Last evening, Wednesday, January 18, 2012, very belatedly I learned of the death of Herbert R. Coursen, Jr., whom I met forty-four years ago in Maine, at a 1968 Bowdoin College conference on “stylistics.” It was the same year that the first edition of my volume titled The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics was published — Herb would become one of its first and biggest fans.
Herb grew up in New Jersey. He was educated at Amherst College, Wesleyan University, and the University of Connecticut, where he earned his Ph. D. in English. He lived since 1964 in Brunswick, Maine, where, until 1992, he taught at Bowdoin College. A well-known Shakespearean with many scholarly books to his credit, he also wrote poetry, mainline and sports fiction, and non-fiction. He was prominently involved in anti-Vietnam war activities during the 1960's although he had himself been a military man, a fighter pilot during the Korean war. Later he became involved with environmental and peace activities.
Coursen's first collection of poems was a 1973 chapbook, Storm in April (see the bibliography at the end of this essay). These poems looked hard at the reality experienced by a truly sensitive personality, and the language in which those experiences were couched gave the reader the sense that he or she knew the speaker of the poems and recognized the experiences as valid. Coursen appeared to be one of the few writers who know that we can best know ourselves by seeing ourselves reflected in others. Add to this understanding a deft sense of nature and an ability to convey ideas and images in forceful language, and one had in this booklet a promise toward the fulfillment of which one looked forward with pleasure.
His second collection the following year was also a chapbook, Survivor. In it the interest was perhaps primarily technical, for he had begun to write in quantitative syllabic verse and to turn away, to some degree, from the lineated prose of the previous book. Although the Vietnam war had been elegized in "Far from Vietnam: Maine, Summer, 1967," in the first collection, it was in the second that Coursen turned to his own Korean War experiences in "ex navy pilot." In his third chapbook, Lookout Point, one could begin to see what was happening: the poet was ranging back and forth through his life; he was beginning to weave a tapestry of words and experience that had certain recurring threads: childhood in New Jersey, military service, love and its loss in Maine, among that state's great natural beauties.
These subjects were filled out in the next collection, Inside the Piano Bench, which included an uncharacteristic and overtly journalistic prose memoir of a love gone awry, "Fragments of a December in England." Perhaps Coursen thought of it as a prose poem, but it didn't have enough language interest for that. As though this prose piece were a glitch in a phonograph record, the next chapbook, Fears of the Night, largely abandoned the more formal approach the poet had been taking. Here were many more "free verse" prose poems, and straight prose paragraphs, together with a poem written in what Amy Lowell called "polyphonic prose," the wonderful "American Pastime," one of the grand catalogs of the twentieth century:
I hereby establish my own Baseball Hall of Fame.
For alliteration, for example, I enshrine
Frankie Frisch, the Fordham Flash.
For future fame in other areas:
Albert Schweitzer (St. Louis, A. L., 1908-1911).
They called him 'Cheese', so with him,
I further honor Clarence Beers and Sweetbreads Bailey,
Hot Potato Hamlin and Noodles Hahn, Ginger Beaumount
and Sugar Cain, and Honey Walker....
One must stop oneself by an act of will at that point, or one shall quote the entire poem, for there is no place to rest, or even to pause. No one has ever written a better baseball poem.
Cheek by jowl with these prose pieces, Coursen placed a sonnet, "'Soft you now...'." To this point Coursen had not written much in accentual-syllabic prosody; he would develop this obvious ability in the future and give us other books which were as great a pleasure to read, but his next collection, Walking Away, cut against the grain of his development and returned to lineated prose for its mode. It returned, also, to his flying days for much of its subject matter, though love, growing up in Jersey, and the Maine landscape were not abandoned. The book opened with a glossary of flying terms which the poet hoped would be "A helpful guide to the diction of some of the poems that follow[ed]."
I was privileged to write the introduction to Hope Farm: New and Selected Poems, published in 1979 — the volume was overdue. For a number of years Herbert R. Coursen, Jr., had been publishing his poems in a variety of little magazines and collecting his work in chapbooks. As a result, the poetry reading public had not had a chance to see the poet in his full range. That range turned out to be considerable. The book began with autobiographical flashbacks to childhood, disarming in their simplicity. These poems evoked the mood necessary for what were, later on, essentially contemplative, sometimes metaphysical reveries — the poet's strongest suit.
