The Poem

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 568

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To the casual glance, this poem reads like an anecdote that someone on quaaludes is trying to tell. While there are enough components to encourage one to make the usual kind of sense, a quick glance shows that these components are at times displaced, distorted, or diffused. Re-readings reveal these first impressions to be accurate but inadequate. The author was anything but language-impaired or addled by drugs. Yet even as one traces symmetries that can scarcely be thought unintended, something of one’s early impression remains: One is reminded that any use of language is bound, by the nature of words, to be “language-impaired”—words push back and interfere with those meanings one had intended before trying to formulate them on the page. As trace upon trace of deliberation manifests itself and an intellectual picture begins to form—the way a photograph develops in a dark room—something is still withheld. Words and reality seldom coincide exactly; the effect is like shadowy areas in the snapshot, which throw other parts into bright relief.

First to stand out will probably be the coincidence of the poem’s beginning and end each having to do with knowing. While one is not told who “they” (line 1) are, one is invited to equate them with “the old” (as in the phrase “the known is old,” in the last line), which leaves for “us” the appellation “new.” From the first two, and the final, lines alone, it is easy to construct some such meaning as “the old possess a knowledge that is useless to us; what is known already must belong to the old; what is unknown is what is new, and that is our province.” “We,” presumably, are the young. When this conclusion is applied to the poem as a whole, considerable evidence appears in its support. For one thing, this soliloquy or meditation takes place in Rome, a very old city, and one that strikes the speaker as being “all built of under”—surely, in one sense, of layers of history. Again, readers are told that “All the vaunted/ spears of time, buried in aheap/ under the cats’ mistakes [are] nothing,” which also supports the initial conclusion concerning this poem’s primary meaning. It is a short step to the formulation “Yank comes to Rome, rubbernecks, says ’so what?,’ goes home.”

This interpretation, however, while certainly derivable from the poem, is not the poem. In order to derive the message, one must overlook or discard other pieces of the work. When so much has to be omitted, one must consider the likelihood of complications, including the complication of authorial irony. One way to read this poem is as a dramatic monologue; one need only recall the work of Robert Browning to remember the likely gap between speaker and author in this type of poem. Clark Coolidge could well be impersonating an attitude—even possibly one he had himself held. Looking closer, one finds oppositions between old ways and new in which the underlying sympathy seems to lie with the old, as where “that one pure spring” appears to be preferred to “my/ millionth trattoria.” Again, the penultimate line might suggest that a coin (as it were) is being “palmed,” that the side one had thought was correct might prove to be wrong. The poem is so fraught with baffles, however, that there can be no general agreement as to such speculations.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 698

Part of the noted deliberateness of this poem occurs in the regularity of the stanzas, two of five lines and two of six; the lines, too, approximate one another in length, even though the poem has no conventional rhythm or rhyme. The first three lines, for example, each contain ten syllables—the “classic” number, that of the iambic pentameter line. Instructively, however, these lines never become iambic pentameter. It is as if the tension between old and new noted in the content were also embedded in the form: old syllable-count, new meter. Perhaps one should not too quickly dismiss the matter of end rhyme: The first four lines of stanza 2, for example, have identities of assonance.

While the syntax may strike an unprepared reader as extraordinary and difficult, to those familiar with Coolidge’s earlier poetry it will, by comparison, seem almost normal. Early in his career, the poet wrote works—The Maintains (1974), Polaroid (1975)—that were hailed as “nonreferential”; something of his view of his own writing may be obtained by considering the following extract from his piece on a fellow poet, Larry Eigner: “an invisible & steadying ‘is’ behind everythingall particles in the pile soon to reach/ nounal statethe word ‘air’ & its immediate prepositioning. . ./ these ’scenes’ don’t exist, never havethe poem is built// each line/ equals/ its own completion// and every next line/ its consequence.” The approach, one notices, is by way of the mechanics of language and not the psychology of the individual nor the arrangement of society. While to the tyro “Remove the Predicate” may seem difficult in a quite unaccustomed way, to the reader familiar with Coolidge’s work from the outset, this recent poem seems at once fairly predictable (the emphasis is on language; the title focuses on a part of speech) yet surprising, because of the large amount of normative coherence constituting it. Here is no parade of words stripped (apparently, anyway) of syntax, as in “one on below out until within/ through once those even since/ you the what says kinds/ bolt what hence when such both”—to quote from Polaroid—but instead something that very nearly fails to draw attention to itself via the difficulty presented by the arrangement of its words.

Yet even though “Remove the Predicate” appears to be a poem interpretable by older methods than would ever serve with his earlier work, if one keeps in mind the history of Coolidge’s poetry, one will beware of imposing orders upon the arrangements of a man who has indicated, by precept and example, that words (no matter how juxtaposed) already provide an order to which the shuffles and grunts of syntax are in no way a superior wheeze.

It is true that if one removes “dope,” “fault,” and “fear weed” from the first stanza, one can feel well on one’s way to completing a graspable sense of the sentence; however, the poem inserts and insists on those words. The apparently reachable clarity most prove an ignis fatuus if one is required to remove pieces of the poem in order to achieve it. Despite his movement toward the normative between the early and this later work, Coolidge proves reluctant to go the entire distance; for him, the relation of reality to language must always be questionable, and this will always be seen in his writing, whether obviously or subtly. The reader will always, if remaining honest to each word as well as to the composition they suggest overall, be forced to acknowledge that ideas of the real, on the one hand, and of the poem, on the other, should stay open to question.

In this poem, certainly, symmetries are recognizable: There are two stanzas of five lines each and two of six lines each; the first three lines each have ten syllables, enforcing a measure that subsequent lines will be heard as obliging or departing from; and “consistency of place and time” affirm the sentences and much that they contain. Yet there is a point beyond which these assembled symmetries cannot take one, an ideal order to which, despite their promises, they cannot deliver the reader. This surely is the point of the poem’s devices.