About Jack Foley

Jack Foley Jack Foley

Jack Foley was born in August, 1940, during the war, at Fitkin Hospital in Neptune, New Jersey. His parents were living in near-by Asbury Park, and his father, forty-five years old, worked as a telegrapher at Fort Monmouth Army Installation. The family moved first to Philadelphia and then permanently to the village of Port Chester, New York, where his father managed a Western Union office and where Foley grew up. Some years earlier, Foley's father had been a moderately successful tap dancer in vaudeville and on the Broadway stage. He occasionally made mention of his family but would speak far more often of the people he knew in show business, particularly of his great mentor, George M. Cohan. The son grew up learning a great deal about turn-of-the-century performers whom his father would speak of with affection and passion.

An only child, Foley understood "family" to be primarily nuclear: father, mother, child. He met only one member of his father's family, his aunt Goldie, who, like his father and their brother, Wayne, had been a musical comedy performer. His mother had a considerable number of relatives living in her hometown, Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and they were occasionally visited but not frequently. Foley felt that he barely knew these people. Identifying with his Irish-American father rather than with his Italian-American mother, Foley sensed himself to be somewhat isolated in Port Chester, whose population included many Italians. He learned later that there were Irish Americans in Port Chester, but the people he knew and the children he played with tended to be Italian. He had nothing against Italians and loved his mother's Italian cooking, but his father's stories and the absence of any actual examples of Irish people tended to make the Irish appear to be a deeply magical group. An acceptance and sentimentalization of the Irish was also a factor in American culture of the time. Films such as Going My Way (1944) and The Quiet Man (1952) made Irish Catholics seem to be romantic, interesting figures. Foley was also part of the last generation to experience "The Golden Age of Radio" in its full glory. Eventually, the family bought a television set and things changed, but Foley's initial experience of "media" was that of a plethora of diverse, fascinating, disembodied voices that came to him with the switch of a dial. Later, like the poet Delmore Schwartz, he began to think of such voices as an emblem of the mind itself: multiple, contradictory, passionate.

A good student, and with the aid of his local library, Foley read widely and soon found himself captive to the "singing prose" of Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel. He had read novels but nothing with the fierce lyricism of Wolfe's poetic, highly "subjective" style: the novel as revelation of one's own being. He didn't know it, but Wolfe was drawing him into the world of poetry. He crossed over the line when he experienced Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (1750). He had, partly because of his father, a considerable interest in songs and had even written a few, picking out chords on the guitar. In addition, a book of Cole Porter's lyrics had taught him a great deal about intelligent rhyming. But Gray's "Elegy" opened a world to him. Suddenly, there was his mind appearing in the words of an 18th-century Englishman. The poem revealed to him not only who Thomas Gray was but who--and what--Foley himself was. It was at that point--he was fifteen years old--that he realized that, whatever else he was, he was now and forever a poet. If he lived in the village of Port Chester, New York at 58 Prospect Street, that was one thing. He also lived in a world of words which opened him to the infinite possibilities that language (which is what you do with your langue, your tongue) represented. He was at the service of an art that transcended his "individuality" and promised him a life of endless revelation. The only problem was how he could live that life and still eat. Two worlds.

Foley's parents could not afford to send him to college but he surprised them by winning scholarship money that enabled him to attend first Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and then The University of California at Berkeley. He met his wife Adelle while he was still attending Cornell, and they were married on December 21st, 1961 in Foley Square in New York City. Foley did not know it at the time, but the Square had been named for his grandfather, "Big Tom" Foley--a wheel in the city's Tammany Hall but from all evidence a good and kindly man. Foley Square is the site of the last bar his grandfather had owned. Foley's son, Sean, born in 1974, became a prominent historian and revealed to his father something of the family history.

Foley worked hard as a graduate student at Berkeley and tried to keep his poetry going amid all the furor of "the sixties." He was only moderately successful at this, and an encounter with Charles Olson's Maximus poems made him realize what he was not doing. Olson's bold, "post modern" work returned Foley to the love that had sent him to the university in the first place. He realized that the poem offered him a choice: Do you want to be this (a professor) or do you want to be this (a poet, Olson)? The choice was obvious. Foley dropped out of school. He wanted to be Olson.

As he worked more at his poetry, Foley began to develop various more or less original techniques of writing and presenting poetry. He persuaded Adelle to help him perform what he called "choruses"--a word that conjured up both the ancient Greeks and the world of musical comedy. The first of these choruses was performed at a friend's birthday party in the early 1970s. It was not performed again until 1985, when it was featured at Foley's first poetry reading. That reading, at Larry Blake's Restaurant in June, transformed Foley's life. His new friend, Iván Argüelles, arranged the reading and read with Foley. Many local literati came to hear Iván Argüelles but they heard Jack Foley as well. It was an amazing experience: if anyone at all had been interested in Foley's poetry before that reading it was only because they were interested in Foley personally; for the first time, people wanted to know Foley because of their reaction to his poetry. When, much later, someone remarked to all three Foleys that they were uncertain how students might react to Foley's work, Sean remarked, "Don't worry. They won't know what hit them. Which is sort of the point."

