Thursday, March 3, 2011

Coolidge's Quartz Hearts

Clark Coolidge [1939- ] has maintained a position just outside the mainstream American avant garde literary scene for 50 years. He was "associated" with the Second Generation New York School during the 1960's, but by the mid-70's he'd moved on (or beyond them) and had had three books published on the West Coast--The Maintains [this press, 1974], Polaroid [Adventures in Poetry/Big Sky, 1975], and Quartz Hearts [this press, 1978]. The Maintains and Polaroid are close enough in sequence and style to be considered almost as twin poles of a single work. Barrett Watten (the editor of this) was I believe the typesetter for all three books. As is clear from the brief "Notes" Coolidge appends to it he saw QH as a crucial, key work in his development as a poet/writer. (And, of course, he moved on soon after this, leaving behind all other expedient associations along the way.)*

Quartz Hearts is a poem of 51 pages, written in short sections. The lineation is ambiguous, in that some of the sections "seem" like prose with "arbitrary" line breaks, while others clearly "use" the line break functionally, the way Spicer often appears to be doing (as if prose were being worked vertically instead of on a timed line). (This lineation question arises in connection with Berrigan's Sonnets, too; and even in Berryman's Dream Songs.) Note: the whole poem may be read in its entirety on the Eclipse website here.

Coolidge had begun his career as one of the first to break language up into non-syntactic units and clusters, treating words outside of their given signifiers, and ordering senses of language creatively (much as Ashbery had done in Tennis Court Oath). But Coolidge's methodology was much more "methodical" and deliberate (even dogged) than Ashbery's had been. (In Ashbery, for instance, surreal matter is frequently treated as camp, or self-conciously as assemblage or étants donnés, whereas in Coolidge, all language essentially exists as apprehensible matter, without the affected quality implied by any necessary aesthetic permission.) There is a continuity about Coolidge's work, which makes the process of his composition more consistent than that of almost any other Modernist or Post-Modernist writer, with the possible exception of Gertrude Stein, the only figure whose progression of abstract works, beginning with Tender Buttons [1914], and continuing steadily through to A Novel of Thank You [posth., 1958] appears to have as orderly, and uniform a devotion to an eccentric, yet fixed, formality.* There is even in both a recognizable "style" in the traditional sense, as familiar and confirming as it is unique and seemingly inexhaustible. Indeed, the consistency and stepped advance of Coolidge's publication history over the last four decades makes this point almost too obvious.

This orderly, incremental development of an individual style isn't a flat line, but a lively graph of logarithmic variations, with high and medium points of measure and intensity over time. The two meta-language epics mentioned above, and Quartz Hearts, may well be, in retrospect, within the context of Coolidge's career, his major works (at least to date). Not because of their length, or their stylistic difference from his other many works, but because they represent a clearly defined approach, confident and fully controlled, to a vision of literary form, and even statement, which established a benchmark in time. In addition, Quartz Hearts displays an intensity, a purity of synthesis, which has analogies to some of the best works in the history of art, as the concluding "Note" to the text makes clear. In framing the work, it's useful to quote the entire text of the "Note" since its catalogue-like rendition, and key references contextualize the work better than I could by describing it:


The writing of Quartz Hearts overlaps work on both the last section of Polaroid (completed August 1973) and the beginning of my long (as yet untitled) "prosoid" work (first section completed November 1973). It is in every sense a hinge work, reflecting a fresh interest in sentence structure as axial armature, the final movement of Polaroid had pushed me toward, the "prosoid"'s lengths would explore in full.

In a notebook (entry dated November 1972--a month before starting the work) I find: "Quartz Hearts (a long grouping of aggregate works?)", and on the page following the last words of Quartz Hearts (December 1973) this entry: "Quartz Hearts: meditations on the state(s) of things in other words words...".

