A new blog about Jack Foley’s “Visions & Affiliations ~ A California Literary Time Line: Poets & Poetry 1940–2005”

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Anyone with a serious interest in the literary history of California will by now have heard of Jack Foley’s 1300 page, two-volume opus, Visions & Affiliations ~ A California Literary Time Line: Poets & Poetry 1940-2005, which Dana Gioia describes as   . . .  the most comprehensive history of post-war California poetry—a study that not only surveys the lives and work of hundreds of literary figures but also cogently addresses the contradictory impulses in the state’s creative psyche.”

Jack has created a blog to accompany Visions & Affiliations, which includes both generous offerings from the book, and reactions to the book from a range of critics. It can be found at  www.foleypoet.com

FoleyCover8_reducedVisions and Affiliations is also the subject of the new book Jack Foley’s Unmanageable Masterpiece, by Dana Gioia and Peter Whitfield (Monongahela Books, 2019).

Dana Gioia on Jack Foley

FoleyCover8_reducedThe following is excerpted from Jack Foley’s Unmanageable Masterpiece:

“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.

Literary history is an academic enterprise, something done on a Mellon grant in a research library by a tenured professor with a book contract from Oxford. On my shelf I see thick volumes with titles such as The Columbia History of American Literature or Oxford History of English Literature. There is good reason that publishers name such books after universities. The genre seems inherently institutional. The volumes resemble collectively compiled reference works more than expressions of personal critical engagement. Literature is an affair of individual sensibility—both in its creation and criticism. Literary history, however, requires the author to reconcile personal opinions with the broader external consensus. That is one reason why such books date quickly; collective opinions change as intellectual fashions change.

There are a few glorious exceptions—literary histories that combine scholarship and personality, virtues that give them considerable longevity. George Saintsbury’s three-volume History of English Prosody (1906) is one conspicuous example—a study that still feels alive more than a century after its publication. The reader may disagree with Saintsbury on a particular point, but the author remains a vital and provocative presence. Likewise René Wellek’s monumental eight-volume History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950 (published from 1955 to 1986) presents formidable scholarship with a gentle human touch. As polyglot Professor Wellek surveys two hundred years of Western intellectual history, he never forgets that the students in his imaginary seminar are a bit embarrassed at not having done all the assigned reading. Such erudite but engaging books prove not merely useful but invaluable. They provide comprehensive accounts of complex subjects in which the authors communicate their passions, puzzlements, and prejudices.

Yet how seldom is literary history done well. Years of fastidious scholarship and editorial toil often deaden the author who must diligently push the project to its contractual end, even though passion died in chapter three. Academic conventions also weigh upon the style and structure. Critical fashions mire it in short-term concerns. The genre’s problems have increased in recent years, as more surveys have been written not by individuals but committees of experts. Hefty official histories now appear without any unifying narrative line or organizing principle. Written by different authors, each chapter exists in intellectual and stylistic isolation. Pursuing their individual interests, scholars leave gaps in the historical record omitting major writers and subjects. If the genre isn’t dead yet, we can hear the carpenter sawing boards for the coffin.

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It will seem supremely odd to any academic that Jack Foley, an Oakland poet without any institutional support or university connection, has written the most comprehensive history of post-war California poetry—a study that not only surveys the lives and work of hundreds of literary figures but also cogently addresses the contradictory impulses in the state’s creative psyche. Moreover Foley has fashioned his chronicle in an innovative way that is both engaging and unabashedly experimental.”


Dana Gioia

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