"Jersey Shore: Early Forties" from Fears of the Night may stand as example of the earlier kind — a good story, objectively told; autobiographical, yet the narrator's voice is held in check so that the story would not be overloaded with pathos. The overtone, the implications, of the last sentence were therefore all the stronger and more dramatic.
The film would show a ship,
logging a last unsuspecting
second, as the waking metal
fish strove eagerly for the
prime section amidships.
The ship explodes
like a trick cigar.
But there is always
something wrong with the water,
too smooth, to simple,
failing the complicated maturity
of real oceans.
Our ocean, off Bay Head
and Mannasquan, was thick
with tar in 1943
and we had a pan of gasoline —
even on an A-Card —
outside the cottage,
to wash away
the burnt caking around our toes.
One day, some strange remains
bobbed into the surf.
Black cars with white stars
on their sides stopped
by the boardwalk, and a long
black car also stopped there,
and the ocean was closed
for a summer's afternoon.
The enigmatic scene evokes not merely the Second World War, but also the sense of a child trying to understand the mysteries of the adult world, the differences between fiction and reality, and the feeling that there are menaces lurking beneath the surfaces of things.
"Sister" was the first poem in the collection written from the dramatic viewpoint: the poet placed himself in the persona of a girl and, in a few lines, managed to say things about sexism that novelists have labored to say at great length, often with less effect:
Younger than they,
and not the same.
Girl growing amid
a grove of brothers.
They took my dolls
one day into their
in the woods,
into the cleared dirt,
and burned them
at the stake.
Some of the poems were about flying. Coursen had for years been writing about his experiences flying fighter aircraft during the Korean War era, as his preceding collection had chronicled, and he wrote pieces that fused technical information about aviation and evocations of emotions inherent in various, usually harrowing, situations. But some of the finest of the poems in this volume, as they had been in his earlier volumes, were nature pieces; elegies and reveries in the countryside of Maine, Coursen's adopted state. They were fusions of local color and love, like "The Leaves Again," which was effective in much the same way that the best haiku are. Though this poem was not syllabic, Coursen sometimes wrote nature-love poems in quantitative syllabics, and these generally were among his most successful pieces, as for instance "Inscape," which was complex and metaphysical, ugly and beautiful, a current of thought flowing out of an epigraph from a 16th century Book of Common Prayer.
"Inside the Piano Bench," the title poem from his fourth collection, touched on another aspect of Coursen's range, this time a blending of the earlier nostalgia and the later metaphysics. It is a nice conceit that interweaves vintage crooners and their songs with the evening of an adult listening backward in his mind through yellowing sheet music, as though the piano bench and its contents an aural crystal ball conjuring the past rather than the future:
Bing remains forever
blond and Bob for-
ever hopeful that
Dorothy's sarong will drop
south of the border. Two
to leave their blue room, yawn
away. Fred and
Ginger, Ginger and
Fred, hold their pose always, day
and night, night and day, in
the still of the
Coursen did something like the same thing in "National Pastime," quoted above, utilizing a catalog of baseball players' names, but in this poem the nostalgia was humorous. Coursen could be clever, as in "Trick Sentence"; satrical, "Do I Dare to Bite a Pear?" which sent up T. S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock; wry, "How to Start Your Foreign Car." He could give insight into the superstitions of the 17th century, and therefore our own, as in "Fears of the Night," the title poem from an earlier collection.
The most brilliant poem was the last, "The Emerald of Polycrates." It is a verse-mode poem, too, not prose-mode like the earlier "free verse" pieces, or even like the syllabic works. It glitters with imagery, reverberates with music, tenses with drama. It is a fine poem, a very great shift away from biography and nostalgia, but readers may be baffled by its inclusion here, for there was nothing else like it in the book. No doubt Coursen included it because it was too striking to leave out. It left one with the impression that there was an even greater range being held in reserve by this poet. In a letter to me dated "12 Jan '93" and datelined Prince's Point, Brunswick, Maine, Coursen said,
"I wrote 'The Emerald of Polycrates' in 1978.