A journal of this work's procession would note the following order of regions:
Franz Kafka's Stories, Diaries, Notebooks and Loose Pages; my daughter Celia (then four
years old) telling me to write down such sayings as "a hat and a flower/walk into your
clothes/and get a drink of water"; the continuing metamorphoses of Philip Guston's
pictures (the sections "Before the wall the war stands up." and "The belongs to a pinch."
written in his studio); Roberto Longhi's Piero della Francesca; Gertrude Stein's Every-
body's Autobiography and Stanzas in Meditation; Bring Back The Prehistoric Animals by
Amanda Trees; (in California, April 1973) Melville's Sphynx, Picasso Dead; (on the road
back east, May 1973) Lehman Caves, Arches Utah, Black Canyon of the Gunnison,
Onondaga Cave, Mammoth Cave, Grapevine Cave, Luray Caverns; Hawthorne's
American Notebooks; Gerry Mulligan's earliest-Fifties Quartets rediscovered; Kerouac's
Desolation Angles; Watergate TV; John Ford's The Searchers; Peter Farmer's Sonata
for Five Brass Instruments (Tanglewood); Luella Agnes Owen's Cave Regions of the
Ozarks and Black Hills (1898); Samuel Beckett's The Unnameable; Texts For Nothing and
Watt; John McPhee's The Curve of Binding Energy; Jacques Tati's Traffic; Thelonious
Monk's (solo) I Should Care (columbia 9149); and Ludwig van Beethoven's Opus 131
Quartet in C-Sharp Minor performed by The Julliard String Quartet (RCA 2626).

Beethoven had written on the manuscript title page of the Opus 131: "Zusammengestohlen von verschiedenen Diesem und Jenem" (Stolen together from various theses and thoses). His publishers, B. Schott, then wrote back in alarm asking whether this was not in fact an original work. Beethoven replied that is was "funkelnagelneu" (brand new) (nailheads shining).

Such a detailed and exhaustive recitation of the sources and influences upon a work as short as this one is, would suggest a range of concern and a level of concentration that is unusual, to say the least--that the Author would specify a set of discrete works and events as a sublimation or intersection of intentions, all focused, as through a lens, upon single work. (The obvious analogy being, of course, Eliot's Notes to his The Waste Land.) The reference to Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14, an overpoweringly serious, even absolute synoptic rendition of "the meaning of life" as Beethoven felt it, suggests something of the importance Coolidge felt in connection with the poem.

The first "paragraph" (or stanza) of the poem sets a scene suggestive of a back yard, with mud, board, white sheets on a line, a window, a cat, lots, a view, rail yards in the distance, home, blocks.... The poem begins in domestic tranquility: "Quartz axis on a baseless ground." (2nd line, third section, first page). The progress of the sections--their length, their separate cohesiveness and "finished" quality also suggest another--slightly earlier, Coolidge work, from about this general period, Tiny Messages (1970, 13VI-25VII) [L Magazine, Vol 2 No 1-2, 1974, Ed. Curtis Faville], which defined Coolidge's minimalist take, in 131 parts--a parallel structure, almost a warm-up (2-3 years before) for the more ambitious Quartz Hearts.

Quartz Hearts "uses" the "prosoid" methodology to specify proto-factual ("original") equations. The nominative joy in doing so is repeated over and over again:

His shoe was the same color as the step.

Pliers/in a room beneath a wind across a valley.

There was a block on the door.
The handle turned out to be square.

An opening gradually/presents itself and arrives.

All margins come to resemble
this pie section which I hold.

The air is nearly all used up.

The placements and relationships of things are stated as self-evident phenomena within the context of a universe of possibilities that seems endless, but is repeatedly familiar. Things vibrate or echo with shades of connotation, sharing the blurred edges of adjacent zones of consciousness. Coolidge's sense shared with mine, or yours, or anyone's. This ambiguity is tuned by a declarative conviction which this work claims as definitive:

The correct length/of wood for a small table is thought of.

A house closed to the ground opens onto a
square the length of a street to the
next town.

Whereas in Space [Harper & Row, 1970] (a summary of work from the preceding 5-7 years?) Coolidge had demonstrated a joy in splitting the atomist's order of syntactical and definitive referents of language, in Quartz Hearts he would return to language the joy of making sentences (and "paragraphs")--as "axial armatures" of statement. Having previously deconstructed "meaning" and "sentence structure" (the diagrammatic connectivity of words) he would now re-construct them to suit an expanding tolerance of method through subtly altered familiars.

