Arrangement and Density:
A Context for Early Clark Coolidge
This piece is 5,600 words or about twelve printed pages long.
BECAUSE the work of Clark Coolidge continues to grow and evolve, and because it remains of continuing importance in the field of contemporary experimental poetry, it is now more necessary than ever to attend once again to his early work. Very little has been written on it since the pioneering essays of Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, and Barrett Watten (a notable exception being Bruce Campbell’s entry in the Dictionary of Literary Biography). Moreover, his works from the late 1960s and early 1970s continue to remain out of print and difficult to obtain. The earliest of his books currently in print, Own Face (Angel Hair, 1978, reprinted by Sun and Moon, 1993), is a key turning-point, signalling a pronounced lyricism that would flourish in Solution Passage: Poems 1978–1981and The Crystal Text (both published by Sun and Moon in 1986). Yet while these more widely disseminated and more stylistically “accessible” works show a Coolidge already well into his development as an artist, we risk losing sight of the radical experimentation of his early works. In this essay I will consider several Coolidge texts from the mid–1960s (prior to and including those of Space, his first and to this day only venture with a mainstream publisher),[see note 1] contextualizing them by comparing them to the work of his contemporaries. Throughout the discussion I utilize the terms “arrangement” and “density,” terms that are not rigid formal categories but instead heuristic devices drawn from Coolidge’s own commentary on his early poetics.
Before looking at some poems, I want to establish briefly what I mean by “arrangement” and “density.” The former is Coolidge’s own term, one that he takes to be “basic to my work and art,” according to the talk entitled “Arrangement” he gave at the Naropa Institute in 1977. “I’m partly using that word,” Coolidge says straight away, “because I want to avoid using words like ‘composition,’ ‘structure,’ and so on, which I don’t feel mean much any more.” To flesh out his term he goes on to cite a number of its usages in different fields. He invokes, first, the sense of composition by field: “All right, the word ‘arrangement’ — hear the word ‘range’ in that word — a field which I think we’ve been given as artists since the fifties in this country by men as diverse as Charles Olson and John Cage.”[see note 4] Olson’s notion of composition by field, which involves the poem as “energy transferred from where the poet got it by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader,” seems to play an important part in Coolidge’s sense of arrangement, though for Coolidge and those who would subsequently be involved in the initial formulations of the language-centered project, the energy here comes from language itself.[see note 5]
now comes back to me with all the feelings of great discovery and mystery and desire to do something with this [picks up piece of chalk, a book, etc.]... and this... and this. Where do I put it? What happens when I put it there? What does it do to this? How close is it? Does it repel me? Does it repel you? How much does it weigh down the table? Can I look through it? What do I see when I look through it, and another whole vector of stuff coming in visually? (146-47)
These are the very kinds of questions that Coolidge is asking of words in his early poetry, and that in turn the poems themselves generate due to the way Coolidge arranges their words. Thus arrangement involves the placement of materials in space (in the case of writing, verbal materials in the space of the page) such that energies are released and the materials act upon one another. It is essentially a juxtapositional art and can arise from cut-up, chance procedures or collage techniques, though it is not exclusive to any of these. Nor does it necessarily depend on “open field” composition, as a number of examples in fixed forms by Coolidge and others will show shortly.
have a gooeyness and gumminess, a thickness of texture, hard, ungiving and indigestible — “clump — bends trill a jam” “mid punt egg zero” “copra stewage” “globule” — making the poems dense and heavy, filling their space with a high specific gravity that weighs them down to earth, keeps them resistant to easy assimilation, lets them hold their particular space through time.[see note 8]
Density is thus largely a function of word stock and reflects at this stage in Coolidge’s work an affinity for monosyllabic words, particularly those that couple long vowels or diphthongs with consonant blends. But whereas other words that fit these phonic parameters might carry various associations with them (say, “hate,” “dream,” or “love”), Coolidge’s words are quite intractable: what they resist is easy assimilation to any semantic fields other than their own. Rather than resonating with any other immediate fields of reference, they resonate primarily with their own sound and sense. In the “Arrangement” talk, Coolidge talks of his interest in “making a poem of words that don’t go together in some ways, that have a resistance, that they don’t go” (163). When they are properly arranged and made to go together, however, their dense, intractable sound and semantic qualities release an energy into the field of the poem.
