Commentaries - February 2014
In my last post I posed the question: how did I discover and engage with Clark Coolidge's poetry in the first place? Every reader will have her own story to tell in this regard; here's my story. As is I suspect the case for most English Majors graduating from U.S. undergraduate programs in the early 1990s--and perhaps still today? more preservers of tradition than innovators, universities and their English departments in particular are notoriously inept at addressing the contemporary--Anglo-American poetry in my formal education ended with Pound and Eliot. (Gertrude Stein I had to discover on my own, though my own avant-garde eanings in the late 1980s also led me to Kerouac, Burroughs and Artaud). I knew names of some contemporary poets and has some familiarity with the Beats (a hardbound copy Ginsberg's collected poems was one of the first poetry books I ever bought, at the Strand on some early trip to New York City), but I had no way of orienting others: no sense of distinguishing an Ashbery from a Hollander, a Creeley from a Lowell, let alone connecting them up to the present moment.
In beginning my graduate studies in the mid-1990s, it was in the context of studying postmodern literature and theory that I first engaged with Charles Olson's work, as well as, in the midst of Fredric Jameson's now classic theories of postemodernism, a curious little poem called “China” by Bob Perelman. I remember throughly enjoying the discussion we had in class about what kinds of speakers could offer these seemingly disconnected bits of observation and experience, though my full initiation into what was being called “Language Poetry” would take place a year or so later, upon hearing Charles Bernstein read his poetry at the 20th Century Literature Conference in Louisville in 1994. I enjoyed the sound-and-sense play of his work: it reminded me less of any “poetry” I knew and more of Captain Beefheart. Back home, I checked out and devoured with great relish Dark City, the newest Bernstein collection at my university library.
As is my inclination, when I find something of interest I read everything I can find about it; this “language poetry” seemed to be something that connected up in the present moment back to the great Modernists I knew (Pound and Stein; someone named Zukofsky was completely unfamiliar to me), creating a living tradition in the wake of what my academic training lacked (or more likely willfully ignored). And the more I read about “language poetry,” the more the name Clark Coolidge kept appearing. Clearly he warrented investigation.
At some point in the next few years (mid-1990s) I picked up his book Solution Passage: Poems 1978-1981, a dense book of poems for such a short span of years through which I did not immediately find a clear way. In December 1997, I took a trip to Toronto to do dissertation research (on my first and soon to be abandoned topic), visit friends and see the city, reporting in an email to my friend Logan Esdale that I had found a copy of Barrett Watten's essay collection Total Syntax at a used bookstore in Toronto. Watten's discussion of Coolidge's poetry was a revelation for me, especially for the passages from the early poems he included. I had been hearing and reading how key the “early Coolidge” was for Language Poetry and yet had never seen these books before and had no immediate way of obtaining them as they were all well out of print at this point. (Remember, this was before Project Eclipse or abebooks.com.)
Tracie Morris, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Marina Rosenfeld
The event was called “What Oozed Through the Staircase: A Winter Afternoon of Surrealist Writing and Music,” held in the middle of the surrealist exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Sunday, January 26, 2014. Surprised that the event wasn't being recorded, I brought out my smart phone and captured the audio as best I could from the fourth row. I also made a video recording of the final performance — a surrealist game. All this is now available at a special PennSound page.
- introduction (3:51): MP3
- Kenneth Goldsmith: Hans Bellmar, from “What Oozed Through the Staircase” (1:48): MP3
- Kenneth Goldsmith: Andre Breton, from “Manifesto of Surrealism” (2:35): MP3
- Kenneth Goldsmith: Robert Desnos, “Awakenings” and “Ideal Mistress” (3:21): MP3
- Marina Rosenfeld: Mise en scene en scene #1 (Daily Bul, etc.) (4:51): MP3
- Kenneth Goldsmith: Joyce Mansour, “Poemshots” (1:57): MP3
- Kenneth Goldsmith: Salvador Dali, “The Great Masturbator” (1:46): MP3
- Kenneth Goldsmith: Mina Loy, “Auto-Facial-Construction” (4:14): MP3
- Kenneth Goldsmith: Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, "Equinox" (0:56): MP3
- Marina Rosenfeld: Mise en scene en scene #2 (Logbook, etc.) (5:52): MP3
- Tracie Morris: Leopold Senghor's “Speech and Image”: An African Traditional of the Surreal (5:23): MP3
- Tracie Morris: Quotes from Josephine Baker and excerpts from Kurt Schwitters's “Ursonate” (5:37): MP3
- Tracie Morris and Kenneth Goldsmith: Amiri Baraka, Excerpt of Scene II from Dutchman (3:31): MP3
- Tracie Morris and Marina Rosenfeld: Bob Kaufman, “O-Jazz-O,” “A Terror is More Certain...” and “On” (10:11): MP3
- Tracie Morris and Kenneth Goldsmith: Surrealist Game (2:14): YouTube
On January 31, 2014, Frank Sherlock's appointment as Philadelphia's second Poet Laureate was announced by Mayor Michael Nutter at a ceremony at City Hall. The laureate was selected by the Mayor's Poet Laureate Governing Board. “I am honored and excited to appoint Frank Sherlock as Philadelphia’s second Poet Laureate,” said Mayor Nutter. “Frank is a native Philadelphian and a 2013 Pew Fellow in the Arts for Literature. He is one of Philadelphia’s most talented homegrown artists. I am confident that Frank will represent Philadelphia well during his term as Poet Laureate.” “How lucky I am to be a poet in my favorite city in the world? This city raised me, beat the hell out of me a few times, and still reveals the magic of Philadelphia Brotherly Love,” said Sherlock.
