the three of us,

Neeli, Iván, me,

on Solano Avenue

in Berkeley, California.

were we heading

for an ice cream shop

or is that another

memory?

three old men

who had trouble

walking.

I also remember

Neeli’s

sudden laughter

at the spectacle

of the three of us,

three frail old men

in whom imagination

thrived and allowed

transcendence

of all—

or some of—

their bodily

ills.

three

in whom words

sang freely.

how strange

how funny

it was

to see them there

stumbling

who flew upon

imagination’s

wings.

two—Neeli, Iván—

gone now.

“I only

am escaped

to tell thee.”


***

 

 

TOM CLARK

  

suicidal tom

was hit by a car

top of Solano

survived

tried again

made it

on the second try.

interviewed him,

his Olson book.

he wouldn’t let me speak.

cut me off

if I tried

to ask a question.

found out why.

my son

was in a dance troupe.

I waited

in a near-by

book shop.

sometimes Angelica

was there.

nothing romantic

between us,

just friendly chatter.

but tom was told.

finally, furious,

Angelica weeping,

he told me

to leave his house,

tape recorder and all.

if he could have

killed me

he would have.

as I left he screamed,

“You’re not man

enough for her.”

Tom:

were you?


***

 

 

HISTORY


is my mother’s voice

informing me

that the stick in her hand

will come down

hard

upon my body.

I hear it still

and feel the blow.

once,

I took the stick

from her hands

and broke it in half,

tossing the pieces

on the floor.

she was furious

but she never

struck me again.

history

is the interruption

of events

that have gone on

without thought

for what seems

like centuries.

at some moment

something happens

to change us.

it is here

that history

and poetry

meet

in the moment

of transformational

ecstasy

in which the vast

confusion

of event

takes on the clarity

of a falling sword.

 

***

 

 

 

WHERE

 

do people go

when they die?

they go to the movies.

how can you doubt it?

last night I saw

Sunset Boulevard:

Gloria Swanson,

William Holden,

Erich Von Stroheim,

all dead.

the director dead too.

I saw Gregory Peck,

Gregory Ratoff,

Jean Arthur,

Irene Dunne,

James Stewart,

Eddie “Rochester” Anderson,

S.Z. “Cuddles” Zackall,

Elisha Cook, Jr.,

Betty Hutton,

Judy Garland,

Emlyn Williams,

William Demarest,

Paul Robeson,

Keye Luke,

Henry Hull,

Mischa Auer,

James Barton,

Bobby Driscoll,

Margaret Hamilton,

Ethel Barrymore,

John Barrymore,

Ethel Waters,

Henry Fonda,

Gene Kelly,

Cyd Charisse—

all there in the movies,

all dead.

where do people go

when they die?

they go to the movies. 

 

***

 

 

 

 

FOR IVÁN ARGÜELLES

 

“He had a very difficult life which he accepted. The steady

soft glow of your friendship for him was a balm and your

understanding insightful and frequent reviews were a gift

to the community.”

                ––Malcolm Margolin

 

isn’t it just like you to die a las cinco de la tarde!

Bang ! Bang ! la vida la pinche vida, hombre !

                        and the deserts rolling

like futile seas towards Las Vegas and points east

“You’re not American, you’re an Indian.”

I met you something like forty years ago.

I knew Marilla from Park School

and I had told her that I knew Ishmael Reed a little:

“Oh. Ivan”––not Iván in those days––“would like to meet him.”

And so it began. you gave me a book, I wrote you back.

“What you wrote was closer to what I think I’m doing than

anything else I’ve seen. You say you write poetry. Listen.

I’m doing a reading at Larry Blake’s. Why don’t you read with me.

If your poetry is half as good as your criticism, I’m sure

you’ll be fine.” and so it began and so it began.

I was completely unknown. had done no readings

except for one that Iván attended at CCAC. there, Adelle and I did

one of the choral pieces I was writing:

that the hummingbird’s wings are of a remarkable rapidity

he had noted often––nothing could be done––the

shift of his breathing––

and hearing it you grew excited. then the reading at Larry Blake’s.

I wanted to write something special for it––

something elegant & long––

and as I wrote it bit by bit I phoned you and read you

what I’d done.

“Is it all right?”

“Yes, yes, it is. Keep it coming.” your beautiful voice

assured me. I was amazed. no one, literally no one

had ever even liked my verse. yet I had continued,

if no one else was subject to its power, at least I was.

and then there was Iván. we were a great success

at Larry Blake’s. someone had made a poster

and there we were. a young woman

came up to me afterwards and singled out the long, special poem

I had written, “Sweeney Adrift.”

