Poets & Poetry 1940-2005 (I, II)
By Jack Foley
Oakland: Pantograph Press. 2011.
Jack Kerouac coined the phrased “Beat Generation” in 1948, the year Jack Foley opens his chronology of West Coast poetry, his rich syllabus of literary, political, and sociological texts that define a bygone era. Nineteen-forty-eight was seminal in other ways, as well, announcing the publication of Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos (New Directions). T.S. Eliot won the Nobel Prize, Denise Levertov emigrated to the U.S., and William Everson, whose The Residual Years was newly published, became Brother Antoninus after speaking with God. The following year, Marcel Duchamp lectured at the SF Museum of Art and the Hungary i opened. A new radio station, KPFA, began broadcasting Jarmie de Angulo’s Indian Tales. DH Lawrence came out with his Selected Poems (New Directions), with an introduction by Kenneth Rexroth, who took the metrics of Hopkins and Bridges to task, and dismissed the idealized, stilted ways of writing of old masters like Thomas Hardy and Matthew Arnold. “Sermonizing,” he called it.
A new kind of sermon altogether was in the air in 1949. That same year saw Robinson Jeffers’ Medea and Walter Lippman’s Cold War. It is also the year, Foley tells us, when literary giants moved West—Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky. It was an era of Beats and Counter-Beats, with more poets heading West: McGrath, Weldon Kees, Lawrence Ferling (who later changed his name to Ferlingetti). Howl instigated an obscenity trial and “McCarthyism” was coined. Here in the early Fifties were the seeds of much of the today’s literary scene. Charles Olson was the rector of Black Mountain College, Weldon Kees had a one-man show, Henry Miller’s books, ubiquitous in bookstores now, were pronounced obscene, and the Rosenberg’s were sentenced to death. But these years also tell of an era passed, as when Dylan Thomas makes a final appearance in San Francisco. Thus Foley’s chronology points sometimes backward and other times forward in time, like historic and new buildings side by side along an old city street.
Foley introduces each decade by placing literary events in a broader political and national context, noting important elections, wars, and assassination, events often mirrored in poetry of that time, and in the early decades especially he continues to document the steady migration of talent West: Bob Kaufman; David Meltzer (whom I heard read his poems just the other week); Thom Gunn, arriving before the face of San Francisco changed utterly with the gay rights movement of the 1960s; John Wieners; Robert Creeley; Richard Brautigan; Joanne Kyger, who later marries Gary Synder; Lew Welch; Detroit-born Philip Levine, who begins a long career at Fresno State College. Another wave follows in the 1960’s: Diana di Prima, Jim Brodey, Tom Clark, Sotere Torregian, Jack Marshall, Adam Cornford, Bill Berkson, Stuart Perkoff, Jack Hirschman, Vikram Seth, Marjorie Perloff, Czeslaw Milosz, Al Young, Julia Vinograd, Lucha Corpi. Some are still with us, while others have written their last lines.
Foley documents the classics written, especially in the early decades: Nabokov’s Lolita; Ginsberg’s Howl; Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues and in a few years, On the Road and Dharma Bums; James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause; Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind; Alan Watt’s Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen; Robert Duncan’s Selected Poems and later Caesar’s Gate: Poems 1949-1950; Kenneth Patchen’s Because It Is; Landis Everson’s Postcard from Eden and other books; Philip Walen’s Memoirs of an Interglacial Age; Bukowski’s Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail and The Last Night of the Earth Poems; Rexroth’s American Poetry in the Twentieth Century; Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters; Jerome Rothenberg’s Poems for the Game of Silence: 1960-1970 and later New Selected Poems; Lawson Fuso Inada’s Before the War; Lew Welch’s Ring of Bone: Collected Poems, 1950-1971. Foley’s bibliography of poetry of the era includes the numerous books by literary household names like Denise Levertov, Thom Gunn, Weldon Kees, Michel McClure, W.S. Di Piero, Josephine Miles, Ed Dorn, Lyn Hejinian, Robert Haas, David Meltzer, Nina Serrano, Janet Lewis, Susan Griffin, Richard Silberg, Jane Hirshfield, Sharon Dubiago, as well as books by other talents, like Stuart Perkoff (The Suicide Room), Carla Kandinsky, Floyd Sala (Pussy Pussy Everywhere: A Voyeurs Delight), David Bromige, Luisah Teish, Steve Benson, Judy Wells, Eve Triem, Sharon Dubiago, Barrett Watten, Thomas Burnett Swarm (Wombats and Moondust), and dozens of others. Anthologies were important: Jamake Highwater’s Words in the Blood: Contemporary Indian Writers of North and South America, Luis Valdez and Stan Steiner’s Aztlan: An Anthology of Mexican American Literature, and (later) Women Poets of the World, but above all Donald M. Allen’s early The New American Poetry, an influential anthology that set the tone and poetics for poets for a generation or two to come.
