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Solution Passage: POEMS 1978-1981 by Clark Coolidge (Sun & Moon: $18.95, hardcover; $11.95, paperback; 389 pp.)

August 17, 1986|David Antin | Antin, a poet, is the author of "Tuning" (New Directions) and other works. and

There is a conventional idea of poetry as a poet's personal speech, which is how we come to identify, however imperfectly, Robert Frost as a sly New England farmer, T. S. Eliot as a mock Anglican churchman and Wallace Stevens as a connoisseur dandy. This is the commonplace wisdom that provokes the reader of a new book of poems to search for the poet's "voice" and, not finding one sufficiently distinctive, to say of this poet with a reviewer's judgment, "He hasn't found his voice yet."

But there is another model of poetry as a kind of filmlike construction, a montage of words or phrases taken out of the poet's head, or from newspapers or books or street signs, or radio programs or pieces of conversations overheard in the street. It is not as common a model, but there is plenty of precedent for it in the works of poets such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky, to name only Americans. Clark Coolidge has been an accomplished practitioner within this mode for nearly 20 years, and until fairly recently, nobody would have thought to identify his "voice." His poems of the '60s were wordscapes, sparse arrangements of single words, sometimes parts of words, that acted like single shots that achieved their cinematic effects through the variable semantic distances separating the individual word images as in:

time coal hum base

treat south admit

low the dissolve add

owl which seems to end in a jump cut. By the time of "Quartz Hearts" (1978), Coolidge started assembling larger units, phrases, phrase groups and sentences in lines to form longer sequences that occasionaly seemed to produce bursts of apparently connected speech. But whose speech?

The sound was of note-taking, terse and elliptical:

Stopping a while. A staying power

Dots extended, coffee books. A rock

Sometimes pronouns appeared--"I" "we" "someone."

. . . Signs seen for miles someone

figured for no reason. That we could see.

The work achieved a kind of reflective tone without suggesting that anyone in particular was reflecting on anything in particular, only that the poem was reflecting.

"Solution Passage" picks up from "Quartz Hearts," and most of the poems tend to develop a fairly consistent speaker, an "I" that lasts nearly long enough to govern the entire speech act of the poem--though probably not a moment longer. This allows the poems to enact many of the gestures of conventional lyrics, especially in their openings and closings, as in "Lifelikeness," which starts:

"What makes it like this that here could stand for you"

provides section-closing cadenzas like:

"All I am has been, closed"

but suspends and fends off throughout its middle all the well- practiced banalities of the mirror poem, which it replaces with a set of intermittent takes and rejections in which the shifts of language between banal and fresh, opaque and clear, are musical maneuvers suggesting Coltrane doing ballads. "Solution Passage" is not a conventional book of lyric poetry. It is the work of an experimental master doing a set of brilliant takes on the convention.

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