Henri Coulette has the odd distinction of enjoying a cult, or underground reputation as an exemplar of what is often considered the most conservative mainstream of American poetry — the form-conscious, ironic academic poets of the 1950s, strongly influenced by the New Critics. Coulette's career foundered after the bizarre and accidental destruction of nearly every copy of his second book, but because of support from important admirers, and the resurgence of formalism in the 1980s and 1990s, he has come to be regarded as a poet's poet.
Coulette was born 17 November 1927 in Los Angeles, California, where he would die 61 years later on 26 March 1988 of apparent heart failure. After graduating from Los Angeles State College (later California State University at Los Angeles) in 1952, he enrolled in the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, where he became a member of John Berryman's class which also included Philip Levine, Donald Justice and W D. Snodgrass. He was included in the seminal New Poets of England and America anthologies (1957 and 1962), edited by Donald Hall, Robert Pack and Louis Simpson, the second of which included sections from the sequence which became the title poem of his first book, The War of the Secret Agents and Other Poems (1966), winner of the Lamont Poetry Award from the Academy of American Poets in 1965. Coulette's second book, The Family Goldschmitt (1971) received almost no distribution, and he did not publish another. In the introduction to a posthumous collection, The Collected Poems (1990), editors Donald Justice and Robert Mezey explain that virtually the entire first printing was accidentally destroyed in the publisher's warehouse, and the book was never reprinted.
Although his background included a Hollywood stint in the publicity department of RKO Studios (where he is said to have saved the publicity stills for Citizen Kane from the fate that befell his own book), most of his working life was spent in academia. He taught for many years at California State University, Los Angeles, where he was teaching at the time of his death.
Coulette may have worked within the careful, formalist tradition which the Beats and their followers were to associate with poetic and aesthetic timidity, but he could not be said to have trusted the world of academia — or any other world, for that matter. In "The Academic Poet," he offers a savage, mocking self-portrait of the professor/poet hemmed in by the humdrum, the hopeless and the painfully (but distantly) significant. In "The War of the Secret Agents," his best known work, he adapts a second-rate true spy story of World War II into a meditation on identity and betrayal, in which love, friendship, loyalty, patriotism and literary reputation (T.S. Eliot makes an appearance in the poem, as the editor of the nonfiction spy book) are all traduced, but the betrayals of love and friendship are the most painful to the survivors who try to understand what happened to them.
Coulette once said he wanted to make a world "as real and vital as television … except in good language," but reality is a flickering and elusive thing in his poems, like the laughter of the dead in the laugh track of a 30-year-old TV show ("Situation Comedy"). The characters in "The War of the Secret Agents" are drawn from a book none of its readers will have read; their referents are real, but unreachable. The Family Goldschmitt derives from a name forced on Coulette by an obstinate landlady mdash; a fictional family that doesn't exist in reality and doesn't exactly exist in the poems either. "French Leave" finds the poet taking "long walks, imagining/Himself imaginary," and finally coming home to a waiting shadow in a black chair. Che Guevara ("Che") disappears into a universe in which the earth is only a blue star; a couple of poems later ("The Land of the Blue") the family Nixon are exposed under blue light.
After The Family Goldschmitt, Coulette wrote next to nothing for about seven years, then, in the last decade of his life, became prolific again. In the poems that Justice and Mezey collected as And Come To Closure, Coulette engages literary ambition ("bereft of title page,/vanity without signature or spine —/is that so bad?") Though only in his fifties, he surveys the territory of death, particularly in the near-perfect "Petition," an elegy for his cat, with a concreteness he did not often find in life. He quotes a favorite fellow Californian, mystery novelist Ross McDonald, in "Confiteor," with the image of life as a blue hammer, the pulse at wrist.
Zbigniew Herbert saw Coulette as a major poet, not only for his technical control, but more importantly for his instinct for "thematic material of central importance to the modern world." Even more impressive, perhaps, is his gift for suggesting a larger context, rather than insisting on it.
This last virtue may have contributed to the shrinking of his reputation, as American poetry entered an era in which the grand gesture gained the upper hand, and subtlety came to be seen as a dead end.
But Coulette's work was always incisive, insightful and accessible. His formalism was never showy or forced. When he worked in rhyme and meter, he gave the impression that rhyme and meter were his native tongue. He explored themes of identity, loss, and erotic longing, all of which frequently seemed to be different aspects of the same whole: double lives, betrayals, resignation, always goaded onward by need more than hope.
No one would choose to have the pulped remains of an important book as his escutcheon. Yet it seems hauntingly appropriate for Coulette, a poet of messages not received, or secret agents and secret agendas, whose words spoke under the radar screen of their time, but clearly and with emotional precision.