Monday, June 06, 2005

Clark Coolidge


In a comment to my replies to Jonathan Mayhew’s questions the other day, Pris Campbell asked a pointed question:

After your mention of Clark Coolidge as one poet you found initially difficult to understand, I read some of his work on the Internet. This is from the beginning of The Maintains, and I hope it's okay copyright-wise to quote just the first few lines out of about a 3-4 page poem...

such like such as
of a whist
a bound
the mid eft
the mode
own of own off
partly of such tin of such
the moo
which which
lably laugh

I'm curious. First: What do these lines say to you? Second: Do you honestly feel that the poetry will be read by anyone other than a small group of academic poets (and understood/enjoyed)?

It’s a fair question, one that reminds me that not everybody who comes to this blog arrives with the same reading background or predispositions.

Before I answer (or at least respond to) Pris’ question, tho, I want to note that I’ve never quite understood why Coolidge &/or Tom Orange chose that particular passage to highlight on the EPC site. The entire poem – arguably the first great book to emerge from langpo as a literary phenomenon – can be downloaded from Craig Dworkin’s website. Although it’s a fat file – & not searchable as text since the pages were scanned as photographs – I recommend it.

If you do download, the first thing you will notice is that the poem develops – it has what easily could be called a narrative thread. This involves a transition from a wide-ranging vocabulary on page one toward an increasingly non-referential one, almost as if the poem itself were going blind. The passage that Pris quotes is on page 91, just seven pages from the end, when the process is pretty close to complete. The beginning, by contrast, is as follows:

laurel ratio sharp or hard
instrumental triple to or fro
granule in award

one to whom is made

as the near wheel

of all subdue
a overhang
or bear over as a knot pass
the spread

that fair
the part
of the part plots
ending in for the most part bolts
as of wholes
come to as risen divides

paper a half surface certain salts
such as full sit to the waist
dative object
flute or the like bonus

Perhaps Pris will find this language every bit as oblique, I don’t know. But it is radically different – and that difference is the movement or sweep of this text & therefore worth thinking about.

Regardless of which passage one comes to first, it is surely the case that what one picks up immediately is not a sense of character, place, figuration or imagery, save possibly if one conjures up very localized pictures for terms such as laurel, bean, or wheel, etc. But because such imagery doesn’t sweep syntactically up into a figured landscape, the impact of such words fades rapidly.

So what does one do, confronted thus?

This is where Pris’ first question to me resonated, precisely because of the way in which it was phrased – What do these lines say to you? There is a world of presumption tucked into those words & especially into the metaphor of speech that lurks behind the verb “say.”

It amazes me, in 2005, when such lines are over 30 years old, to discover that there are serious readers of poetry – as Pris obviously is – who would not automatically do with a text what I would anticipate and expect them to do if they were confront similarly by, say, a painting of Jackson Pollock or work by John Cage (works that are themselves apt to be 50 years old at minimum) – look at what is in front of you. Deal with it on its own terms. In this case, regardless of which passage you come upon, what is in front of you would be with the word as sound, the line as prosody. The passage Pris cites sparkles off the page, read aloud with pauses for end-stops. If one doesn’t already know that Clark Coolidge is a trained jazz drummer, one would hardly be shocked to discover this, since the logic of the line is clearly percussive.

The same is true of the opening passage of The Maintains, with a notable difference. More of the words carry referential frames. If the passage from page 91 could be viewed as a verbal analogy to the “pure” painting of stroke on stroke that we might associate with something akin to Pollock’s canonical canvases, this opening passage is more complex, as if it were a collage of rapidly passing snipped of scenes, what you sometimes get with exceptionally dense collage works. Even here, of course, the sound of the words already is starting to dominate the flow of the language – hear the use of p, t, o & l in those lines, especially the combined forms – part plots, for the most part bolts – the uses even of complex rhyme, not just plots to bolts but to salts in the next stanza. Read aloud, I cannot imagine anyone who is sensitive to the sound of language not being swept up in this work.

The Maintains is in fact the first half of a two-volume project Coolidge completed in the early 1970s, the second half being Polaroid, published a year by Larry Fagin & Bill Berkson’s joint Adventures in Poetry/Big Sky label. At 100 pages to the earlier book’s 98, Polaroid begins exactly where The Maintains concludes, with a language entirely devoid of referential hooks operating utterly on prosody:

of what can it such
as which since can it

been as nor can of whence what
never even
a single ever still of still
of when as now then
not whence ever till such can what it
to through
as about then as till such hence it’s
of what it can since which not
even then of as now
till since then
down of
among like both
an either whole

a bolt
then of which
when thus of so what then
now so
then such as then how
a then this
of a part whole a such even
did then as how
now a since then
a that
that’s on then of
now where
both like

Where The Maintains proceeds in the continuous manner of the traditional poem, one stanza leading to the next, and with its actual lines derived – and this may not be obvious to the casual reader – entirely from dictionary definitions, Polaroid proceeds, in general (that is, there are exceptions) by treating the page as a unit, so that a page that treats the poem as spatial, or which appears in multiple short stanzas, faces another that is a long single stanza, until very gradually, it begins to readmit terms with referential hooks (two of the first, and easily the most important, turns out to be I & you), building finally toward long-lined dense stanzas that reach an almost Wagnerian conclusion, tonally.

