Showing posts with label Clark Coolidge. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Clark Coolidge. Show all posts

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Monday, July 31, 2006

Clark Coolidge gets credit for a lot of things, virtually all of it deserved, but generally I don’t think there has been enough recognition of his stellar work as a literary critic, as such. Over my trip west, I read the Kerouac sections – roughly 80 pages from a 140-page book – in his 1999 Living Batch collection, Now It’s Jazz, temporarily (I really hope they mean that) out of stock at SPD. It’s the finest critical writing I’ve ever read on Kerouac’s work, which is to say that it’s passionate & level-headed, with an exceptionally good eye/ear toward the fine points in Kerouac’s writing, its basis in rhythm, Kerouac’s own eye (essential to his work), indeed Kerouac’s mind.
You can find one piece of Coolidge’s Kerouac collection online, this relatively straightforward, even formal overview from American Poetry Review gathered here amongst the rather breath-taking & eclectic materials put together for Al Filreis’ legendary English 88 course at Penn. Of the essays (many of them simply excerpts from letters) in Coolidge’s collection, this is the closest thing to an normative piece of prose, which makes it, at once, perhaps the most accessible of the essays here, but in some ways the least of them as well. One great section of Now It’s Jazz consists of a recitation of dreams in which Kerouac has appeared to Coolidge, a riff on Book of Dreams no doubt, but an intimate way to let you know not only how much Kerouac means to Coolidge’s own writing & person, but also in what ways.
People who don’t read Coolidge closely sometimes express the sense that his own work is abstract. In fact, much of what Coolidge himself says about Kerouac – especially about the role of rhythm in the work – he could say of himself as well. One thing Coolidge obviously is not, tho, is a Kerouac clone. Rather, Kerouac is one of the major influences on Coolidge’s work (I’d argue that Phil Whalen is the other prime source), which takes its essence into places Ti-Jean himself never fully imagined.
One thing Coolidge does take from the early Kerouac is an enormous sense of dedication to craft and to the idea that the meaning of form is intimately connected to what you can do with it, not how neatly your shoe laces are tied. Coolidge has done his homework here, seeming to have read everything in print many times over & more than a little of what is not yet in printed form. One consequence of this is that Coolidge is brutal with the haphazard nature of many of the Kerouac editions, more than a few of which seem designed to propagate the myth rather than elucidate the writer. Kerouac is one of several recent authors – Joyce & Duncan come immediately to mind – where we may just have to wait for copyright to expire & hope that enough of the materials not now in public archives get there and that each will ultimately find their own Hugh Kenner waiting to unpack the chronological & other difficulties with which the total oeuvre is embedded.
One test of Coolidge as a critic – you can find some other non-Kerouac samples as well on his EPC web page – is that he gets the importance of Visions of Cody, not just as a central work in the Kerouac canon, but quite possibly the Great Novel of the past century, right up on a par with Ulysses & Gravity’s Rainbow & the best of Faulkner (who is not unlike Kerouac in that his best work often comes in passages, rather than entire books). Coolidge’s “Visions of Cody Notes,” modeled after Kerouac’s own pseudo-script telegraphed prose is this book’s secret gem as well as the one work entirely devoted to a single volume of Kerouac’s.
The other echo that Coolidge’s book sets up for me is Kerouac’s ideas of spontaneous prose & their relation (or lack thereof) to the folk physiology of Charles Olson’s poetics, which I’d been working on prior to my week in Naropa last month. Here is Olson, from “Projective Verse”:
the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE
the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE
But consider the role of the eye, alluded to repeatedly in Kerouac’s “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose”:
1. Scribbled secret notebooks,and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
4. Be in love with yr life
5. Something that you feel will find its own form
6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
19. Accept loss forever
20. Believe in the holy contour of life
21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better
23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
29. You're a Genius all the time
30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven
If the tug-of-war in Olson’s work, the forces that give it its internal energy, is that battle between syllable & line, for Kerouac it’s between “the visual American form,” “pithy middle eye” & the mind, by which Kerouac does not mean logic or reason. “Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better.” It doesn’t get much more explicit than that, yet Coolidge shows how precisely Kerouac gives head to words & depiction simultaneously, citing the great cafeteria description from Visions of Cody (possibly the best description of anything in the whole of literature) and this much shorter passage from Old Angel Midnight:
The Mill Valley trees, the pines with green mint look and there’s a tangled eucalyptus hulk stick fallen thru the late sunlight tangle of those needles, hanging from it like a live wire connecting it to the ground – just below, the notches where little Fred sought to fell sad pine – not bleed much – just a lot of crystal sap the ants are mining in, motionless like cows on the grass
There is a great riff of prosody in that first interior phrase – where little Fred sought to fell sad pine – that makes you realize just how completely Kerouac is in control of (and driven by) the sound of the passage, tho it is not ultimately the sound that’s at play. This is a rare moment in American fiction – one wants to say American poetry tho Kerouac himself would not have agreed – and that Coolidge is capable of foregrounding a moment like this is a sign of his own considerable skill thinking through these materials.