"I had been reading Herodotus's The Persian Wars for no compelling reason and found the story of Polycrates. I had been searching for an idea for a poem, but did not realize that until the idea was there, in the wonderful story. One reason why someone says, "I am a poet," is that that attitude attracts and may recognize ideas for poems. The mass of people move by the idea without comment. The story, of course, suggests that if a person takes some external action things may change for the better. The myth behind the story suggests that the person must make his or her own journey to the underworld, to the psyche. The stone won't serve as an alter ego on the path of individuation.
"But that is psychology, not poetry. To tell the story is to change it, but not into an analysis of the story. To tell the story as poem is to find a form for it. A poet studies forms so that they are available for the poem he wishes to write. I teach Shakespeare and, at the time, was teaching Victorian poetry, which includes all those superb dramatic monologues by Browning and Tennyson. So the form of the dramatic monologue — a poem told in the speaker's voice and in iambic pentameter (usually) — presented itself. Iambic echoes the infinitive — 'to be' — and the article/noun form — 'the king' — so it does tend to sound like human speech.
"Notice Polycrates's complacency — the emerald represents no sacrifice. And notice that he dies as he lived: his final vision is of precious jewels."
Coursen cited an epigraph from William Collins' 1746 "The Passions: An Ode for Music" as either "a brief entrance to or exit from" the poem:
First fear his hand, its skill to try,
Amid the chords bewildered laid,
And back recoiled, he knew not why,
Even at the sound himself had made.
And here is the poem itself:
My friend Amasis, King of Egypt, warns
that fortune smiles too constantly on me,
and I agree. In Samos, where I reign,
the grape swells in the sun, and wine cools deep
within the vats of cedar, and fires the heart
from golden bowls of the feast of roasted ox,
blending its scent with steaming capon, fish
basted in cream and doused in lemon sauce.
Contented slaves bring fruit on silver trays,
and my wife smiles at me from deep within
her eyes, for I have taken the emerald,
the pride of Samos' crown and thrown it far
upon the gray-haired sea, to show the gods
they need not envy me. My steward speaks
of a man who brought a giant fish he'd caught,
as offering. He carves the fish before
my eyes, and dim from entrils glows the green
of the terrible stone returned. I see my queen
glance at the door. The guards are gone. I smell
the smoke of revolution, sweat of slaves
who raise their fisted hands and roar below —
the sea raising its tide against my walls.
I hear the pound of iron through oaken beams
and then, through flesh. My heart splinters as the cross
heaves up. My ribs crush down upon my lungs.
I see the final diamonds touch the dark.
This was an engaging book, very often — to use an image from one of the poems — "bare lace-work / against the ruined rose of sunset": humane and natural, thoughtful and evocative.
His next collection was Winter Dreams that led off with a poem titled "Rewinding the Reel." This, like most of the other poems in the book, was written in quantitative syllabic verse. The poem was an illustration — coincidental? deliberate? serendipitous? — of the Stephen Hawking theory, later abandoned, of what might happen if the universe, having continued in its expansion to the point of collapse began to run backward through reversed time to its origins:
Oranges sheathe themselves
in peel. Horses flail backwards,
flanks heaving terror into the barn.
Suns lurch and pale
to the east to set,
seducing darkness from the west.
Flowers spring closed, draw
periscopes down into earth. Birds peck
air into crackle-smooth shells. Prime-rib
themselves as knives draw
slices whole. Bottles bubble back
from hollow stems of
I think Coursen must have coined that word, "resucculent." It does its job.
Many of the rest of the poems are in fact memoir or journal entries with titles like, "Sandlot: 1941"; "October Saturday: 1949"; "To the Beach: Labor Day, 1979," and the last, "15 December, 1981."
