Thursday, February 29, 2024

'Now You Are Elsewhere'

I came late to the poet Henri Coulette, long after his death in 1988 at age sixty, and promptly fell for his charms. Chief among them are elegance, technical virtuosity, wit and devotion to his native turf, Southern California. Like one of his favorite writers, Raymond Chandler, he gets the details right about that storied world that most of us know from the movies. Few poets match Coulette for sheer likeability. He taught at Cal State in Los Angeles for almost 30 years. 

Now I’ve discovered that late in life Coulette  reviewed poetry for the Los Angeles Times. He writes like a gentleman, even when panning a poet. In the newspaper’s February 15, 1987 issue, for instance, he takes on The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Vol. I, 1909-1939 (New Directions):


“The good doctor suffered from two afflictions. The first was as severe a handicap as a poet can have, an inability to write in metrical language.” The second was, as diagnosed by Coulette, “a common one among poets, an occupational hazard. He yearned for fame, that last infirmity.”


Few of the celebrated Modernists can match Williams for sheer dullness. Even more disturbing is the influence he had on subsequent poets, who found it easy to imitate the prosy slackness of his lines. Still, Coulette concedes that Williams' “superbly sensitive ear for rhythm, as distinct from meter, an unflinching eye, and a good heart would make him a one-of-a-kind poet.”


In his July 20, 1986 review in the Times of an anthology, Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms (eds. Philip Dacey and David Jauss, Coulette writes:


“Formal poetry is coming in from the cold, and that should be good news for everyone who cares about the state of the art. Free verse has reigned for nearly a quarter of a century, so long that most writers of it no longer know what they are free of. Our little magazines are crowded, as is often said and usually true, with flat prose arbitrarily divided into lines.”


And in the January 31, 1988 Times, two months before Coulette’s death, he reviewed Andrew Hudgins’ After the Lost War: A Narrative, a novel/fictionalized biography of the poet Sidney Lanier written in verse. Coulette writes:


“The narrative poem provides the simplest ground on which poet and reader can meet; there they are free of the relentless intrusions of critical theorists. The poet tells as best he can, and the reader listens, asking only, ‘And then? And then?’”


Behind the critical analysis, one senses in Coulette a defense of readers, writers and the book at hand. He’s on our side, a rare stance.


David Kubal was a friend of Coulette’s in the English department at Cal State. Kubal published a study of Orwell in 1972 and died at age forty-five a decade later. Coulette dedicated “Night Thoughts” to his friend. Here are the third and fourth stanzas:


“The word elsewhere was always on your lips,

A password to some secret, inner place

Where Wisdome smiled in Beautie’s looking-glass

And Pleasure was at home to dearest Honour.

(The dog-eared pages mourn your fingertips,

And vehicle whispers, Yet once more, to tenor.)


“Now you are elsewhere, elsewhere comes to this,

The thoughtless body, like a windblown rose,

Is gathered up and ushered toward repose.

To have to know this is our true condition,

The Horn of Nothing, the classical abyss,

The only cry a cry of recognition.”


[The book to find is The Collected Poems of Henri Coulette (eds. Donald Justice and Robert Mezey, University of Arkansas Press, 1990).]

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