BooksWeekend

Mind Music: Reading Clark Coolidge

Jack Kerouac’s writing opened up the literary horizons for Coolidge — horizons where a musician’s intuition and technique could be expressed in writing and thinking.

Nothing can prepare you for the experience of reading Clark Coolidge’s poetry. You can listen to Cecil Taylor, Thelonious Monk, and the Rova Quartet; you can read the Beats, and examine every Philip Guston painting; you can go spelunking and spend days staring at rock structures. You can even memorize every word of Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett and recite it all as a soundtrack to a black-and-white cowboy movie. These may contextualize some of the elements in Coolidge’s work, but they will not adequately equip you for the heady mixture of intellectual pleasure, semantic frustration, and visceral musicality that Coolidge’s work is likely to provoke.

Biographical facts will be even less helpful. The poet was born in Rhode Island. For a period of time, he became a jazz drummer. Jack Kerouac’s writing opened up the literary horizons for Coolidge — horizons where a musician’s intuition and technique could be expressed in writing and thinking. He joined the New York poetry scene in the 1960’s, and came to be seen in the context of the New York school of poets as well as Language poets. He lives and writes in Northern California.

For a poet of Coolidge’s expansiveness, Selected Poems should be thought of as an initiation — a taste to whet the appetite. Yet, the legendary prolificacy of Coolidge notwithstanding, one would be hard-pressed to call the recently published volume a mere initiation. Featuring masterfully arranged samplings from over 30 separate books, the work is monumental, spanning over 400 pages of poetry that, at least at the outset, does not bear any resemblance to conventional narrative forms, personal speech, or metaphoric imagery. Consider these lines:

Impact is all they’ll allow you in the spite sweats
knocker of cabbage at the vocal bulkhead
sit bent or straight as sticks awash
at sound not a bulge but cracks
a cranium for openers
whatever powers but you fist

That is the opening of the poem “Moon Down.” Who, or what, is talking to us? Who are the “they” of the opening line? What sort of an experience is being described? Does each line relate, in any way, to the next?

Are these questions irrelevant? Perhaps, then, instead of looking for answers, one can observe that the language used in the poem is casual, even pedestrian: “sweats,” “knocker,” “cabbage,” “bulge” — though these are combined in unfamiliar ways. What are, for instance, “the spite sweats”? Are these waves of anger that cause perspiration? Or sweatpants one dons in a vindictive mood? Is the “knocker of cabbage” a surreal door handle, a severe critic of cruciferous vegetables, or a boxer sparring with head of cabbage? Poet Bill Berkson, who wrote the book’s introduction, laments that academic readers of Coolidge’s work are often unaware of “how playful Clark is and how funny his poems often are, how most every word shows off its risible side.” Coolidge’s surreal combustions, Berkson goes on to suggest, allow us to experience the “oddball nature of words in the first place” — the profound irony of language as it awkwardly interacts with our lived experience and morphs into new, ill-fitting formulations.

Avant-garde poetry — particularly when it comes to Language poets, a circle Coolidge is often associated with — is notoriously cerebral and difficult, but the reader’s reward is in the humor that seems to be intrinsic, even necessary, for the avant-garde endeavor. Great intellects make themselves known through wit and irony (which can be witnessed in the works of Coolidge’s fellow Language poets, Charles Bernstein and Bob Perelman, among others).

Coolidge’s training as a jazz drummer is often understood as a crucial aspect of his poetics. His essays and lectures on the nature of experimental music, while technically astute, also achieve a philosophical pitch. It is not entirely surprising, then, that in addition to the surreally pedestrian images, “Moon Down” is filled with references to music — “vocal,” “sound,” and most notably, “sticks.” Even the word “opener” can be a shred of bandstand lingo. With that, perhaps, “sit bent or straight as sticks awash / at sound not a bulge but cracks” can remind one of trying to describe music — listening to, say, a drum solo underneath a polyphonic arrangement, which, instead of leading into a climactic “bulge” ends up broken into fragmented “cracks.” Then again, these lines can be read as a contemplation of a natural or inner landscape, or a combination of those two. These can be images reaching for the shape of the thought itself, or conversely, a rush of improvisation, and an attempt to escape from that shape.