The members of the Poet Laureate Governing Committee are: Beth Feldman Brandt, poet and Executive Director of the Stockton Rush Bartol Foundation; Dr. Cathy Cohen, Education Director of ArtWell; Greg Corbin, Founder and Executive Director, Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement; Thomas Devaney, poet and Visiting Assistant Professor of Poetry at Haverford College; Lillian Dunn, Co-founder and Executive Editor of APIARY Magazine; Al Filreis, Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania; Mytili Jagannathan, poet and Principal of Itinerant Ink; Trapeta Mayson, poet; Autumn McClintock, poet and Assistant Chief of Staff at the Free Library of Philadelphia.
Sherlock performed a poem at the ceremony, and it was captured on video:
When first encountering the work of a prolific author with a fifty-year career, timing is everything. The end pages of Clark Coolidge's A Book Beginning What And Ending Away, his mammoth prose performance work from the 1970s never before published in its entirety until Fence Books brought it out last year, list 41 other published books of poetry dating back to 1966's Flag Flutter & U.S. Electric, along with a jaw-dropping 29 other unpublished collections.
Where to begin even? In many ways the answer is pre-determined: many readers will start with whatever collections happen to be in print and available at any given time. For Coolidge as with any prolific author, this poses a challenge: with the exception of his early collection Space (Harper & Row 1970), virtually all of Coolidge's books have been published by small presses in print runs of under 1000 copies (often fewer). Save the occasional reprint, once such books (often quickly) go out of print they risk being eclipsed by whatever newer publications emerge.
In the early 2000s, Craig Dworkin's online Eclipse Project began (and continues today) a great service, making full-text PDF scans of rare and out-of-print experimental poetry titles available for reading and downloading. Before this or the emergence of an online used book vendor like abebooks.com, one would have needed access to either a university library with an extensive small-press poetry collection or, barring that, interlibrary loan.
This was my own experience coming to and discovering Coolidge's poetry in the mid-to-late 1990s, which begs another question: how did I get into Clark Coolidge's poetry in the first place? I'll tell this story in my next post.
[NOTE. The following marks the continuation of the recovery & translation into English of the experimental modernist masterwork Protsesiye (Processions) by the great & all but forgotten Yiddish poet Mikhl Likht, who was a younger contemporary of Pound and Williams & in some ways the forerunner of Zukofsky & other “Objectivist” & projectivist poets. The ongoing effort by Resnikoff and Ross is to bring Likht’s complete poem into English & by doing so add a new dimension to the story of American poetry as well as that of Yiddish. Toward that end I plan to give it coverage & assistance as the project proceeds, and I invite those who may have missed them to look back at the installments of the work from Resnikoff, Ross & Merle Bachman already posted on Poems and Poetics, & for the recently published Resnikoff/Ross translation of Procession One, along with the Yiddish original, check the eleveneleven web site. (J.R.)]
Rusty and yellow
dusty all-barbarous brutes
we come and go
with symmetrically-hasty steps
of gentle does
an inveigling reproach
slung in Pan’s [] moldy face
the schema is nearly consumed.
