The War of the Secret Agents, and Other Poems, 1966
The Family Goldschmitt, 1971
The Collected Poems of Henri Coulette, 1990
Midland: Twenty-five Years of Fiction and Poetry from Writing Workshops of the State University of Iowa, 1961 (with P. Engle)
The Unstrung Lyre: Interviews with Fourteen Poets, 1965
Character and Crisis: A Contemporary Reader, 1966 (with Philip Levine)
Henri Coulette (kew-LEHT), whose witty, inventive poetry found early success, suffered from a publishing accident that destroyed most copies of his second book and from the drift of critical fashion away from poems of irony and elegance. Although he completed his third collection, And Come to Closure, just before his death, it was not published on its own but as part of the posthumous Collected Poems of Henri Coulette. During this long period of relative neglect Coulette came to resemble the secret agents of his first book, enduring “an unofficial joy,/ A private substitute for the world’s pleasure.”
A native of Southern California, Coulette attended the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1950’s, studying with Robert Lowell and John Berryman along with classmates such as Donald Justice, Robert Mezey (who edited his posthumous volume of collected poems), William Stafford, Philip Levine, and Jane Cooper. He taught for many years at California State University, Los Angeles.
His first book, The War of the Secret Agents, and Other Poems, won the Lamont Award as the best first book of poems published in 1966. The fourth part of this collection consists of the title sequence about espionage, written in syllabic stanzas and including a cast of characters, many with code names such as Achambault, Cinema, Phone, and Prosper. The sequence, focused through the research of a scholar named Jane Alabaster, deals with spies and Gestapo agents in Paris during the Nazi occupation. Section one, a proem, says of these secret agents that “they advertised/ and Death reads all the papers.”
Coulette’s second collection, The Family Goldschmitt, begins with the title poem, in which a landlady insists that the speaker is not named Coulette but Goldschmitt and that this speaker is Jewish. At the end, the speaker accepts this misidentification joyously, sitting down to write a letter “to my family, yes!/ The Family Goldschmitt.” The numbered sections that follow begin with made-up quotations from members of this Goldschmitt family, including “Henri Goldschmitt,” whose biographical dates match Coulette’s birth year (1927) and the year of his book’s publication (1971): “Look, ye travellers, and gloat:/ Here lies one who missed the boat.” Coulette wrote many epigrams like this, sixteen of them in his final collection, And Come to Closure.
It is ironic that Coulette lists his alter ego’s death date as 1971, the publication date of The Family Goldschmitt, for the accidental shredding of the book destroyed most copies of what was to be his last book before The Collected Poems of Henri Coulette. He wrote little for many years until rallying near the end of his life to produce And Come to Closure.
This last collection begins with an imitation of Horace, appropriately enough, for Coulette is an especially Horatian poet: urbane, witty, skillful, satirical. The first line establishes the wry tone: “Is the cease-fire over, Venus?” The speaker, approaching fifty, admits that “I am not what I once was” and pleads not to be struck by love. The voice may be ironic, but the emotions beneath are passionate. In the penultimate quatrain, the speaker asks: “Why does my eloquent tongue/ Fall with an unbecoming silence among these words?” It is not hard to hear a poignant note in these lines regarding the fortunes of Coulette. The section in which this poem appears (by itself) is titled “Imitation and Intimation”–an intimation of mortality.
In “The Black Angel,” a poem from his first book, Coulette asks “Where are the people beautiful as poems” and goes on to sketch several disappointed lives, including “one too much moved by faces/ Who turned his face to the wall.” In a later poem, “The Extras,” about the casts of uncredited thousands who fill out the background in films, he locates and identifies those people as “simply human.” Coulette himself did not receive the recognition he deserved. His beautifully fashioned poems were perhaps too unfashionable for his times. That black angel, actually a statue in an Iowa City cemetery, supposedly means bad luck if you meet her gaze: “I will not meet her eye,” Coulette writes, “Although I shall . . .” He finishes “The Black Angel”: “This is the presence of things present,/ Where flying woefully is like closing,/ And there is nothing else.”
Mezey writes that Coulette “died what we might call a good death. It came to him in sleep, swiftly and painlessly, a few hours after he had put the finishing touch to his last poem, ‘These United States,’ a warm tribute to William Carlos Williams.” The poem is remarkable in that it presents Williams in his calling as an obstetrician and devotes most of its length to imagining the life of one of the children Dr. Williams delivered. Typically, Coulette finds the odd angle, the ironic human slant, through which to pay homage to the poet who celebrated ordinary lives and the beauty of familiar places.