Words Home


Jack Foley





There is an Emily Dickinson poem I have always loved:


          This is my letter to the world,

          That never wrote to me,—

          The simple news that Nature told,

          With tender majesty.

          Her message is committed

          To hands I cannot see;

          For love of her, sweet countrymen,

          Judge tenderly of me!


     With Coronavirus and new necessities of communication, I am changing my show’s format to a degree. I’m calling these new shows “My Letter to the World.” They are ruminations, opinions, thoughts, various meanderings of consciousness the way a letter meanders. They are thoughts about words. Irving Berlin wrote in “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”—either paradoxically or accidentally, since meandering usually suggests a slow progression—“Hurry up and let’s meander.” Let’s wind about. Let’s turn. That’s what I’ll be doing for these shows. I hope you’ll enjoy them. I’m going to begin with what for me is a true beginning—not the moment of my birth but the moment of my birth as a poet. We’ve been speaking of the notion of “home” a good deal recently. My piece is called “Words Home.” 



     I have a clear memory of the moment at which I became a poet. It must have been about 1955 or so, when I was 14 or 15. I had begun to write seriously, but I had no interest in poetry. My prose was modeled on that of Thomas Wolfe—as Jack Kerouac’s early prose was—and I had written a few songs, which involved rhyme. Someone—probably a teacher, perhaps Angela Kelley, who was Italian but who had married an Irishman—suggested that I read Thomas Gray’s 18th-century poem, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” I have no idea why the teacher thought the poem would appeal to me. I thought it very unlikely that I would have much interest in it, but I looked it up in the library and took it—home. 


          The Curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

               The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,

          The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,

               And leaves the world to darkness and to me.


          Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,

               And all the air a solemn stillness holds,

          Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,

               And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds...


          Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,

               Where heaves the turf in many a mould'ring heap,

          Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,

               The rude Forefathers of the hamlet sleep.


     The first stanza has a very important word in it: the word “homeward.” It was a word I had encountered in Thomas Wolfe’s powerful novel, Look Homeward, Angel. (Wolfe later wrote a book called You Can’t Go Home Again.) The ploughman goes “homeward,” but the speaker of the poem remains “outside,” in a country churchyard. As the poem suggests, the churchyard is a sort of “home,” but it is a home in which there are nothing but dead people. Somewhere at the edge of my consciousness, perhaps—encouraged by my reading—was the thought that my hometown Port Chester, NY was a home of the dead—a living necropolis. But at this point I had no way to formulate that thought. Look Homeward, Angel concludes,


...at a distance life awoke, and there was a rattle of lean wheels, a slow clangor of shod hoofs. And he heard the whistle wail along the river.

     Yet, as he stood for the last time by the angels of his father’s porch, it seemed as if the Square already were far and lost; or, I should say, he was like a man who stands upon a hill above the town he has left, yet does not say “The town is near,” but turns his eyes upon the distant soaring ranges.


You Can’t Go Home Again (which I had not yet read) is even more explicit:


...at the end of it he knew, and with the knowledge came the definite sense of new direction toward which he had long been groping, that the dark ancestral cave, the womb from which mankind emerged into the light, forever pulls one back—but that you can’t go home again.

     The phrase had many implications for him. You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame, back home to exile, to escape to Europe and some foreign land, back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing’s sake, back home to aestheticism, to one’s youthful idea of “the artist” and the all-sufficiency of “art” and “beauty” and “love,” back home to the ivory tower, back home to places in the country, to the cottage in Bermuda, away from all the strife and conflict of the world, back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time—back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.

     In a way, the phrase summed up everything he had ever learned.


     The message was clear: One had to leave home, and, once one had left home, one could never go back again. Yet home was all one knew. The speaker of Gray’s “Elegy” is not at home, though presumably his home is not far and, like the ploughman, he could go there if he wished. He is in a state of distance, a state of what he calls “darkness.” The landscape is “there,” but it is not overwhelmingly there—he does not have to react to it; in fact, it is fading. “Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight, / And all the air a solemn stillness holds.” In that “stillness” lies the possibility of thought, meditation, poetry—of writing.


          Let not ambition mock their useful toil,

               Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;

          Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile,

               The short and simple annals of the poor.


          The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,

               And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,

          Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.

               The paths of glory lead but to the grave...


          Can storied urn or animated bust

               Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?

          Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,

               Or Flattry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?


          Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid

               Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;

          Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,

               Or wakd to ecstasy the living lyre...


          Full many a gem of purest ray serene,

               The dark, unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:

          Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,

               And waste its sweetness on the desert air.