During the next thirty years, Jack and Adelle Foley became fixtures of the San Francisco Poetry Scene. Adelle began to write poetry herself and presented it at their many readings, and in 1988 Jack was offered a radio show on Berkeley radical station, KPFA-FM. That show continues to this day. Foley even created a "tap dance" poem which featured not only his words but a bit of the art his father taught him. Over the years, Foley published a multitude of books with various publishers--books of poetry but books of essays as well. One of his most significant productions was the two-volume, 1300-page "chronoencyclopedia," Visions & Affiliations: California Poetry 1940-2005, published by Iván Argüelles' Pantograph Press in 2011. In 2018, Visions & Affiliations itself became the subject of a book, Jack Foley's Unmanageable Masterpiece, edited by Dana Gioia and Peter Whitfield.

In 2016, Adelle's death threw Foley into what seemed to be an endless cycle of grief and depression, but his meeting with Sangye Land--daughter of poet Julie Rogers and stepdaughter of poet David Meltzer--once again opened him to living passionately in the world. The story of his grief for Adelle is given in his book, Grief Songs; the story of the new love for Sangye is given in his book, When Sleep Comes: Shillelagh Songs. His most recent books are the companion volumes, The Light of Evening and "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads." The Light of Evening is a brief autobiography--the events of Foley's life; "A Backward Glance" (title from Whitman) is a spiritual autobiography, what Wordsworth called "the growth of a poet's mind."
Foley continues to write, perform, think about poetry. He is currently working on still another book of poetry: Creative Death. This is the title poem:

I am considering calling a book
Creative Death
for I know that oranges don't grow in the sea
and there is no love in Seville.

I do not mean my own death
but the death of others near me
deaths which tear me apart
but which I survive

These are deaths
that allow for growth and transcendence
the dark figure in the shadows
emerging suddenly
with a lamp.

Cessation of breath
/ to breathing.


Jack Hirschman
joined the ancestors
this morning—
another voice gone.
a lover of finnegans wake
a passionate internationalist
do you remember
when he was a chain-smoking scourge
of corporate amerika
“are you the last stalinist?”
“maybe not the last”
who now will wear red
like a badge of honor
like the color of the fire
in the heart
of this great poetworker
this lion, this Dichter, this compassionate Boddhisatva


following Julius
named a month
for himself
a 10-month calendar
into a 12.
better for Christianity
with its mad obsession
with 3.
and so
I came into the world
ancient history
to my bones.
(the "Dogge daies" of summer
when "the Sunne is in Leo":
"then is nature burnt vp & made weake.")
according to Macrobius
Augustus chose this month
because it was the time
of his great
triumphs including
the conquest of Egypt.
meteor showers
occur during August–
heavenly events
not unlike birth itself
and of course
there are
"the guns of august."
colors my birth.
Leo. August 9, 1940.
wars in the world
when I came into it.
how many still remember
when the lights were turned off
and the shades were drawn
and we were told
to be silent?
how many remember
gratefully dispensed with
when the war was over
and "I'll be home for Christmas"
became a reality.
you turned out the lights
to listen to the radio
so the voices would be clearer.
did I close my eyes?
"Ah ah ah don't touch that dial...
it's time for...BLONDIE"
"I'm that man, Matt Dillon, US Marshall,
the first man they look for
and the last they want to meet."
families on the radio
were comic, often with an inept father
at the helm and a long-suffering mother
who loved him.
"Don't open thaaat closet, McGee!"
everything falling.
"That's what is called their habitat, Mr. McGee."
"I want to know what their habits are,
I don't care where their habit's at."
projecting a loneliness
that gave the medium its depth.
"The gaudiest, the most violent,
the lonesomest mile in the world...
Broadway, my beat."
"It's a chancy job but it makes a man watchful...
and a little lonely."
"Who knows...what evil...lurks...
in the hearts of men?
The Shadow knows."
telling me of the world
as I listened
in the dark space
of our three-room
in Port Chester, New York,
in the USA,
in the Northern Hemisphere,
in the world
lit by the sun and the moon,
in the universe
in which I
and my entire planet
was only a tiny speck.
"Henry! Henry Aldrich!" "Coming, mother."
who knew
who knew
eighty plus years!
though the voices are gone
I am still
a "listener."


