April 2009

Dale Smith

marsupial inquirer

Tom Clark and the Lyric Self

Tom Clark complicates any easy notion of the self, exploring lyric form as a vehicle that relates the myriad facets of poetic identity in language. He is one of only a few writing today who can use the lyric effectively, with flexibility and nerve. The quick intelligence and historical acumen that accompanies his poetry can be seen in recent blog postings (http://vanitasmagazine.blogspot.com/ and http://tomclarkblog.blogspot.com/). The message Clark communicates comes from the formal and rhetorical surface of the poem, sounded with etymological resonance. The occasion of writing presents itself through him, and yet he vanishes under the weight of words he brings to the work. This self-effacing lightness-of-touch defines his approach to the poem with a thoughtful sensitivity to patterns of feeling and perception.

Many have noted Clark’s literary connections to the Paris Review, the New York School, and Black Mountain. Elaine Equi recently acknowledged his influence on her generation by referring to him in a Jacket Magazine article as the “Godfather of Metaphysical Pop.” Her claim for Clark pays homage to his seminal influence on the poetics of the 1970s, and she finds in him “one of the great poet/ painters of California and the American West” for whom “the truest beauty of all turns out to be that of form.

The attention to form remains evident his most recent book of selected poems, Light & Shade. Clark plays over his linguistic surfaces with great skill, tempting a reader to engage the poem's facade, but beneath this many forces are at work that render greater depth. Because he is a master lyricist we are often left by poem’s end apprehending a process that leaves us hanging in the air, with no great certainty. His poems challenge our habits of perception by showing us how to read and think. A short poem, “Sky” (1968), is composed of surreal-ish metaphorical imagery. Such disjunctive word placement nonetheless persuades readers of the fragile, ever-shifting nature of perception. He writes:

The green world thinks the sun
Into one flower, then outraces
It to the sea in sunken pipes.
But twisting in sleep to poetry
The blood pumps its flares out
Of earth and scatters them. And
They become, when they shine on
Beauty to honor her, a part of
Her laconic azure, her façade.

In all daylight accuracy, the “green world,” of course, does not think “the sun.” But such pedantic accuracies are beyond the point here. Instead the surprising verbal shifts argue for a fresh perception by turning thought outward from the usual reasonable assurances of impressions the mind receives. Those “sunken pipes” could also refer to the poet’s musical instrument, submerged as it deepens into a kind of experience of the unconscious. “Beauty” figures as a dominant personification here and throughout the book, for she appears in other poems such as “One” and “Nimble Rays” where she is particularly identified as “wife.” In her “honor” the poem relates “the laconic azure” of the sky and argues for a renewal of perception that is guided by the active imagination. The surface language, with surreal amplification and the etymological complication of “pipes” and “pumps,” sounds the message. “Sky” does not objectively render the blue dome above our heads. It enacts particular relationships in language that show sky’s influence inwardly. The sky’s vast apparentness leaves the poem quite alone, a confluence of lyric song in dissolution.

A selection from 1972’s “Smack” offers epigrammatic analysis of poetic vision in a world dominated by other social and biological necessities. “It / is not / surprising / that faced / with / universal / destruction / our art / should / at last / speak / with unimpeded / force / and unveiled / honesty / to a future / which / may well / be non-existent” (88-9). This frustration between individual art and the forces of interference that impede such poetic practice haunt Clark’s work. “The sky is blue / there is no one to talk to,” he writes in “Safari,” suggesting a lonely tension in subjective experience unanswered by the impressions of the world that populate attention. While other writers might focus on social responses to this situation, Clark imposes philosophical measure. The tension of experience and the pleasure of words join in lyric consequence to find meaning through the tool of self. It’s the fleeting pleasure of that word surface that obsesses Clark, even as personal experience provides uncertain ground for the poetic play of a mind that is keenly observant.

Later poems continue to explore the theme of the individual in conflict with forces of annihilation. This works in many different ways—at the level of the lyric, for instance, which since the 19th century has operated under the unique assumption of the subject’s exteriority to words in a kind of trade of presence for an obliterating utterance. In Clark’s poems the threat of dissolution simultaneously lifts the burden of self and its otherness by forcing words to interfere with such awareness at the very limits of perception and articulation. So we arrive at poems like “Prolepsis,” where Clark’s local, personal grief receives magnification through the lyric to express “days atonal as white noise,” expanding self-experience into universal gesture. The poem like a force of nature appears with startling presence: “Melodious liquid warble in the plum / Tree tells the sinking year how to feel / Its recession into grief as if a thorn / Poked a nester in an old wounded heart.” The essential gift of this work in Light & Shade is Clark’s sacrifice of an easily constructed self for that surface play of forms in which self’s renewal is dispersed through the interference of language. This is the message -- the “news” -- of his work, and it should be evaluated in this context as a significant contribution to contemporary American poetics.

For more on Clark and his life as a poet, editor, and biographer, see this Jacket Magazine interview.