Sunday, October 22, 2017

`Our World Was an Aristotelian World'

I wrote in an email to David Sanders on Friday: “It’s remarkable how [Henri] Coulette has suddenly snapped into place for me.” I wanted to thank David again. Sharing a writer with a reader, and then waiting to see what happens, is a rare pleasure because usually nothing happens. We expect indifference. So generous an act can be like dropping a stone in a dry well and waiting to hear the splash. In this case, the splash was deferred. Now I carry David’s gift to work--Coulette’s Collected Poems--so I can read it over lunch.   

In 1998, a decade after Coulette’s death at age sixty, the Iowa Review published “So Began the Happiest Years of My Life,” a brief remembrance of his time at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop beginning in 1952. Among his classmates were Donald Justice and W.D. Snodgrass, and John Berryman was one of his teachers. Coulette was born in Los Angeles and lived there for most of his life. His experience at a large Midwestern university was similar to my own eighteen years later, though he was better prepared and more emotionally mature. The only thing I was prepared for as a seventeen-year-old freshman was the library. Coulette writes:

“What made my happiness were the people and books I came to know. I can't name them all, without sounding like the dazed recipient of an Oscar. Still, I do name these few: Catullus and Horace, Dr. Johnson and Proust, Dante, Donne, and Baudelaire. They are still on my shelves, but those shelves could become rubble in a California earthquake, and it wouldn’t matter.”

This cinches the sense of affinity I finally felt while reading Coulette’s poems. Gratitude comes easily to him, and I like that too:

“We were lucky, those of us in the Workshop of those days, for our world was an Aristotelian world--there was a there out there--and it included the idea of a tradition, master to journeyman to apprentice.”

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