Two Views


Book Review: The "Fallen Western Star" Wars, Jack Foley, ed. Oakland CA: Scarlet Tanager Books, 200l; 87 pages; paperbound; $14.00

Dana Gioia is a youthful looking middle-aged poet who despite his cherubic countenance stirs up controversy everywhere he goes. That should not come as a surprise to anyone who knows Gioia's background. He finished high school as the class valedictorian and editor of the school paper but was thrice expelled for misbehaving. Gioia's essay "Can Poetry Matter?" for the Atlantic Monthly a decade ago produced the most extraordinary response in the magazine's history, which surprised me, as I didn't think poetry mattered to that many people any more.

Gioia's thesis was that poetry once written for popular consumption has been co-opted by the Academy, and that poets have sold their souls to university administrations for junior professorships with limited potential for tenure teaching creative writing, deemed vocational training by the tenured faculty of the English department.

Gioia also pointed out that literary criticism had devolved into a back scratching contest. In Ambrose Bierce's day a critic was hard to please because nobody tried to please him, or "her" in the case of you know who.

We'll probably never seen another David Lezensky, the poor man who hung himself when Ambrose Bierce accused him of plagiarizing Mrs. Plunkett's "Ode to a Dead Cow." Perhaps that's just as well

Bierce was extraordinarily prescient when he predicted with amazing precision what literary criticism would become in the twentieth century. He saw the critic "at work upon a book, and so read out of it / The qualities that he had first read in to it."

For fifty years I've complained that literary criticism was simply an exercise of the critic, usually a junior professor of sophomore English literature, engrafting onto a work of art something the artist had no intention of creating. Literary criticism today is like painting whiskers on the Mona Lisa.

The genius of Gioia's piece was to articulate so beautifully the thoughts that all of us - well, most of us - were thinking but couldn't find the words to express. And to do it with elevated language -- unlike mine -- worthy of a master prose writer.

Gioia laid out a formula for the resuscitation of the art form, but we're still waiting for the faculty committee appointed to implement the proposals to meet much less act on them.

Now that Gioia has relocated to a hilltop aerie in Sonoma County, in California, he has loosed his fateful lightning with another thunderbolt that has the Luddites stirred to action once again. The status quo seems to be a matter of national policy.

Gioia disingenuously maintains that he is only posing questions to stimulate his readers' intellectual curiosity. Yet, every trial lawyer - I used be one - can tell you that the best way to ask a question in court is to include the answer within the interrogatory. That frequently leaves the witness satisfied with his answer, while unknowingly having not only dug his own grave but also pulled the sod into it.

This time Gioia questioned whether the San Francisco Bay Area is any longer a literary region. "No" he said, "it's not." Then he proceeded for another 8997 words to explain why it's not.

The reaction to the essay reminded me of the time Anton Roman, publisher of the venerable Overland Monthly, asked Bret Harte to edit an anthology of California poetry. In characteristic fashion, Harte sampled the candidates very selectively and chose only forty-one poems for inclusion in the anthology. Only nineteen contributors were represented.

The reaction of the merchants and miners in the mining camps, who had been sending their ditties to the San Francisco newspapers and seeing them published without comment in the yellow journals, were furious at being excluded from Harte's anthology. They descended on the city and gathered as an unruly mob around Roman's mansion with pitchforks and torches demanding his neck for stretching.

The lynch mob this time is led by Howard Junker, the editor of a literary magazine with an unpronounceable name who to prove the positive set forth a list of names of alleged San Francisco writers and poets who, except for Michael Cardinal McClure and Kevin "not Kenneth" Starr, and one or two others I, for one, never heard of.

The shot was a blank, in any event. Junker missed Gioia's point entirely. It isn't that the artists aren't there; it's that they don't interact with each other on a regular and ongoing basis, which is how a literary region operates.

Other responses were more temperate and principled, and the scales seemed weighted equally on both sides, although I had the nagging suspicion that Gioia's attackers really didn't have a good idea of what the Bay Area was like when it was a real literary region. And certainly there was no evidence they were aware of the bohemian fantasyland that existed in the Bay Area during George Strerling's time.

The historical perspective so essential to Gioia's thesis seemed lacking in their assaults. I don't think the words Golden Era, Hutching's California Magazine, The Argonaut, The Overland Monthly, The Lark, The Blue Mule, or the Purple Cow meant anything to these folks; and if I mentioned people like Prentice Mulford, John "Yellow Bird" Ridge, Eliot Gould Buffum, Bayard Taylor, Alonzo "Old Block" Delano, George Horatio Derby, J. Ross Browne, George Henry, Josiah Royce, Ina Coolbrith, Gertrude Atherton, Mary Austin, Jimmy Hopper, Gelett Burgess, Harry Leon Wilson, Charles Warren Stoddard, and a host of others I don't know if there'd be much name recognition on their part.