“What a poem!” she kept repeating. “What a poem!”

Nancy Peters and Phillip Lamantia were there to hear Iván

but they heard Adelle and me as well.

“Something original,” said Nancy about my choral piece.

“welcome to the house of failure,” I had written in “Sweeney Adrift,”

“see these are the structural bases of the house

its beams and arteries

its artificial light its hands its vast appendices

who is

not here?

the range of things

delights us welcome welcome

 

see there is the door it opens for us

welcome”

yes.

suddenly that door of poetry opened

and it was all Iván’s doing.

everything I have ever done

was in that moment

which I shared

with a man

who would be my lifelong

friend.

dear man,

do you remember our many

times in Saul’s Restaurant and Jewish Delicatessen

in Berkeley?

“Are you going to say it again?” you asked.

“Yes, I am,” I answered.

and when the waitress served me

my matzoh ball soup, I asked her, deadpan,

as I did every time a waitress

served me such soup,

“And what do they do

with the rest of the Matzoh?”

“ARGH,” said Iván.

will you tell me in a dream

if there is matzoh ball soup

in Poet Heaven?

our times together

flood over me,

there was so much

and so much richness

in them.

“Do you want to hear a poem?” you asked.

“Of course,” I answered

and you read me

something beautiful.

THIS IS DEDICATED TO THE ONE I LOVE

on earth to say there are couples that don’t match 

and flames of equidistant breath their smoke release

the sign is higher than summer and the cipher 

cannot be discerned all sites and directions weathered

and grasses of twilight lift weary shadows to a god

whose nature is as unknown as death and what’s

to sacrifice if not the soul’s plagiarized copy afloat

in clouds where sleep is buried and poetry too

descant and folio of vast unremembered lines”

your lines will be remembered

and because of you perhaps some of mine as well

and perhaps our friendship.

goodbye, my loving, wonderful friend.

I’ll go to Saul’s and order matzoh ball soup

and I will say, as I always do,

“What do they do

with the rest of the Matzoh?”

and I will hear your laughter

and your moan

and I will know

some things survive

even the dark, dark hand

of Death.

 

Iván Argüelles, January 24, 1939-April 28, 2024



Interview


July 15th, 2024

California Poets Interview Series:

Jack Foley, Poet, Editor, Radio Host

interviewed by David Garyan



DG: Your poetry is as much crafted for performance as it’s written for the page. Can you talk about why performance is an organic part of the poem itself and not merely a vehicle to transmit the poem?

 

JF: Performance is an aspect of some of my work, a fair amount but not of all of it. I have written poems which cannot be performed, which can only be read silently, with the eyes.

 

In the West, poetry begins as performance: Homer. It begins as an art like singing. It’s only with the rise of writing and reading silently that performance ceases to be an aspect of the art. Book six of Augustine’s Confessions has a wonderful passage in which Augustine sees his friend St. Ambrose reading. For Augustine, “reading” means accumulating a crowd of people and reading aloud to them. Ambrose is reading silently, not communicating to anyone what he is reading. He is by himself, absorbed in the book. Augustine realizes that the new dispensation is Christian, inward, and silent before the page. To put it another way, he realizes that Christianity is moving in a different direction from what had been before. In this situation, the situation of silent reading, what is the statis of an art whose primarily means of communication had been speech? We are in fact all taught to read as Ambrose did: not to speak the words aloud but to read silently.  With the coming of electronic media, however, the possibility of the assertion of the oral/aural aspects of the art arises again. As I was growing up, recordings of poets—particularly Dylan Thomas—were becoming popular. I felt that in many ways the visual aspects of poetry, poetry on the page, had usurped the sound aspects of poetry. Silent reading had had its impact. It was an important aspect of my first deep experience of poetry that I should speak it aloud. I felt that in some way I was recreating the poet in my own body, resurrecting him through his words. All this is what I think of as the current crisis of poetry.