The time is/later one inch away.

Three litmus leaves fell.

A typewriter across town.

The museum/on fire, just a frame house.

The absolutely flat things that I saw
near the corner.

Something cleaved right down the middle.

Indeed, these otherwise straightforward American statements all have in common their rail-splitting vernacular, indigenous as twang. The pleasure taken in their direct proposal of an alternatively quaint private mythical jest sings tersely among the topiary mazes. Otherwise blank statements acquire weirdness through their juxtaposition to jokers. No kidding aside. My quotations ripped out of sequence come up dripping in corrosive acid but seemingly unharmed.

I stood up the/stretcher and backed away.

See the book as an edge.

The car is a wall. What the meaning is what's

Before the wall the war stands up. ["this one written in Guston's studio"]

Time standing/as an eye.

Sizes/down the fold.

Wherever it let's can one.

A radio axle/and opens the door over.

What these constructs do is set outer parameters for the apprehension of object-senses beyond our realm of accepted meanings. Things get lost, or mutate into hybrids. This is the implication of play in a vacant lot beyond the closed neighborhood, signs as divisions.

As could what of that even means. A pine
could but of what a late does. Pen out
the salad. Mates. This and that and
of a number separates.

Back on lime kiln avenue a stopped lattice/truck.

These things can happen on Lime Kiln Avenue which is in fact in Las Vegas. Also in Green Bay, Wisconsin, which goes to show.

I linked the fence to.

This in place of is in use.

What I point to is not it. Much as it
seems so.

Take down that puzzle and put up a window.

I'm making my own version of the edifice in plaster. Old world gilt flakes off antique capitals. Sworn on a bit of brush-off. Now I'm infected, we can share the lake.

So I see, a cold lick rose to geo heaven.
That's beer, its syntax a shale spiral.
Propped boxward Namath affects dense
vims. Take a tea metal inflexion of
isostasy. Quartz verbs and opens
water books. Plants north of audience.
Grass spin verb stains halted topaz.
Bedrock calms bask taut morning chalk
sounds. Feldspar cubes tunes chip moth
itself. Stress chill lights vibes of wood.
Van Allen scales time white wrinkles

The arc of reference flips over here into realms of alternate dimension. The density--packed in and crunched together--doesn't possess the kind of confirmation of sense which Beethoven's four strings accomplishes, because Coolidge's universe isn't the human historic dilemmas which channel meanings down the sluice of history's warhorses. This isn't Keats, after all. It slides off of or merges with what confronts it, incorporating the DNA of each encounter.

It's a syntax/that stains sounds.

The/various cloths there are in a closet where/this all gets vertical and stops.

I would like for writing to do what it only could.
I would like my mind to be there.
. . . let's let it occur. What it is?

Idling by/the marina one day the kites were up.

If we could see events in the world the way we might have felt them when we were as new as our bodies once were, we might have the quality of refreshment which proves our own innocence. Just supposing.

A definition is as the end of its string.

These are the same strings that hold the kites in a blowing wind on the Marina Green. If we were all tone deaf could we distinguish the harmony of separate notes on a field of shapes? Beethoven was deaf when he composed the "last quartets" so his recreation of the music had to have taken place first inside his head. Can you imagine how that could be?

The red wheelbarrow is no lighter
than a rock could be more
so it turns.

. . .

To and for it as considered
the red and the wheel invisible
in state caught.

Vista cardboard.

Dogs should have license plates.

I could use the map book that pages fall out.

Pacific sun paper.

Getting the slant on/mid America.

The butterfly I saved/dried out and disappeared.

Since I was ahead I opened the door.

It like comes and goes. Some. There was
a large iron ring tacked to the news.

Think of the journey through a sequence of this as a cross country road trip punctuated with national monuments to the history of ice. Jack-hammers open the morning with bent plates and twisted rubber joints. It's all a noise I could like, if my shoes were on straight. I'm dogged if I do.

Particles on the/freeway, sagebrush in colors.

Huge white boxes, with dials, driven like trucks.

The/language inside is going to make forms/harder?

