Jack Foley Jack Foley

About 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.

Foley continues to write, perform, think about poetry.
how strange--
my father lived to be 72,
my mother 66
and I
still striding the earth
at 80


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