Walter Pater has famously written: “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” In Coolidge’s work, the commitment to music-like experience is clear, but it comes with the admission that, after all, words are not notes — they do carry meanings that we cannot shed, however hard we try. Perhaps for that reason, while other poets of mid-late 20th century experimented with collage and cut-ups to break up the conventional meanings, contexts, and syntax, as Berkson points out in the introduction, for Coolidge, “there was a readymade cut-up or scanning device accessible in one’s own mind.”

In his poetry, meaning does not present itself, but hovers somewhere around the text, teasing and frustrating the reader, as, for instance, in the opening of “Basil Rathbone’s Bathrobe”:

a dump an octave up
dip a large it
rose on did
single of that on that sort
cord knee to lots pends
fiddle such with pends balds
belongs a cuff tint whole
air of trim
neat’s trick wax amati mud
number no nor no
an arm in arm all down room
peck mere band diorite
ping morman mere
white pulls post milk
oath cork corot quite a little all quite wrist

A Coolidge poem is like John Cage’s prepared piano: one can’t expect to read it— play it — by using traditional interpretive devices. Rules change, and continue changing as the piece proceeds. What does one make, for instance, of the off-notes — words that don’t sound right – “amati,” “morman,” and “corot”? Are those last names sans capitalization, or purposeful misspellings? Neither “pend” nor “bald” are normally used as nouns, let alone plural, let alone in combination. It is possible that “pends balds” could make one think of encroaching hair recession — the pending baldness. But then, Coolidge might as well be using these words as purely rhythmic units, or talking about the words themselves, and the experience of using these very words.

Berkson points out that from early on Coolidge acquired a “feeling that words, and the sentences they came all-too-neatly wrapped in, required refreshing via intensive disruption and rearrangement … to give words more breathing space and physicality, away from preauthorized, anticipated meanings, so they could exist and mean more in themselves, as their own mutable occasions.” Perhaps, then, “Basil Rathbone’s Bathrobe” is an example of that sort of a disruption. It is a disruption, moreover, that leads us towards contemplation of words as the poem’s true protagonists — think, for example, of “dip a large it” as the immersion of the word “it,” as if this “it” has some sort of nearly physical reality. It is the immersion that occurs in our daily language — and in this very poem that is being discussed. Similarly, “rose on did” could lead one to Gertrude Stein’s illustrious rose (“the rose is a rose is a rose”), resting on the word “did” — which is fraught with echoes of the word “deed.”

The collection’s magnitude is in part owed to the diversity of poems assembled together. Aside from linguistic experiments, such as the one above, one can find somewhat more conventionally decodable pieces, such as “The Fifties”:

for
one
brief
moment
maybe
say
six
weeks
nobody
understood
art

Is this poem ironic? Or is it trying in earnest to comment on the artists’ revolution that erupted in the 1950s? The peculiar arrangement of one-word-per-line could make one imagine a forceful whisper, filled with urgency — or a mock revelatory showdown. Or does the form allude to Minimalism, an art form that came into being shortly after 1950s? Suppose Coolidge is merely describing a time period when art was incomprehensible — but then, why did he choose to express that in the clearest, most lucid way possible?

In his essays and interviews, Coolidge often cites his principal influence, Samuel Beckett, who stated that the task of the artist is to find a form to “accommodate the mess.” The choice of form, its spontaneous modification and reinvention, is a central concern throughout the collection. In “Over Time,” an elegy for jazz pianist Lenny Tristano, Coolidge writes:

As with music there is no saying
no bridge made fit the yawn of the day
the dogs pure faucets turned off their chains
of pros and cons tristano dies

The two opening lines are directly elegiac: like music, death and loss are impossible to describe, especially as one stands facing the yawning indifference of the days that continue rolling onward. It is the third line that offers a most unexpected turnaround — more than merely surreal, the flow of words and images stumbles, piles up, breaks — as perhaps an improvised jazz solo might, clashing the melody, pushing it towards a purer, angrier, more dynamic lament.

There is no doubt that connoisseurs of American avant-garde poetry will keep coming back to this collection, to Coolidge’s formidable accomplishments, just as there’s little doubt that what Coolidge wrote about Thelonious Monk can be said about the poet himself:

Monk reported
hard eyes and riskier fingers
the laugh as interstitial haste
or click lid of grace

Selected Poems 1962-1985 (2017) is published by Station Hill Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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