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

K. Silem Mohammad responded to a question of Chris Stroffolino’s on the Poetics List concerning my comments regarding Barbara Guest, which in turn generated a correspondence between Kasey and Tom Orange. The two of them offer an enormous number of good & interesting ideas, more than a few of which challenge some of my own thinking – a good thing I’d like to encourage. While I generally feel it doesn’t make that much sense to replicate on the blog – which gets between 50 & 160 hits per day – what has already appeared on the Poetics List, with its distribution to 900 people, I do think it’s useful here, to flesh out all of the issues. I’ve added italics where email discourages it – those asterisks at the beginning & end of a word are bloody ugly – added a link to Tom Orange’s essay on Clark Coolidge, which enters into the conversation, and corrected a couple of typos, but otherwise not mucked with the text. Here is Kasey’s letter to Poetics:

on 11/4/02 6:36 PM, Chris Stroffolino Stroffolino at cstroffo@EARTHLINK.NET wrote:

> So, what do you plural all think of this statement on the Blog? > > "one sees quickly that Barbara Guest has become the single most powerful influence on new writing by women in the U.S."

I thought as soon as I read this that it was a controversial claim, to say the least. Certainly she's one of the most influential. But what about Lyn Hejinian, Carla Harryman, Rae Armantrout, Jorie Graham, Sharon Olds, Adrienne Rich, Lucille Clifton, Susan Howe, and at least a dozen others I could probably list off the top of my head? Obviously these are writers who cover a wide spectrum of different schools and approaches, not all of whom we all will admire equally, and maybe we're dealing with very specific definitions of "powerful" and/or "new writing," but certainly the existing population of younger women poets, even if we limit it to "experimental" communities, is by no means a uniform mass of Guest-imitators. For that matter, a lot of male poets (including myself) have been influenced by Guest as well, and a lot of male poets have influenced women writers.

As a matter of fact, I have some problems with the piece on abstract lyric as a whole. (Ron, just for the record, I think your blog is a great thing—not least because I frequently find myself disagreeing with you in ways that stimulate my own thought.) To start with, the very notion that "it is in the poetry of Barbara Guest that the form really comes into focus" begs a lot of questions. Was it not in focus in the work of Wallace Stevens, for example? Ron (or others), would you even consider Stevens an abstract lyricist? Hart Crane? H.D.? Dickinson? Etc.? Why or why not?

Ron, you define the A.L. as "a poem that functions as a lyric, bounded by modest scale and focused on the elements within." The italicized phrase seems to explain only circularly. Do you mean that it functions primarily on the level of music (as opposed to, say, logical argument)? This would eliminate a lot of reflective, philosophical work that nevertheless strikes me as "lyric" (e.g., Keats). Do you mean simply that it is relatively short (which seems to be covered by "modest scale")? In what sense is A.L. any more "focused on the elements within" than other kinds of lyric or poetry in general? The examples you give are often examples of compact syllabic patterning, consonance, and so forth; are these the "elements within"? Do you mean that the A.L. isolates these elements as material language over against their function as units of sense? Again, isn't this true of a lot of other poetry as well: that it foregrounds the signifier?

