In Praise of Obscurity by Gregory Geis
I remember the first time I read Henri Coulette’s “Petition”, a poem eulogizing his cat Jerome. I forget now where I first encountered it, but it made such an impression that I vowed to track down the poet. The poem runs a scant eight lines, and horror of horrors (at least for a writer of free verse), actually rhymed.
Lord of the Tenth Life,
Welcome my Jerome,
A fierce, gold tabby.
Make him feel at home.
He loves bird and mouse,
He loves a man’s lap,
And in winter light,
Paws tucked in, a nap.
For the record, I’m a dog person, but Coulette’s sensibility shook me. There was a centeredness and stability that I found not only wondrous, but frightening. He was, at least most of the time, a formalist. “Petition” hews to a strict 5 syllable 3 stress measure. But in his other work there was a sly humor not deterred by offbeat (or even bawdy) subject matter. He translated Horace and even tried his own hand at Epigrams. Consider the following:
The Single Life
Being a bachelor’s not so hot,
I find I sleep on the wet spot.
Caesar’s seizures were all the same.
He saw, she conquered, and they came.
Coulette could be a wise guy. He was a California poet, a native of Los Angeles, and much enamored of popular culture. Raymond Chandler and the first Univac computer found their way into his verse. He was a Hollywood film buff, taught poetry at Cal State, and drank himself to death. Popular culture and formal poetry coexisted quite amenably in Coulette’s world. One of his epigrams would have provided a suitable epitaph.
Stand back and give me room,
Cogito ergo zoom.
Coulette had studied with Robert Lowell and John Berryman at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop and was a close friend of Donald Justice, who later edited his uncollected work. Coulette’s output was not great. He published two books, The War of the Secret Agents and The Family Goldschmitt. The latter was accidentally shredded in the publisher’s warehouse prior to general distribution. Both are still available in hardback (used, of course) for about $3.00 apiece. It’s not that Coulette went unrecognized. His first book won a Lamont and he had fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. He had strong sponsorship from the likes of Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert and Donald Justice. But still his work foundered and for a lengthy period of time, he ceased writing altogether. His creative work mirrored the stops and starts of his own life, the drinking, the affairs, divorce, therapy, a descent into soul killing depression, and finally, middle-age.
Donald Justice dealt with Coulette in a monograph (now out of print) entitled Oblivion: On Writers and Writing. If I remember correctly, another of my favorite poets, Weldon Kees, was also featured. Both men shared something in common beyond oblivion. They were classical writers with scant output and prodigious gifts. Both died bad deaths, Coulette drunk in his easy chair in 1988, and Kees (presumably) by leaping off the Golden Gate Bridge in the early 50’s.
Kees has gone through a period of rediscovery. Coulette, at least so far, has not. Three or so years ago, I was able to connect via Facebook with his nephew who was attempting to maintain a webpage (since vanished). The nephew was truly puzzled that a man with Coulette’s gifts had been so neglected. Unfortunately, the blog he ran was littered with ads for escort services, a feature I feel certain would have amused his uncle. Coulette’s work is still occasionally anthologized. I have great sympathy for gifted poets who fall between the cracks. Although a dear publisher friend opines otherwise, it does seem as if the number of readers of poetry has declined while the number of those who write poetry has increased. It’s a supply/demand imbalance that almost guarantees deflation. I suspect in the end the only folks who read poetry will be writers of poetry (or wannabe writers) and that it will become the kind of “sport” that professional contract bridge is. The only folks who appreciate it will be folks who understand and do it themselves.
Coulette was 60 when he died. I am now 64. Which leads me inexorably to a contemplation on death and just what “obscurity” means. If it means that one’s work will never be widely known or disseminated, and the work is reasonably good, then the conclusion to be reached is probably that the poet drew a bad hand. I suspect this was Coulette’s case. Yet at the same time, I have to ask myself what it is that draws us to certain poets regardless of their readership. The biographical connection is strong, though resonating with a poet’s life does not always translate to an appreciation of his work. We feel, I suppose, that certain poets belong to us in ways that other poets do not. I might acknowledge that canonically T.S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens are greater poets. But I am not sure if that means that a poet like Coulette (or Kees) is less important. In fact, I might argue that their obscurity makes them even more valuable.
This is one of the reasons I’m not particularly disturbed that a poet like Henri Coulette wasn’t recognized when he was alive. Although I am troubled that his work has not been re-appreciated after his death. Any man who writes a poem to his spouse (“A Love Letter to My Wife”) and opens with
The lips of your cunt are a butterfly,
They form the Hottentot apron,
Which is highly prized among the Hottenots
Which is highly prized among me.
probably deserves to be read. Like all poets, I write to be read. And being read means being published. Beyond that I am simply unsure what the place of the poet is vis-à-vis his or her work. I’ve almost reached the conclusion that it really doesn’t matter. Perhaps obscurity is not at all the same as oblivion. I am reminded of something Charles Simic once said. “When you play chess with yourself, it’s always your move.” Perhaps it’s not about the number of readers, but fidelity to one’s calling. More like a marriage with ups and downs than a perpetual honeymoon cruise. The way we honor poets is to read them. In the end, gratitude always trumps obscurity. Or should.
For more information about Coulette, see his Poetry Foundation link here.