The chief difference between the sorts of poems contained in the next chapbook, Rewriting the Book, lay not in their titles, for these were much the same, but in Coursen's formal approach. This collection went so far as to include an example of one of the most popular post-Modernist borrowings from medieval Provencal bardistry, but one that he had resisted to this point: "Sestina: Winter, 1986." The most prevalent tone of the poems was a rueful wistfulness, as in the blank verse sonnet, "A Professor's Monday Morning":
She sits there, shining blonde, shifts to cross her
legs. Momentary glimpse of white beneath
the subtle weave of tartan. She has heard
that, if she comes, empty but appealing,
to me, she will leave with a topic to
processed in next Tuesday, or to be
extended due to some breakdown that is not
of her smile, or of pearls that snuggle
into blue cashmere. The space between us
as we chat of Hamlet cannot be phrased.
A life ahead, a life behind. "What should
such fellows as I do, crawling between
earth and heaven?" I ask. She jots a note
and goes, leaving me without a topic.
One of the themes that Coursen developed from some of his earlier work was continued in his War Stories, a chapbook full of quantitative syllabic poems whose subject, for the most part, was nostalgia, but not the kind that cloys, the kind that illuminates the present by casting a sharp glow over the past. The poems began in the 1950's when Coursen was a fighter pilot, and they worked forward to the early 1980's. In effect, then, this was an autobiography, but it was first of all the story of days spent in intense living, both physically and intellectually. Coursen studied The Book of Forms intensely, and he died still a formalist — there is even another sestina here, but the forms do not hinder his telling any more than they hindered his Bowdoin colleague and fellow Maine poet, the late Louis O. Coxe, who also had his influence on the younger man.
The next collection was a second selected poems, Rewinding the Reel, taking its title from the first poem in Winter Dreams. Coursen had originally intended to include many more of his war poems, but he cut back on these and included a larger portion of the nature poems and meditations. The result was a book with an elegiac tone and a formal feeling. It included many of the poems discussed in paragraphs above.
Several chapbooks later, after Songs and Sonnets, Five Minute after 'Mayday!', and Lament for the Players, all issued in 1992, Coursen published a collection, Love Poem (sort of), which won the 1993 Cooper House American Chapbook Award, of which Michael Hall, poetry editor of the sponsoring periodical, Poet, wrote, "Coursen is an accomplished poet and a master of the short lyric. His poems combine beauty and precision in a way that allows him to recreate the experiences of a place, a time, or an emotion. Reading the poems in this collection, we hear a voice that speaks directly of particular moments and experiences and captures them quite precisely in language that is often very close to painting or photography in its clarity."
This was his most formal collection to that point in his career, full of sonnets, like the title poem, "Love Poem (sort of): For Anne":
Here, on the other side of the mountain, the wind
rivers a few leaves along a yellow bank of light.
Winter waits elsewhere, and somewhere else the blind
migrations echo a line of coast, where night
and dawning empty of song. Regiments
of cornstalks march and countermarch, this side
of the mountain, where the molten hill consents
to shadow, and afternoon fathoms an evening tide.
Spring will never learn how to come,
except in the memory of seed and branch again,
insisting on what we forget until the pain
lets us forget for good. So, I come home
to letters that answer questions I never gave,
and smile between the lines at the ones I have.
In the same year H. R. Coursen proved himself to be a very brave man with an unusual idea. His next book, which he partly edited, partly wrote, is at once a collection of photographs, an anthology of poems by famous British and American poets (and one Vietnamese poet, Ho Chi Minh), and a book of original elegies by Coursen.
"This book began many years ago," Coursen wrote in his introduction, "when I stood before the Donne memorial in Saint Paul's [Cathedral, London]. I was surprised that stone could move me." Therefore, over a period of time, the author undertook a pilgrimage to the graves of many men and women writers which his partner, Pamela Mount, photographed. When these had been gathered, Coursen selected representative poems by his subjects, added them to the manuscript, and wrote his elegies. "Some of the poems I have written to accompany the photographs," Coursen said, "are 'to' the poets and a few are imitations of them."
By themselves, the photographs would have been soporific. The representative poems add a dimension of interest, but not an unusual one. It is in his own contributions to the book that Coursen shows his courage, and his greatest success. By and large, the few poems that are imitations fare badly in contrast with their models. Coursen writes disingenuously that these "...are exercises but do show, by contrast, how good the originals are." The elegies, however, are quite good, even moving, in and of themselves. At this point an example is called for. Here is all of the elegy for the 14th-century Geoffrey Chaucer, "Rhyme Royal for Autumn Storm":
Vacant spaces open to the bay,
layered in the leaves of years long lost
and yesterday. Empty skies lose way
and drift, touching shadows to the coast,
marbled in rain, waiting the etching of frost.
