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Add Clark Coolidge to the list of great American poets that nobody is talking about. He has been writing quietly for over four decades and gained prominence among the Language school poets. This Time We Are Both is another masterful accomplishment that further explores his unique form.

Since the 1980s, he has been composing copious amounts of syntactically-innovative poetry. It might appear, at first, that nothing has changed since his acclaimed works of the 80s, like At Egypt and The Crystal Text, and his current work. The Coolidge poem is easily recognized: at least several pages long, written in medium-length lines, lacking a subject, narrative cohesion and distinct imagistic content, and, most of all, containing a disjointed, fluid syntax that ignores grammatical norms.

Like any Language poet, most readers will, at least at first, find Coolidge’s work to be a garbled mess and devoid of lyricism. Most Language poets, like Ron Silliman and Bruce Andrews, deliberately abandon traditional grammatical norms and generic convention for political or scientific purposes. Like most (high) Modernist poems were in the early 20th century, contemporary Language poetry is very important and very inaccessible.

Coolidge fits in this paradigm, but with a huge exception—he is, in my opinion, immensely rewarding to read. If John Ashbery functions on the level of the sentence, Coolidge makes his living with the phrase. Like an Ashbery poem, the Coolidge poem has no discernable subject, symbolic clarity or transparent meaning. Unlike an Ashbery poem, the reader does not feel manipulated by elaborate rhetorical constructions and shifts in narrative or discursive content. Rather, a Coolidge poem is all texture. Here is a stanza chosen almost at random:

But the neighborhood where the people, smoke
where the pole wires, a fist of needles and says
we extend farther than you do and will get you
no doubt of those poles wires in a fist
and I have the urge to shake you
flats of sun fill blind vitamins simply
share the urge to seize stars violet like soup from
that rail, pretend flat out those vistas are alarming
trolley pack, and spring, flat bait, wait and we wave
broken gum, a flat frock of sugar

The most prominent feature of this language is the syntax, and several remarkable things seem to be happening. First, the connections between phrases seem to be basically arbitrary. Why does “smoke / where the pole wires” follow “[b]ut the neighborhood where the people…”? Second, Coolidge is bending the bounds of the phrase—the syntactic units themselves are ungrammatical and innovative. Finally, in spite of these conditions, the language has “fluidity,” though it is hard to specify exactly how. Phrases fuse into each other with the points of juncture disguised, and at times double or triple syntactic breaks are compressed into fragmented, almost stream-of-conscious word strings. In sum, every five to ten words or so, the reader finds herself in a very different kind of syntactic structure but can’t explain how she got there. Unrelenting anacoluthon yields continuous metamorphosis. It would be like channel surfing, except there are no clean distinctions or noise between channels. There’s just a river with partially-dissolved pieces.

Coolidge impresses me with the way he reworks imagery and description. Most of the phrases do not last long enough to sustain complete images and metaphors. Instead, there are imagistic gestures or “half-images,” or some such thing, like

when all the world does its thinking, mysterious
crayon stream in which world prong, the eating club put out
by word metallic raised the point, if that was an author (21)

A distinct image begins to form, “mysterious / crayon stream,” but deteriorates at “world prong” which has no or minimal meaningful content. Coolidge’s phrases tease—giving us the beginning of images, actions, and declarations that never fully form or find a correlative. This technique might seem to render the semantic content irrelevant—as with other Language poetry, which, crudely put, is just a study in linguistics. But good Language poetry, of which this is a fine example, does not surrender semantics. This partially-dissolved imagistic language in part creates the texture, counter-pointing the syntactic disruption. The disjunction between these two levels of operation in the text—the syntax and the content—harmonize by pulling against each other. Sometimes one wins out, sometimes the other.

It is both a musical score and a lyric landscape: It is musical because the sounds of phrases burst forth, denuded from their grammatical hideouts; it is lyric because there is a discursive, image-generating mind at the root of these word strings. This hint of lyricism comes out sometimes in fragmented glimpses of a lyric “I,”

I go by as ever on pencils
underneath of every leaving sun reveals
twigs in bottles in threes, elsewhere an etching erasing
grease for the eyes, that they take away nothing (19)

and is eluded to in the pronoun of the poem’s title. Coolidge’s poems are filled with human voice and personal feeling. To me, this voice is very clear and almost overwhelming. It is a paradox of language—perhaps the paradox that Coolidge’s career dares to explore—that something personal and compelling can persist in language deprived of normal syntax, rhetorical markers, subject matter, narrative and imagery. Like the rest of his oeuvre, This Time We Are Both shows that, while Language poetry doesn’t care about lyricism and aesthetics, it can sometimes still give pleasure. It a strange, wonderful achievement, even if too few are paying attention. Though, perhaps Coolidge is reconciled with this outcome, knowing that he is digging in a lonesome mine for disregarded stones, as he writes:

nobody waits
at the flat rock of syntax
huge factory knock lines all stub night long
and trouble to smear all the oils that swells, abatement
crosshatch in memory with sums of all railings by jewels
but only have I come to the marble gates
everyone stop at these walls

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Brooks Lampe teaches rhetoric, composition and poetry. His blog, Uut Poetry, explores the intersection of surrealism, postmodernism, experimental poetics and technology. He has several experimental Twitter projects including @Microdream. Currently, he is dissertating at the Catholic University of American in Washington D.C. on surrealism in contemporary American poetry.

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  • Joe Weil via Facebook January 7, 2011, 12:21 pm

    I first saw his work in young poets of 1965, a great anthology that included Simic, Kelly, Kathleen Frazier, Dianne Wakoski, etc, etc. The youngest in the anthology was Louise Gluck, twenty one at the time.

