"Foley Dancing" by Leonard Breger
THE FOLEY-GIOIA DUPRASS
Some while back this past summer Jack Foley sent me by e-mail Dana Gioia’s “’Just One Damn Thing After Another’: Jack Foley as a Literary Historian," which has appeared in a couple of venues now (September 2012), most recently in The Tower Journal (http://towerjournal.com/fall_2012/index2.html ) as part of Jack Foley's on-line "Festschrift." When I received it I enlarged the font of the e-mail and ran it off so that I could read it without squinting too much. It’s quite a paean, I must say — one almost never runs into an unqualified rave like this, so my congratulations to Jack, to say the least!
As I was reading I thought of several things to say about it, though, some quite minor. The first thing I thought to say is that after reading two pages I was beginning to wonder when he was going to start talking about Jack’s work: for two and a third pages Gioia attacks academic criticism (not without reason) and praises only Saintsbury and Wellek. (It's probably a good thing thing that my second book of criticism, Dialects of the Tribe: Postmodern American Poets and Poetry, hadn't been published yet -- it contains a large article on Gioia's poetry.) And Dana wonders why California hasn’t had a decent literary history until Foley came along.
I have always thought that the idea of a literary history of a state is parochial, of interest only to those who have an affiliation with the area in question, but here is Gioia saying things like, “Other critics have been set on explaining the state [of California] from the perspective of outsiders, such as Mark Twain,…” Here in Maine where I live the “natives” (I’m not talking about the Indians) are always saying that the “summer people” are outsiders “from away,” and when they see a New York license plate they assume that the people in the vehicle are from New York City, which is very annoying. I find it strange to hear the former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts taking a similar position.
This is pretty personal with me. I was born in Buffalo, New York, but I was raised in Meriden, Connecticut. I was in the Navy after high school and my ship, the USS Hornet (CVA12), was still being built at the Brooklyn Naval Shipyard when I went aboard. I later spent most of my professional career teaching at the SUNY College in Oswego. I spent a couple of years sailing around the world on a ship (that wound up in California), a year in Arlington, Virginia, working at the Bureau of Naval Personnel, and six years in the Midwest going to grad school and teaching; nevertheless, I have always thought of myself as a New Englander. When I was taking my first interest in poetry I was annoyed and frustrated to realize that nearly all of the best-known “Connecticut poets” were “from away.” Only a few of the minor ones, including the historic “Hartford wits,” were born in the state. Even in modern times, the most notable native Connecticut poet is Donald Hall. Now, in my old age, my work appears in a collection edited by Dennis Barone and just published by Wesleyan,
So, of course, does the work of people like Wallace Stevens and Richard Wilbur. Most of us in the volume are “from away.” If we were not included, there could be no collection larger than a chapbook.
Dana says that “If literary history in general is in trouble, the literary history of California has never been out of it. No state has had a richer history over the past 125 years — since the days of Jack London [b. San Francisco], Ambrose Bierce [b. Ohio], Bret Harte [b. Albany, NY], John Muir [b. Scotland], Mary Austin [b. Illinois], Frank Norris [b. Illinois],” Ray Bradbury [b. Illinois], Nathanael West (b. New York City), etc., etc., etc. Yes, that is trouble, indeed.
Our literary history is of the United States. To return for a moment to my own particular case, I am listed in various venues as a poet not only of Connecticut, but of Maine, Ohio, Iowa, Michigan, and, of course, New York — I know this last for sure because early in my career I was the compiler of The Literature of New York: A Selective Bibliography of Colonial and Native New York State Authors, (Oneonta: New York State English Council, 1970). What would be my chances of garnering even a sentence if someone were to write a Literary History of New York State? Close to zero. The book would be immense. Not to mention useless. Even a history of New York poetry.
Dana Gioia says, “The literary history I’ve described is Visions & Affiliations: A California Literary Time Line: Poets and Poetry 1940-2005. If you think the title is long, you should see the work itself — two folio-sized volumes running nearly 1300 pages. Arranged as a series of chronological lists mixing commentary and quotation, Foley’s work pushes forward year by year presenting, juxtaposing, and contrasting the creative ferment of post-war California in all its inexplicable profusion. Some entries consist of a single sentence. Others go on for pages. The entries also contain quotations—sometimes just a single line, sometimes several poems. There is no template for the entries, except what interests the writer.” From this point, Dana’s praise is fulsome and unstinting. Jack Foley is fortunate to have such a totally committed fan:
"Let there be no doubt about it. Visions & Affiliations shouldn’t work. The wonder is that these unwieldy folios are compulsively readable, intellectually provocative, and even weirdly entertaining. One simultaneously has the sense of reading an experimental work of cultural history and a highbrow literary gossip column. Visions & Affiliations represents something new and important in literary studies—not just for the study of California literature but for dealing with the complexity of cultural history itself. Foley’s work offers a new form for literary history that fundamentally revises the rules of the genre in ways that seem especially relevant at present. I don’t think there has ever been a better book published about California poetry. There has certainly never been an odder one. The oddity and excellence of Foley’s postwar chronicle are not unrelated."
But for all that, wouldn’t a reader willing to read such an immense compendium of criticism about “California poetry” [!] have to be as crazy a fanatic for the subject as Jack Foley? I can’t imagine it myself, and if, indeed, Dana Gioia actually read it all the way through I would be willing to place a substantial bet that he’d be the only one, except for Jack himself. The two of them will very likely forever form one of the wackiest duprasses* in the world.
*duprass – a karass [according to Wikipedia], is a word invented by Kurt Vonnegut meaning a fanatical religious group] that consists of only two people. This is one of the few kinds of karass about which one can have any reliable knowledge. The two members of a duprass live lives that revolve around each other, and are therefore often married. "A true duprass can't be invaded, not even by children born of such a union." The novel [Cat’s Cradle] cites the example of "Horlick Minton, the New American Ambassador to the Republic of San Lorenzo, and his wife, Claire." The two members of a duprass always die within a week of each other.