 

I’d like to add this as well:

 

in the 60s

an audience    

which was

generally

ignorant

of poetry

was “blown away”

by the admirable

work

of Bob Dylan.

the audience

was equally

ignorant

of the work

of the great lyricists

of the 20s

and 30s––

Cole Porter,

Ira Gershwin,

Lorenz Hart, etc.

for them these lyricists

were part

of what John Lennon

scornfully called

“grannie music.”

though Bob Dylan

clearly regarded himself

as a songwriter,

not as a poet,

his audience

wished to call him

something more

elevated than that:

they wished to call him

“poet.”

because they had

little knowledge

of the actual art

of poetry,

for them and for others,

what Dylan did

was poetry.

there was no

other kind.

and so for them poetry

ceased to be

what Chaucer did

or what Spenser did

or what Pope did

or what Byron did

or what Wordsworth did

or what Emily Dickinson did

or what Paul Lawrence Dunbar did

or what García Lorca did

or what Neruda did

or what Eliot and Pound did

or what Gertrude Stein did

or what Iván Argüelles did

and became

essentially

and entirely

song lyrics,

usually

of some sort

of personal

nature.

Dylan is

a marvelous lyricist

and song lyrics are a mode

of poetry

but they are not

poetry as such,

and now the incredible and moving expanse

of the art of poetry

begins to disappear,

and the ignorant and vicious

hatred of poetry

once again finds space

to reaffirm itself.

“Shakespeare was a lousy

lyricist,” said the author

of “That isn’t thunder, dear,

It’s only my poor heart you hear

And its applause.”

Lament for the Makaris.

    I that in heill wes and gladnes,

    Am trublit now with gret seiknes,

    And feblit with infermite;

    Timor mortis conturbat me.

    Our plesance heir is all vane glory,

    This fals warld is bot transitory,

    The flesche is brukle, the Fend is sle;

    Timor mortis conturbat me.

 

DG: Your late wife, Adelle Joan Foley, was an invaluable guide in your creative journey. Can you talk about her influence on your work and how your writing process/performances changed after that?

 

JF: Adelle’s influence was mostly in performance, not in the creation of my verse. I of course had both her strengths and limitations in mind when I wrote choral pieces, but these things were never all that important in determining my writing process. I gave the poem to her after it was done. She was usually able to do what I asked and to do it well. If she had an idea, she suggested it and we discussed it. She eventually became a poet herself and she regularly read her work at our readings.

 

I’m still working that way with Sangye.

 

To put it another way, I see the “I” as a front man for a situation in which there are many voices—some of them in conflict—asserting themselves: “an unstable republic of conflicting impulses, instincts, and appetites in perpetual flux” (Dana Gioia). Our natural situation is not an I but multiple.  How to express that in a poem? The word “individual” is by etymology “not divided.” In political terms, I think the rights of the “individual” are everywhere to be respected. But if I attempt to understand what’s going on in my mind, I’m as divided as I can be: and if I’m fundamentally divided, I’m not an “individual.” My word for what I am is a “multiplicity.”


DG: Over the years, you’ve used the radio to bring poetry into conversation with the greater community. These kinds of programs have been steadily decreasing in number. How much of that activity remains on the scene in California and do you see the possibility of a resurgence?

 

JF: I don’t think there are that many poetry programs on the air. There have been, in addition to mine, a few others on KPFA and I’m sure other stations have done them as well. Nina Serrano does one. So does Avotcja. Perhaps there are some others. I’ve been doing mine since 1988. I’m afraid that I don’t generally listen to poetry programs other than my own. I feel that poetry is in general not understood very well and that fact gets itself reflected in interviews and presentations.


DG: In honor of your tireless work as poet and promoter of poetry, the city of Berkeley, in 2010, proclaimed June 5th to be “Jack Foley Day.” About that, you’ve said in jest: “Most people get 15 minutes. But I've had my day." What are things you love most about working in Berkeley and what are things that have gotten more difficult?

 

JF: Actually, I don’t really work in Berkeley. For reasons of health I no longer do public readings and no longer attend them. I’m ok if they’re on Zoom. There have always been many venues for poetry in the area and therefore many poets in the area: Berkeley, of course, but also San Francisco and Oakland.  At the moment, I record my radio shows in my Oakland home and email them to KPFA for broadcast. Jack Foley Day––it was only that one day––was because I received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Berkeley Poetry Festival; it wasn’t an Award decided by the city of Berkeley.


DG: There’s no shortage of bookstores in the Bay Area. Apart from City Lights, which are your favorite?

 

JF: Again for health reasons, I don’t much go to book stores (nor to the supermarket, etc.). My sense is that the number of bookstores has been diminishing. I guess Moe’s would have to be the top of the list. I’m not sure which ones are still functioning. Because of my radio show, people are constantly sending books to me. And because of my health, it’s difficult for me to go places.

