Essay

The Spools of Coolidge

Bill Berkson introduces his friend Clark Coolidge’s life in poetry.
An image of Clark Coolidge, black and white.

Editor’s note: Bill Berkson wrote the following essay in the summer of 2015 as an introduction to Clark Coolidge’s Selected Poems: 1962-1985, to be published next month by Station Hill Press. Berkson died in June, 2016.

 

What did Clark Coolidge say then?
—Philip Whalen, “The Task Rejected,” 1965

By some fine coincidence, Clark Coolidge and I were students together at Brown University during four semesters in 1957–58. Even though we had one or two friends and many interests in common, we were unaware of each other at the time and didn’t meet until much later, in New York. In the late 1960s, our friendship solidified over my acting as an intermediary in asking Philip Guston to make a cover drawing—it ended up being two drawings, front and back—for Clark’s book Ing (1968), which was also how Clark and Guston first met, and soon began collaborating, and how the series of poem pictures Guston made with assorted younger poets’ poems over the next 10 years began, as well. 

While Clark comes from a New England intellectual and artistic family, both my parents had come to New York from modest, and modestly acculturated, circumstances in the Midwest. Fine-boned, tall, and slender, Clark resembles the upright patriarchal figures from Colonial portraiture. With his boyhood passions for rock collecting and spelunking and for fantasy writers like H. P. Lovecraft, Clark seems to have initiated himself early on into a private sacred world. Granted that the glittery New York of my youth was a fantasy realm in itself, I had as a child no such thing, just the usual romantic daydreams engendered by movies and popular songs. Allowing for our differences in background and temperament, the tallies of events that either of us took as important news, literary and otherwise, in those years when virtually everything was a discovery, are strikingly similar. By extension, such listings would define the changes experienced—like so many doors and windows radically opened wide—by many poets of like persuasion then starting out. 

The son of the chairman of the Music Department at Brown, Clark came to writing by way of music; although an avid reader as a child, he speaks of having taken only one course in literature at Brown while majoring in geology and doubling as a jazz drummer. Having entered a year before me, in the fall of 1956, he quit his college studies altogether at the end of his second year and, inspired by reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, hitchhiked across the country to Los Angeles. Soon afterward, he lived for a time in an apartment on Horatio Street, in Greenwich Village, and wrote. Having to start somewhere, with an idiosyncratic feeling for prosody prepared by his musical training, he began by imitating, along with Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Philip Whalen

During Thanksgiving vacation that same fall, I flew to San Francisco in search of, as I rather fuzzily thought of it then, the Beat Generation. The bartender at The Place quickly confided that the writers I was hoping to find there were “all in New York, man.” A few months earlier, in Paris, I had caught a glimpse of Gregory Corso berating a man in a bar. In early 1959, I too left Brown and returned full-time to New York. The following summer, again in Paris, I met William S. Burroughs and at George Whitman’s bookstore heard a tape recording of him reading from Naked Lunch. (It had been announced that Burroughs himself would read, but instead there was only the cassette player on
a small table in the middle of the upstairs room, el hombre invisible nowhere in sight.) That fall, when I accompanied Kenneth Koch to his reading at Brown, in the same auditorium sat or stood both Clark and Ted Berrigan, fateful company unbeknownst to any of the three of us, but there we were. Looking back, it seems both Clark and I took Kerouac’s books as manuals for how to live (natural-born existentialists that we were) as well as how to write; at first the two seemed inextricable, and it took a while to learn which was which. For Clark, Doctor Sax was the book that resonated with the dark side of his New England childhood imaginings; for me, it was The Subterraneans, starting with the message on page one, a loud-and-clear corrective, which probably stood out for Clark, as well: 

They are hip without being slick, they are intelligent without being
corny, they are intellectual as hell and know all about Pound
without being pretentious or talking too much about it . . . 

Events in music between 1957 and ’59 that we responded to, and took as artistic models in our separate ways, included John Cage’s Inde-terminacy, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk’s stints at the Five Spot and his Riverside recordings of that period, Cecil Taylor, Robert Craft’s complete Anton Webern and Morton Feldman’s New Directions in Music 2 (liner notes by Frank O’Hara and cover drawing by Philip Guston). What was going on in the visual arts—the work of Guston, de Kooning, Pollock, Rauschenberg, Johns, and others––figured in there, too, as did the films of the burgeoning New Wave and Underground Cinema, but the analogous impact of all that was realized slightly later. 

In those days it became a revelation to write poems primarily influenced by John Ashbery’s “Europe” once it appeared in Big Table (1960), with the sense––shared partly, as I learned later, by Ashbery himself––of different frequencies interrupting one another as in Cage and with spatial silences between words, phrases, or whole lines on the white page like intervals in Webern. As Clark said during an exchange with Allen Ginsberg at Naropa in the ’70s, “‘Europe’ was absolutely the poem that turned me on and mystified me.” In turn, John Ashbery once told me that Coolidge’s work as it developed early on in the ’60s was the best extension he could imagine of what he had been doing in that crucial poem. 