ounce code orange
In the “Arrangement” talk, Coolidge explains that the poem was written in 1966 when he was living in Cambridge with Aram Saroyan, who was “writing these one-word poems, dividing everything down to the smallest possible thing. . . and I immediately wanted to put them together. I couldn’t stand the idea of one word” (161). His gloss reads as follows:[see note 9]
“ounce code orange”: ways of measuring, in a sense. Weight, a symbol system, a color. “a/the”: the indefinite article, the definite article. “ohm” is the unit of electrical resistance, a quality of metal, let’s say, that requires a certain amount of juice to go through. In other words, this is a fuzzy, resistant word. It hangs down here, it affects particularly this space. I wanted these things hanging in the middle because they could adhere to words in either the top line or the bottom line. “the ounce,” “a/the code,” “the orange.” You can’t say “a ounce” or “a orange,” practically. You can say “a code.” So there are those vectors going there. “trilobites”: you know what a trilobite is, it’s an early animal of the Paleozoic Age that was a crustacean divided into three lobes. As a word, to me it’s completely irreducible. What are you going to do with it? “A trilobite”: it’s like a clinker. Angular, uneven, heavy word. (162)
The way in which Coolidge describes the words of the poem hanging, affecting, and adhering to each other illustrates arrangement and density at work: the placement of words on the page with attention to their sound and semantic values. For example, while Coolidge acknowledges the denotations of these words from the outset, denotation gives way to a greater interest in not merely the sound properties of these dense words (long and diphthonged “o” vowels and nasal consonants being the dominants) but the relationality created when they are arranged. This nexus of meaning, sound and relationality becomes especially pronounced when Coolidge arrives at “ohm.” This is a “fuzzy, resistant word,” presumably so in part because of its denotative status as a unit of electrical resistance (and even, perhaps, from its proximity to the mantra “Om”), in part because of its sound properties (the long “o” linking it to “code,” the nasal “m” linking it to “ounce” and “orange”), and in part because of its ability to enter into relationships, “hanging down there” and “affecting” the verbal and phonic space. Likewise, the articles “a” and “the,” though not themselves particularly dense words, nevertheless create relational vectors when combined with the nouns above and below them, less because of their semantic distinction (indefinite versus definite) and more because of their sound properties or possibilities (or impossibilities: “You can’t say ‘a ounce’ or ‘a orange,’ practically. You can say ‘a code’”). The long “i”s in the poems last word, “trilobite,” could make the word the lightest or brightest in the poem, but for Coolidge it is “angular, uneven, heavy” because of its sound and sense. The word seems to confound him: “What are you going to do with it?... it’s like a clinker,” which is itself a kind of indefinable, onomatopoetic word, suggesting that while “trilobite” can never escape its denotation, it can never be reduced to it either. The poem becomes the field in which energies are released through the placement, sound and sense of words.
...those little constellation poems in Space... come very close to the feeling of the kind of indeter... I can’t say indeterminacy because they weren’t made at all that way.... those were very carefully composed in the sense of having really looked at all those words and sounded them and thought about them and put them in proximity (11)
I want to look back at this example of Coolidge’s earlier compositional methods for several reasons. First, the “Bond Sonnets” have not to my knowledge received any treatment in the critical literature to date. Second, they show him exploring the kinds of disjunctiveness that many other poets associated with the New York School were working with at the time; but they also have features that distinguish them from the work of other writers, and that point in directions taken later in Space.
kicked by clutching suit down
Using a fourteen-line form with five words per line, Coolidge collages verbal material heavy in nouns and adjectives into a syntactically disjointed construction. The compositional units appear rarely to be longer than an individual word or two. Additionally, words like “supercargo,” “boat,” “crew,” “coral,” and “pilot” evoke a nautical field of reference, while “bomb,” “danger,” and “detonator” evoke a sense of terrorism or espionage. A similar lexicon runs through the entire sequence: “captain,” “sonar,” “stern,” “Admiralty,” “lifebuoy,” “outboard,” “subs,” “yacht,” “scuttle,” “ships,” and “dinghy” from a nautical lexicon; “cutthroat,” “detection,” “weapons,” “governments,” “communist,” “culprit,” “C.I.A.,” “comrades,” “mobilization” and “torpedoes” from the espionage lexicon. The name “James” makes its only appearance in the sequence in this sonnet, while “Thunderball” appears in another poem, leaving one to suspect that the source text is an Ian Fleming novel. (Thunderball was published in 1961, and the film of the same name released in 1965.)[see note 11]
This excitement to be all of night, Henry!
