All This Thinking: The Correspondence of Bernadette Mayer and Clark Coolidge, book review

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

I’m loosely connected to the Network for New York School Studies. I was part of a panel discussion last April where my focus was the intersection of flash in several New York School Poet’s work. I would have loved for the panel to have had more interaction—it was Zoom and we basically delivered remarks—but was happy for the chance to sit and hear others talk about a subject I love delving into: the New York School poetry scene. Recently, through an email update, I learned about All This Thinking: The Correspondence of Bernadette Mayer and Clark Coolidge, edited by Stephanie Anderson and Kristen Tapson. At the Network’s YouTube channel I listened in on a conversation between the two editors led by Rona Cran and Yasmine Shamma.

Reading books of letters or published journals/diaries can be an incredible revelation into someone’s work, giving small details or important background. Admittedly, I know nothing of Clark Coolidge and have never read his writing. Coolidge and Mayer moved in the same poetic circles and met in Massachusetts when they were “neighbors” in Lenox. There were a number of subjects they both coalesced around outside of poetry and their commitment to writing. They were both enamored of geology, particularly caves, Kerouac, the French film director Jean-Luc Godard, the South Pole and the race between Scott & Amundsen, the usual necessary gossip, and much bitching between them about faulty typewriters. These were no mere texts but missives written over several days, single spaced, stream of consciousness. Outpourings.

Now to be clear, I don’t think this book is the complete correspondence between the two poets as it covers only the span of a few years (1979 – 1982). The editors did an excellent job of transcribing and sourcing the letters—considering they are housed in TWO DIFFERENT places: Mayer’s letters from Coolidge are archived with the rest of her correspondence and papers at University of San Diego, while Coolidge’s letters from Mayer are at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Both fell into a category called L A N G U A G E.

In this complicated world where communication is so disrupted, the Language poetics were ahead of their time (the time being the 1970s when the form began to emerge)—in that words do not necessarily make a message, but all that goes into rhetoric such as tone, semantics, syntax. The hearer, the reader infers meaning. A description from

The Language School of poetry started in the 1970s as a response to traditional American poetry and forms. Coming on the heels of such movements as the Black Mountain and the New York schools, Language Poetry aimed to place complete emphasis on the language of the poem and to create a new way for the reader to interact with the work. Language poetry is also associated with leftist politics and was also affiliated with several literary magazines published in the 1970s, including This and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E.


Key aspects of language poetry include the idea that language dictates meaning rather than the other way around. Language poetry also seeks to involve the reader in the text, placing importance on reader participation in the construction of meaning. By breaking up poetic language, the poet is requiring the reader to find a new way to approach the text.


Language poetry is also intertwined with prose writing; several of the language poets have written essays about their poetics, one of the best-known being Ron Silliman’s essay “The New Sentence.” Language poet Lyn Hejinian’s book of essays, The Language of Inquiry, collects her essays written over the last twenty-five years. In her introduction, she discusses the place of language in writing:


Language is nothing but meanings, and meanings are nothing but a flow of contexts. Such contexts rarely coalesce into images, rarely come to terms. They are transitions, transmutations, the endless radiating of denotation into relation.

In this way, the letters between Mayer and Coolidge act as mini/maxi poems, a sort of Morning of the Poem by James Schuyler, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1981. A kind of sitting down with one’s self and talking, explaining, cajoling, giving props. It was interesting how in all her letters Mayer writes about her children (she had two girls, then in the middle of the correspondence had a third, a boy). Coolidge is not immune to family life; he mentions Celia his daughter, and especially the onset of her first period. For any of us wishing to make art in the midst of hectic family and work life, the letters are a revelation of how one keeps going despite doubts, sickness, and lack of proper sleep—and, especially this: money. Money drives their decisions, but also that consideration is ignored in many circumstances.

Towards the end of the book we read that Coolidge has fallen into a depression and is unable to write. Mayer continues to support him, not necessarily invalidating his feelings, but asking him to remember how good he is and that his work is important to his readers. Something we all need to hear as self-doubts and existential questions visit us all: Why am I doing this?

About the text, again the editors have been careful to retain original spelling and syntax and even small footnotes added by Mayer. The “typos” or punning or whatever they are—musings about language, how a word looks, or how a certain phrase conjures up a flash—are equally insightful to me.

Also encouraging or discouraging, however you view it, is that it took, according to Mayer in the letters, 5 years to see her seminal work Midwinter Day published. The process around publishing is often commented upon by both writers. The idea that friends are publishing friends or have small indie presses, and THE LACK OF FUNDS. Mayer comes into something recognizably more stable as director of the Poetry Project at St. Marks in New York City, but through the letters we read that though the job is fulfilling and interesting, it denies her time for her own work and she is tiring of New York City. We see the seeds of future decisions to move away (she eventually relocates to upstate New York). Mayer recently passed in East Nassau end of last year. She was 77.

Mayer to Coolidge, October 2, 1982:

… I can of course imagine writing for the rest of my life simply to keep doing it and amuse myself and have something to do that I’m good at, and possibly to help change the world which is a thought I don’t have when I’m writing a letter so much as I remember that feeling from writing & maybe the final thought is to be able to really translate the present into some word, or not the present but thinking which then, for me now, cannot help but have to do with the outrage to my dignity and the dignity of everybody else living in this world, which if you can find someplace to live in it relatively unmolested the way you do seems less of sn outrage, and since I’ve seen and experienced that too I know what the pleasures can be of a real possible life, even today . . .

Writing through the outrage, seeking change, believing that words matter seems to sum up Mayer’s ethos, her life story. Coolidge at this time is 84 and living in California; his earlier poetry books have been re-issued by Fence.