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Reflections On Clark Coolidge

Beginning, for the sake of argument, with Pound, or for sake of argument, with Apollinaire, or with Stein, linearity was exploded. We have lived all our lives with this, and Clark Coolidge is one of our stellar exemplars. In an astounding number of books published since his first in 1966, Coolidge has proven to be restless, consistent, and prolific. Constantly examining new ways of exploring language, Coolidge has never stayed in one particular mode, or scale, of writing. It goes without saying that, along with that fearlessness to break new ground, there is variability, not predictability. Certain Coolidge books will appeal more to certain readers than others. What is incontestable is the appeal of Coolidge’s intellect, his brilliant handling of the English language, and his ability to make words sound, or play, against each other so that hidden assonances and meanings are always pooling up from beneath the literal text.

From 1964 to 1966, Coolidge co-published and co-edited with Michael Palmer three numbers of the poetry journal Joglars. This activity brought Coolidge into close contact with poets of the New York School as well as with the Concrete Poetry movement. His first book of poems, Flag Flutter & U.S. Electric, was published by Aram Saroyan’s Lines Books in 1966, as was his second, CLARK COOLIDGE. Coolidge’s poems from this era using word-shards and small durable word-constellations share a minimalist scale with Saroyan’s poems of the period:

                 contact back

  feldspar             arithmetic


                               (from CLARK COOLIDGE
                                    (New York: Lines, 1967)

Coolidge himself described another book of his early poetry, written in San Francisco in 1967, as being “a time of fascination with word-fragmentation, building from syllabic plucks, particularly the ends of words.” Inspired by Marcel Duchamp and Robert Smithson, Coolidge at that time was experimenting with spliced tape recordings of his poetry. The book Coolidge referred to was ING, published in 1968 by Angel Hair Books. Poems from ING as well as from the 1971 Adventures in Poetry publication, The So, were among those collected in Coolidge’s 1970 book, Space, published by Harper & Row. Coolidge became famous for a Concrete-like use of language’s fragments, as in the end of his poem “AD,” published in both ING and Space:







                              a ture
                              the ing









With this kind of poetry, sound and visual aspect are crucial. Comparing the spatial elegance in the Angel Hair version to the more manicured Harper & Row layout, one can observe how critical the visual element is to the complete comprehension of Coolidge’s project.

Space sports a cover by Jasper Johns, ING’s cover was by Philip Guston, and The So’s by Brice Marden. Far from anomalous, the relationship of Coolidge’s writing to visual art, as well his relationship to music and sound, proves essential. A trained percussionist and drummer, Coolidge had also been in a band with poet David Meltzer. A significant meeting at that time was with the painter Philip Guston, with whom Coolidge would do many collaborations. “CC down to the syllable, PG down to the one line, somehow generatively in parallel,” according to Coolidge.

I would like to suggest that Coolidge, fitting in to a post-Ashberyan context in the late 1960s, is a central, rather than peripheral, member of the second generation New York School poets, while simultaneously moving beyond that definition to engage other equally relevant signs of the times. It is widely acknowledged that Ashbery’s poem “Europe,” which begins,

To employ her
construction ball
Morning fed on the
light blue wood
of the mouth
     cannot understand
feels deeply)

in which each line is a sentence fragment, independent syntactically from the lines on either side of it, forging a poetic equivalent to the version of abstraction found in a Rauschenberg combine, and yet possessing a continuous flow and rhythm more reminiscent of the gestures of a 1951-era Pollock, deeply affected the poets of Coolidge’s generation. “Europe” was first published in Big Table in 1959 and collected in Ashbery’s book The Tennis Court Oath in 1962.