Let the words tell you what it means. I'm standing here as your barker handing out bills like litter under the streetlamp: A million staples is what it looks like. Rounded and seamed with fibers. Confounded. In Stein, subject-matter coheres into nodes of soft ganglia which throb with reassuring frequency. But in Coolidge, the real talks back in errant tongues, disturbing the surface of humming healthful mien with resistant apperception(s). Consternation varies according to the case.

Copper rings of steel wire/in a red cylinder.

A more than sent loop back it's name it's
then gone. A part. For a make it's gone
beyond its name of it.

. . . Garbanzo
with orange. Paper soap of the lit duck.

. . .The wood wicker
of a library. The librarian's coat.

The splices are precise and uncompromising. Total attention riveted at all points. No narrative plucked from the mass of swirling experience, suggested images and events and places yoked into complacent proximity, aimless as a map to a non-existent territory. "I made this."

Match wrappers/with you.

Clue. The all the time the curves the
stamps. The.

A water is all gone/to the bottomless.

. . . Silo's ahead.
Lift the sign to fade out. A stem off much knee.
Cut. A cut of wing buttes in the slant air,
wrist edges missing. Gun in lodestone, the
preserved farm dawdling. Mix ton. Eyeglass
pinched. Getting down from a middle distance
gone away.

. . . Slab mass shifts an inch. Each way, grounded.
Fissured stone pinching out an eye.

This is like an aesthete's de rerum natura, inventory of things in their special hermetic system of fixities, walking naked in Olmstead Park.

My lab, it's me.

Thumb back to noun wall.

It defeats the simplest linkages in favor of slits, impacts, gaps, flirtatious gestures, "false" echoes, adamant mute--these are nothing but what they are, unique samples in a box of same, level eye on flat edge, a private lingo we go into as under the damp accordion of mysterious panels.

You walk into a hole in the rock, the hillside
ledge and the man wonders.
How could that be, how could that stop.
The vents that form cones in a back crevice ceiling.
This all saturate level drained ago.
Pick up your steps retracing to a former light.

It could be that a constellation of phrases, in a certain order (such as this) is an exact replica of the synapses in the brain from which it originated. Swirling four dimensional vortices attracting bits of strata from the layered animate consciousness. Passing through a slinky in a dream.

Houses that look like cubes. Houses that
look like tubes. Nothing looks like
anything. Nothing looks like homes.

Returning to nothing as an about-face to memory. Walk in the door, threshold a force-field of forbidden presumption.

Is a house side sent from here. A glance
of the eye is not there.

I walked on the street and closed
the door. I passed trees (my height
and other). I passed another. Thinking
on changing one's mind. The glass of a
store side comes up. A fish on wooden board.
I don't go in the door's shut. Small rings
and catches are they brass. The grey feeling,
the air glasses, the walking down. I
don't sense I state.

A pebble next to a pencil.

Wholestone. Supposed to be emboldened. The metamorphosis proposed in the concluding "Note" is the transition, between the discrete implementation of the early period, up through The Maintains and Polaroid--and the expansive, "walking music" of the middle and later period works--occurs in Quartz Hearts. Stolen together from various theses and thoses. Coolidge's Quartz Hearts is a masterwork, whose earliest germinating seeds originate as far back as the early 1960's, reaches a crescendo, in this poem meditation, and then expands outward to encompass the full breadth of experience and the tapestry of elaborated representations. All the later extended pieces grow out of this form, and rehearse its formula of method. The Crystal Text, The Book of During, the ROVA Improvisations, The Act of Providence, etc. The template of the creation of an analogue for the transposition of "reality" superimposed upon the inert matter of disintegrating surfaces. Nothing stops.


*In one respect, it's always seemed ironic to me that the canonical works of the so-called Language School of Poetry & Poetics, though including Coolidge's and Michael Palmer's writings (for instance) among its specimen works, don't include the Authors themselves among their number. This might be an instance of the social and aesthetic streams diverging, or perhaps a failed act of appropriation? Coolidge and Palmer are just a bit older than their younger contemporaries in the Language School, though their earliest works clearly belong to the same preoccupations and interests as those of the school itself. Recent attempts (such as the Grand Piano project) to consolidate their legacy aside, I suspect that posterity will see the whole scene differently, and assign meanings and connections in ways that don't respect the social fabric, or the communal tendencies evidenced in the critical and theoretical writings of the group.


