O Powerful Western Star: Poetry & Art in California

Dana Gioia O Powerful Western Star
O Powerful Western Star, by Jack Foley, introduction by Dana Gioia

Jack Foley’s O Powerful Western Star is not only an engrossing and original book. It is also–for Californians–a necessary one. Foley’s collection ranks high among the few serious investigations ever written of San Francisco literary culture. It is, however, by no means a conventional study. O Powerful Western Star is by turns historical, critical, philosophical, visionary, and poetic. It is also often autobiographical. Foley has lived in the Bay Area for nearly four decades, and his insights grow from personal involvement as well as active research. Literary criticism is rarely so intellectually wide-ranging, imaginatively suggestive, or unabashedly personal.O Powerful Western Star naturally divides into two contrasting but interconnected parts–like two voices engaged in a rapt conversation. The first part is a brilliant speculative account of the cultural situation of poetry at the end of the twentieth century. In deeply provocative essays like “Words & Books, Poetry & Writing” and “What About All This . . .” Foley explores the radical changes now affecting the serious literary artist. I can hardly praise these brief but powerful essays enough. No one who reads them carefully will look at the issues in entirely the same way. Although I supposedly occupy an opposing position to Foley’s in the notoriously divided landscape of contemporary poetry, his theoretical essays have changed and expanded my sense of the cultural moment.Foley’s speculative essays do so many things well that I cannot do them justice in so brief a space, but it may help to explain what they do not attempt. Although genuinely learned, Foley’s theoretical essays are in no sense academic articles. They are not even conventional essays in the sense of offering a single linear argument. Like the critical work of Marshall McLuhan or Ezra Pound, two writers he admires, Foley’s prose proceeds by contrast and allusion, juxtaposition and suggestive leap. He is a master of that most difficult and often abused form, experimental prose, because he understands that good innovative writing is not only original but also interesting.

The artist witnesses something surprising in his or her own creative process or milieu that current theory does not explain or accommodate. Great advances in literary theory are nowadays supposed to happen only in the university–certainly not in the undisciplined precincts of bohemia. Foley’s speculative essays, however, demonstrate the truth behind Pound’s famous assertion that “Artists are the antennae of the race.” Artists are usually the first to pick up the vibrations of cultural change. Consequently, major shifts in poetics are usually registered first by practicing artists with a reflective bent. The artist witnesses something surprising in his or her own creative process or milieu that current theory does not explain or accommodate. In trying to describe the new development–indeed sometimes just by providing an evocative image or metaphor for others to develop–the artist articulates a decisive shift in cultural sensibility long before academic critics ever notice its existence. Kafka, Borges, and Beckett preceded Kristeva, Barthes, and Baudrillard. And will also survive them.

If Foley is a provocative and original theorist, he is also always a writer. Surely, part of the power these general essays command derives from being so well written–not merely sharply phrased and compellingly argued but also deeply imbued with passionate feeling. Foley has brought his full artistic intelligence to the critical task. “Words & Books, Poetry & Writing” simultaneously provides the intellectual stimulation of criticism and the imaginative pleasures of poetry. What one remembers from the essay is not only the remarkable argument it unfolds (and they are numerous), but also its many moments of lyrical insight. The great modern poet-critics–Eliot, Pound, Auden, Jarrell, and others–always understood that ideal criticism was not merely intellectual but emotional, spiritual, and sensory. Even the cerebral Eliot filled his essays with memorable images and seething suppressed emotion. What academic would describe the process of imaginative synthesis quite as concretely as Eliot does in “The Metaphysical Poets”:

A poet’s mind . . . is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.The second part of O Powerful Western Star is less intellectually provocative but equally valuable and original. The later sections of the book provide informed, detailed, and passionate accounts of Bay Area artistic life over the past half-century. These local investigations also go beyond the standard limits of literary criticism and explore the conjunction of painting, film, music, and poetry. They combine cultural history and critical reportage. No critic since Thomas Parkinson has written with such generous attention and persuasive intelligence about Northern California’s literary bohemia. Being a hard-hearted critic, I sometimes wish Foley were more demanding of certain writers. High standards are the necessary precondition for regional culture of enduring significance–a lesson inevitably forgotten by local literary boosters. But I understand the nature of Foley’s critical enterprise, which is to establish with intelligence and historical purpose the context for appreciation. Consequently, Foley never condescends to mere objectivity. Convinced that San Francisco has been the epicenter of late twentieth century American poetry, he is a passionate advocate of all he surveys.

Perhaps no recent writer has done more than Foley to foster a serious and informed critical conversation about West Coast literature. Not surprisingly for the author of “Light, Breath, and the Empty Page,” he has not confined this enterprise to the printed page. Foley has conducted a lively and ambitious weekly literary radio show, Cover to Cover, on KPFA as well as a substantial weekly review, “Foley’s Books,” in the online journal Alsop Review while also publishing essays and reviews in various periodicals. He has also been an active presence in the Bay Area lecture scene–both as a poet and lecturer. (It may surprise some readers that Foley’s finely crafted speculative essay, “Words & Books, Poetry & Writing,” originated as a performance piece scripted for two voices.) O Powerful Western Star gathers a sampling of these engaged and engaging critical pieces. For the first time readers–especially those outside the Bay Area–will have the opportunity to see the work of one of the most thought-provoking and truly iconoclastic critics now active.

No California writer will need to be told the importance of Foley’s critical enterprise. Although the Bay Area has played an important role in American letters since the days of Jack London, Frank Norris, and Ambrose Bierce, the region remains ignored or underrepresented in standard literary criticism and history. California poets in particular have suffered critical neglect. Poets as different as Robinson Jeffers, Yvor Winters, Kenneth Rexroth, William Everson, Josephine Miles, Edgar Bowers, and Weldon Kees all remain obscure or undervalued in the broader literary world. Only the Beats managed to capture and sustain national attention–mostly for socio-political reasons–and in the intervening half century California has slowly slipped in the national literary consciousness.

The relative obscurity of California writers originates at least partly in local cultural conditions. The Bay Area has often celebrated its own literary talent, but it has seldom done much to preserve, study, and meaningfully debate local achievements. The apparatus of literary fame hardly exists locally. There are no great quarterlies in California, and few literary journals of any sort that publish essays and reviews. This lack of public critical discourse and serious reviewing has made it difficult to develop local critical talent anywhere outside the university. If California has never lacked major writers in the modern era, it has consistently lacked significant critics seriously engaged with local writers. Foley addresses this problem in the most direct way possible: by writing with passionate intelligence about his milieu. On the radio, the Internet, and the printed page, he has created a conversation about the art and literature of the West. In O powerful Western Star a representative selection of Foley’s essays has finally been gathered in book form. How can West Coast readers be anything but grateful?

First published as the introduction to O Powerful Western Star: Poetry & Art in California by Jack Foley (Pantograph Press 2000)