New institutions started in the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s, and in some cases their influence is still with us––the San Francisco Zen Center, the California Poets in the Schools program, the San Francisco Poetry Center, City Lights Bookstore, and New College of California. Others played a role, then passed on, like Venice West Café Expresso (started by Stuart Perkoff) and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and later Cafe Milano. Even before the 1960s are half over, the Free Speech Movement has begun at U.C. Berkeley; later the Matachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitus and The Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club offered havens to the members of the gay community. Feminist poet Karen Brodine helped found the Women Writers Union in San Francisco. Many book stores were founded in addition to City Lights in North Beach: Books 55 on Le Cienega, the Golden Bough in Fillmore, Moe’s Books in Berkeley, and later, Wolf River Books in Larkspur, to name a few.
New presses appear: White Rabbit Press, Hawk’s Well Press, Women’s Press Collective (Judy Grahn, 1969), Red Hill Press, Heyday Books, Mother’s Hen Press (Louis Cuneo), Tree Books (David Meltzer), Tuumba Press (Lyn Hejinian), Straight Arrow Press, Ediciones Pocho Che, Kitchen: Table: Women of Color Press, Fresh Hot Bread (Waverley Writers), Syzygy Press, and later Pennywhistle Press, Bombshelter Press, Lapis Press (Venice, California), and Sixteen Rivers Press. Have I left something out? Check Foley’s massive, two-volume, 1,300 page text and see for yourself.
Sometimes associated with a press, sometimes independent, a whole field of new reviews sprang up: Evergreen Review, kayak (George Hitchcock), The Berkeley Poets’ Cooperative (Ted Fleischman, Lucy Lang Day and others), Lean Frog (Mother’s Hen Press), Invisible City (Paul Vangelisti and John McBride), Big Sky magazine (Bill Berkson), Poetry Flash (edited by Barrett Watten and Robert Grenier, and later by Joyce Jenkins who soldiered on through the so-called language wars, on-going articles in Flash about the merits of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, to the present day), Second Coming (also a press), California Quarterly; beginning in the 1980’s, Haight Ashbury Literary Journal, Threepenny Review (Wendy Lesser), Yellow Silk: A Journal of the Erotic Arts, and Caveat Lector (Christopher Bernard). Foley is meticulous in including even some of the “many, many 8 ½ X 11 stapled magazines,” like Red Weather from which he quotes this “Kurt Schwitters-like effusion” from Edmund Chibeau in a 1987 edition of the “magazine”:
uz af reet
uz af reet
uz af reet room jaap reeder
uz af reet jaap reeder tweet loon
uz af reet tweet loon
The poem scrolls down six large format pages. (The poem, called “Flower Star,” is by Richard Denner.) Four whole pages are given to an excerpt from Clarence Major’s Dictionary of Afro-American Slang.
Equally important, Foley introduces certain books that might drop completely out of our literary consciousness: John Wiener’s The Hotel Wentley Poems, for example. Another delightful discovery for me was poetry of Helen Adam, who has also recently been re-discovered by scholars like Annie Finch at the University of Michigan and whose ballad opera, San Francisco Burning, premiered in 1961. Another wonderful find, to my mind, is Henri Coulette, whose verses of cadenced meters and dry, sophisticated wit, typified by his book The War of the Secret Agents and Other Poems, couldn’t have made their debut at a more inauspicious time. Yet another find is the little known work of Robert Nathan (1894- 1985), who worked as a screenwriter and composer for Hollywood, and who published Selected Poems (1941), lines of which are excerpted by Foley (who refers to them somewhat condescendingly as “Shelleyan”).
Foley heads his chapter on the 1970’s with a short list: “Feminism, “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E”, Gay Pride, Multiculturalism / The Before Columbus Foundation,” and he is sensitive to the literary achievements of women and minorities in both volumes. He also writes sensitively about issues like gay rights. Only when I read the entry below for 1973, did I wish, fleetingly, fleetingly, for the “good old days”:
A father complains to the F.C.C .that his son has heard George Carlin’s routine, “Filthy Words,” broadcast one afternoon on WBAI a Pacifica Foundation FM radio station in New York City. Carlin’s routine includes discussion of the “seven dirty words”: [. . .] [422, Vol. I]
and then precedes to name all of them in their vulgarity, adding, “Pacific receives a reprimand for allegedly violation F.C.C. regulations. “
As the momentum of the West Coast Renaissance gathers and spread, especially to the Northeast, Foley expands his time line to include new presses, anthologies, poets and publications, especially those in keeping with the aesthetic and ethos of the time. Foley’s stated perimeters for Visions is California literary life in the second half of the 20th Century, going into the 21st Century as far as 2005, but his actual perimeters are more fluid. As the timeline unfolds, he steps more frequently outside California. Confusion might have been avoided if in a given listing, Foley included not only the publisher, but also the place of publication, as well as indices for publishers and presses as well authors. Lack of clarity begins, perhaps, on the book’s cover, which has an epigraph at the top: “the twentieth century in all its confused and troubled eloquence” above the title, which suggestions a different purpose: Visions & Affiliations: A California Literary Time Line: Poets & Poetry 1940-2005.
