The distinguished poet, Henri Coulette, who died in March at age 60, was born in Los Angeles and, except for a few years in New Mexico, in the Army, and in Iowa City earning a doctorate, he lived in Pasadena his whole life. It is odd to speak of the distinction of a person whose name has been almost forgotten in the great literary world. I wonder if even his native city will be much aware of the honor of being his birthplace, but he seems to me the finest American poet to have emerged thus far from Los Angeles. Although he was a modest man, his near-anonymity was not so much the result of a distaste for self-promotion as it was his cultivation of virtues that appear to be of little interest to a younger generation: technical mastery, urbanity, wit, moral seriousness, emotional restraint, and learning. Already they have an old-fashioned sound, but Henri liked old fashions, "old rooms, old tunes." There was a time when he was disheartened to find his work overlooked; in recent years he had come to look at the literary scene from a considerable distance and to accept his obscurity with serene resignation. He was a very shy man and perhaps he guessed that fame, had it been his luck, would have been a heavier burden.
He was not at all what is called a confessional poet. Believing in and maintaining a certain distance between life and art, even as he understood that they were not separate things, he once described himself thus:
"I consider myself a maker rather than a bard . From this consideration, all else follows. I am interested in technique, and take pride in demonstrating it. . . . I like to think that I bear witness to my experience, i.e., that my subject matter is being me, here, now. I hope that I may rise above these limitations, but I have no illusions about being a spokesman for others, or of possessing the truth. Limitation is mystery, and I try to live with the excitements and discomforts thereof."
He did what he hoped to do. Despite the widespread assumption that formal elegance and ingenuity must somehow block or conceal true feeling, one discovers in Coulette's poetry that through all the play of wit, the great skill, the polish and subtlety, a person shines forth, not Henri exactly, but someone resembling several of his selves--a gentle, passionate, complex person, tough-minded to the point of cynicism yet brimming with human sympathy, reserved and secretive yet terribly vulnerable in his candors. What uncomfortably ambiguous things he will reveal, jokes that are perhaps not jokes, blunt ironies, true lies. In a poem about an abortion, he writes:
. . . playing the role
I have come here not to play.
I think what a good poem
this will make, a modern one,
something suited to my style.
And it is a good poem, one that nine stanzas later dismisses itself as not "good enough to live."
Whatever private longings and terrors he had to live with, he lived with them, at least in his work, with both mindfulness and detachment, cool intelligence, warm imagination--which is to say, courage. He knew that the boredom, fear, and pain of living were unavoidable, even if like all the rest of us he tried to avoid them. Unlike many, he refused easy consolations. He disliked literary works that traffic in slogans and cant, and he kept his distance from the modish dogmas that surround us, "the great truths,/ At the ends of their chains, barking."
He read a great deal of fiction and history dealing with espionage; his special obsession was the world of the double agent, the man or woman who leads three or even more lives. These stories of the multiple selves inhabiting a single person fascinated him, and he was more aware than most people of the fictions and duplicities of which a self is constructed; it was, in a sense, his subject. The title poem of his first book, "The War of the Secret Agents," is a youthful but still wonderfully absorbing long poem (consisting mostly of funny, pathetic, and horrifying dramatic monologues) about a compromised spy network in France in World War II, abandoned to save "an underground beneath the underground," at the end of which we are made to understand, if we have not already guessed, that all this is metaphor. It ends:
Reader, you have been as patient
as an agent
waiting at midnight
outside a deserted house
in a cold rain. You will ask
What does it all mean? What
purpose does it serve,
my being here in this rain ?
Reader (you will be known
henceforth by that name),
there is no meaning
or purpose; only the codes.
So think of us, of Prosper, silly
Prosper, or Archambault of the
of Denise combing her hair.