Discovering Coolidge (part two)

I found no immediate way in to Coolidge's work with the first book of his I obtained in the late 1990s, Solution Passage: Poems 1978-1981. Instead, the way in came through the essay on Coolidge and Robert Smithson in Barrett Watten’s Total Syntax. Watten offered analysis of Coolidge’s early works, which I had never before seen in print; finally, here were excerpts from the “early Coolidge” I had heard about so routinely but never actually read! Here was a passage I highlighted in Watten's book, from Coolidge’s Polaroid (1974):

few part once and then one as around leaves close stays then some
of you few head so forth by whom why leave either to go
part and it leaves once you then some do you within stays behind
either few or just some once of either leaving miss it to close to it beside
the either one or it you part per whom via either one or
few do stay once it's close to you missing the whole either one

Cooildge, Polaroid

Stein made writing like this somewhat familiar for me, but this was something quite different, exciting even. Fifteen years and much study later, it's hard to reimagine how this writing first affected me. It seemed to do so much with so little: aside from how the abundant monosyllables gave an incredible rhythmic drive to this writing, they also offered so many semantic possibilities, as Watten went on to demonstrate: the first five words of the last line could read “(few do) (stay once) (it's close),” “(few do stay) (once it's close),”etc. Likewise “close” could be the adverb or the verb. As I discovered later, rhetoricians had names for these devices, “apo koinou” (syntax that constructs in multiple directions) and “anthimeria” (words that serve multiple syntactic functions).

The Watten book led me to my university library, which had a copy of the Language Poetry anthology In the American Tree and contained representative examples from all of Coolidge's early books. I was also making my newfound excitement for Coolidge known in email discussions on the Buffalo poetics list, such that only a month later I was invited to chair a panel at the 1998 Louisville Modernism conference on Coolidge and Language Poetry. During that conference I skipped several sessions in order to peruse the Bingham Poetry Room, not really knowing what I was looking for but coming across a goldmine all the same: Flag Flutter and U.S. Electric, ING, & Space, here they were in the flesh, the early Coolidge books I'd only heard about but never seen. Later in the Spring of 1998, I made a trip to New York City and found four additional, later Coolidge titles: Own Face, Sound as Thought, The Crystal Text and The ROVA Improvisations. I had also been visiting friends and colleagues at SUNY-Buffalo at this point, the first time being the Louis Zukofsky conference held there. On one subsquent visit, Ben Friedlander and Carla Billiteri hosted me at their home, and Ben showed me through his extensive collection of Coolidge titles. Ben told me how, back in his day (early-mid 1980s) in the Bay area, there was a bookstore (Cody's?) that had multiple copies of The Maintains and Polaroid; had he known then how rare and valuable these titles would become, he would have bought up all the extra copies he could find.

This was my initiation into Coolidge’s work. By Summer 2000, I was presenting a paper on Coolidge’s early work at the Poetry of the 1960s conference held at the University of Maine at Orono. The panel was well-attended with lively discussion afterward. Questions arose about Coolidge’s process and other matters to which I did not have immediate answers. Watten talked to me afterwards and said, “Why don't you just write Clark and ask him?” I did this, and a few weeks later got a very kind and thoughtful letter from Clark encouraging me to continue our correspondence. I was also in touch with Nate Dorward, who was editing The Gig out of Toronto and looking for contributors to a special Coolidge section on Coolidge for a joint issue of Jacket and New American Writing. The material from my Orono talk went directly into the article for this joint issue and, seven years later, the dissertation I completed on Coolidge’s early (1962-1978) work.