Foley does attempt here and there to articulate unifying principles, beyond geography, for his massive work. He mentions, for example, in regard to Clark Ashton Smith’s Selected Poems (Arkham Press), that the volume included translations of work by Baudelaire and Verlaine, whose influence on poets of the time was strong. Foley also discusses the roots and aesthetic of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry or black power poetry. But he often includes a writer and publisher, although neither are Californian or even West Coast, without noting the reason for the inclusion. (An example is his listing of Hernandez Cruz’s Red Beans published by Coffee House Press.) Perhaps the problem is that the Renaissance itself became in time diffused. Chana Bloch, rightly included in any literary history of California for her substantial contribution in translation and original poetry, is not a part of the movement that began the Renaissance and is only influenced by it, perhaps, to the extent that she is a feminist. But by the 1980’s what self-respecting woman was not a feminist? As a result, perhaps, Foley treats Bloch somewhat summarily, neglecting to mention when she arrived from Cornell to teach at Mills College in Oakland, where she had a long and distinguished career, influencing the writing of many future poets. (Unfortunately, she arrived after I had already graduated.) Yet elsewhere, especially in Volume I, he takes elaborate care to note when every future laureate arrives in town.
Important figures like Sandra Gilbert are handled casually as well. Not only does he not tell us when Gilbert arrived from New York and Cornell to the West Coast with her literary scholar husband Elliot Gilbert, he does not give the extraordinary details of Elliot Gilbert’s sudden death after routine surgery, chronicled by Robert Pinsky in his long poem “Impossible to Tell” (The Figured Wheel, 1996). Given Foley’s penchant for highly entertaining deathbed soliloquies by Robert Duncan and others, one would expect, and even hope for this kind of detail. But figures like Gilbert and Bloch, are not part of the group of “Founding Fathers,” on the pedestal Foley has erected: Robert Duncan, William Everson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg.
I suspect the real reason is that Gilbert and Boch are both academics, stereotyped perhaps as dry and musty, as is another poet not mentioned here––George Keithley who had a long career at Chico State College and published many poems about the western landscape. The Founders of the California Renaissance famously lived outside the Ivory Tower of academia, preferring to perform in book stores, bars, and cafes. Foley himself, to this day, is part of this culture (as am I and a lot of others). It is less clear why Foley did not include novelist Thomas Farber, whose El Leon Literary Arts has published numerous West Coast writers, or Stephen Kessler, once anointed by Denise Levertov and included in many anthologies of California writing. (Kessler is also the editor of the Redwood Coast Review, which often publishes California poets.)
The more overtly political Adrienne Rich gets more attention, but Foley’s references to her are sometimes confusing, as he begins mentioning her books—including them in his time line—years before she actually arrives in California to teach at San Jose State and the at Stanford. This is fine, except that when we see the entry, we are not sure why it is there. Is it because she is, or is about to become, a leading feminist writer, one who makes her politics explicit in her work?
Foley’s dry text comes alive when he draws a portrait, as he does with another feminist poet on the scene long before Rich—Karen Bodine, who dies in 1987. He includes a powerful excerpt from her poem “Bones”:
There is a march
up from the sodden grassy banks
of the Green River
. . .
One by one, after another, the women
return. The ones who are known
by name, the anonymous too.
The women who are missing, feared
dead. . .
The sisters who left in the morning
And never returned. . .
The women who by force of circumstance
or force of a gun, climbed into a stranger’s car
at midnight or at noon. . .
Volume II represents a different cultural scene with remnants of the Renaissance overlaid by new stirrings in art and literature. The young poets of the 60’s and 70’s mature and take center stage, poets like Robert Hass, Dana Gioia, Jack Hirschman, Leslie Scalapino, Richard Silberg, James Schevill. Foley notes each new work as it appears, as he does each re-issue, critical text, commentary or posthumous letters on or from “founding fathers” like Duncan or Olson. New names appear or become more prominent: Ishmael Reed, D.A. Powell, Luis Rodriguez, June Jordan, Peter Dale Scott, devorah major, Opal Palmer Adisa, Rebecca Solnit, Janice Gould, Alan Kaufman, Linda Watanabe McFerrin, Clark Ashton Smith, John Campion, Kay Boyle, Maxine Chernoff–-the list is long. The sheer number of cultural figures in the 1980’s onward must have at times daunted even the energetic Jack Foley in his massive task. In the end, who’s “in” and who’s not pales before the panorama Foley creates of impassioned writers and artists here in California during the past half a century.