The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 568 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 698 words.)