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"The names of the minerals and the minerals themselves do not differ from each other, because at the bottom of both the material and the print is the beginning of an abyssmal number of fissures. Words and rocks contain a language that follows a syntax of splits and ruptures. Look at any word long enough and you will see it open up into a series of faults, into a terrain of particles each containing its own void. This discomforting language of fragmentation offers no easy gestalt solution; the certainties of didactic discourse are hurled into the erosion of the poetic principle."
Clark Coolidge's proposal to read a long work-in-progress for two hours of each of seven successive nights was a bold assertion of confidence in the listenability of the work and in his own stature as a poet. The analogy for such a run would be the jazz date, like, say, Bird at Minton's, where an artist would be booked into a club for a week. Keystone Korner is a local survivor in this tradition. But for a poet such a run would normally be unthinkable, given the huge number of readings going on about (Poetry Flash lists several every night), and for Coolidge, who has not sought celebrity status and whose work is little known outside of a small (but growing) community of readers, there was an element of risk involved. Coolidge ran the risk of being alone with his work but, happily, got a decent turnout. Attendance was highest on opening and Saturday nights, but other sessions saw a constant, shifting flow of new and familiar listeners. Of the sum total of 144 people in attendance during the week, I was seven.
Each night Coolidge read two sections from the prose work he has been writing for the past five years. The work is unfinished, projected to run a thousand pages, and as yet untitled.
The Coolidge reading style is faultless, in the sense of unbroken. The tone is dry, slightly sardonic, in the manner of William Burroughs, but without the histrionics, only an occasional retard of a long last syllable for emphasis. His delivery is non-stop, pushing out three or four sentences per breath, mouth nearly touching the microphone, eyes glued to the page. His timing is precise and spontaneous, he interprets the page as a score for voice, paying close attention to the placement of stress. The rhythmic elements of the work build like a jazz solo, setting up structures, like fours, heard in the head, then violating them by swiveling onto new time schemes, so the measure's a continual revamping.
The nature of the work itself is, to say the least, elusive. The words suggest certain subject areas of concern (caves, geology, music, childhood, writing, language, etc.), but the sentences seem to undercut their own connotations. One hears arguments, lists, descriptions, expressions, even dialogs being made, but their terms are somehow displaced. The effect is of a constant tension, a leaning forward toward a resolution which never entirely arrives. Or an equilibrium is established, only to be immediately upset. As the work veers off from direct statement, the audience feels the limits of its attention, stretches to hear the words. Bereft of simple narrative landmarks, expectation finds itself aghast.
At the same time the immaculate distance Coolidge seems to maintain between himself and the work sets it off equally from the audience, so there is no sense of direct manipulation, but rather that one is free to encounter the work 'at one's leisure' as it proceeds along. This made for a fairly relaxed kind of listening. Since the work was equally accessible at any point, there was no necessity of following it. The rhythm of the words was so strong that sound became sense. The listener was at ease to drift in and out without fear of having missed something. Members of the audience looked about the room, occasionally exchanged glances, and, as the week proceeded, scribbled increasingly in notebooks.
Clark Coolidge's work as a whole appears and sounds seamless. The evenness of tone and consistency in attack, both aural and intellectual, make a continuum with a cumulative effect. Meaning builds, not as sequence of logic or story, but in the experience of duration. There is an "all-over" effect.
The components of this mass are sentences which, though often syntactically "simple", are compounded of separate semantic strata. Each sentence has a seam, a point at which part appears ready to crack away into other areas. Many contain more than one such point, so that the ear, or eye, shifts back over the words, picking up alternative centers of gravity, around which meaning hinges and bends, flexed.
Within these sentences are smaller units of activity. The phrases, emerging along internal fault lines in the sentences, go the surrealists one better for sheer range. Here the juxtaposition is not primarily visual. Though images do frequently come through, the sound values and thematics are equally at play. Image, like story, is bonded to the material of language.
The atomic particle at the base of this grand scheme is the word, and for Coolidge it's primarily the noun. The central gesture of the work is the act of naming. But instead of locking things into place naming occurs at such a dizzying rate, in all directions at once, and so indulgently, that ultimate signification is undermined.
I see certain themes in the early sections. Lined up in paired opposites, these concerns are: speech as against silence, rhythm as against stasis, thought as against speech, vision as against separation, language as against phenomena, division as against unity, singleness as against mass, materiality as against emptiness. The dialectical relation ordering these terms motivates the writing forward.
