The Poetry Project

On All This Thinking: The Correspondence of Bernadette Mayer and Clark Coolidge

Cam Scott

All This Thinking: The Correspondence of Bernadette Mayer and Clark Coolidge
Edited by Stephanie Anderson and Kristen Tapson
University of New Mexico Press, 2022

Of all those who have taught us how to write, few figures are so general and so fundamental as Bernadette Mayer and Clark Coolidge—separately and as a pair—whose work treats more of what is in the world than I’d thought possible when I went out for language. “Surely somebody should ‘fund’ a conversation between us, dont you think?” Mayer asks Coolidge in an affectionate letter of late 1982, and their collected correspondence does one better—framing an ad libitum exchange of infectious earnestness: “i know in the rigidity of our thoughts,” Mayer writes, “we owe at the very least each other these letters, though i apologize for being overly serious I guess.”

Gathered from Coolidge’s archive at the University of Buffalo and the Mayer collection at UC San Diego, All This Thinking collects three years of letters composed between September 1979 and October 1982. This flush of rapid, detailed exchange arrives relatively late in a lengthy friendship, beginning in the 1960s when Mayer and Coolidge solicited each other’s work for Joglars and 0 to 9 respectively. The poets wouldn’t meet in person until 1969, striking up the bicoastal, asynchronous repartee that would motivate and theorize their next decades of work; including the collaborative texts written between 1972 and 1978 and published many years later as The Cave. These letters build on and extend that outpost, marking the authors’ deep commitment to each other’s lives and writing in a period of restive creativity.

This is not simply a correspondence about the social vicissitudes and sceneries of poetry, though it is that too—rather, All This Thinking reads beautifully as a poem in two voices; volleying grudges and enthusiasms, tales of survival and competition, drafts and verdicts, over several crucial years in torqued and stacking paragraphs. Of all the letters I’ve read, few collections fare so well as literature—nor as theory, nor as memoir—where the intimacy that Mayer and Coolidge sustain at considerable distance entails a wealth of social reenactment and cool self-appraisal. These communications are of frequently breathtaking quality—evincing a showy profligacy from both parties, lightly competitive, that in some moments rivals or anticipates the highpoints of each author’s output.

I’ve waffled on whether it’s acceptable to describe these letters as literature, where both participants are so careful in making the very distinctions that their respective bodies of work seem to repeatedly defy. As Mayer writes to Coolidge on October 2, 1979, “I think a letter turns out to be writing, as I am learning in doing my book, yet it is not quite writing but something else I can come close to doing and then turn away, like a seduction or something, which I enjoy doing, coming close to when I’m writing for the book (for the books?) but then when I’m writing a real letter I can see what the differences are and they are just as distinct and clear as my demands for time.” Even this breathlessly digressive sentence—for each thought, however ornate, seems always to supply a single living sentence—impresses me with its effortless poetry, “like a seduction or something.” (Notably, Mayer still refers to “writing” here, in the undifferentiated parlance of the day, even as she carefully distinguishes craft from her correspondence; and the considered differences between the poets and their peers, the “LANGUAGE guys,” furnish these letters some of their most introspective and superior moments of self-assessment.)

Where Coolidge describes his craft-oriented letters as a “poet’s sidebar,” and the pair discusses Mayer’s “letters book” (finally published in 1994 as The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters) as a series of imaginary correspondences, it’s clearly preferable to maintain a meta- and contextual distinction between letters and literature—the better to observe the epistolary effects that Mayer elsewhere aces. But the temptation of conflation isn’t only an effect of how enjoyable these letters are to read some decades later; it’s also an implication of the generosity, excitability, and duration of the authors’ respective projects, which seem and strive to include, well, Everything—“The Manifold,” as they discuss at characteristic length.

No one more so than Mayer, or Coolidge, has perfected the writerly illusion of composing at the pace of thought or sound. In each of their torrential bodies of work, words tail experience as if its signature. At every moment, Mayer’s work supposes the possibility of a totally annotated reality, fully commensurate with the act of writing; while Coolidge’s materially attentive epics seem to wring sound from fibers of time. By markedly different, though highly collegial means, Coolidge and Mayer extend the crucial insight of Jack Kerouac and his few true prosodical peers: that writing is an air we breathe and ought to be as common and enlivening. “Surely writing could conceivably never stop, I would hope so, I would hope it could be so—to be such a lunatic would be sublime, thus the silence we speak about,” Mayer writes on February 6, 1982, as her flagship work, Midwinter Day, was being prepared for publication:

Somebody someday has to do that work of never stopping, of going as fast as it can be gone to that point, dare I say it, of eliminating existence at all so that, and that would be an interesting moment, which gets gotten to sometimes in poems, or in Proust, you’ve faintly gotten to the end of reminiscence and all experience and certainly all knowledge (if you have it), and get left with the great and wonderful high blank of no purpose at last but a mind wherein you can know exactly (ha!) how you and everyone else too exists in the world at this time (not the times but breathing).

Prior to its publication here, Coolidge quotes this letter in a remembrance for the 25th anniversary of On the Road that same year: “By the way, I used a great sentence from your last letter in mine (sentence about the Great Everything Writing, which just perfectly set down all I wanted to get in there about that.)” And in 1991, Coolidge cites his exchange with Mayer once more in a presentation at Naropa University, again referring Kerouac’s patented sketchbook babble to what he and Mayer prefer to call “the Everything Work”—a cultivated habit of observation and improvisation apt to capture every thought that crosses the writing mind. This phrase appears in a letter from Coolidge to Mayer, dated December 7, 1981, which eventually elicits her breathless response above. Coolidge writes:

Of course another side of this whole project is to just start writing and make a sheer EVERYTHING work and never stop and just let the chips, something I’ve yet to dare to do, would you have to stop everything (else) in order to include everything? A work of the pure endless (?) consciousness striving …

Mayer’s writerly flush of enthusiasm stops just short of professing enlightenment, where her means are more diligent and open to investigation. Nevertheless, these letters grace our present understanding with the dated traces of a real epiphany; a prolonged creative burst in which her already keen conceptualism finds a new font of content in the catalog of space itself. Above all else, this remains Mayer’s major, generalizable insight: the writing is already there, as dream and diary, we only have to learn to keep receipts. (Elsewhere, she speaks of “the limitless nightride of sentences we’ll either have or not, ‪it’s kind of handed out to us.”) This ethical dimension of Mayer’s writing comes across more and less strongly at different points in her career, and may even be counterbalanced to a degree by a figure like Coolidge, whose comprehensiveness somehow resists formalization. In Coolidge’s writing, it isn’t that everything is a poem; rather, the poem could be anything. “I guess I’m an amasser,” he confesses to Mayer as a kindred correspondent: “The brain ‪is a full place.”

Mayer, too, amasses; and there’s so much more to learn from this comparison, to say nothing of the deep agreement that these poets share—not only with each other but with a common spate of references and desires. “Memory is a voice … of nobody,” Coolidge writes after Mayer’s example: “You’re less yourself (in terms of that single personality you ‘recognize’) and more other things, forces & voices.” In this co-authored account, these other forces are both numinous and daily, held in trust by the confidence of these two writers in each other, and the everything they alternate and share.

#272 – Spring 2023