O Powerful Western Star
Poetry & Art in California
California Rebels, Beats & Radicals
Pantograph Press($12 each)
by John Olson
Jack Foley sees California as fertile ground for what he terms "living perplexities." Questions regarding human consciousness, alienation, the relationship of our ethnic identities to our American selves, spoken versus written media, and, most importantly, "the despised and neglected art of poetry, which, with its history of confusion between the aural/oral and the visual, is a kind of emblem for a multimedia situation." California is largely myth, but in many ways a very authentic and revelatory myth: Utopian New Age paradise, an archetype for sensuality and violence, political radicalism, good vibrations and joyous anarchy. The Bay Area, in particular, has been the site of a vigorous and legendary literary scene and the psychedelic zeal of the sixties. It is largely free of the literary baggage of the east and, by virtue of its geographic location, represents the final push west toward the satori of the American experience.
There is a delicious extravagance to these two books that is the very essence of the California spirit. Their scope is as large and multivaried as the hills and streets of San Francisco, as aesthetically diverse as Oakland and as lustily anomalous as Venice (not the one with gondolas in the Adriatic but the one with body builders by the Pacific). O Powerful Western Star (the title is taken, appropriately enough, from Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed"), opens with an introduction by Dana Gioia, a name more generally associated with New Formalist poetics, and one apt to invite a superficial appraisal of these books as being compromised, or diluted, by a broad-minded approach that is too global in its accommodation. But they're not. They are committed to poetry and art in general; poetry and art as they have taken root and flowered and cross-pollinated in California's fecund atmosphere. Foley's essays and reviews include a detailed look at work by Michael McClure, Larry Eigner (with whom Jack Foley was an especially close friend), Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima, Brenda Hillman, Philip Lamantia, Sheila E. Murphy and James Broughton. Foley's Books, the companion volume with Oakland's mayor Jerry Brown on the cover, covers a broader range of authors, some of them, such as Yeats, not particularly Californian, while O Powerful Western Star does more to record the granulation and texture of California writing, such as the highly engrossing essay about San Francisco's Batman Gallery. The Batman Gallery (named after its owner, William Jahrmarkt, later known as "Billy Batman;" the nickname was Michael McClure's idea, "you know, battling the forces of evil"), functioned for five years, 1960 to 1965, and featured artwork that was fiercely uncompromising and often disturbing. The gallery was not an isolated enterprise, but grew out of the needs of a community of artists, many of them young bohemians "rebelling against their immediate culture in some way." Ergo, the work was frequently provocative, calculated to raise (as in the case of Bruce Conner's disturbing assemblage Black Dahlia, in essence a magazine image of a nude female with nails driven into it, titled after one of the most grisly murders ever committed in Los Angeles), "issues of violence, fear, repression, pity, rage, sexuality, rape, love; issues of wholeness and disintegration; of voyeurism and reproduced images; of, in Jung's terms, anima and animus."
The turmoil and alienation felt most acutely by our nation's artists, and intensified by California's frontier variables, are at the forefront of these two volumes. The robust eclecticism of Foley's essays are united by a sense of urgency, a crisis in literature. That idealized reader every writer has in the back of their mind--a figure rapt, in an armchair, with a book on his or her lap, turning each page sloooowly, with reverential absorption--is disappearing. That reader today is more apt to be sitting in front of a computer screen, surfing the net or browsing an online magazine. Worse yet: readers are disappearing. We are living in an age where intellect is penalized and vapidity is rewarded. In an essay titled "In Praise of Illiteracy," Hans Magnus Enzensberger identifies a class of people he terms the "second-order illiterate," an unlettered individual whose inability to concentrate or digest his or her own experience is better adapted to our electronic environment. This may not be quite how Foley reads the situation, and I am adding some of my own anxieties to the crisis he describes in his two volumes. But Foley both recognizes and addresses the situation with an optimism I find rather baffling. He presents it as an invigorating, ontological question. "Who am--what is--'I' in the midst of e-mail and Internet?"