Many of the materials Berrigan has collaged here are unique to this poem and thus do not accrue resonances from other poems in the book. Additionally, many familiar landmarks of The Sonnets— the recurring lines and motifs, the fixing of time and place, the sayings and activities of friends and poets living and deceased — seem to be absent from this piece. Names like “Henry,” “Dick,” “Carol” and “Widow Dan” act here more as placeholders than persons, and the quotation marks suggest a conversation of sorts. Thus familiar elements from the sequence are indeed present, but the compositional process has deformed them almost beyond recognition. Berrigan’s 1982 annotations to a typescript of The Sonnets, included in Alice Notley’s notes to the new edition, shed light onto the deforming process used in this poem: “see line 1: This sex I meant to be a love night and real, whispered I, etc. Made up by me — a poem written in phonetics. . .” (83). The sonnet is thus an English-to-English homophonic translation of a prior (and only partially recoverable) Berrigan text. The sound-play of the translation process gives the deformed sonnet a striking playfulness of content. High and low culture mingle, for example, as the leaping herb of Elvis or Carol Clifford edifies Kant; archaic diction (“Saith I to Dick”) collides with domestic flatulence (“O, Ma done fart!”) and other mundanities. Even the “full cat” that recurs as a kind of unifying figure throughout the excitement is contradicted by one of the speakers: “Tune, hot! Full cat saith why foo? / ‘Tune hot full cat?’ ‘No! nexus neck ink!’” In those lines, and in other phrases such as “Dayday came to get her daddy” or the exclamations “Whee! Yum!,” the play of sound is as central to the excitement of the poem as anything else.
And, with a shout, collecting coat-hangers
Koch’s primarily phrase-based units are closer in length to those of Berrigan than Coolidge. The interjection of quotations into Koch’s piece also resembles Berrigan’s, with an important difference: whereas Berrigan’s quotations retain a modicum of conversationality, Koch’s blend of statements (“I’m a dear”) with stylized apostrophes (“O / Real!,” “O Song,” ‘Dusted Hoops!’” and “O bed”) lend his piece a tone of archness or aloofness, a distancing from the materials at hand. Berrigan, on the other hand, is excitedly, even intimately close to his materials. Even the name references reveal this difference in tone: Berrigan makes frequent references to personal friends and famous figures from high and low culture, but the references in Koch’s poem are exclusively to high cultural figures (Shakespeare’s “Timon of Athens,” “Caesar”; the parody of Tennyson’s In Memoriam A. H. H.: “Doors, where my heart was used to beat / So quickly, waiting for a hand”). These differences aside, however, Koch (like Berrigan) shows moments of acute attention to the sounds of words, especially in lines like “Dour rebus, conch, hip, / ham” (diphthongs and long vowels giving way to hard, short-voweled monoyllables), “say ‘group,’ bower, undies, / Disk, poop” (“o” sounds persisting through interruptions of short vowels and hard consonants) and “Bind up the chow in its lintel of sniff” (the long “i” modulating through a string of monosyllables into the short “i”s).
columnar mufflered huffs in kelt spit back
While the collaged units here — in what, depending on how you count lines, could very well be considered a sonnet — are short phrases and single words similar to what we find in the “Bond Sonnets,” the range of reference is much broader and allows Coolidge to create resistances between words that would not be found together in any ordinary kind of usage. Compared to Berrigan and Koch, Coolidge’s poem uses a shorter compositional unit. The ranges of reference of the three poems are roughly commensurate, but Coolidge’s tone differs from Berrigan’s and Koch’s in a way that is rather difficult to characterize. “Gobi” lacks the archness of Koch and is closer to Berrigan’s suggestions of the everyday: cars, mufflers, laughter, stew, onions, and if not a “tune full cat,” at least a “meow.” “Gobi,” “Ned,” and “Elba” are Coolidge’s only suggestions of person or place, and “top o the morph echo” might be echoing a familiar British Isles greeting, but there is little in “Gobi’s” denotative field that serves to ground such references. Coolidge is not “close to” these materials as Berrigan is; nor is he ironically detached in the manner of Koch. “Gobi” has a more neutral detachment of tone.
an eye t’meander
Coolidge’s concentration on sound, relationality, and denotative resistances is thus already implicit in Berrigan and Koch; Coolidge has simply foregrounded those qualities and carried them to the next logical step.
