In 1967, Clark Coolidge moved from Cambridge, Mass., where he was living with Aram Saroyan and others, to San Francisco to join David Meltzer’s band, Serpent Power. In 1970, Clark and his wife, Susan — whom he met in San Francisco — moved to the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, where they lived on a hill at the end of a dirt road for 27 years. In 1997, they moved to Petaluma, California. Back in California, Clark saw more of David. Poet is Coolidge’s response to a poem, “When I Was a Poet” by Meltzer, which he heard his friend read many times. I think of the two works — Meltzer’s “When I Was a Poet” and Coolidge’s Poet — as a call-and-response between two old friends and musicians who played together on many occasions, talked into the wee hours of the night, enjoyed each other’s company, and read and respected each other’s work. As William Blake wrote: “I cannot think that real poets have any competition.”
Each line of Meltzer’s poem begins, “When I was a poet …” before going in different directions. At one point in the poem, Willie Nelson and Paul Celan show up. At other times, it moves forward through sound and funny, self-mocking rhymes. Its structure enabled Meltzer to bring together all his interests: sound, metaphysics, Jewish mysticism, nature, humor, music, and much, much more. (I highly recommend watching him read it).
Poet, Coolidge’s response, is a 310-page serial poem, with many of the untitled poems being 14 lines long. The dedication reads: “Thanks to David.” As one might expect with a Coolidge poem, all sorts of funny, bewildering things happen in every poem. One poem begins:
The poem of eyedrops on the ashen warrior
the poem of sea light on chopsticks
the poem of Father Deal and his zephyr trail
a poem from the Stuff and Nonsense board
poem for putting things on top of other things
This is one of Coolidge’s many writing techniques: he stretches the possibility of a word beyond any of its conventional definitions (or restrictions). At the same time, the precision of the first two lines explodes surrealism’s collision of opposites. In the third line, you feel him shifting the focus from the lyric (“The poem of eyedrops on the ashen warrior/ poem of sea light on chopsticks”) to the epic (“Father Deal and his zephyr trail”). And then he shifts again (“a poem from the Stuff and Nonsense board”) and again (“poem for putting things on top of other things”). By this time you begin wondering: what is a poem, anyway? It is something we have never agreed upon because any definition becomes a restriction, which Coolidge is against.
All of these shifts of attention and context happen in the first five lines of a 14-line poem: a list of open-ended phrases whose fuller context is never given to us. We are pulled into a realm of conjecture. Sixty or so pages later, a poem begins:
I saw poets in rubbers
I knew poets as brothers
I saw poets entangled
I saw poets in baubles and bangles
I saw poets on tuesday
I even met them on thursday
Are the “rubbers” galoshes or condoms, or some other kind of item? What starts out as a memory undoes the sentiment that is often intrinsic to this kind of writing.
On the next page, Coolidge “kissed the poem and made a wish.” A few lines later, “a poet picked up a used tortoise,” which is one of many incongruous pairings that makes this reader, at least, both marvel and wonder: what is a “used tortoise”?
Throughout Poet Coolidge presents all sorts of surprises, for example, in “The Collected Poems of William Windex,” as well as with allusions he does not comment on, preferring to stay in the present tense of writing his “poems written on long marches.” It is as if Coolidge set out to imagine and document every kind of poet and poem, and the way they have been thought about:
poems built on your father’s spine
poet who’s a shelf reader
poet who went dark
poet still on the clock
At times, he is addressing the poet and the poem. Other times, they are addressing him. Sometimes, he seems to be responding to other poets: “the Ed Sanders classic Jackbatty Fructate.” Does this have to do with the pleasure of masturbating? Other times, he plays with names: “The name is Pally Harmer fuzz poet.” Science fiction makes an entrance as well:
The apes had all left for another planet
where they could chew in peace
practicing a sort of naked mercy.
And the poem answers Coolidge’s foray into this territory: “planet of whatever the hell you’re talking about.” Detective novels, cowboy movies, music, a love of lists and made up names — all of this comes into play in Poet.
Whenever Coolidge sets off in one direction, the reader had better be prepared to be startled by an unexpected shift, a sudden stop that vaults you into another dimension. His 310-page serial poem is about the poet, the poem, and poetry, without a trace of nostalgia or sappy romantic idealism. He names poems that have not been written, leaving us to imagine what they would be: “the poem about Camp Climax for girls.” He wonders about what we will never read: “how many volumes of Corso have been lost?” All sorts of people make an appearance: “the poem where Jack Palance smiles.” Lines turn in on themselves:
The poet ought to cut down
a kidney-shaped cloud precedes his exit from the car
An ugly noise in the moist skull
People for whom poetry is a necessary part of their lives should love this book. They know all the tricks and tropes poets use to manipulate the reader. Instead of going down well-trod paths — all of which he seems to know — Coolidge is interested in showing how the magician pulls the rabbit out of the hat, which he does with affection. Deeply suspicion of anything that smacks of self-importance, of making a blanket statement or pronouncement, he resists nailing down what the poet and poem are. He wants to do something bigger, which is to liberate the terms “poet” and “poem” from all the restrictions they have been saddled with. The humor running through this book is cool and tender, pointed and generous.