A wind, descended from the north, cries, loud
with earth's friction. Last light bleeds from cloud.
A storm-lash whips the bridge's back, as I
try the lights. A birch releases a spill
of wind that pulls bewildered leaves to die
in the downward rift of rain, and the spell
that night begins to cast across the fill
of water, reflecting the rejecting face
of shore, erasing now without a trace.
But what has this to do with Chaucer? one may well ask. Nothing on the surface except the form of the poem, rime royal, in which Chaucer wrote upon occasion. Beneath the lines, however, there is a pensive meditation occasioned by the spirit of the poet. If one protests that Coursen is writing about himself, about his mood occasioned as much, perhaps, by a New England landscape as by the grave of the first great English poet, we may shrug and reply, But what else is an elegy if not one's own meditation upon the death that has occurred to another, and many another, and must occur to us?
There are many fine elegies in this book. Some of them have chimes and images as good as this one cited in which there are not only true end-rhymes and consonances, but head-tail rhymes as in the first two lines (bay / layered); alliterations, as in the second line (layered in the leaves of years long lost); assonances (leaves years); internal rhymes and cross rhymes (layered / yesterday...way. But one need not belabor the point.
Another talent that Coursen displays upon one occasion here is an ability to translate from Middle English into modern English, as he does in a fine rendition of a passage from Confessio Amantis by John Gower, Chaucer's contemporary. If some of the imitations fall off from this level of competence, as for instance "Raleigh. Dawn: 29 October 1618," many of these are nevertheless very good poems by a very good writer who was not given his due by his contemporaries.
We have come to the end of the essay I published years ago, but Herb continued writing all kinds of things until he died at the age of 79 in bed, in his sleep apparently and enviably, on Saturday, December 3rd, 2011. I hope that he had received and seen his contributor’s copy of the revised and expanded edition of The Book of Forms, Including Odd and Invented Forms, which contained four of his poems, “National Pastime,” discussed above, in my opinion the greatest poem about baseball ever written; “The King of Kolchis,” written in a form he invented called the “once” (pronounced “on-say”), “St. John of the Cross,” written in the Spanish form called the “lira,” invented by the title poet, and “Winter Dreams,” written in another form Coursen invented, the dagwood.
Herb was a dear old friend, as was Pamela Mount, his companion of two decades, who died last year. My wife Jean and I miss them both deeply.
Lewis Putnam Turco
BOOKS BY H. R. COURSEN, JR.
H. R. Coursen, Jr., Graves of the Poets, Manassas, VA: EM Press, 1993.
——, Hope Farm: New and Selected Poems, Stratford, CT: Cider Mill Press, 1979.
——, Inside the Piano Bench, Berkeley CA: Samisdat, Vol. VII, No. 2, 1975.
——, Fears of the Night, Berkeley CA: Samisdat, Vol. XI, No. 1, 1976.
——, Lookout Point, Berkeley CA: Samisdat, Vol. III, No. 1, 1974.
——, Love Poem (sort of), Oklahoma City OK: Cooper House Publishing, 1993.
——, Rewinding the Reel, Stratford CT: Cider Mill Press, 1989.
——, Rewriting the Book, Stratford CT: Cider Mill Press, 1987.
——, Survivor, Houghton NY: ktaadn poetry press, 1974.
——, Storm in April, n.p.:n.d. .
——, War Stories, Stratford CT: Cider Mill Press, 1984.
——, Walking Away, Berkeley CA: Samisdat, Vol. XVI, No. 1, 1977.
——, Winter Dreams, Stratford CT: Cider Mill Press, 1982.
"The Protean Poetry of Herbert Coursen," by Lewis Turco, was originally published as the lead article in The Hollins Critic, xxxii:3, June 1995, pp. 1-11, copyright 1995 and 2012 by Lewis Turco; all rights reserved.