Whelm lessons (PoemTalk #60)
Clark Coolidge, "Blues for Alice"
Brian Reed (in from Seattle), Maria Damon (Minnesota), and Craig Dworkin (Utah) joined Al Filreis at the Writers House (Philadelphia) in a rare and — we think — rather fluid convergence of poetic minds prepped to figure out how to talk about an instance of verse bebop. The bop was Charlie Parker’s, as a model for languaged sound (by poet Clark Coolidge), and the template song was “Blues for Alice” (Coolidge’s poem uses the title), and among the possible Alices are Alice Coltrane, Alice Notley, and Alice in Wonderland. We speculate about Alice Coltrane and Alice in Wonderland, but as for Notley: Brian Reed finds evidence that Coolidge meant to dedicate his poem version of the standard bop dedication indeed to Notley. This leads Maria Damon to wonder about all these women dedicatees – these recipients or objects of blues syllabics — in light of such strong male performative struggles, or attempts to “get in on the try,” managed by creative men: Coolidge and Parker, or course, but perhaps Ted Berrigan too, and surely also Jack Kerouac, whose bop-inspired babble flow is very much part of the PoemTalk conversation. The key source for Coolidge’s working out of Kerouac is his important 1995 article published in American Poetry Review on Kerouac’s babble flow and his improvisation generally.
So let’s line up your sources for a full appreciation of this discussion. For especially studious PoemTalk listeners, we might even suggest that you reckon with these materials in this order. First, listen to one of the available recordings of Charlie Parker performing “Blues for Alice.” Then of course read Coolidge's poem (below and also here). Then read at least part of Coolidge’s essay on Kerouac. Then, finally perhaps, read Ron Silliman’s overview of the importance of Coolidge’s critical approach to Kerouac as an aid to our understanding of 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”; Silliman is talking about Coolidge’s Now It's Jazz: Writings on Kerouac & the Sounds.
Or, alternatively, forget all those ancillary materials; maybe we should all critically “Step down off our whelm lessons.” Perhaps in the end PoemTalk’s 60th episode will serve best as a model for how the meaning of a poem consciously worded from improvised sound can be conveyed through a close reading of its sounds without the producers of such a reading ever shying away from biography, discography and the specific literary histories of influence.
Our engineer for this episode was Chris Martin and our editor, as always, is the incomparable Steve McLaughlin. We wish to correct information conveyed in the discussion: Rachel Blau DuPlessis was indeed the source of the reel-to-reel recording, which she held for many years and then gave to PennSound, whereupon it was digitally converted; she was part of the 1985 symposium at Temple University where Coolidge performed, but did not make the tape.