What we shared then, and talked about only later, was a need and readiness for a mode of writing other than what Coolidge has called “frozen literature,” a feeling that words, and the sentences they came all-too-neatly wrapped in, required refreshing via intensive disruption and rearrangement. It seemed urgent for the language we had been taught and that was all around us to be short-circuited and aired out in order to give words more breathing space and physicality, away from their preauthorized, anticipated meanings, so they could exist and mean more in themselves, as their own mutable occasions––in effect, what William S. Burroughs called “breakthrough in the grey room.” 

The varieties of “pulverized” or shredded syntax of Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath and Burroughs’s The Soft Machine were exemplary, but for me––and I think for Clark, too––rather than relying on collage or cut- up or any other mechanical procedure for taking language apart and reordering it, there was a readymade cut-up or scanning device accessible in one’s own mind; once you found the dial, you had only to turn it. Only in retrospect did this technicality seem to mark a change in sensibility, the previous generation’s relation to conventional syntax being fairly compliant albeit aslant with irony (every quivering word or phrase bearing quotation marks around it), whereas ours more frontally resisted the rules altogether. We had been schooled to read poems and almost everything else as cluttered terrains of dangling symbolism. The words thereby felt ruinously overdetermined and stuffed. We existed in a plethora of language, our own ironies augmented by sarcasm, with only very slippery syntax, if any. Lacking meaningful forms to proceed with, one had recourse to format, or what William Carlos Williams and Frank O’Hara both had called “design.” Although this was all very new at the time, the idea wasn’t to be avant-garde but to get real. If any form were possible, it would be the one Clark regularly invokes in interviews, talks, and such, coming from Beckett: “a form to accommodate the mess.” 

The word book . . . What has that got to do with the real book
really
? . . . It’s booooook. Like in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, he
takes the spool of tape and he says “spoooooool” and he says it
over and over again, so it’s like an incantation. 

 —Clark Coolidge in conversation with Philip Guston, 1972 

William Carlos Williams once wrote that a poem should constitute an event––or more properly, as he put it, “a revelation”––in the language in which it’s written. In a poem of that order every word gets its “aha” mo- ment. Clark’s work of the past fifty years, of which this book represents a fair fraction of the first half, can be read as one prolonged event, with plentiful revelations. It is still partial, a clause, as the whole sentence to which it belongs remains an ongoing furtherance of grammar and ex-panded sense. 

“As prolific as Clark Coolidge” is an idiom, wistful as can be, that has entered the conversation; of recent times no poet comes close in sums of page count. The rumor that Clark writes ceaselessly on a daily basis––with no outside occupation, in tidy domestic surroundings (hence the proclamation, “raging in my paradise”)––produces an image of still more black spring binders full of works as yet unreleased. In the seemingly boundless lap pool that is his commitment, he waves gingerly at completion, all the while shoving off it for the next turn. To a poet like myself, whose work comes slowly, sometimes with uncomfortable pauses between, the specter of such fluency is bound to be both a wonderment and cause for alarm––an alarm both frightening (the feeling of inevitably lagging behind) and a goad to do more (like O’Hara, Coolidge shows us there is always a poem to be written). Then, too, there is the reminder that keeping at it is not so easy as all that; once when my own work was foundering on an excess of doubt and distraction, he wrote usefully of the need to “sit down solitary and scary and work the words out.” 

In seminars at the San Francisco Art Institute over the years, I repeatedly brought up what John Cage had made happen and each time realized that, although Cage was right when he said at a certain point that he’d done what he had set to do, to open people’s ears to the sounds around them, the job still had to be done again, perhaps every generation or two. Certain kinds of art lead a double life as arcane bedazzlements and primary lessons for any viable commonality. It may be that the culture beyond Coolidge’s immediate readership has already absorbed these poems without knowing it and without ever knowing how to assimilate them. Once heard, a single poem can be infectious. Imagine schoolchildren reading The Maintains to become intimate with vocabulary and what constitutes any possible sentence structure. 

Bill Berkson. Image courtesy of Robert Eliason.

 

Clark has kept to his own orbit, all the while increasing its depth and breadth. And he has the good sense to please himself first, following from the merest drone or mutter out to where one or another terminus of mental membrane is struck and the reader’s low, rumbling chortle segues into an all-out hrumph! Commentators on his poems tend to write as if they were witnessing some kind of technological feat, a classroom science project or thought experiment. Their exegeses project an image of the poet’s brain pickled in a bell jar telekinetically aligned with standard-issue digits frantically pecking. Such descriptions suffer from overstudiousness; they leave out how playful Clark is and how funny his poems often are, how most every word shows off its risible side. It flourishes, funny and deep, as deep and dark as words can go, allowing for the oddball nature of words in the first place, that there’s nothing natural about them and yet they have been part of human consciousness for millennia. Open anywhere, you’ll find his humor at home. But turn around, and back on the same page, he’s got a case of the willies: “terrible picture of all the words waiting relentlessly outside.” “A writer of few satisfactions,” as Clark says of Kafka, whose readings of his own work were punctuated by truffles of laughter, not itself a sign of satisfaction. 