 

DG: It’s not possible to talk about your work without discussing Visions and Affiliations—a 1,300 page (in two volumes) or so encyclopedia that undertakes a grand sweep of California poetry from 1940 to 2005. To say there’s a more ambitious project of this kind would be ambitious. Can you talk about the struggles and joys you encountered putting such a project together and to what extent California poetry is both a unique force in America, but also a literature that is quintessentially American and fits within the greater literary conversation of our country?

 

JF: There’s a book about Visions and Affiliations that goes on about what is special about California poetry: Jack Foley’s Unmanageable Masterpiece, edited by Dana Gioia and Peter Whitfield. They write: “Some...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.” Someone dubbed the book a “chronoencyclopedia.”

 

It was not difficult to do though it took about ten years. I just kept a file. I finished it two or three times and then each time realized that it wasn’t finished, that I needed to include more.

 

Michael McClure felt that he had learned from Kenneth Rexroth that being a California poet meant being more attuned to nature and looking to Asia rather to Europe for inspiration. I’m sure I’ve been influenced in these directions too, but I certainly still maintain European connections. My girlfriend Sangye is Buddhist.


DG: Who are the poets from that 1940 to 2005 period that have, in your view, received far less recognition than they should’ve had and are there perhaps specific poems, too, which come to mind?

 

JF: Many, many. To name just a few: Larry Eigner, James Broughton, Adrienne Rich, Michael McClure, Harold Norse, Robert Duncan (especially), Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ron Silliman, Carolyn Kizer, Jack Spicer, Al Young, Iván Argüelles, H.D. Moe, Dana Gioia, David Mason, Diane di Prima, Alan Bern, Neeli Cherkovski, Jerome Rothenberg, Deborah Bachels Schmidt, Rusty Morrison, etc. etc. etc. Duncan’s “My Mother Would Be a Falconress” has to be high up on the list of great California poems. I have championed Peyton Houston as a poet who simply disappeared and who was first rate. Alas, he remains more or less unknown. I have done in-depth interviews with various Beat writers: Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, McClure.


DG: In 1974 you dropped out of grad school because you wanted to be more like Charles Olson than the critics who didn’t understand him. These days, the academy has even more institutional control over criticism and literary creativity. Has it all been for the worse or do you see some redeeming qualities in having greater opportunities to study and publish the art we love?

 

JF: I think the academy has not had a particularly positive affect on the art of poetry, though, on the other hand, where else can you get people to read John Dryden or Alexander Pope? One example I return to is that of William Butler Yeats. Collisions has a long essay on Yeats as well as new poetry by me. The essay begins,

 

Part of what fascinates me about Yeats is that his work became—rightly—immensely famous but, I believe, at the expense of being genuinely understood. The groundwork laid by Richard Ellmann in 1948 was immediately accepted and continues to this day, but it contains some serious misreadings of central poems. (Paul de Man remarked to me that he thought Ellmann’s work was “bad biography and bad criticism.”) I think what Ellmann wrote was taken up with considerable relief because no one wanted to deal with Yeats’ many esoteric influences—with the highly prolific Madame Blavatsky, for instance. Here was one of “ours,” a good academic rather than a religious fanatic, who took care of all that, who elucidated Yeats’ complex, quasi-religious symbol system with great clarity. When Paul de Man implicitly challenged Ellmann’s readings, he was immediately vilified by the Yeats industry. Two personal examples: Thomas Parkinson, who wrote two books on Yeats, said to me, “I wish Paul de Man had never written about Yeats.” After F.D. Reeve and I had done a joint reading in Berkeley, we began to strike up a friendship and were writing back and forth. Encouraged, I sent him some of what I had to say about Yeats. He immediately ended all communication with me.

 

These are some lines from a poem, not from the essay:

 

the problem is that Ellmann’s interpretations,

now enshrined and repeated endlessly,

were not necessarily accurate.

the “great-rooted blossomer” is not

the same as the leaf, the blossom and the bole:

the answer to Yeats’ question is no.

the poem’s equally famous concluding question is not

a rhetorical one asserting the identity

of dancer and dance:

it is a genuine, anguished question.

Yeats’ inability to tell

the dancer from the dance,

documented in the body of the poem,

may cost him his immortal soul.

the poem is not an assertion

of certainty:

I walk through the long schoolroom questioning.

 

The essay was also published in the latest Exacting Clam. You can get it online.


DG: When asked to give young poets advice, most established ones say “write what you know.” Instead, in a short interview with Dennis Morton, you said: “Write about what you don't know; steal.” That was quite a while back. Do you still hold to the maxim or was that in fact said in jest—the spur of the moment, the desire to answer an oft-asked question in a more provocative way?