Part of Foley's solution for the lack of people patient and persevering enough to sit down and spend some time with some written material is enveloped, quite tangibly, in the back of O Powerful Western Star in the form of a CD. Jack and his wife Adelle perform several of the essays contained in these volumes. The essays cease being essays and become something else; what were once words on a page become nerves and breath, the pitch and cadence of the human voice. You can do your housework and respond to Jack's ideas. Fold your clothes and do the dishes while Jack intones sentences such as this one from "Words & Books, Poetry & Writing": "the electronic media have already changed the conditions of writing, though the exact nature of that change is not yet clear. We live, as Father Ong put it in 1977, in an 'opening state of consciousness,' a state in which even the nature of biography--the nature of what we believe it means to be human--may have to be reconsidered." This is heady and provocative stuff. You may, just as I have done, end up forgetting the laundry and sitting down to listen. Foley is a vigorous and compelling speaker, but there is much that I don't agree with. He is far closer to Whitman's democratic vistas than I am. My reaction to growing illiteracy is purely negative; I'm more apt to believe it is encouraged by monopoly capitalism, that as long as intellectual activity is depreciated, as long as the ability to reflect and concentrate are hampered by the ubiquity of TVs at the airport or the necessity to work longer hours in order to afford the new technologies, the population remains docile and yielding and the corporations remain insured of a continuing labor resource and a large body of complacent consumers. Nor do I have much faith that emphasizing the dramatic and performative aspects of poetry poets can increase the size of their audience and thereby heighten its cultural impact. If the popularity of "slams" demonstrate a growing need to perform rather than read poetry, to turn it into an amateur hour replete with judging and communal guffaws, I see poetry decaying into histrionics and sentimentality, not promoting higher levels of consciousness. But the fact that Jack is getting me riled, stirred up, challenging some of my own long established notions about written discourse, testifies to one of the great values of these two books.
Foley's valorization of speech is reflected in his writing. These essays are eminently accessible and free of dry, academic jargon. The language is lively and inquisitive. The information is comprehensive and well organized. Many of the essays and reviews have appeared in venues such as San Francisco's highly popular Poetry Flash or on-line magazines CitySearch and The Alsop Review. Foley also hosts a radio program on Berkeley's KPFA called Cover to Cover in which he interviews a wide variety of poets; six of those interviews, including one with Foley himself conducted by Sarah Rosenthal, are included in the two volumes. I was especially gladdened by the interview with James Broughton, whose drollery and joy (poet and companion Jonathan Williams dubbed Broughton "Big Joy") and the deep pleasure he continued to find in life until his death at eighty-four was greatly inspiriting. I discovered a great wisdom here.
One of the greater pleasures I enjoyed in these two books (which, incidentally, are physically large; the size of phonebooks, each with a painting of an Oakland street scene by Anthony Holdsworth) is the California timeline at the end of O Powerful and Western Star. Foley's uncannily thorough timeline gives a comprehensive view of the many disparate and clashing schools to emerge, morph, and/or mutate in the heterogeneous Xanadu that is California. It begins with the publication of Kenneth Rexroth's first book of poetry, In What Hour, and ends with the death of James Broughton in 1999. He includes information about some of the more salient events, such as Ginsberg's legendary reading of Howl at the Six Gallery in 1955, as well as some of the lesser known, but equally seminal occurrences, such as Helen Adam's San Francisco Burning, "a combination of music, drama, poetry, and theatrical staging" which premiered at James Broughton's Playhouse in 1961.
In his interview with Sarah Rosenthal, Foley asks an intriguing question: "instead of lamenting the 'passage' of the Beat Generation, we ought to be asking how their energy can be used now. What kind of 'Howl,' what Visions of Cody is possible for us?" Foley's answer to this is even more intriguing, and might be used to encapsulate the energy at the core of both volumes: "the question all these people are asking is how to live. Do we know any more about that subject than they? One wants to say, with Robert Creeley, 'You'll have to tell mother we're still on the road.'"
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000