Clark Coolidge, who’s now in his mid-sixties, was thirty or thirty-one when he published Space. I bought my own copy of the book – second-hand, a library discard with the dust jacket in one of those handy perspex sleeves – in 1989, and have dipped back and forth in it for some time. I’ve only gotten around to reading it straight through this past weekend. Ashes on my head!
What strikes one first are what Gerard Genette would call the “paratexts,” and they give one a glimpse of precisely how different the world of poetry was in 1971. There’s no dust jacket photo, surprisingly enough, for Coolidge is a rather good-looking chap – quite the knock-out back in the early Seventies. The cover design is by Jasper Johns, a perfect marriage of then-current avant-gardes in the visual and verbal realms. The jacket back is bare – no laudatory blurbs from established writers, telling us that CC is “the most promising young voice” of his generation or similar piffle. Instead, on the jacket wraparound there are two paragraphs of plain-spoken prose, telling us that we’ll initially find these poems impenetrable, but if we keep reading, we’ll learn to see and hear words themselves in a new way.
Can you imagine any contemporary work published by a trade press whose dust jacket copy included the words “If you keep reading?” Someone over in marketing would have a stroke. For, strikingly enough, Space – which, if it were coming out in 2005, would be published by a micro-press, or appearing directly on a website – was published in 1971 by – drumroll – Harper & Row. That’s worth thinking about for a moment, that there was a time in living memory when a major American trade publisher would issue a 120-page collection of absolutely, obdurately opaque poems by a young poet who had no MFA, no ties with the power structures of American academic poetry, and who made no compromise whatsoever with what (then as now) most readers looked for in a poem:
a arc bust a writ tin
smokes pays tho runs pouch
This is a terrifically rich book, in a minimalist manner: it impresses the shapes and sounds of individual words upon a reader, holds out momentary possibilities of syntax and connection, always immediately withdrawing them. The little prose poems of Stein’s Tender Buttons (evoked in the Steinian pun “writ tin”?) seem like symphonic orchestrations of symbolism next to Coolidge’s verbal scrawls.
Space marks something like a certain limit point of abstraction – though it was of course nothing like a limit point to Coolidge’s career, and he pursued any number of directions in the thirty or so books he’s published since then. But I remain rather bemused by the fact the book bears the familiar Harper & Row “1817” emblem. It bespeaks a moment before American cultural institutions had quite aligned their publishing programs with their economic interests: when Melvin Tolson’s Harlem Gallery could be published in a tacky small-format paperback edition by Collier ("A Magnificent Comic Ode to Harlem by the Great Afro-American Poet," reads the cover of my copy, dated 1969), when a section of Louis Zukofsky’s “A”-21 could appear on the Letters page of the New York Times, when Scribner’s was issuing both Hemingway reprints and Robert Creeley’s Pieces. Those days seem long gone, at least in the poetry industry. Can anyone think of a genuinely edgy, genuinely innovative poet who, at the age of thirty, has seen her or his work published by a major trade house over the last ten years?