  • Joe Weil via Facebook January 7, 2011, 12:21 pm

    I first saw his work in young poets of 1965, a great anthology that included Simic, Kelly, Kathleen Frazier, Dianne Wakoski, etc, etc. The youngest in the anthology was Louise Gluck, twenty one at the time.

  • Daniel Silliman January 8, 2011, 5:40 am

    Coolidge is great, but, Brooks, this review is kind of cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face, with regards to language poetry.

    It’s really not THAT inaccessible, and there’re many places one can start, but even if it was basically impossible to read except as a kind of exercise, this still seems like an odd strategy. You wouldn’t, I imagine, promote some Shakespeare contemporary as “A Sonnet Poet You’ll Really Enjoy,” or a dadaist as “A Dadaist who Won’t Make You Say Your Child Could Have Done That.”

    Maybe my question, reading this review, is it, do you think, that makes Coolidge a language poet, and what is the relationship between him and that school?

  • Tom Orange January 10, 2011, 11:21 pm

    daniel, technically speaking brooks lampe is wrong to call coolidge a language poet. coolidge began publishing in the mid-1960s when most of the language poets were still teenagers. he is a closer contemporary of the second-generation new york school poets (like ted berrigan, bill berkson, joeseph ceravolo and tom clark) and that was the group he was most frequently associated with originally. by the mid-1970s many language poets, including bruce andrews and ron silliman, were quite taken with coolidge’s work and had friendly personal relationships with him. nevertheless, they often brought philosophical and political (post-structuralist, marxist) bearings to his work for which coolidge himself had little interest or proclivity. throughout his career and to the extent possible, coolidge himself has resisted affiliations with groups, schools and movements.

  • Brooks Lampe January 11, 2011, 2:14 am

    Tom, you’re right. Coolidge’s “family relations” are 2nd-gen. NY school. But if a man off the street read Coolidge, wouldn’t she put his work in the same stack as Silliman’s The Alphabet or Andrews’ Lip Service (broadly speaking)?

    Daniel, yes, I was somewhat facetiously imagining that the majority of educated readers–even poetry readers–are slow to warm up to language poetry’s unique offerings. For such folks, I suggest Coolidge as a good place to start. And yes, some language poetry is very accessible, but the majority of it is tough. Even so, a language poet’s talent is not proportional to the difficulty of reading him, so I don’t concede that Coolidge is a lesser star just because he is an entry point into non-syntactic writing.

  • Daniel Silliman January 11, 2011, 9:20 am

    I realize, Brooks, that my perception of the difficulty of language poetry is probably seriously skewed, since my uncle’s books were the poetry books we had in the house when I was a kid , but do you really think that language poetry is more difficult than, say, Elizabethan sonnet writers?

    And, even just granting that Elizabethan sonnet writers are difficult, and a lot of readers, even smart and educated ones, have trouble with their poems, would you have written a review of, say, Philip Sidney, that said, “unlike other Elizabethans, here’s a sonnet writer you’ll actually enjoy”?

    It seems like a strange move.

  • Daniel Silliman January 11, 2011, 9:21 am

    Thanks Tom, that helps. That’s really interesting.

  • Anonymous January 11, 2011, 4:35 pm

    i read brooks’ title as tongue in cheek, mostly. i think implicit in brooks’ title is the idea that certain poems are more readily accessible, and therefore more readily enjoyable. we need not read him as saying, though, that the rest of language poetry is not enjoyable.

    tom also brings up an interesting point: i haven’t thought too much about the connections between language poetry and the new york school, but it would be an interesting experiment to see how different schools of writing can give us access to others, despite the wildly different assumptions/intentions those schools might bring to their writing.

  • Anonymous January 11, 2011, 4:35 pm

    i read brooks’ title as tongue in cheek, mostly. i think implicit in brooks’ title is the idea that certain poems are more readily accessible, and therefore more readily enjoyable. we need not read him as saying, though, that the rest of language poetry is not enjoyable.

    tom also brings up an interesting point: i haven’t thought too much about the connections between language poetry and the new york school, but it would be an interesting experiment to see how different schools of writing can give us access to others, despite the wildly different assumptions/intentions those schools might bring to their writing.

  • Brooks Lampe January 11, 2011, 10:22 pm

    For what it’s worth, the NPF conference on the 1970s featured a ton of both Language poets and 2nd gen. New York poets–and the distinction between them was there but not sharp. Coolidge gave a reading–wonderful! But it was first exposure to him and it took me a while to get into it.

  • Brooks Lampe January 11, 2011, 11:07 pm

    Point taken. I agree that Elizabethan poetry is just as difficult to get into to because it is just as artificially constructed, objectively speaking. But reader’s aren’t objective. Elizabethan poetry is established; language poetry is (relatively) new and still marginal. Of course my relaxed journalistic trope would sound odd out of context. –Or perhaps I am simply under-appreciating the intelligence of TheThe’s readership.

    On the other hand, while I do not perceive myself playing the role of the evangelist for poetry, I’ll half-heartedly wear that hat on behalf of language poetry because I personally enjoy much of it and believe it is important. I suppose I could think of situations in which I would say, “unlike other Elizabethans, here’s a sonnet writer you’ll actually enjoy”? Here’s one: My family has no idea what I do as an Elizabethan scholar and doesn’t have too much patience for literature, few of them having a college degree. But they want to try to understand what I do, so I give them something slightly easier at first. This, in fact, is my social situation with contemporary poetry.

    On that note, I am very interested in what it must be like to grow up in a house with language poetry books. How do you yourself evaluate your perception of the difficulty (and quality, and profundity, etc) of language poetry given your unusual amount of childhood exposure? I imagine the vast majority of readers are introduced to language poetry academically and intellectually and as adults. Do you find that your critical opinion often differs from that of your poetic colleagues?

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