So someone walks around
in the sun,
his fiery pale-faced eyes
shine delight and
are membranes of doubt concealed.
many years ago
they murmured in my ear:
strong with the strong
one-by-one the weak go down
won the bottom -- )
Wandering in the wasteland
I saw the snakes smile
their dusty skins
The Hammer of Luck
mountain on mountain
heap on heap --
flare and lick --
one of the waves:
-- just so, brother, fall
-- that’s called a carnival
-- warmer warmer
-- feverish --
one of the waves:
-- dance for joy, brother, fall
-- fine show
-- we are bathed
-- in a sunless sky
-- fire-hot red --
in the air --
Hymn of Squandered Blood
-- kiss me
-- kiss me
-- take me
-- take me
-- stop stop
-- your you your me.
A Farewell to the Gods
Lively and subtle,
great as a genie
you are great and holy
holy as a virgin’s breast --
offal of hate and love,
fallen to rust
fallen in dust.
Movement from a Symphony
Chameleon. Stretches that bring in unsuspiciously passive delight in their thought -- sunk in the colorless depths of somnambulism [] -- chaotic rhythm immerses itself -- swims around in dewy blueness -- sea-waters sparkle like spectral diamonds -- leaden air melts into bubbly foam -- terrifying -- high -- cold -- it slips myriad-wise down the mantles of immobility -- lethargy -- calm -- hollow vibration comes --
Ancient stone with pale-white belly up waits patiently: the magic hatchet should come and even it out -- grasses -- envy-green at season’s onset -- asymmetrically bent flat skewers with sharpened points perforate the swollen earth -- a different time, a sickly yellowness attacks them -- their hopes waste away like thin dust-colored hairs on dull later skulls -- at times bad air stirs up the endless empty place around -- sand borrows wings from the zephyr -- a pair in the vortex [] live it up just above the plain
Archipelagos of stones trade places -- never any deep-settling -- over the naked flanks of a mountain the mysterious peak lifts itself -- matter stays stoned -- petrified in great sadness -- the hatchet levels out the stones -- swelling that lets itself be hammered in remains a part of the house -- bellies that forget who is older get hacked off -- with Buddhist hearts they lie down with lowered hands before the foundation -- smooth proud timber (erstwhile free anarchic forest-scarecrows) -- the measure taken by sight -- lays down like a modest compromise under the cryptic feet on conquered earth -- glass looks two-sided -- in and out -- inside -- eyes squint in the soft fragrance of shadow-light -- see the utensils -- rugs-- floor -- table -- chairs -- the inviting resting-place -- outside the Lilliputian window panes shine -- observing presumptuously the round scarlet-red fire-ring -- reflects the grotesque in it -- deaf walls -- to the right -- to the left -- across -- gazing in their opaque silence -- prick-up their ears in case a symbolic creature walks past with an open mouth and loses unconscious slander on the path -- recording it in their kinetic consciousness -- carrying it hidden in themselves until the day of judgment -- coolly-quiet the windows hold open the tired eyelids which constantly fall over them (strained from unbroken wakefulness) -- perhaps it will prove successful to notice whatever causes them to cheer up in their misanthropic non-sight -- the roof lies comfortably over the void of the attic -- waits in case the never-promised-to-anybody-by-anybody, which must come down from above, ever falls -- checks with his steel frame the creativity that seethes violation in the pipes of the whole house
Daringly-agile like a snake, the clenched street coils rightward -- unsuccessfully -- a hateful parapet obstructs the way -- with a cascade of noise she sets out on her aeronautic trip over air-bridges leftward -- pummels herself through the crystal-clear prisms of air -- runs -- runs without stopping -- earlier just like a straightedge -- then somewhat bent into a crooked line -- down -- down -- the eyes closed -- all the energy concentrated in the chasing -- a wild abyss opens itself suddenly where snakes and scorpions amuse themselves with exotic dances -- keep jumping around – in no time slip in between them -- often in the middle of running takes a tremendous blow to the head literally sparks fly: another street runs as far as the way – slowly comes to -- catches one’s breath -- girds the loins -- scratches itself with broken ribs on the other side -- feels anew the merry impulse leave itself in God’s hands on the long treacherous way -- adventurous courage stirs -- pushes itself on again in an intersection --
The yishuv.  Measured reflected rhythm of yesterday’s chaos -- long-necked lanterns wink silhouettes --
The world --
 Pan: possibly a reference to the mythological god, or to the Slavic honorific, “pan,” a term of address sometimes found in Yiddish literature.
 Somnambulism: meaning uncertain: “Hin-her-plet” in original.
 Vortex: possibly a coinage: “shturem-karahod” in the original (literally “storm-circle”).
 Yishuv: “Settlement,” a Hebrew word also referring to the body of Jewish residents in Palestine, before the founding of the State of Israel