Monday, July 31, 2006

Clark Coolidge gets credit for a lot of things, virtually all of it deserved, but generally I don’t think there has been enough recognition of his stellar work as a literary critic, as such. Over my trip west, I read the Kerouac sections – roughly 80 pages from a 140-page book – in his 1999 Living Batch collection, Now It’s Jazz, temporarily (I really hope they mean that) out of stock at SPD. It’s the finest critical writing I’ve ever read on Kerouac’s work, which is to say that it’s passionate & level-headed, with an exceptionally good eye/ear toward the fine points in Kerouac’s writing, its basis in rhythm, Kerouac’s own eye (essential to his work), indeed Kerouac’s mind.
You can find one piece of Coolidge’s Kerouac collection online, this relatively straightforward, even formal overview from American Poetry Review gathered here amongst the rather breath-taking & eclectic materials put together for Al Filreis’ legendary English 88 course at Penn. Of the essays (many of them simply excerpts from letters) in Coolidge’s collection, this is the closest thing to an normative piece of prose, which makes it, at once, perhaps the most accessible of the essays here, but in some ways the least of them as well. One great section of Now It’s Jazz consists of a recitation of dreams in which Kerouac has appeared to Coolidge, a riff on Book of Dreams no doubt, but an intimate way to let you know not only how much Kerouac means to Coolidge’s own writing & person, but also in what ways.
People who don’t read Coolidge closely sometimes express the sense that his own work is abstract. In fact, much of what Coolidge himself says about Kerouac – especially about the role of rhythm in the work – he could say of himself as well. One thing Coolidge obviously is not, tho, is a Kerouac clone. Rather, Kerouac is one of the major influences on Coolidge’s work (I’d argue that Phil Whalen is the other prime source), which takes its essence into places Ti-Jean himself never fully imagined.
One thing Coolidge does take from the early Kerouac is an enormous sense of dedication to craft and to the idea that the meaning of form is intimately connected to what you can do with it, not how neatly your shoe laces are tied. Coolidge has done his homework here, seeming to have read everything in print many times over & more than a little of what is not yet in printed form. One consequence of this is that Coolidge is brutal with the haphazard nature of many of the Kerouac editions, more than a few of which seem designed to propagate the myth rather than elucidate the writer. Kerouac is one of several recent authors – Joyce & Duncan come immediately to mind – where we may just have to wait for copyright to expire & hope that enough of the materials not now in public archives get there and that each will ultimately find their own Hugh Kenner waiting to unpack the chronological & other difficulties with which the total oeuvre is embedded.
One test of Coolidge as a critic – you can find some other non-Kerouac samples as well on his EPC web page – is that he gets the importance of Visions of Cody, not just as a central work in the Kerouac canon, but quite possibly the Great Novel of the past century, right up on a par with Ulysses & Gravity’s Rainbow & the best of Faulkner (who is not unlike Kerouac in that his best work often comes in passages, rather than entire books). Coolidge’s “Visions of Cody Notes,” modeled after Kerouac’s own pseudo-script telegraphed prose is this book’s secret gem as well as the one work entirely devoted to a single volume of Kerouac’s.
The other echo that Coolidge’s book sets up for me is Kerouac’s ideas of spontaneous prose & their relation (or lack thereof) to the folk physiology of Charles Olson’s poetics, which I’d been working on prior to my week in Naropa last month. Here is Olson, from “Projective Verse”:
the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE
the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE
But consider the role of the eye, alluded to repeatedly in Kerouac’s “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose”:
1. Scribbled secret notebooks,and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
4. Be in love with yr life
5. Something that you feel will find its own form
6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
19. Accept loss forever
20. Believe in the holy contour of life
21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better
23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
29. You're a Genius all the time
30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven
If the tug-of-war in Olson’s work, the forces that give it its internal energy, is that battle between syllable & line, for Kerouac it’s between “the visual American form,” “pithy middle eye” & the mind, by which Kerouac does not mean logic or reason. “Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better.” It doesn’t get much more explicit than that, yet Coolidge shows how precisely Kerouac gives head to words & depiction simultaneously, citing the great cafeteria description from Visions of Cody (possibly the best description of anything in the whole of literature) and this much shorter passage from Old Angel Midnight:
The Mill Valley trees, the pines with green mint look and there’s a tangled eucalyptus hulk stick fallen thru the late sunlight tangle of those needles, hanging from it like a live wire connecting it to the ground – just below, the notches where little Fred sought to fell sad pine – not bleed much – just a lot of crystal sap the ants are mining in, motionless like cows on the grass
There is a great riff of prosody in that first interior phrase – where little Fred sought to fell sad pine – that makes you realize just how completely Kerouac is in control of (and driven by) the sound of the passage, tho it is not ultimately the sound that’s at play. This is a rare moment in American fiction – one wants to say American poetry tho Kerouac himself would not have agreed – and that Coolidge is capable of foregrounding a moment like this is a sign of his own considerable skill thinking through these materials.