Ron Padgett, although his phrases, even in his earliest works, tended to have a more mock-narrative thread, was also influenced by such abstraction and could write lines like:

To blot the lumber
Like a gradually hard mode
All bring and forehead in the starry grab
That pulverizes
And its slivers
off bending down the thrown gulp
In funny threes
So the old fat flies toward the brain
And a dent on brilliance…

                                                             (from “Detach, Invading,”
                                                            Great Balls Of Fire, 1969)

An even closer parallel, especially to some of Coolidge’s more expansive, less concrete, works (see Flag Flutter & U.S. Electric or poems from that volume reprinted in Space, such as “Fed Drapes,” “The Image Furnace, Under Brine,” “Machinations Calcite,” “A Nerve Treatment,” “Echo & Mildew,” “The Tab”) is found in some of the poems collected in Dick Gallup’s Where I Hang My Hat (New York: Harper & Row, 1970). The first poem in Flag Flutter is called “Acid”:


Blackie was met at the subway
wished for pumice sunny flags
WE GO       DOWN WE         GO DOWN

“Giant Grouper” said, in cold spray net tank
                  GREENS deep at me
fade corridors
tapped the wrong uncle & spoke intimately

in foetal lift of potty stalagmites, resting
hair pillows edges of dead batteries
the leak
                   Growth Mustard

earth    vanity error: drainage , settle
         cigarette balls on umber pools
         the corners left to never return. . .

“call soon, I was underground”

“Acid” is constructively compared with Gallup’s poem “Recoting,” which begins:

The nerves tested to the end of violence
Are they the handy golden bar?
Each time return                           Feet
In the yellow sluggish                   Pilfered
Rain                        Alas!                                    The darting
Two-fold dripping carcass                               music
The last quick square above the last…

In both cases, sections of syntactically functional text are accosted by dislocated phrases or, often, individual words, emphasized by their spaced-out layout on the page. It is a moot point, though perhaps a humorous one, to consider what effect controlled substances may have had on such a poetics. The title “Acid” itself would seem to indicate a certain modus operandi, if not necessarily for writing the poem (or suite of poems—it is the first, and possibly programmatic, poem in Coolidge’s first book) then for a way of organizing or dis-organizing perception.

But Coolidge is one of those rare artists who seem to appeal across the board. Not only New York School, with its interest in the visual and the arch, but also the Language School, with its investigations into the solidity and insolidity of language’s capability to convey meaning, paid close attention to Coolidge’s experiments. Ron Silliman, who devoted an issue of his journal Tottel’s to Coolidge’s poetry and published his 1974 book The Maintains, has written, “…when Coolidge and [Robert] Grenier extended the definition of language beyond discourse, it seemed that a reinvestigation of the whole act of writing was not only possible, but necessary. Any other tendency now is mere decoration.”

Beginning in the mid-1970s, Coolidge moved towards more subject-based modes of writing. He began to use complete sentences; though the connections between sentences are not necessarily obvious, the projects have known areas, as in Subject To A Film, written while observing Stephen Spielberg making the movie Jaws; Alien Tatters, which taps into the fascination many people have for the belief in aliens; or Far Out West, influenced by cowboy movies Coolidge saw as a child.

In 1994, Sun & Moon Press published Coolidge’s The ROVA Improvisations. The title refers to the Rova Saxophone Quartet, and a note accompanying this book is informative as to Coolidge’s project-based practice: “These writings were begun in the process of preparing to compose the liner notes for ROVA’s album, The Crowd. They exist as two parallel surges of improvisation. The first written while listening to all the tracks of ROVA’s albums in the order of their recording. The second while reading through those initial writings. One written in the hollows of the music. The other in the silence of the words.”

In 1989, Coolidge had traveled to the Soviet Union with the Rova Saxophone Quartet and met poet Arkadii Dragomoschenko. That trip forms the setting for Coolidge’s latest publication, This Time We Are Both (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010). A note states that the book is the “result” of his first visit to the Soviet Union and that it follows the itinerary Rova’s tour in November, 1989: Leningrad, Vilnius, Riga, Tallinn, Tartu, and Moscow. “The title is borrowed from a painting by Ostap Dragomoschenko. A CD of Rova music from the tour, also titled This Time We Are Both, was released in 1991 by New Albion Records.” Again, we are in the presence of both painting and music; these are constants sought out by the poet as necessary concomitants to the poetry. In 16 sections, the book makes many fleeting references to places and people, but it would be difficult to know that it follows the itinerary delineated in the note.