I'll accept that "not all short poems are lyrics," but in what sense is Rae Armantrout's poetry "only incidentally lyrical, if that"? This claim, more perhaps than any other you make, bewilders me. "Lyric in her case," you write, "is a feint or strategy, but is very seldom what is actually going on within the poem." I'm fascinated by the idea of lyric as a "feint"—the notion that lyrical effects can be randomly simulated or hastily approximated rather than meticulously orchestrated, and that it might nevertheless be very difficult for the reader to tell the difference. But how, then, is it possible to tell when lyric is not a feint? When is it "what is actually going on" as opposed to something that is ... what? Not going on? Then how can it be perceived as a "strategy" or anything else? I don't have Veil in front of me, but when I picture a page of it from memory, "lyric" is one of the first terms that comes to mind, and elegant, graceful lyric at that. Have I been fooled in some way?

You provide a possible clue when you say that in comparison to Armantrout's poems, Guest's are "as closed as sonnets." The implied distinction here is one between an "open," and therefore non-lyric, poetic, and a "closed," or rule-based(?) one. But can this possibly be right? Do we really want to say that intuitive, "pattern-free" (if patternlessness is ever possible) composition can never count as lyric, or at least not as "abstract lyric"?

You compare Guest's poetry to Clark Coolidge's: "where Coolidge's works revel in the sometimes raucous prosody of his intensely inventive ear, Guest's return the reader again & again to the word and its integration into a phrase, to a phrase and its integration into a line, to a line and its integration into a stanza or strophe." You go on to give some examples of this multi-level integration in Guest, and oddly enough, the first thing that came to my mind was a very methodologically similar recent reading by Tom Orange of Coolidge's "Ounce Code Orange." (Once more, I don't have the reference or a reliable memory handy—Tom's piece is in either New American Writing or Jacket or both, and it's a great essay, despite my vague skepticism regarding this particular mode of close reading, which I too indulge in from time to time.) I won't quote at length, but I encourage everyone to visit Ron's blog and decide for themselves whether the syllable-counting in question can really yield the kinds of aesthetic evidence that Ron claims for it. I won't deny that the lines do exhibit an admirable balance and sense of sonic precision that has something to do with syllabic disposition, but I'm not yet convinced that it's a balance or precision that can be explicated via quantification—that there is a substantive difference, in terms of what can be materially demonstrated through structural analysis, between Coolidge's "raucous prosody" and Guest's "instinct for balance and closure." The differentiating element here would seem to have to amount to either intention or instinct, and if it is the latter, as this last quote would suggest, the line is thin indeed between Coolidge's reveling and Guest's integrating.

I've belabored this at such length not just because I'm ornery (tho I am one ornery cuss), but because this is something I'm wrestling with a lot myself at present. So thank you, Ron, for the blog in general, and in particular for this opportunity to flex my thinking-fingers on the question of lyric "authenticity" vs whatever the opposite of such authenticity is.


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Tom Orange replied to Kasey, copying myself, Louis Cabri & Kevin Davies:


you raise some (actually a lot!) of good questions here. i can't speak for ron here of course but i've been thinking about role/place of "the social" in poetic form a bit in terms that ron and louis cabri have staked out on the blog. and i've been trying to formulate my own thoughts so maybe this will help as much along my own lines as much as yours.

cetainly ron's initial definition of abstract lyric — "a poem that functions as a lyric, bounded by modest scale and focused on the elements within" — is, as you point out, partly circular or tautologous. i don't think this necessarily means music to the exclusion of logical argument: see e.g. zukofsky. or another example that i think ron might agree with in terms of what i guess i can call the "social lyric" as opposed to "abstract lyric" or "asocial lyric": dickinson. (more on that shortly.)