I work, guided by an inner reptile. —Pierre Soulages as per
Coolidge, “The Blue Pomade: 22 European Painters & Sculptors” 

The inarticulate is a closed fist, like a stone; articulation, the release of splayed fingers. The material life of thought: I recall a hallucinogenic experience of thinking to think, then experiencing, together with much grinding of teeth, the prolonged drilling of a vein of “thoughts,” all of them flying off and away like iron flakes. 

Evidently, it is all improvisation: the performative winging-it, as unplanned as intense, a case of stamina and decisiveness, admitting of no bluff or cliché, but riding on sustained wonder about whatever’s at hand. Coolidge’s titles, small wonders in themselves, come last, as if by interpretative afterthought (viz. “Basil Rathbone’s Bathrobe,” “Connie’s Scared,” or “Radiational Bowling”). A continuous present is transmitted to the reader’s mind as what’s on the page, in your ear, to be “read” only by staying with it. The dynamic threatens implosion, madness—you can get lost in there, in the consciousness of a single word, that potential maelstrom. Because Coolidge will never guide you, you take upon yourself the freedom to proceed as you will in the poem—equally fearful, baffled, and amused—beside him. None of his attributes, except perhaps a rare type of surplus fixation, seems to have come naturally. As a graph of a poet’s growth, this book shows how hard he worked, as well as the refusals (“the necessary negatives”) implied, in devising his habits, and how to break them. 

“Look at any word long enough . . .” Inspiring how he keeps pushing, changing, emptying, and then augmenting by writing what’s on next. A kind of manic sincerity therein: normal self-doubt unin flected by self-irony; all the major ironies saved up for what impinges from the uselessness outside. A fluency that denies stopping: “Why stop?” The chronological shift, for instance, from inventories of words like collections of things (marbles, fossils, bean jars, the ever-mounting directory of proper nouns) to what will pass as “gab.” (The writer- drummer who has “the gift of gab,” but only by figuring it, solilo-quizing at his fingertips.) Then another shift, from short, fine-tuned line lengths to poem and extended-prose masses where caesuras are brushed by in the heat of pressing onward. “Just a bunch of words” is not far off. In the early poems, they seem at first to scintillate in space like pieces of a mobile construction, or else you hear the truncated syllables clattering, or else words or parts of words tumbling like numbers out of a bingo cage, brandishing cadenzas en route. 

I recall Clark’s telling me in the early 1970s that he didn’t really like Schoenberg’s music, but he appreciated that large parts of it go along without any development. Likewise, around the same time, he mentioned a particular solo of John Coltrane’s as proceeding at “exact speed.” In the writing, I hear him hearing ahead, in front of and behind the word as it reveals itself, the poem’s surface compounding thereby. He himself stands revealed as some kind of visionary, in the sense of turning open a world simultaneously apprehended and there for the making. The passion for and of the activity of writing is the overriding sentiment, within which there are, for Coolidge, endless curiosities to be satisfied or anyway dealt with. As Bernadette Mayer once said, a concordance to his work would be fascinating. 

The poems in Clark’s Selected Poems, forthcoming from Station Hill, were written over 23 years in such places as Providence (1962–66); New York (1966); Providence/Cambridge, Mass. (1966–67); San Francisco (1967–70); Hancock, Mass. (1970–85); and Rome (1984–85). The fact that in many of these towns and cities Clark lived on the top or side of a hill suggests a quality of remove and gazing on things from above. From the heights each poem appears to take its own peculiar plunge. The insistent musings, dis- criminations, glees, puzzlements, irritability, those sardonic drive-by puns, and philosophic remarks that register almost as stage whispers without claiming any prior authority, all signify a powerful affection for the world as encompassed, and ultimately, Clark’s will to articulate that fabled specific infinity he has had his eye on, the “quest to know anything, write everything,” the Chapel Perilous of these poems. 

From Clark Coolidge’s Selected Poems: 1962-1985, edited by Clark Coolidge and Larry Fagin, with an introduction by Bill Berkson, published by Station Hill Press. Reprinted with permission from Station Hill Press and the estate of Bill Berkson. 

Originally Published: March 7th, 2017

Born in New York in 1939, Bill Berkson was a poet, critic, teacher and sometime curator, who became active in the art and literary worlds in his early twenties. He was professor emeritus at the San Francisco Art Institute, where, between 1984 and 2008, he taught art history, art writing...

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