Addendum: Reading day before yesterday an interview with George (Dadie) Rylands, who was for many years a well-known Shakespeare scholar and theater director at King's College, Cambridge, I was interested to learn that he had organized a reading of Eliot's Four Quartets, I think during or just after the War, in which the program was divided into reading and musical performance, with one segment given over to a Beethoven quartet. I don't know the citation, but someone once referred to poetry which "aspires to the condition of music." It would seem a very short jump indeed to think of Coolidge's Quartz Hearts as a kind of serious chamber music. I can imagine it performed in conjunction with a concert, say, of Stravinsky's Octet, or Carter's Piano Sonata [1945-46], or even Miles Davis's Kind of Blue. There is no such thing as "pure sound" in poetry, though there is certainly non-sense sound; but the human mind is incapable of hearing syllabic variation without detecting accents and echoes of actual words, though organizing such fragments into anything like a meaningful whole, or sequence, might be simple fantasy. But Coolidge's constructions are anything but nonsense. The body of meaning, to which his word sequences refer, however, is not describable by reference to "actual" things or situations. To what, then? An analogous area of thought or structure which bears some resemblance to precincts of mental space. Perhaps one reference might be to "pure music"--by which we mean it has no specific reference to any programmatic agenda, but simply sets up its own abstract theses and then manipulates them according to expedient techniques. That may seem a very abstract way to describe what Coolidge is doing, but Quartz Hearts is a very abstract work. So then is Beethoven's Opus 131 Quartet. Both engage the reader/listener in a sequence of statements or assertions which carry emotional and intellectual weights and elaborations, towards an end which seems to be used up in the process of its duration.


J said...

Tom Beckett said...

Another great piece. Thanks.

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...



How does one differentiate poetry from gibberish, non sequitur ravings from coherent language? Without the references, what sense would this work make?

As is said…if you have to explain a joke, it isn’t a good one.

Curtis Faville said...


Interesting question.

I think we have to grant writers the parameters they're exploring. If you acknowledge that it's possible to regard words as having senses outside of, or beyond, their literal referents (not exactly a new idea, I'm sure you are aware), then one might consider their efforts in light of a methodology that applies artistic concepts (combination, disjunction, fragmentation, etc.) to them much as sculptors or collagists do.

I'm not trying to convince you of something you have no patience for. You're free to ignore or reject any kind of writing you choose. I reject Eddie Guest and Robert Service. You're free to reject Clark Coolidge, if you choose. That's the thing about art. It doesn't require our ultimate judgment--it's "outside" the realm of necessity and utilitarian application.

Thanks for stopping by.

J said...

Coolidge has written at length on Kerouac, jazz, surrealism. He's got some f-ing cred. (---somewhat beyond Edna St Vincent Gary ) . Poet i'm not but read CoolidgeSpeak as a type of free jazz in words, mas o menos--not always working perhaps, but at times an odd beauty emerges. He said he admired Captain Beefheart once--all freaks owe a debt to CB/DVV.

Kirby Olson said...

He was a drummer. I took some classes at Naropa with him, or maybe they were workshops. He was an elegant youthful man then, wearing white pants which he didn't get messy. I liked him, but didn't know what to make of his work then. Know even less now. He said he worked with a painter, I think it was Jasper Johns. They played together all the time, and came up with new ideas together. I didn't know what to make of their ideas, together or separately, and asked him if he ever got bored. He laughed very good-naturedly at this idea, as if to imply that the idea had never occurred to him. A very nice man, sort of like what Buster Douglas was to boxing.

Kirby Olson said...

