Visions & Affiliations: A California Literary Time Line: Poets & Poetry 1940-2005
Volumes I and II By Jack Foley (Oakland: Pantograph Press, 2011)
Review By Zara Raab
Jack Kerouac coined the phrased “Beat Generation” in 1948, almost a decade after Jack Foley opens his chronology of West Coast poetry, his rich syllabus of literary, political, and sociological texts that define a bygone era and continue to shape the literary life of West Coast poets in and around the San Francisco Bay. 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; 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 deftly documents West Coast poets beginning with the classics especially those written in the early decades. His 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, Sharon Dubiago, Richard Silberg, Jane Hirshfield, , Sharon Dubiago, as well as books by other lively talents. 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, their influence still profound––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. 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 appeared. Sometimes associated with a press, sometimes independent, a whole field of new reviews sprang up. Prominent among them was Poetry Flash, started by Joyce Jenkins, who soldiered on through the so-called language wars, in on-going articles in Flash about the merits of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, and who continues to edit the magazine to this day. 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”:
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Of these reviews and presses, only a handful survives and thrives today.
Poetry festivals and readings flourished in these decades: Seminal was the 1955 reading at 6 Gallery with Michael McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Phil Whalen; Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth held readings at the Cellar. Joanna Griffin and Sande Fini opened a reading series at The Bacchanall bar in Berkeley. Foley himself ran a poetry series at the Café Milano. All along, various observers documented the scene: Rexroth in “San Francisco’s Bohemians,” Jack Spicer in “Poetry s Magic Workshop,” Norma Mailer on the East Coast in “The White Negro Hipster.” Foley also includes extensive excerpts from later assessments of the era, for example, The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century and, later, Literary San Francisco: A Pictorial History from the beginnings to the Present Day. In Volume II, we find Herman Berlandt’s Poetry San Francisco, guest edited at least once by Foley.
Foley’’s expansive excerpts of characteristic poems and other writings add considerable charm to a necessarily plainspoken, dry litany of dates, books and people.
Of one beat poem–
and continues [343, Vol. I]
––as the poem does, scrolling 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. As the momentum of the West Coast Renaissance gathers and spreads, 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.
Elsewhere Foley does succeed in articulating 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. Only occasionally does Foley include a Midwestern or East Coast writer and publisher without noting explicitly the lineage that gives them entry into this remarkable club of Renaissance writers. (An example is his listing of Hernandez Cruz’s Red Beans published by Coffee House Press.)
In time, the Renaissance itself became in time diffused. Chana Bloch, whom Foley rightly includes for her substantial contribution in translation and original poetry, was not a part of the movement that began the Renaissance and was only influenced by it, perhaps, to the extent that she is a feminist. But Foley neglects to mention when Bloch arrived from Cornell to teach at Mills College in Oakland, where she had a long and distinguished career, influencing many future poets. For the most part, especially in Volume I, he takes elaborate care to note when every future laureate arrives in town. Important figures like Sandra Gilbert are handled a bit 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.
These are quibbles, of course, in Foley’s important and vast panorama of literary life in California in mid-century and beyond. Gilbert and Boch are both academics, lacking some of the high color of a Snyder or a Dubiago. Another poet in this low profile mode is the poet George Keithley whose long career at Chico State included several important books about the western landscape. The Founders of the California Renaissance famously lived outside the Ivory Tower of academia, preferring to perform in bookstores, bars, and cafes. Foley himself, to this day, is a major part of this still lively culture. Foley’s Visions are a gala celebration, and he is not to be blamed for neglecting one or two of the fairy godmothers and fathers to the event, but for the next edition I submit my recommendations for including novelist and aphorist Thomas Farber, whose El Leon Literary Arts has published several West Coast writers, and the poet-translator Stephen Kessler, once anointed by Denise Levertov and included in several anthologies of California writing. (Kessler is also the editor of the Redwood Coast Review, which often publishes California poets.) In contrast, Foley gives the more overtly political Adrienne Rich lots of attention, including her books in his time line before she actually arrives in California to teach at San Jose State and the at Stanford.
Foley’s text comes alive when he draws a portrait, as he does with another feminist poet on the scene long before Rich—Karen Bodine, who died 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, as hefty as volume I, 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. 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 colorful and detailed panorama Foley creates of impassioned writers and artists in California during the past half a century, and a palpable sense of their enduring legacy.
Zara Raab’s book is Swimming the Eel (2011). Two new books will appear this fall. Her poems, reviews, and essays appear in West Branch, Arts & Letters, Nimrod, The Dark Horse, River Styx, Redwood Coast Review, Poet Lore, Colorado Review and elsewhere. She lives near the San Francisco Bay.
 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.
 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, Barrett Watten, Thomas Burnett Swarm (Wombats and Moondust), and dozens of others.
 Venice West Café Expresso (started by Stuart Perkoff) and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and later Cafe Milano.
 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.
 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, 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).
 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.