I don’t know where to begin
to speak of the amazing
Don Shirley
portrayed brilliantly
and elegantly
in the film Green Book
by the tall, handsome
Mahershala Ali
but in life
closer in appearance
and appetite
to Truman Capote—
was told
that a Black man
was not welcome
in the world
of Classical music,
was not allowed to play
music composed by White
Classical composers—
found his niche
by playing
popular music—
which could suddenly merge
with jazz or Classical music
as when
in the middle of Irving
Berlin you are suddenly
in the middle of Bach—
the message
of such music is
chose to make tours
of the southern states
where the lives
of African Americans
were violently defined
by nothing but BOUNDARIES and more
drink at this fountain
not that one
sit in this area
not that one
talk to this
person not that one—
tell me now
that artists lack
that art is nothing
but frivolous
that art
“makes nothing
and remember
what Don Shirley said
in his music
to those Southern racists
to those misled
in the dark days
of the dark times
of these United States
and bow your head
to the great accomplishment
of an easily identifiable
gay Black man
whose music told him
is the sound I make
on these keys
both Black
and White—


from Inside USA (1948, Broadway)

Every state in the USA
Has something it can boast of
A product that the state
Produces the most of
Rhode Island is little but oh, my
They have a product anyone would buy...

Copper Comes From Arizona
Peaches Come From Georgia
And Lobsters Come From Maine
The Wheat Fields Are The Sweet Fields Of Nebraska
And Kansas Gets Bonanzas From The Grain

Ol' Whiskey Comes From Ol' Kentucky
Ain't The Country Lucky?
New Jersey Gives Us Glue
And You, You Come From Rhode Island
And Little Old Rhode Island Is Famous For You

Cotton Comes From Louisiana
Gophers From Montana
And Spuds From Idaho
They Plow Land In The Cow Land Of Missouri
Where Most Beef Meant For Roast Beef Seems To Grow

Grand Canyons Come From Colorada
Gold Comes From Nevada
Divorces Also Do
And You, You Come From Rhode Island
Little Ol' Rhode Island
Is Famous For You

Pencils Come From Pennsylvania
Vests From Vest Virginia
And Tents From Tentassee
They Know Mink Where They Grow Mink In Wyomink
A Camp Chair In New Hampchair – That's For Me

Minnows Come From Minnowsota
Coats Come From Dakota
But Why Should You Be Blue?
For You - You Come From Rhode Island
Don't let them ride Rhode Island
It's Famous For You

–Arthur Schwartz (music), Howard Dietz (lyrics)
–I'm from Rhode Island.
–Are you?
–No, R.I.
–George M. Cohan FOURTH OF JULY SANGYE AND JACK 2021.JPG Image by Sangye Land from original photo by Anthony Holdsworth


Poet of the clouds that make words
Poet of the world that vanishes
Poet of the Sacred Body
and of the resurrected Flesh…

I don't know in what month
Jesus walked on the bitter water
but I would be happy to say it was June
because June--and Bloomsday--is your birthday.
We are ships finding our uneasy way
through the sea of blood
and gabbing throughout,
making a sort of music as we live.
Nothing guarantees that our words
will outlive us, that the passion we speak
will outlast our death
and yet we go on, not walking
on water--we are not the Savior--
but struggling in the same sea
upon which He walked,
that could not touch
the enigma
of His living, lifted flesh.


"Ireland sober is Ireland stiff,"
said Mr. James Joyce
as he put the empty glass
on the bar
and exited.
He stopped in a heavenly bookstore
on the way home
and noticed a strange title:
"Brambu Drezi," he said,
whatever could it mean
and by an Irishman named
no Irish Irishman
but situated, it says, in the Southern Regions
of North Amorica.
An Irish writer in foreign parts.
Do they speak a different language there?
And look what he does
with words and pictures.
Could he have read my Work in Progress?
The book's strangeness
tells me of its beauty.
Learned surely
and perhaps in the black arts
the way they say
that Robert Johnson
sold his soul
at Clarksdale.
I love a work that tells me
that my fractured drunken stultified ego
is only a puny, a frail fraction of the real
and the real
is the vast ocean
towards which we riversrun.
Thank you, Jake Berry.
Shall I buy it?
Yes, I said, yes, I will, yes.

In Heaven it is always June 16.

