Joglars and Coolidge's Poetics: From sound to sense

Joglars 1 (1964)As the Coolidge-Palmer correspondence housed at SUNY-Buffalo indicates, one challenge faced by the young editors of Joglars was coming up with a name for their publication. In the letter to Palmer dated November 26, 1963, Coolidge writes: “NAME for the 'creature' still hangs me -- maybe (a la tzara) open dictionary, aleatory style? I agree tho -- staying away from pop-toon, & intellecto titles.” As Palmer explains in his interview with Peter Gizzi:

I’ve always been drawn to circus performers, but also to that aspect of poetry which has to do with juggling and tumbling. In doing Joglars with Clark, we were proposing that other side. There was the magazine Trobar, which suggests the more auratic sense of the poet, of the troubadour, the fashioning of trobar. The joglar was the clown and camp follower who went along and performed and ripped off other people’s songs; but that’s also a side of the poet. (Exact Change Yearbook #1 [1995], 175)

Perhaps, if Coolidge and Palmer had agreed to avoid “intellecto titles,” they nevertheless took a rather educated route to convey the clowning side of poetry. Then and now, readers of the magazine are often uncertain how to pronounce the title (zho-GLAR).

            While the journal's name is obviously an important issue, greater significance lies with aesthetics and politics that younger poet-publishers need to work through in order to define and shape the literary field as they not only see it but emerge into it. We can see Coolidge go through this process at length in a letter to Palmer dated December 28, 1963.

What interests me tho, “now”, that ole saw: “the personal” -- how far you can run with that (like, in most poesy I wanta see signs of the man hisself -- voice, eyes, lips, etc. -- all else seems so much literatour) (forget GROUPS!) & of course -- the MUSIKS (Zukofsky: best field general) or more simply, inclusively, -- sounds -- what kinda sound organization can be got to -- what happens, then, to meanings (Z’s cats?) -- so here’s where the aleatory gang (Cage, Wolff, Feldman --) interests me (Burroughs too?) -- almost despite any natural desire for control...... -- Well -- two points of attack -- contradict each other maybe? maybe, but it keeps me hoppin’.

Beyond the individualist stance (“forget GROUPS!”) and the dismissal of mere “literatour” that echoes, however consciously, the French Symbolist Verlaine (“all the rest is lierature”), Coolidge clearly demonstrates the oppositions he is working through here--between “the personal” and “sounds,” intentionality (authorial control) and non-intentionality (the chance procedural methods of the New York School of composers and William Burroughs), and what might customarily be thought of as form versus content but might in this context be more fruitfully thought in terms of sound versus sense, “what kinda sound organization can be got to” versus “what happens, then, to meanings.”

            Notice the implications of Coolidge’s specific phrasing here: different kinds of sound organization are an objective, goal or destination, something that one “gets to,” with the result that something then happens to meanings. To begin with sound and then see what happens to sense as a result is already to place a poetics in an experimental mode that runs counter to many other poetries. As I will show later, Coolidge is here already reiterating a line of thinking that he came upon and described in a notebook over a year and a half prior to this December 1963 letter to Palmer; what he may not have known then is that his life’s work as a poet will be spent working through these very issues.