The sentences are synthetic, their parts spliced so that meditations concerning different areas or levels of meaning are joined in a rhythmic and syntactic continuity. To separate out various subject concerns runs the risk of violating the irreducibility these sentences maintain. The interpenetration of subject matters will be clear from the sentences below.
(All quotations are taken from notes and are therefore approximate.)
Speech takes to its own beats shape.
A special case of naming is the use of proper names. Coolidge spices the text liberally from a personal roster that includes the following: Jack Smith, Skip Spence, Art Blakey, Lenny Bruce Andrews, Dr. Ned, Ava Gardner, T.E. Lawrence, Lucas Samaris, Buell Niedlinger, Gene Autry, Lloyd Bridges, Lester Maddox, Lew Welch, Ed Sanders, Henry Miller, Wilt Chamberlain, Franz Kline, H.G. Wells, Gabby Hayes, Carol Channing, Dennis Hopper, Sam Francis, Stravinsky, Tesla, Milton, Bluto, Floyd, Ida Lupino, Janet Leigh, Charles Ives, Rimbaud, Descartes, Mozart, Picasso, Keaton, Carla Bley and Arnold Palmer. Members of this looney cast are liable to appear anywhere. As catalogued items, their classes don't cohere. Coolidge would like to "put all those people in a room together."
Certain paragraphs seemed to be drawing from a group of words, mostly nouns, which were used repeatedly in various combinations, as variables sliced into the rhetorical structures of the sentences. Each such group formed a kind of table of elements for compositional interaction. One paragraph used these words at least several times each:
chairs onion rooms floor clouds ants house sky bell tree pants hat stairs rock moon wood girls home sun nose road blue paper roll hand boats face bits sky time lightThe variability of these terms makes for a feeling of great expansion.
In this language game naming is not a taxonomy. Coolidge's names violate class boundaries. The work, rather than employing names to classify phenomena, uses syntax to point to the names themselves, in their capacities as things. The tools by which we know things, placing certain of their aspects side by side, are, themselves, subject to scrutiny from many sides. For the imagination, the world of things as they are, subject to infinitely varied gradation, interpenetration, sprawl, is liberated from the strictures of descriptive language as words are revealed in their being as things in the world.
On the last day of the residency a question and answer session was held. Clark began by explaining that he has been writing the prose work for 5 years at roughly 100 pages per year. During that time he has written occasional short poems on the side, including those in Own Face, recently published by Angel Hair, and a series of poems using English Romantic stress and rhyme structures, which appeared in the magazine Un Poco Loco.
His comments and responses tended to be personal or autobiographical. Here are some of the areas discussed:
"I can really riff off musically on it." CC likes writing "at length" in an "open ended" form that "can include pockets" of line structure. "There's more variability within the line in paragraph form."
Asked if there are deliberate mathematical structures determining the work: "No. Nothing imposed. It grows on itself. Ideally you find out you don't have a lot of options. You find out what you're doing. Get lost & find it again."
Asked about the vocabulary shifts that seem to take place gradually over the course of the work, how new terms are brought in, Clark revealed that the work is composed of 20-30 page sections, a unit he can feel as a written whole. These sections are arranged in groups of four, according to source material, as follows:
1. Subject area (caves, geology, music, weather, movies, etc.)
The transition section will blend the terms of the first and third sections, and is written after both are complete. The fourth section combines all that has gone before, such that the final section will be a coda to the entire work.
Use of texts
Clark said he only uses authors he's "been immersed in." He cited Beckett and Creeley, noting that "Melville scared the hell out of me." His use of other writers is "transformational", not a simple fold-in technique.
Bob Perelman heard "The right wall is bricks," a line from Ted Berrigan's poem "Monolith", embedded in the prose. Clark's daughter, 11, plays sax, and sometimes she will catch a phrase from a popular song and repeat it or vary it. Clark suggested he may have picked up on the Berrigan line the same way.
Here Clark's interest in music, and his experience as a jazz drummer comes in. "I want to shape time in a more or less swift manner. Momentum generates things. I get a carrier frequency going -- it's a daily working thing."
Barrett Watten cited Stein's The Making of Americans as a similar instance of a work which "goes on". He suggested as an alternative the possibility of breaking the "carrier frequency", of stopping.
CC: "Why stop? Am I going to stop breathing?"
The discussion fishtailed at this point, touching briefly on interpretations of the sentence, "Perhaps I am Superman and all the time slow."
Nancy Kosenka asked how the time of the work has affected Clark's life time. "It messes up your life," laughed Clark, "This is the cream of it." He admitted to some dread of ending the work.