"modest scale" certainly implies short in terms of length but more i think in terms of scope: pound's scale is epic, as is say zukofsky's again in late "A" (i forget, 22 or 23) where thousands of years of history (large scale) are compressed into 1000 lines (not page-long lyric but not, standing by itself, epic either).

"elements focused within" again refers i think to scale, as well as something like "attention" (in the objectivist/projectivist sense). there are no (or at least few) "figures of outward." the poem's referential structure is largely not directed outward, it's somewhat self-contained or self-reflexive. something of a well-wrought urn.

which is i think what leads ron in part to a highly formalist, bean- counting exercise with the guest poem (as to some extent i've done in my work on early coolidge, as you point out; yes it's jacket 13 and new american writing 19.) now don't forget, he's done this kind of thing with armantrout too: the essay (i think in the burning press collection) where he tracks the evolution of her work in terms of the asterisk-separated "sectionings" of the poems, putting the results into pie charts and whatnot. and with leningrad, running each of portion authored by himself and his peers through computer-assisted stylistic analysis.

so in a sense, although bean-counting can be instructive for both the abstract and asocial lyric, there's a sense in which i hear ron saying there's not much more to be done with the abstract lyric. and you see this curiously when you get to the very next sentence in ron's definition, to me just as if not more important as the first part:

"Not all short poems are lyrics – the intense social satires & commentaries of Rae Armantrout, for example, are only incidentally lyrical, if that. Lyric in her case is a feint or strategy, but is very seldom what is actually going on within the poem."

in a way, yeah, i think ron's saying if yr only seeing rae's poems as "lyric," in a sense buying into their seemingly transparently "lyric" form, then yr missing out or being fooled. in ron's terms, it's the "intensity" of social satire and commentary as opposed to and outweighing the "incidental" lyric appearance.

for me again dickinson is a case in point, especially having just taught her to college freshman again recently. those are deceptively simple looking little suckers, which is part of the initial appeal of her poems to them. "much madness is divinest sense" for example, or "faith is a fine invention": there are clearly the "intense social satires and commentaries" that can be unpacked in these poems as in armantrout's.

but here, with the notion of "unpacking," which i take also to be a central activity to new critical close reading and especially to the form that the new critics prized so much, namely the lyric — here it seems to me that an armantrout poem, bearing only the feint or strategy of lyric and hence "social" rather than "abstract," is in fact AS IF NOT MORE lyric than guest precisely in that it operates through a model of hermeneutic unpacking to arrive at a message ("intense social satire and commentary"). by contrast, guest's poems resist that very unpacking activity. and to me the gesture of poems that resist being unpacked, that resist "easy access," are more of a challenge to new critical reading and interpretive models and can even be seen resisting the very commodification that language poetry in part set out to resist.

in other words, it strikes me as a kind of curious return to "content" at the heart of this debate about the social and asocial word.

as a corollary, and to come back to coolidge: ron said in his post philly talk discussion, "I don't think you could ever by any stretch of the imagination argue a coherent politics out of the work of Clark Coolidge. [laughter] I love Clark Coolidge's work, but that's not a dimension it has been engaged with — and if it was, it would change in ways that I would find interesting, and Clark would find problematic." (16) <>

even if "coherent" were the key word here, i'm not sure ron's right. jerome mcgann's essay "truth in the body of falsehood" (from parnassus, 1988 i think; it's published under the noms de plume anne mack and jay rome) certainly points the way to a start i think. i've not read the essay in a while so can't offer a precise sense of how, but for me it has to do with that very resistance to unpacking, meaning, content, all of which lie primarily (and as so much of our public discourse today) which falsehood rather than truth. coolidge's "raucous prosody" is a bit of truth that challenges, calls such falsehood's bluff.


cc: ron, louis, kevin

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To which Kasey then responded:

 Thanks for this response, Tom—I've been thinking about these issues in different contexts for the past couple of days. Reading your message makes me realize more clearly than before that a major motivation for Ron in performing his "bean-counting exercise" is precisely to demonstrate what he perceives as the "asocial" signifying structure of Guest's poetry, and thus to impugn the value of what he perceives as the tendency among contemporary women writers to imitate this structure.

