“Too many humans. Not enough souls. # unlosophy 1.”
— Hand-painted sign on the street
“What I’m doing is creating a language, a different kind of language.”
“Your life is a drama where you are the star and the director but unfortumately not the writer.”
—Roy Eaton (pianist)
This spring I had the privilege of hearing Clark Coolidge read from his latest manuscript at Bird and Beckett in San Francisco to a capacity crowd. I was anticipating the usual wild ride—beautifully and thickly laden improvised text special to Coolidge and his language, one of near pure improvisation and music without us needing to immediately seek or “get” its meaning. What I, and the audience got instead, was a taste of what has now emerged as a 320-page book, Poet (Pressed Wafer Press, 2018).
He opened the large document, peeked at the audience, and in that cool, relaxed, voice of his (straight out of West Coast cool jazz), announced that he’d be reading from a new manuscript and that due to its nature he could and would jump around at random within its contents.
And so he did. My immediate thoughts when hearing these poems were that for Coolidge they were less dense, more coherent, gentle, deceptively linear and simple yet just as deeply witty, informative and confounding in an expressionistic, semi-abstract way. So I thought, “Wow, C.C. has pared it down, cubed it. Kept it simple, vibrant but still complex, more accessible.” Then I got the book, cracked it open like I would an LP or CD, and played it with not only my eyes but my ears, like I did that first night. What I discovered with these shorter pieces is that he’s managed, rather than the long continuous blowing he’s usual into, to both extend and diminish the solos at the same time, creating a world that both repels and draws the reader in with these koan-like breaths where the simple words poet, poem, and poetry—and all they connote—in a very serious, playful and oft times cynical, put-down-ish way, highlight the outrageous contents of each page—something very few have managed to or dared to accomplish. It is, in its own humble way, his monumental book of choruses akin to Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues or San Francisco Blues. It is matter-of-fact, playful, wise, wise-cracking, essential, spontaneous, and, like many of Coolidge’s works, one can hear it while reading it. Meditation/variation/drumbeat/heartbeat . . . what is the real thing? Between the poet and the poem there is poetry and unless I’m reading Coolidge wrong that seems to be the major element he finds missing in this equation, lots of poems by lots of poets about lots of things but very little poetry.
The book is dedicated to David Meltzer (who recently passed away) and echoes Meltzer’s long poem “When I Was a Poet.” Meltzer and Coolidge shared many loves, two of the strongest being poetry and jazz. They played together (Coolidge is also a drummer) read together on many occasions, and recorded an LP, The Serpent Power, named after a group Meltzer formed in California.
Meltzer’s poem ruminates on how “when he was a poet” (meaning a young one starting out and filled with romantic notions) he saw poetry in everything. Now, a veteran of the craft he just IS and everything else IS as well. In other words he went beyond labels. Or possibly the “poet” had morphed into poetry itself, the way a great musician becomes the music. Though I contend that poetry and the poem are two different animals and that poetry does exist in everything, what both Meltzer and Coolidge have accomplished is to go beyond such terminologies and branding. Or better yet perhaps are/were still not positive they have or ever will attain such status. As musicians always say, “I’m still learning.”
Even though Coolidge claimed there is no set order, one poem, in its own fashion, almost picks up where the other leaves off—intimately yet objectively linked together, personal yet encyclopedic, at times mocking itself and causing confusion that can make one curious. More like riffing on the head (basic tune) than extending and repeating it in various patterns. Rather than improvisation that usually follows the melody the poem is the melody ever-changing. Let’s say it’s dissecting the melody as the musician Lee Konitz would do, where the tune itself is never entirely lost, and not playing the changes of that melody like Charlie Parker would do, à la “I Got Rhythm”—something I confess I never got because my ear could never find the original tune embedded in those changes—and something C.C. does incredibly well in his longer line works.
Many of the poems in this collection are structured like free-form fourteen line sonnets/choruses and are claustrophobically open-ended like any good solo, having parameters yet having no real beginning or end, no conclusion or precise definition for what a poet or poem is, probably because there is none. Or maybe “poem” is just an absurd label.
I myself have never much liked the term poet, it’s a big burden to have to carry. I always liked to think I was writing poetry instead of poems, though it’s easier to fail with such high-falutin’ thoughts and is itself perhaps a pretentious notion. Coolidge reinforces these feelings in me. He is more the do-the-work-and-the-rest-will-follow-then-leave-well-enough-alone kind of artist.
Sadly, a “poet” is one who proclaims complete independence, a solitary existence while over-emphasizing solidarity and almost always needing the crowd for support. Many are consumed by this, but not C.C. He is in his own way a loner who’d just as soon rehearse alone or in front of you or play you the final version of the tune without reservation, all equally important.
The book is filled with double entendres. Is “father’s spine” his father’s book or his backbone? Is a “shelf reader” someone who is staring at those spines but never penetrating them or is he genuinely learning from what’s in them? Or worse, stealing their “souls?” Are C.C.’s poems put-ons? Putdowns? Teaching devices?
The placement/interplay of seemingly random/unrelated items can be misleading, yet, in poetry, at this point in history, all is permissible (maybe too much so as C.C. may well be pointing out). Yet even in this upside-down/flipside reality C.C. is presenting, there is always a relationship of some kind. Again, just like with music, how the good drummer allows, consciously or otherwise, each beat/stroke, be it inside or outside the margin, to fall just right. And if one is a listening drummer/poet he/she will not disturb but enhance/coalesce with what’s around him/her, whether it seems to belong or not. If it works it, as I stated earlier, JUST IS. Not concretized, like poet or poem but ephemeral and always on the move like POETRY, for though everything is not poetry, poetry is in everything. It is not about reading between the lines but within and beyond them. You see the image and imagine where it will take you > BOOM > colliding with the next. These small, at times intentionally, hokey gems lead you on a wild goose chase yet are right there IN YOUR FACE. Unsettling, vibrantly (dis)connected shifts of rhythms and near rhymes. Verses that might make you ponder your reasons for being in the band if you can manage to stay one step ahead of your SELF.
At times Coolidge makes the poet seem helpless while making the poem seem an (over)indulgence due to the mythical poet’s EGO or over-eagerness to be “greater” than he/she/it is. C.C makes you feel that you are not actually being held here by gravity (as in seriousness as well as science) but by frivolity and the burden that labels bear. We are shown, rather the art of better-not-take-yourself-or-your-poems so seriously. And believe me there are a lot of mythical poets out there.
This collection is like a manual of what should and shouldn’t be done, whether you are a “serious” artist or not. Something like what they call in music a Fake Book, which if you know what the term means, you’ll realize is quite an achievement … a book that shows you the way. It’s here yet doesn’t exist and is in substance and content ALL TOO REAL.
In a dream the young poet asked if I had any advice for him, “Yes,” I said “but you wouldn’t listen anyway.” Now I’d tell him, whether awake or asleep, “Read Clark Coolidge’s Poet. Then rethink yourself. Or maybe try not to think at all.” Pick up this “flexible poetry fork” in the road and decide for yourself: are these poems or “no poem[s] at all”?
We lost many great artists in 2018. Two I dedicate this column to are Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko who I first heard on the Pol Jazz label when I inherited a bunch of LPs from a Russian artist I knew, and friend, clarinetist, all-round human being and (The) Traveler Perry Robinson. May you both be listening to and blowing with Gabriel right now.