NK: "It's not the end when you end something."
Subject matter as tone
Subject matter can dictate a modality or key, as in music. C as against C minor, for instance. (CC is partial to C minor.) "Metaphor that off to color. Different rooms."
Ron Silliman noted a change in CC's approach to syntax. Whereas his earlier work seemed to eliminate the syntactic connection, he now writes with "more syntax per square foot" than almost anybody.
CC described the attempt to find words which didn't work together, in his book Space, as "experiments". He said he found that very few words can even be used this way. Now he's more interested in the sentence: "What is a cat." "It's not a matter of new syntax. All are there."
CC doesn't. "I've always worked straight through."
CC has thought to write a novel. He has made 8 or 10 attempts. But a long story doesn't come easily from his own life. He tends to remember isolated events. These become language events. The causal links are missing.
Published in The World, this descriptive narrative of the making of the popular film, on Martha's Vineyard Island, where CC spent summers with his family, comes close to straight story telling. The piece came out of a fascination with the movies, combined with an enumeration of his life with his parents on the beach. What happened during the filming was that an alien culture took over. Street signs were changed, Edgartown became Amityville. Sharks built to perform in large tanks didn't work in the real ocean. "The real ocean had a few unexpected changes in store for them."
Asked how he relates his work to that of others presently working in the U.S.: "I don't have time to give it a good shot. You have to shove some of that aside to get your own work done." He mentioned Michael Palmer and Bernadette Mayer as contemporaries whose work he continues to read with interest. "Others aren't producing the work." He pointed out that he never lived in New York and has always worked independently, despite his inclusion in an anthology of "New York Poets". He feels more closely akin to Olson, Zukofsky, Creeley and Kerouac than to O'Hara and Ashbery, although The Tennis Court Oath was important for him at one time.
CC first read Stein when his father brought home "Blood on the Dining Room Floor".
Of The Making of Americans he describes the form as "reinforcing waves building up giant resonances. Whereas I'm always following along a line." In music terms, he sees Stein as vertical (harmonic), his own work as horizontal (melodic).
"I don't read her as much now."
From 1956 to 58 CC was studying geology in college and playing music. He read On the Road in the dorm. He hitched to LA. Here was an "incredible option". Whereas previously the alternatives had seemed to be "the bug house or the army, come back & we'll get you a job," instead one could "go look at the fences in Missouri in the moonlight."
"I recognize an incredible music in his line. He's the major writer of the period. I believe in his work more than anyone of that/this time. A poet."
CC's original interest in geology was a kind of romance, a fascination with things and names. His romantic view of the job was ruled out as geology became an exact science, branching to geophysics, involving a lot of math, lab work, etc.
Kit Robinson pointed to CC'S use of "rock" as a metaphor for word, and the way in which, in the work, names become things, "so that the world reverts to a pre-name state. And that's romantic."
CC: "Is it feasible?"
CC's ideal reader would hear him read, then read the work herself. In his class at Naropa he was surprised to find that only 1/2 of the students automatically hear what they read. "This is a psycho-physical problem for poetry."
"That's what speed-reading is all about," Ron Silliman said, "That voicing slows you down."
"Maybe the race is being moved that way," said CC, "If so, it's curtains for the poets."
Finally, I feel it's on sound value that the work really makes it. Coolidge is working the whole spectrum Louis Zukofsky proposed for poetry, from speech up to music.
The long paragraphs can be heard as choruses. Extend that out to sections as movements. The scale of the work, its sheer volume, allows for a significant duration in the listening, such that we can experience the same kind of suspension of time we get from music. Clark's ideal reader has first listened. This clarifies the particular value of the 80 Langton readings and suggests too a possible extension in the form of tape cassette. At the sentence-to-sentence level the sound is deftly precise, lyrical, witty, explosive. Rhythmically it's a linguistic bebop. The sentences tend to be short, averaging only about 7 words, and 3 or 4 stresses. As lines they tend to end masculine, pulling up to a full stop on a hard stressed last syllable. There are plenty of rhymes, particularly in the "Creeley" section, many of them imperfect, and all, naturally, internal. What keeps the thing alive is the quickness with which the metrics are continually shifted, so patterns keep emerging, never get set.
Underriding all this musical structure is a voice, a personal way of seeing and saying things. It's easy to imagine saying, "That sounds like something Clark would say!" There's an articulate ear at work here. Even on the page the work is to be heard. Because it's in the hearing that this long prose work becomes clearly a poem.