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:
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