 

JF: I think of writing as a journey of exploration: the words that come to me give me news about myself, often things I didn’t know before. Of course, they also bring me news of other things as well. I do not think of writing as the expression of things I already know. I was not the first to suggest that a good poet should steal: T.S. Eliot did so before me.

 

DG: Who are your favorite California poets?

 

JF: I have poets I return to all the time––poets like Yeats, Joyce, Duncan, Stein, McClure, etc.––but they are not necessarily California poets. I enjoy living here but that doesn’t mean that I have to limit myself to California poets. Do Duncan or Ferlinghetti or McClure think of themselves as “regional poets”? California poets, as all poets should be, are open to the full range of poetry.

 

DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?

 

JF: I have three books coming out this year. Collisions, a collection of poetry plus the essay on Yeats; Ekphrazz, a collection of ekphrastic poetry, a collaboration with collagist Mark Fisher. Collisions is already out. Ekphrazz should be out in a week or two. The third will be later this year. It’s being published by a press in India and is called (quoting Emily Dickinson) Telling It Slant.

 

I’d like to conclude with two passages. The first is a commentary on Collisions. Though it’s written in the third person, I’m the author.

 

Octogenarian Jack Foley’s Collisions is a book at play in the forests of the mind. The opening quotation from Dana Gioia defines the book’s understanding of consciousness: “Human consciousness is an unstable republic of conflicting impulses, instincts, and appetites in perpetual flux.” Collisions is an attempt to honor that notion of the chaos of consciousness while at the same time giving the reader an experience of thought and feeling that is not so chaotic that it is overwhelming. It tries to tell the truth about the mind in a way that feels if not comfortable at least familiar: we too have felt that fire, that movement. The book asserts that the fundamental condition of poetry is words in motion, constantly dis/uncovering perceptions of the new. “Ecstasy seems to be linked to the instability of language.” Familiar with the many forms of traditional poetry and comfortable with the making of new forms, Foley conceives of every living poet as an Orpheus attempting to rescue Poetry-as-Eurydice. If poetry to some extent reveals the ramifications of the poet’s identity, it does so in the context of the coruscations of words whose flashes move beyond identity into something more. The book deliberately plunges us into mystery as everything collides with everything else. Foley writes to a fellow poet, “‘Home’ is where you belong but ‘home’ isn’t anywhere: it is always a profound absence: ‘sound, noise that reaches for the ever-receding light’” (Iván Argūelles). I think that, underneath all the ‘influences,’ is this deep longing which is always asserted and always denied.” Baudelaire: “heaven or hell who cares / In the depths of the unknown to find something new.” Foley goes on: “I suggest in Collisions that whatever caused us to be here is not omniscient but is engaged in a vast attempt to understand itself: our actions as a species—even our destructive ones—are almost entirely modes of self-reflection, attempts at self-discovery or self-revelation. From this point of view, each of us is an experiment in knowing.”

 

***

 

What is the status of the poet?

What can be said of the poet’s impact

If any?

For most of America and perhaps

The world

Song lyrics are their only poetry.

How can we regain

The lost dignity

Of the poem?

            Tous les poètes

            Sont Orphée:

                   Son histoire

            Est l’histoire de tous.

 

July, 2024



Author Bio:

Jack Foley has published 20 books of poetry, 5 books of criticism, a book of stories, and a two-volume, 1300-page “chrono-encyclopedia,” Visions & Affiliations: California Poetry 1940-2005. He became well known particularly through his multi-voiced performances with his late wife, Adelle. He currently performs with his new life partner, Sangye Land. Since 1988, he has presented poetry on Berkeley radio station, KPFA. He has received Lifetime Achievement Awards from Marquis Who’s Who and the Berkeley Poetry Festival as well as the K.M. Anthru Award from the Indian publication, Litterateur RW. June 5, 2010 was declared “Jack Foley Day” in Berkeley. He has a Wikipedia page. His most recent books include the companion volumes, The Light of Evening, a brief autobiography, and “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads,” a psychobiography, a biography of the poet’s mind; Bridget and Other Poems, a selection of Jack’s work edited and translated by German poet, Andreas Weiland; and Creative Death: an octogenarian’s wordshop. Forthcoming: Collisions, new poetry, and Ekphrazz, a collaboration with Mark Fisher, collages and ekphrastic poetry.

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