Today’s show deals with Jack Foley’s Unmanageable Masterpiece, a new book published by Monongahela Books and edited by Dana Gioia and Peter Whitfield. The book deals with a book Jack published with Pantograph Press in 2011: Visions & Affiliations: California Poetry from 1940 to 2005. The Gioia-Whitfield book has this to say about Visions & Affiliations:
“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.”
MY UNMANAGEABLE MASTERPIECE
“It’s not a conventional work of history or criticism,
it’s a gathering of spirits.”
— Peter Whitfield
It was the opinion of the great Spanish playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca that life is a dream. If life is a dream, what is a book?
I have recently been considering a book that has my photo on the cover though I had nothing to do with its production. It’s called Jack Foley’s Unmanageable Masterpiece and it was written and edited by Dana Gioia and Peter Whitfield. It deals with my book, Visions & Affiliations: California Poetry from 1940 to 2005. I think of Gertrude Stein’s remark, “I master pieces of it.” I don’t think I ever found the book “unmanageable.”
It’s a strange feeling to be the subject of a book. My books have been reviewed in the past. I’m used to that. But this book is something different from that. It is extraordinarily literate propaganda for a book I have written.
Was what I wrote “eccentric”? Was it in any way a “masterpiece”—even an “oddball” one? The book discusses myself, my person. Dana Gioia believes me to be a Beat poet. I have and have had friends who definitely were Beat poets—Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure among them—but I never thought of myself as part of that most noble, occasionally disreputable company. Scott Timberg describes me in the following way: “There was something otherworldly about him; he seemed like a medieval monk and a jazz-loving, Beat-era hedonist at the same time.” Is that an accurate description of me? Otherworldly? Medieval Monk? Was my old Catholicism showing? Further: Do Beat poets even exist anymore, or were they a reaction to a particular historical moment which has more than seen its day? Is the fascination with the Beat Generation part of a tendency of our culture to replace “history” with “nostalgia”? I sometimes think that the term “Beat” has become a kind of advertising slogan, a selling point, almost a brand name by which certain poets or publishing houses can hawk their wares. Towards the end of his career, Kerouac himself rejected the term, which he felt had gone far beyond anything he had wished it to mean. Indeed, apart from Allen Ginsberg and Michael McClure, I don’t believe any authenticated Beat writer ever actually agreed that he was “Beat.”
In saying all this, I don’t mean to suggest that I am ungrateful for what was obviously a labor of love—and a labor of scholarship—on the part of these wonderful people. I am deeply grateful. But I have a sense of being slightly posthumous throughout this extraordinary book. What is being said about me seems a bit like what is said about rock stars when they are about twenty-five or about ordinary people after they have passed away. I feel a little as though I am present at my own funeral service. And yet: what an extraordinary thing to have happen to you at the age of seventy-nine. (Copies of the book actually arrived on my birthday!) It’s as if my entire life is being validated—and not in a sentimental, mushy way but in a way that is extraordinarily intellectually respectable: these are intelligent essays; this is praise that often carries with it deep understanding.
Did I do all that? Maybe! I can’t help but think of D.H. Lawrence’s famous line: “Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me.”
Thank you to all the people involved in the book. Grand Merci! “It’s such a short time,” wrote George M. Cohan, “from ‘Lights On’ to ‘Lights Out.’”
Today’s show will present various passages from this “book about a book about books.”
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.