But I shouldn't complain. After all, I was just as dumbfounded when Richard Silberg read out the roster of the Berkeley regiment of the Avant Guard in his in his excessively long reply to Gioia's thesis. Please don't get me started on avant gardism.

The point is, you can't talk about San Francisco as a literary region today without knowing what is was like yesterday.

Richard Silberg, associate editor of Poetry Flash, issued a papal bull spelling out in excruciating detail his objections to Gioia's dialectic. Silberg's rejoinder was in turn answered by Jack Foley and Silberg then rejoined Foley's rejoinder, and the two critics somehow got lost in an argument over the merits of Ed Markham's "The Man with a Hoe," not to be confused with Chris Rock's "Young Man with a Ho."

I know Richard. I took his poetry workshop at Cal Berkeley in the early eighties. I turned in a sheaf of poems I had assiduously written for the workshop at the first meeting. I got them back a few weeks later. There wasn't a mark on them except for a note scrawled at the top of the first page: "I've never written in forms, so I can't help you with these. Sorry!"

I about fell off the chair. "What?" I cried, "how can a free verse poet not interpret something as accessible as 'Casey at the Bat'?" There was no joy in Berkeley that night, I can tell you.

I soon gave up writing poetry again as I had in the sixties. I got tired of feeling like a well-fed Christian in an arena full of lions.

I should have known better, for on the first evening, Richard announced The Paramount Principle of Modern Poetry: "Whatever works, works!" Right! And any poet can be a pro playing tennis without a net.

I'll let readers of the book decided for themselves the merit or lack thereof, as we old trial lawyers like to say, of Silberg's arguments. I only want to point out that he seems to think a literary region lives on poetry alone. I'll give him everything he says about poetry and still challenge him to prove that the San Francisco Bay Area is a literary region. And I would tell him that shmoozhing at a poetry reading is not a particularly interactive activity. I have in mind crashing in the same pad and sharing girlfriends.

Jack Foley has just edited and published a collection of the responses to Gioia's Western Star piece brought out by Scarlet Tanager Books this year called, perhaps a little grandly, The "Fallen Western Star" Wars. The book puts the dispute into a clear perspective, making very interesting reading; but the book would be worth the price of admission if it only included the text of Gioia's essay, which is placed in the leadoff position. Those who do not have ready access to such literary zeitungs as the Ruminator Review can read Gioia's articulate piece in Jack's anthology.

The book also contains Gioia's short piece for the San Francisco Magazine (January 2000) that spelled out for those who hadn't read the writing on the stalls that the decline of San Francisco as a literary region was a matter of over population and real estate values.

What we're talking about is traditional bohemianism. George Sterling defined bohemianism as devotion to one of the seven arts - and poverty. Sterling should have known that his definition was incomplete. Bohemianism needs two other elements: the first is conviviality, from which the second follows, namely, a sense of place. I know because I was there.

I was there in fifties when the beatniks were rousted out of North Beach by a sudden influx of tits and ass. I was there in the sixties when the Zebra killer and his associates invaded the Haight Asbury and slimed the neighborhood relentlessly. When the bastards were through, they went across the bay and slimed Telegraph Avenue.

I was also there in the eighties when what was left of the bohemian culture was little more than gay coterie hold up in the Mission District amongst a population of mostly hostile Hispanics.

I left the city in 1992 and the only thing I've heard since then is that real estate values in the Mission have driven all the poor folk completely out of the city, which, by Sterling's definition, means the writers and poets too.

Café Trieste still serves coffee to residents and visitors alike, and you can still get a drink as Vesuvios or buy a book at City Lights. But you won't find a Weldon Kees sitting at the bar in Vesuvios arguing with a Jack Kerouac over who was the reigning jazz star, the local Turk Murphy or Jelly Roll Morton from "back east." The El Matador is gone and so is Cal Tjader, and you can't hear the Jefferson Airplane playing at Basin Street West or listen to Pearl at the Matrix. And you won't find Don Carpenter and Richard Braugtigan sitting at a table in a sidewalk café on Broadway making fun of the local burghers.

Those who weren't even born then will never know what a real literary region was like.

If you go looking for the I and Thou Coffeehouse on Haight Street, you'll find a pizza parlor; and if you want to take in an Akira Kurosawa flic at the old Wave Theater at the end of Irving Street, you'll find there a Chinese Restaurant.

If you check out Café Picaro in the Mission District on 16th Street, you might see some bohemian looking fellows at the tables but you won't see any of them reaching for the books on the shelves.

This is what I mean about a sense of place. Every bohemian culture has to have its Co-Existence Bagel Shop or its Original Coppa's Restaurant. And a literary region is not a literary region without a bohemian culture. I don't care how many of Madison Avenue's precious darlings live in the Bay Area, Bohemia is dead.