I see Lang po as far more leftist and political than Clark C. Calrk C.'s grandfather was one of our best presidents, and had a clean crisp prose style "The business of America is business." Clark C. was friends with the Aram Saroyan group and others like that who were on the left, but maybe he had some conservative leanings. He's the only poet at Naropa who I remember as scrupulously clean. His socks never fell down. He was always shaven. At any rate, he's quite a different person than say Silliman, and grew up in different circumstances. He had a trust fund left over from the Coolidge estate. He never had to work, for instance, or at least hadn't by 1977. He did say that money was running out. But his kids were beautifully appointed, and he drove a nice car, as I recall.

Silliman and others are trying to DO SOMETHING with their poems, but I'm not sure if Coolidge was ever trying to cause a change in the world through his writing. Like Stein, who also had her own money, he was at least not overtly political, although you could say that she had an axe to grind with the gender bending issue, not sure if he had any ISSUES that drove his work.

He spent his weekends exploring caves.

Curtis Faville said...


I remember when we used to agree that art should be judged primarily as an exercise in aesthetics, rather than as a manifestation of political viewpoints. That worked as long as we both disdained Left propaganda in poetry. But you seem to want all art now to reflect a reactionary attitude. Even something as seemingly a-political as Coolidge's abstract prosodic experiments.

I'm baffled.

Kirby Olson said...

No, I don't. I still resent the single-issue fanatics in poetry (they want to use the prestige of poetry to advance their various political causes).

I think aesthetics IS what matters in poetry, and am perfectly comfortable saying that Ginsberg AND Pound were GREAT POETS, from within the aesthetic rubric.

I haven't read very much of Clark Coolidge, and only a sentence or two of his illustrious grandfather, or perhaps it was a great grandfather. But what a memorable sentence or two by the forebear!

I remember nothing of any lang-po writer, nothing of any Coolidge sentence (except those he spoke to me in person, which I remember as clearly as if they were said yesterday), and yet remember all of Calvin Coolidge's two or three sentences that I've read.

I keep meaning to read Cal's autobiography.

I'm teasing to argue that there might be a Calvinist agenda in Clark's poems. I mean, I'm sure anybody who went searching for an indictment could find something. I just don't think he approached writing with the notion that he wanted to change the world.

More likely, he just wanted to find cool and scintillating rhythms. I think he found them plenty! He was a cool and scintillating person.

And his socks stayed up.

I think this was probably because they were new socks, and so the ribbing was intact.

Most poets can't afford new socks, so the ribbing has collapsed, and the result was a certain comparative shabbiness.

But I also think that Clark was an aesthete through and through. I approve of this. But I wish his poetry referenced the real world.

I'd rather read Greenleaf Whittier or other New Englanders like Frost, or interpreters of the scientific like Snow, if you catch my drift.

Charles Shere said...

I wish there were some art that did NOT "reference the real world". But how would you do that, in this real world?

Curtis Faville said...


What would such an art "look like"?

It's a commonplace to note that the further along the road of theoretical physics we go, the more we realize how "insubstantial" our ideas about so-called empirically derived truths are. I'm not one to talk about mystical notions in New Age terms, but I'm certain that those who communicate in the language of higher mathematics, for instance, are a lot closer to the "truth" than ordinary people are, though, of course, their "language" is just as "illusory" as ours is--merely an expedient to describe things we have no other way of "handling" mentally.

Kirby Olson said...

You might as well just be an abstract painter if you're not going to refer to the real world. Then at least you'd have the pleasure of getting brain damage from all the noxious paint.

J said...

Real musicians have a difficult enough time producing beauty. When poets attempt a sort of word-jazz it generally doesn't work--where is the hipster scribe whose jazzy writing will equal a Chopin or Coltrane ? No where. Literature's 95% smoke n mirrors--the heartfelt narrative (Steinbeck) however trite ultimately quite more meaningful than vers libre

(post me Mr Faville)

Ed Baker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

‘J’ said:

“Edna St. Vincent Gary”.

I like that. One could do much worse.

I’ve been compared to Blake, Thomas, Jeffers and Cummings, but never to Edna. What an honor!

Personally, I think it’s a shame that Edna St. Vincent Millay didn’t marry Stephen Vincent Benét. Then she could have been Edna St. Vincent Vincent Millay Benét.

Hey, I can be as silly as the next guy...if it's silly you want.