A version of this essay was presented at “The Opening of the Field: A Conference on North American Poetry of the 1960s,” held at the University of Maine (Orono) in the summer of 2000. My thanks to all those who participated in the panel or otherwise helped further this project along, including Burton Hatlen, Steve Evans, Karen Mac Cormack, Kathleen Fraser, Barrett Watten, Nate Dorward, and Mark Wallace.
1. New York: Harper and Row, 1970. Subsequent page citations appear parenthetically within the text. Under the aegis of editor Fran McCullough, Harper and Row brought out works by a number of poets broadly identifiable with the second generation New York School, including Tom Clark, Dick Gallup, Allan Kaplan, and Ron Padgett. See Steven Clay and Rodney Phillips, A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960–1980 (New York: Granary Books, 1998), 192-93. McCullough also brought out Kathleen Fraser’s first book-length collection What I Want in 1974. Shortly after this, however, according to Fraser, “I heard from an agent friend of mine (who had inside contacts at H&R) that even though Fran had been nominated/ selected as one of the top young editors in NYC, she was nevertheless subtly nudged-out.... [They] took away all her advertising budget so that her younger unconventional poets (versus, say, Robert Bly and William Stafford, their money-making staples) — and the other more edgey prose writers she’d brought in to the H&R ‘stable’ — got little if any advertising support. This resulted in low sales figures for Fran’s younger authors, which the people in Sales blamed on her lack of market acumen. . . a tactic to unload all of the innovative poetry by younger authors” (email from Kathleen Fraser dated July 10, 2000).
2. Bruce Campbell, “Clark Coolidge”. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 193 “American Poets Since World War II,” ed. Joseph Conte (Detroit: Gale Research, 1998), 57.
3. See the “Chronology” provided for Stations 5 (Winter 1978): A Symposium on Clark Coolidge, ed. Ron Silliman: “Poems in Space were written mainly from 1966–68, a few from 1965” (30). Subsequently referred to as Stations with page citations appearing parenthetically within the text.
4. “Arrangement,” in Talking Poetics from Naropa Institute, ed. Anne Waldman and Marilyn Webb (Boulder and London: Shambhala, 1978), 144. Subsequent page citations appear parenthetically within the text.
5. Charles Olson, “Projective Verse,” in Selected Writings (New York: New Directions, 1967), 16.
6. The Young American Poets, ed. Paul Carroll (Chicago: Follett, 1968), 149.
7. Davies, “Clark Coolidge: Don’t Know Mind” (Stations, 10); Campbell, 56; Watten, Total Syntax (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984), 92; “An Interview with Clark Coolidge,” Friction 7 (Summer 1984), 11.
8. Bernstein, Content’s Dream: Essays 1975–1984 (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, 1984), 263. This is a slightly revised version of his own contribution to the Stations symposium.
9. Watten discusses this passage in Total Syntax, 93-94. This portion of the “Arrangement” talk was included in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E 8 (June 1979) and In the American Tree, ed. Ron Silliman (Orono ME, National Poetry Foundation, 1986, 553-54) and should thus be construed as having definite impact on “Language writing,” the precise nature of which cannot be taken up here.
10. Coolidge, “Bond Sonnets,” Insect Trust Gazette 2 (Summer 1965), 55.
11. Coolidge recently confirmed this suspicion: “‘The Bond Sonnets’ was an entirely chance work, generated by a random number system from the pages of (I think you’re right) Thunderball” (letter from Coolidge dated 17 July 2000).
12. Postmodern Poetry: The Talisman Interviews, ed. Edward Foster (Hoboken, NJ: Talisman House, 1994), 21.
13. Ted Berrigan, The Sonnets (New York: Penguin, 2000), 23. Subsequent page citations appear parenthetically within the text.
14. Kenneth Koch, On the Great Atlantic Rainway: Selected Poems 1950–1988 (New York: Knopf, 1994), 17.
15. Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann. “Deformance and Interpretation.” New Literary History 30.1 (1999), 36.
16. A longer version of this essay, which will continue the discussion of Coolidge’s early work through The Maintains and Polaroid, will be available online in Jacket 15 in December 2001 (http://jacketmagazine.com/15/index.html).
New American Writing # 19 and Jacket 13 Contents page