Perhaps a more revealing landmark comes from one of the three epigraphs to the book: it is from John Ashbery’s poem “The Preludes”—“Over near somewhere else there is the problem of the difficulty.” This mellifluous but enigmatic phrase is indicative of a trend in Coolidge’s writing that is seemingly quite different from that related to “Europe.” Just as Coolidge is capable of minute dissections and expansive, book-length texts, likewise is he capable of denying language’s seemingly innate desire to make sense in one project while seemingly adhering to it in another.

In This Time We Are Both, Coolidge has it both ways. We are lured into the continuity of sentences, but Coolidge subtly breaks the sense, even while maintaining the rhythmic flow. In that sense, this may be the closest to “Europe” that Coolidge has yet arrived:

I clapped, then the radiance
contrasted white breath to the ivory slab, loaves in heat
sent in a pinch between windows between highways
we want a way, we want the link to prod a window
the odd of invent it and thought such that massed
before us the regular lyric prong as basis and asymmetric at any
                                                            (from section VIII)

You can start almost anywhere in this book and feel like you are getting the whole thing. Coolidge’s thought, his mind, brings you into the picture. Sometimes, references are made to musical ideas, or details from life on the road, of glimpses of locations, but these glimpses function independently on the level of visual and aural fireworks:

From anacrusis to plain, remove the cellophane
definitely nothing in Pythagorean deserts looking for Bantu sulfates
got to jettison hone or lacerate grin
pin in Billie’s finger, jazz had gone home
was late anacrusis, a steady hour of night on a platter
stand in a doorway and we shut that night
by play of bumper doors obeisant to steer as half a car
or a leg up on beady feminism, anacrusis?
voices gelled from tube, are they metrical?
left the mind set on color, where are you?
as if pressed up the back, initially but then
it’s a first, we are blessed on the weak beats
                                                            (last stanza of section III)

A lot is being said here. Anacrusis is defined as one or more unstressed syllables before the beginning of a poem, or one or more unstressed notes before the first bar line of a piece of music. A lot is being intimated, about the connection between poetry and music, and what remains inside or outside the frame, what may or must be considered essential.

At almost 100 pages, This Time We Are Both requires a lot of stamina of the reader. Coolidge has attempted the large-scale prose-based work several times, notably in Alien Tatters, Smithsonian Depositions & Subject To A Film, and The Crystal Text. Each work has its own texture, but The Crystal Text, for example, is more continuous in its pull. Perhaps it has to do with the focus. As the back cover copy to that book informs, “The occasion for this poetic meditation is a colorless quartz crystal sitting upon the writer’s desk.” In this extract, the narrator speaks clearly of his desires:

I want to hear the one thing speak that
cannot speak.
I want to know the things that can’t be known.

I want to speak only here in his closed book.
To hear those sorts of things said, that can
only be spoken in this sort of closed silence.
When the rest of the world is not awake to any
of this, and I also would rather be sleeping.
The wind making its marks on the other side of day.
And the crystal only keeping its lights, to itself.
And to me.

The difference may be that Coolidge here is allowing the personal to speak through the strange and demanding concentration of studying a crystal. In This Time We Are Both, paradoxically, the text is neither personal nor objective, and the reader must rely on senses of Coolidge’s unfailing ability to be a genteel host, for the evening to have a coherent shape. Coolidge’s period-less writing (texts which eschew the use of finalizing punctuation), of which This Time We Are Both is an example, function best when lines are shorter, focusing the ear on poetry’s chiseled sound—the chisel, or set of chisels, tools Coolidge knows so well. When the line expands, it moves away from poetry towards prose, and then, minus a focus like that of The Crystal Text, the reader’s attention can dissipate.

I have always thought of Coolidge as an experimenter on the edges of what could be considered semantically graspable poetic practice. Through the years, I have observed the resonance his work has for a range of diverse poets. His oeuvre, over all these years, has carved a space in our collective consciousness.


Vincent Katz

VINCENT KATZ is a poet, critic, and translator. He is the author of eleven books of poetry, including Alcuni Telefonini, a collaboration with painter Francesco Clemente published in 2008 by Granary Books. He is the publisher of the poetry and arts journal VANITAS and of Libellum books. With Yasmil Raymond, he co-curates the Readings in Contemporary Poetry series at Dia:Chelsea.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2011

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