This is hard enough to get in snippets or excerpts. Although the web site doesn’t indicate this, the excerpts of Polaroid on the EPC site represent three sets of paired pages, 38-39, 54-55, 72-73. Again, these excerpts strike me as short passages taken from the middle of a symphony – it’s impossible to get any sense of the whole or of development from them. Fortunately, Dworkin’s site also contains a downloadable PDF file of the book, albeit with the same limitations as the other volume.

My question for Pris would be: Why wouldn’t you think to begin with what you have? Which I think would imply reading aloud. In the past, I’ve read my own works – indeed pieces nearly as abstract as these – in such venues as the Maximum Security Library at Folsom Prison, and I know that, heard audibly, such works aren’t in any way “hard” or “difficult” texts. (At Folsom, I was told by the black urban prisoners that I was doing some sort of verbal jazz with my own work, which is close enough to my own experience to make sense.) And while such may be unfamiliar, I wonder about the prohibition about confronting the unfamiliar that translates a text such as Coolidge’s into such difficulty that Pris thinks to ask

Do you honestly feel that the poetry will be read by anyone other than a small group of academic poets (and understood/enjoyed)?

I’ve gone on here before about the history of poetry & it’s relationship socially to trobar clus, the work that the troubadour poets wrote for one another, that writing which demands a full engagement on the part of its readers. With the rise of fiction & the novel (let alone later forms, as disparate as cinema & pop music), trobar clus became that part of poetry that would not/could not be expropriated by other forms. It makes up most poetry today, and virtually all of any poetry that actually lasts, say, a century or more in time. However, I’m perverse enough to think that “academic” & “poet” are conflicting terms, not reinforcing ones. Historically, the center of poetry in the United States is America’s cities. The center of the academy – especially with regards to the state university systems that grew up during the economic expansion after the Second World War – has been far more suburban, if not actually rural. The most laughable example of this phenomenon may be Penn State, geographically centered at a uniform distance from all four of the state’s corners, putting it four hours from any major urban area unless one drives with a lead foot.

The sad fate of so many poets is to get a job in a small town like State College, PA, where there are going to be only a few simpatico people on campus, and virtually no serious readers in the surrounding community, and expecting them to build a life in such environs, for the most part with only their students to talk to. To add to the problem, a number of schools then, in the name of diversity, make sure that any authors they’ve hired aesthetically conflict with one another, so as minimize any possible discourse between them. This has been the fate especially of certain aspects of the School of Quietude & hopefully the arrival of the Net will have a liberating experience, erasing as it does so much of geographic isolation.

But if another way of asking Pris’ second question is do I expect anyone other than readers of poetry to read poetry? I think my answer has far less to do with poetry than it does with education in the United States. I’m reminded of Kit Robinson’s comment that language poetry is difficult only for certain grad students in English & I sometimes think that’s exactly right. Yet I’m perpetually vexed at the notion, implicit in Pris questions, that any high school student would graduate without some capacity to look at what is actually on the page with an open & critical eye. Campbell’s questions need to be reworded: Why aren’t our student’s being taught to read? How can we produce a literature for the illiterate? In a society where crackpots can argue “intelligent design” & have an opportunity to set K-12 curriculum, the level of anti-intellectualism, which is really a hostility to critical thought itself, runs very deep. That it impacts reading should hardly be surprise, even if it is always a disappointment. When we see a Billy Collins justifying hostility to critical reading skills in the name of “accessibility,” we need to recognize that this is every bit as much code as crime & capital punishment are codes in the GOP handbook to refer to people of color.

Hostility to critical thinking is so deeply ingrained in certain strains of American life, it can seem laughable. It’s in this regard that one of the better texts I can think of on the question of opacity in poetry is nothing less than “How to be a Poetic Genius,” a section of Bart Simpson’s Guide to Life (“Helped into print,” as it says on the book’s cover, “by Matt Groening”). Here are two tips that will speak to life among the post avant:

10. Here is one of the coolest poetic secrets of all: You don’t even need real words. That’s right. Just make em up.

11. You can write anything you want and call it a poem if you add a lot of space.

In the mean time, my response over what to do when confronted by a text like Clark Coolidge’s, or to any mode of visual poetry, performance poetry (slams included), or language-oriented conceptual work at all, is always the same: Begin with what’s in front of you, what’s really there. If there is a there there, that’s where it is.