     Note the word “homely,” here used in a positive way. Nothing the poet is saying is new, though the statement is unusually musical. Still, we all know that “the paths of glory lead but to the grave.” Yet the poet’s position is of considerable interest. He is standing outside the town, thinking about its people. And the elegance of his language—and its resonances—is enormously powerful. I surely thought that, caught in my home town, with all its limitations and ignorances, I was wasting my sweetness on the desert air, that the town had far to go before anyone in it “fathom’d” my particular “ocean.” Later, I needed to learn the virtue and usefulness of the “homely”—of slang, for instance. At this point, I needed to learn how to distance myself from that, needed to learn that language like Gray’s allowed me to touch on what I knew—on what everyone knew—and yet be removed from it. Gray is, precisely, not at home; yet home is his subject. His elegant, rhyming language even glances at sexuality—certainly an issue for me at that time: his rose “blushes” and, virginal, “wastes its sweetness”; he writes of “the dark unfathom’d caves.” Moreover, his theme is death, and, like most adolescents, I was very interested in death. Adolescents are very aware that their strategies for dealing with the world—strategies which they have developed as children—are no longer going to be possible for them; they understand that they will have to “grow up,” behave like an adult, find new strategies. For them, death is not so much the end of life as it is the perception of a radical change in themselves, the perception that they must change their mode of being. Like all transformations, such change involves the conclusion of something—a kind of death—as well as the beginning of something else. For the adolescent, the “paths of glory” not only “lead...to the grave”—to death—they also begin with “death.” 


     Of course none of this was very clear to me on the day in 1955 when I read Gray’s elegy. All I could tell for sure was that the poem seemed to me the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. I kept repeating Gray’s lines aloud. The poem affected me so deeply that I wanted it to have come out of me, not out of Thomas Gray, and I immediately sat down and wrote my own Gray’s “Elegy,” in the same stanzaic form and with the same rhyme scheme as the original:


          I see the night—the restless, eager night

               That spreads its shadow softly on the day,

          And whispers to the sun’s red, burning light

               To vanish like a dream and pass away.


          I see the night—the darkened mist of night­

               And feel the velvet sorrows mem’ries bring;

          Septembe’s leaves have fallen, old and bright,

               And autumn’s winds have blown the dust of spring.


          I think of days long past, and gone, and dead,

               Of all the ancient, withered hopes I’ve had....


     Etc. Unlike Gray, I took myself as the subject of my elegy. But its mournful tone—and words like “mem’ries”—was directly traceable to him. I understood the state of mind named in Gray’s “Elegy” to be the state of mind of poetry itself; and in reacting so deeply to it, I understood myself to be a poet. 


     It was by no means a simple state of mind. It had to do with the enormous power of words not merely to reflect but to create a “reality,” a “mood” which moved me away from the daylight world in which I ordinarily functioned and had identity: “I see the night....” I mentioned the sexual implications hinted at by some of Gray’s lines. Speaking the words aloud let me experience them physically, with my own breath, coming out of my own body. In this situation, mind and body seemed not to be at odds: Thought seemed sensuous, sensuality seemed thoughtful. Self and other were joined here too. Thomas Gray was a long-dead poet of the 18th Century. It was his mind that was being expressed in his elegy. Yet his poem seemed to be expressing my own inmost thoughts. It was almost as if, as I spoke them, Gray’s passionate words allowed him to be reincarnated in my body. 


     There was of course a “real” Thomas Gray, a man who actually existed and who did a number of things beside write poetry. The Gray I was experiencing was not that person but Gray the poet, the bard. Aspects of both our lives seemed suddenly to fall away, to be of little consequence. What did it matter who the man Thomas Gray was?  What did it matter who I was—born in New Jersey, growing up in New York? My powerful reaction to Gray’s words allowed me to recognize not only who he was but who I was: I “was” a poet. And to “be” a poet meant to be transformed, to move away from the person who lived at 58 Prospect Street and who was 15 years old and who had a mother named Juanita and a father named Jack. Poetry offered me another identity, that of the poet; and, in so doing, it offered me another “home”—that of words. The life I led “at home”—“in my house”—was one thing; the life of words was another.  


     But a person with two homes can be understood as an exile. Writing moved me into a world of words. It was not a world I could touch or taste or see, as I could touch or taste or see the world I was used to. But it was not a “fantasy” world either. It was a world which words caused, which could not exist without the words, but it was no less real for that. I took that world to be my true “home.” For me, writing became a “home” which allowed me, in good conscience, to leave my “home.” I might perhaps have been able to find a better balance between these two “homes,” to have felt less like an exile as I moved from one to another. But the pressure I felt from Wolfe and others was too great:


“To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth­

     “­Whereon the pillars of this earth are founded, toward which the conscience of the world is tending—a wind is rising, and the riversflow.”

(You Can’t Go Home Again, my italics)


For Wolfe, as for his great disciple Jack Kerouac, the writer is “on the road”—outside, in motion, an exile. 