Memorial Day Poem

“Memories are made of this”
I might recall
my uncle Wayne
who died
because of the mustard gas he inhaled
during World War I.
I never knew him.
on his deathbed
he called out for my father
who could not bring himself
to go, though he loved his brother.
they’re all gone now
no one left to tell me anything
no photos no documents
only the murderous
aftermath of war.
was no hero
and there is no heroism to his death,
only the cruelty
men visit upon each other
under such circumstances.
I think of him,
a man who vanished
as I read a book
that documents
so much of my life.
through the great kindness
of Shajil Anthru,
my “private life”
slowly slips
into the public realm.
all I know of Wayne
is that my father loved him
and could not see him die.
I bear his name in mine
and feel some pride
that I have spoken of him,
however briefly,
in a book.
rest easy,
dear man.
ave atque vale—
hail and farewell.


one of the great experiences of my childhood
was hearing Jason Robards, Jr.
recite Kipling's "Mother o' Mine"
in the midst
of Eugene O'Neill's
Long Day's Journey into Night.
I saw it in New York City when I was sixteen.
Robards' drunken, ironic, magnificent
recitation of Kipling's perfectly fine poem
accompanies our perception
of the mother in the play
(Florence Eldridge, magnificent too, "Mary")
addicted to morphine, unbelievably lost
all in my birth month, August--
though 1912, not 1956.
"I suppose you're remembering
that I promised before
on my word of honor."
the pity I felt
for this immensely dysfunctional Catholic family
headed by the bitter, miserly, regretful
"James Tyrone" (the great Frederick March)
opened my heart
to the suffering in my own family
and to my own position
of witness.
though I did not have
"a dope fiend for a mother"
I had a woman
whose intense love
seemed at times
to be clouded
by unpredictability
and like Tyrone's, my father's grand days
in show business
were long gone.
their family
was my family
with certain important
similarities and differences.
I was on that stage
witnessing myself,
my mother, my father,

and seeing
through the rage and horror in my heart
the pressing, significant need
to enter


at our age,
may be the constantly surprised discovery
that we have awakened
to another day,
so that hope
is the opening
of our eyes
to the morning light
through the window.
in his lapsed catholicism
and perhaps thinking
of Dante's Commedia,
Eugene O'Neill
remarked about Americans,
"we are tragedy."
yet his great play,
The Iceman Cometh,
takes place in a saloon
owned by a man named Hope
and revolves around
the anxious expectation
of the appearance
of a man
who will make everyone happy,
though the man turns out to be
a murderer.
so many fictions--
the Sherlock Holmes stories,
The Great Gatsby,
Stein's Four Saints,
On the Road
revolve around
a person
who is closer to the real
than we ourselves.
the narrator is the bridge,
the mediator
between ourselves
and that reality.
we do not think
of these stories as
yet the figure at the center
has to be Christ,
the one whose suffering
reconnects us to reality.
narration / brings us to Him,
the deeper consciousnes
at the heart of the world.
what is art
if not the search
for the real
however illusory
however fictional
however deceptive
in its teasing,
sudden appearance
and disappearance,
like Harry Lime
when he finally shows himself
in The Third Man.



Jack Foley Jack Foley Jack Foley
Photos by Steve Wilson

the two in the dark
reading speaking
near one another
the photographer
saw something
and caught it
the breathless
of the verse
as if
depended on it
the claddagh
the woman's neck
the words
rise up
even in the silence
of the
two lovers
in the all encompassing


Let me sing of Dixie's charms
Cotton fields and Mammy's arms,
And if my song can make you homesick,
I'm happy, I'm happy
--Irving Berlin (1930)

What was there about the invented South
The South of the minstrel show
That made it function
As a stand-in for "home"?
How many songs
About the longing
For the "good old Southland"
For the "old folks at home"?
Was it Dan Emmett or Stephen Foster
Who began it?
The man who wrote
"'Way down upon the Swanee River"
Had never been to the Sewanee River
Or seen Florida
Though he had certainly been
To minstrel shows.
Even Thomas Wolfe--
A genuine Southerner--
Wrote Look HOMEWARD, Angel.
So many songs--
"Chattanooga Choo Choo
Won't you choo choo me home?"
The songs say
We have been away
But now we're going
"I hope I'm not too late"
In the myth of the African American
Generated by anyone but African Americans
The singer has left the South
To go to the Northern cities
Where he is unhappy
And longs for the authenticity
Of cotton fields and Mammy.
I think these songs
Were about the white
Middle classes
The people that worked in the cities--
In what Brecht called the "net" of the cities--
And who were alienated
From their bodies
Because of the tasks they performed.
The story of the African American's
Superiority in bodily (i.e., sexual) awareness
Comes perhaps from the uneasiness
Of the white middle classes
About their own bodies.
These people
Were fascinated by syncopation
By rhythm
By Gershwin, by Waller, by Lead Belly, by Presley
By anything that could connect them
Back to their bodies,
By anything
That made their bodies
Sitting at a desk,
In a little cubicle
Where is the body located?
These songs
Saw the South
As Body Heaven,
The embrace of Mammy
A return to the womb
Which they,
In their infinite foolishness,
Had abandoned for a time.
This, they felt, was the mistake
At the heart of the city
A mistake
Which could be partially assuaged
Only by the body's
Fictional return
To a false and racist
Place called "home."

If my song can make you homesick,
I'm happy.

Jack Foley sign