Ron, I think it's undeniably the case that there are plenty of contemporary writers out there, both female and male, who are writing asocial poetry, in the sense that what they write serves primarily to advance their own careers, mystified notions of their own romantic identities, etc., but I don't think this can be coherently mapped onto a preponderance of concern with abstract formal elegance, as against predatorily encoded social "messages." The "ellipticist" trend, for instance, strikes me largely as vapid not because its practicers adhere to an inward-directed formalist poetic, but because they are absorbed in a superficial conception of "elegance" that attains neither social nor formal relevance.

It may be the case that the surface elegance of Guest's poetry has led some to generate jejune imitations, but such imitators are "fooled" by that elegance in the same way that some readers might be "fooled" by Armantrout's strategic "feints." This is not to say that Guest and Armantrout use the same strategy; in fact, what the inferior Guest-imitators lack, I would argue, is the very instinct for balance and closure that you point out, Ron—though I still wonder whether syllable-counting is a useful way of demonstrating that instinct.

I am skeptical about the value of close reading as an index of sociality or asociality in isolation from the actual social context of the poet's work, just as I am skeptical about the value of judgments on a poet's social or asocial status made in isolation from close reading of the poet's actual work. There are two diametrically opposed fallacies here, both equally common and both equally counterproductive.

I am skeptical about such designations as "social" and "asocial" as polarized ways of conceiving lyric formally. To equate a poetics that works extensively on "inward" principles of structural "balance and closure" with a removal from the social, or conversely, to equate a poetics that invokes the social in more or less explicit ways via "outward," referential gestures of satire or critique with an anti-lyric sensibility, seems to me to be committing an oblique version of the fallacy of imitative form. This is the problem, for example, that I have with the last thirty years or so of attacks on the lyric "I." The whole bourgeois narcissistic confessional trend in mainstream workshop poetry occupies a very small space in poetic history, and constitutes a very small sampling of all the poetry out there that uses that "I." Same thing with things like referentiality, disjunction, fragmentation, etc.—all formal features, and nothing more in and of themselves.

Tom, I find your reflections on "unpacking" very useful. You're right: Armantrout's work invites unpacking in inverse proportion to the strength with which Guest's resists it. And I think we're more or less in agreement that it would be a mistake to conclude on the basis of either mode that one poet is more or less "social," since there are ways of deploying either unpackability or un-unpackability in the service of poetic sociality (Coolidge being a good example of an equally service-oriented point in between). Going back to the ellipticists, maybe a big part of my distrust has to do with the way they seem not to be doing any work outside the poems, whereas Guest does seem to be. Part of this, of course, has to do with being more familiar with Guest, Armantrout et al. than with the mass of recently-generated MFA poets who are adopting the techniques of "disjunction" etc.: I don't know them, I don't know their philosophies, ethics, politics, and I don't feel compelled to get to know them, as they don't appear to be making any effort to insert themselves into the social context by means of any device other than surface form. It's not that the forms they use are themselves invalid; there simply has to be something more. In Guest's case, for example, her engagement with modernist history and culture are evident at every turn, even when not specifically referenced in her work. She has established social credentials that provide the reader with a sense of trust, and therefore give the reader a sort of permission to enjoy the formal textures of her work without feeling that to do so is to neglect "more important" matters.

I realize I am coming close to suggesting that the poet may be more important than the poetry, that we may be misguiding in attaching any kind of autonomous authority to the text itself. Well, so be it. People are more important than texts, no? This is what sociality means to me: that we enjoy, and benefit from, reading literature when we are invested in the beliefs and values of the people who create it, either individually or collectively. The mistake, I believe, is to insist that these beliefs and values be manifested formally in the work (or for that matter, that they not be).