     What I am offering here is a mythologizing of the act of writing. Writers mythologize everything, so it is not surprising that they should mythologize that too. Many other stories about “becoming a writer” are possible. The distinguished literary critic Geoffrey H. Hartman once wrote, “Where there is a word cure, there must be a word-wound” (Saving the Text). One might turn his statement around: Where there is a word-wound, there must be a word cure. Writing exiles us from the abundant life around us. It causes us to turn inward, to ask questions, to wonder: it turns the often social and worldly child into the solitary. Yet where there is a word-wound there is also a word cure.  It is through writing—through words—that the world comes back to us. For the writer, the world becomes words, and, if he is successful, his words return him once again to the world. He is read. He is asked to lecture. He learns of other writers who have undergone struggles similar to his. He is publicly “criticized” by people like Mr. Hartman. Someone (another solitary writer) may write a book about his life. Where there was once only a person who knew other people, there is suddenly someone who is “known” to people he has never met.  


    Yet as writer Annette Pehnt points out, “To be homeless is part of being a poet.” A reader may be a “friend” of sorts, but she or he is not someone we can see or touch.  Writing is not a home; it is only—writing. “I write for myself,” wrote Gertrude Stein, “and strangers” (The Making of Americans, my italics). Writing is our entranceway into the labyrinths of the human mind, and it is a great joy and solace. But it is not home. It is a revelation of the power of thought. But it is not home. “The poem unnames you as it goes,” writes the poet Gustaf Sobin (Breaths’ Burials). At some point, the point at which writing ceases, we will become nothing but words. The enormous specificity and reality of our lives will at last have been partially recorded and now discarded.  Words will be the only “home” we have.  Will they be enough?  That they will be is the hope in which every writer lives. “His wife and he in exile,” wrote Muriel Rukeyser about her parents in a section of her poem, “Double Ode,”


           that is, home,

longing for home, and I home, that is exile, the much-loved


like the country called parents, much-loved that was, and exile...


Out of that mixture of home and exile came Rukeyser’s powerful creativity.  The section concludes,


          Moving toward new form I am­

          carry again

          all the old gifts and wars







From “Jacktalk”:



A mango is a peach that died and went to heaven.


Collage has been called, by Jerome Rothenberg and others, the art form of the twentieth century, and collage by its very nature moves against the idea of private property. Did T.S. Eliot ask permission of all the people he quoted in The Waste Land?


Not collage: collision.


The disease of choosing.


(Angry) These writers are in paper bags. Some of the paper bags are more substantial than others, but they’re all in paper bags. Not one of them has a new idea about the art. Not one of them can write his way out of a paper bag.


Denunciations of our society are easy enough to make—there is a lot in our society that requires denouncing—but, unless the denouncer cops to some sort of complicity, they carry with them a strong egoistic element. The real subject of such screeds is not the society they are supposedly denouncing but the self-satisfaction one feels at being totally in the right. The “text” is the horrors of society—which everyone knows about—but the “subtext” is the ego gratification of the speaker. Such poems are popular for that reason. The audience experiences the pleasure of hearing something they already agree with—so their complacency isn’t challenged. Such speeches change absolutely nothing and, indeed, don’t urge anyone to do anything: they are really an assertion of the status quo. A genuinely political writer such as Bertolt Brecht is interested in transformation, in arousing his audience to action—and he is willing to take the risk of saying the opposite of what he believes in order to stimulate his audience to contradict him.







For me, writing is a joy, even a “refuge,” not a struggle. Perhaps an addiction. I think sometimes that my happiest moments are when I’m writing. At the same time, I don’t think there’s much hope that my writing will survive my death. I’ve written no Waste Land, no Howl, no Coney Island of the Mind—nothing that would thrust me into the consciousness of the “literati.” I had hoped that my choruses would do that, but they didn’t—at least not yet. No doubt this is partly because poetry as silent reading is imbedded so thoroughly in the consciousness of the “literati”—the word is etymologically connected to “letters”—and partly because, though my work is passionately “spoken,” I am no spoken word poet affirming his ego by declamation. I suppose that, coming to the conviction that the work will not last, many people would stop. Why bother? Yet the joy is such that you continue. And there are people who are, at the moment anyway, listening. German dramatist Heiner Müller states that Antonin Artaud wrote “from the experience that masterpieces are accomplices of power”: “THOUGHT,” Müller goes on, in capitals, “IS AMONG THE GREATEST PLEASURES OF THE HUMAN RACE.” Why not write for the deep pleasure of thought? Artaud, Müller says, “tore literature away from the police.”





June 2020









Poet and scholar Jack Foley is the author of many volumes of poetry and cultural history including the companion volumes O POWERFUL WESTERN STAR: POETRY & ART IN CALIFORNIA (winner of the Artists Embassy Literary/Cultural Award 1998-2000) and FOLEY’S BOOKS: CALIFORNIA REBELS, BEATS, AND RADICALS, and the acclaimed two-volume Visions & Affiliations: A California Literary Time Line: Poets & Poetry 1940-2005.  His radio show is heard Tuesdays 2:00 p.m. on Berkeley station KPFA 94.1 FM and is available at the KPFA web site. 






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