The Collected Poems of Henri Coulette

by Edited with an Introduction by Donald Justice and Robert Mezey
252 pages,
ISBN: 1557281459

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Stepping out of Time
by Christopher Doda

The Collected Poems of Henri Coulette is one of those books designed to rescue a writer from obscurity or, at least, draw some attention to him before the shifting sands of literary taste bury him completely. Despite early potential, Coulette remains a minor figure in the vast panorama of American poetry. Punching his name into any internet search engine will yield little information about him but quite a bit about American poet Donald Justice (one of the editors of this present volume and Coulette's contemporary), and the MLA lists no substantive critical articles on his work. Hopefully, this reissue will help rectify this state of affairs.
Coulette published two volumes of poetry in the late sixties and early seventies (The War of the Secret Agents and Other Poems and The Family Goldschmitt); the only ones during his lifetime. He garnered praise from an array of sources including The New York Times and the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert. He subsequently fell into a seventeen-year silence which he was preparing to break with And Came to Closure before his death in 1988 at age 60. Coulette lived and wrote for most of his life in California and it is easy, upon reading him, to see how, in spite of his work's considerable merit, he was a step out of time with his surroundings.
It is impossible to separate Coulette's poetry from the technical skill that is its most predominant characteristic. His work is formal in structure, with few forays into free verse, and he relies often on urbane wit and punning to get his point across. Consider this typical passage from "Cygnets House", a finishing school he considers a training ground for young women seeking ivy-league husbands; what was once called the Mrs. Degree:

The daughters of the noble and the rich
Are finished here,
What polish, what veneer!
These Helens have their fathers' nod:
Ledeans know by instinct which is which;
They know the bill of God.

The rhyme scheme is obvious and strictly adhered to in the poem's five stanzas; the puns on 'finished' and on 'bill', which refers to both the swan who coupled with Leda and the preferred money-clip of the unsuspecting bachelor, are necessary for the stanza's meaning. He is also an academic poet: allusions to classical mythology and English tradition abound in his work, often playfully subverted. Whether reconfiguring the whole of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur through a lens of homosexuality in an epigrammatic couplet ("In Camelot, King Arthur came a lot/With two queens, Guinevere and Lancelot") or free translating Catullus or Horace, Coulette reads like an Anne Carson or Gjertrud Schnackenberg if either had a sense of humour.
Showing off his knowledge of the English canon while poking fun at its more pompous moments, Coulette displays a conundrum peculiar to the American intelligentsia: a desire to be both Everyman and Ubermensch, to stand apart from the masses but not so far as to be alienated. In addition to the aforementioned literary and mythological themes, his subject matter encompasses a wide variety of topics including the Holocaust, the Kennedys, Vietnam, Nixon and others that occupied the America of the day¨all signposts of the public intellectual poet. Yet he also writes of sexual explicitness and the loosening of moral restrictions, love and heartbreak, pain and loss¨hallmarks of a private poet seeking to connect with his audience in their private moments. His approach to this dilemma goes some way towards explaining why he has been forgotten or was perhaps not well accepted in the thriving poetry scene of the time.
His use of fixed forms and conservative poetics should have endeared him to the academic audience of William Empson and his ilk, the heirs of Wallace Stevens who come down to us in the form of John Hollander's work, but his subject matter and irreverence towards tradition likely kept them away. Conversely, that irreverence would have fit in well alongside the work of Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti but the tight structures of Coulette's verses would have made their poetic approaches incompatible. Coulette might have been better off to have simply been born English. In fact, the man whose work most comes to mind when reading Coulette's Collected is Philip Larkin, another sparsely productive poet who put his impressive metrical talents in the service of caustic sarcasm. It's not a very far stretch from Larkin's "When I see a couple of kids / And guess he's fucking her and she's / Taking pills or wearing a diaphram, / I know this is paradise" ("High Windows") to the opening lines of Coulette's "Coming to Terms".
Being French, being 19th century we know about boredom
It is a glove, and having invented sex
We know that the sex of the glove does not matter"

Another aspect that Coulette shares with Larkin that renders him out of step with his contemporaries is a decided sense of melancholia. The flip side of his humour, and the source of Coulette's most enduring work, is a dour nostalgia for waning youth and the narrowing of possibilities in life. The retired spies in the verse drama "The War of the Secret Agents" fondly recall their years of terror and danger in occupied Paris as a time when their lives had purpose and their actions some consequence. Coulette's technique approaches a sombre music in pieces like "Bitter Suite": "Observe how life reproaches art/I, who was lonely in the crowd/And took my loneliness to heart/Would now be lonely if allowed." For the Romantic poets and those who followed, melancholy was the principal means of mining their internal landscapes for inspiration; this is seen from Thomas Gray to Coleridge to Poe to the Tennyson of In Memorium to early Eliot. However, with the dawn of the so-called Confessional School in the late 1950s, presided over by Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton¨poets who converted their feverish inner turmoil into a private mythology meant for public consumption¨the melancholic lyricist was slowly replaced. In short, melancholy has been gradually supplanted by neurosis as the prime inspirational engine for the introverted poet.
In their introduction, Donald Justice and his co-editor, Robert Mezey, argue for Coulette's inclusion alongside other great American writers of the time. They overstate their case but The Collected Poems of Henri Coulette is certainly an interesting read (although the editors' decision to include a batch of uncollected poems, most of which amount to juvenilia or opaque in-jokes, is a near disaster) and one I would easily recommend to others looking for the pleasure of discovering a unique voice before it is lost.

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