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Tom Clark

in conversation with Ryan Newton
October 2005

A print version of this interview can be found in Ellipsis magazine, Volume One, Issue One, Early 2006.

Tom Clark is the author of numerous volumes of poetry as well as of several critical biographies of writers, including Jack Kerouac, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley and Edward Dorn. He teaches writing on the Core Faculty in Poetics at the New College of California in San Francisco, and lives in Berkeley. See the author note below.

This interview is 4,200 words
or about 10 printed pages long

On the Nature of the Lyric

Tom Clark’s Light And Shade: New and Selected Poems will appear in April 2006 from Coffee House Press. In the following interview, Clark discusses three poems from the book, which spans forty-some years of dedication to the craft of poetry. The poems are printed at the end of this piece.

1. “Like musical instruments”:
Turning into Sky

Ryan Newton: The poem “Like musical instruments” is one of your early anthology pieces; it was published, for instance, in the Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry (ed. Paul Hoover). It makes me think of the painting Dylan did on the cover of the Band’s Music From Big Pink, where various pastel-colored instruments are left scattered in an empty field, and it also has a lightness of touch reminiscent of that painting. The poem was written during that era — when you were living in Bolinas?

Tom Clark: No, it wasn’t written in Bolinas, though I could see why you thought that. The pastel tones on the Big Pink album, that’s a nice association: “You feel spiritual and alert / As the air must feel / Turning into sky aloft and blue.” Okay, I get it, very California. But at that point I’d never seen Bolinas. The poem was written in a sort of rustic dungeon — the rented rear room of a very basic country cottage, near the small fishing village of Brightlingsea, on the rather bleak North Sea, in 1966.

Ryan Newton: How did you possibly write this poem then, when you were so young, while your later poems like “Hazard Response” and “All” were written out of a forty-year fusion of tricks of the writing trade earned by hard work and devotion to the poem (“God’s candy,” I believe you once called it)? How did this poem come about, given you were still learning the tricks of the ancient trade?

Tom Clark: Well, I was 25 at the time, which perhaps isn’t all that young. I recognize that those who make their living in cultural marketing do have a stake in trying to make it seem that way; but one recalls John Keats had written all his poetry before he turned 24. At any rate, I’m certainly no John Keats (and not simply because it’s taken me so much longer to bow out), but for six or seven years prior to writing this poem I’d directed my attention pretty singlemindedly to studying how one might write poetry. This involved work, of course, because for all the alleged smoothness and effortlessness of some of my poems — Ted Berrigan, in his wonderful anatomizing of the poets in Train Ride, calls Tom Clark “the slick, easy poet” — that appearance was arrived at only by way of a pretty arduous autodidactic process. I mean, here I was, this punk from the West Side of Chicago. But around this time, 1966, after what had seemed to me a long time, really, I thought I was at last starting to get somewhere. Not because I was publishing. I had been, but in fact I didn’t much like what I’d published; by now I had already, in my mind, gone beyond writing the kind of poems I’d been putting out; that is, in places like Poetry, the TLS, The Listener, The Observer, The New Statesman, or in readings on the BBC. Those poems were in a pretty standard American style. They’d been entertained, or entertaining, in all sorts of fairly fancy venues — places that, as it happened, around this time stopped wanting to have anything to do with me. Well, in truth I suppose it was the other way around: I was starting to write some poems that no longer lived up to expectations; or maybe, the expectations I now had were, for the first time, nobody’s but my own. At any rate I was no longer seeking out those venues. By the time Angelica, my editor, came to put together Light and Shade — this was a year or so ago — the only poems from 1963-1965 that she retained were those which, if nothing else, actually seemed my own. “Like musical instruments,” then, which is the first poem in Light and Shade but is in fact chronologically not the first — there are several others in there that date back before it, “A Winter Day,” “The Knot” (’63), “A Difference” (’64), “Eyeglasses” (’65) — represents both a turning point and a starting point, a point at which I’d finally pretty much settled on how I wanted to write; so that, when the moment came along that called for this poem, I was completely ready to write it.

Of the poem’s many subtle moves, with which it unfolds like a metaphysical game of chess, the intricate interlocking between the abandoned instruments (which are abandoned in a field) and the play on the word “parts,” in the line, “The parts of your feelings,” itself suggests a field. These parts are essentially open, being figurative while simultaneously literal (when’s the last time you been to these parts), and returns the original music of the metaphor of the abandoned instruments to the field of composition. This poem abounds with such echoes, interplay, and awakening. Everything focuses on this quiet, like the warm-up sounds in an orchestra pit, nervous and imparting the notion of silence, a hush before the act of creation wherein a sense of exalted spirituality and alertness is conveyed. The utter complexity is finally effortless. You’ll notice that this observation reinforces the actual pure conversion of your life into art.

Well, they say poems are supposed to be fictions, but I suppose it’s only fair of you to suggest this one concerns my life and my feelings — though if it ends up being art, the feelings should, in that process, become everybody’s; and in fact, that may be what happens in it. The turbulent feelings of the speaker mysteriously evaporate, vanishing more or less into thin air. And that appears to be a great relief.

The cool thing about this poem is it converts you into a poet, one whose motivation toward art will endure through time, thus converting life into art, in that sense, but this conversion only occurs because you are so nimble and quick to acknowledge, like Heraclitus, that no man steps into the same stream twice, and that one is essentially in exile from oneself, one’s art, and one’s fellows. A deep irony is sounded in that the pure conversion of your life into art, which you acknowledge in the poem as impossible, suddenly happens to you after you let go of it, does it not? Furthermore, it is not happening to you, but you are making it happen, which has all of the confusion, bewilderment, and enchantment so common to youth. There is something about youth’s awkwardness and vulnerability that confers on one the ability to negotiate previously unmet-with extremes in a, shall we say, almost sacrificial manner.

Yes, I suppose the feelings involved in the poem must have seemed pretty bewildering to me at the time. It was written during a time of semi-voluntary isolation and post-scholarly poverty, dotted with intermittent spells of poetic elation. During those spells, the curious “cosmic goof” or “lyric imp,” later named as my writing self by one insightful critic, Billy Collins, first saw the light. In poems like “Like musical instruments,” my curious, self-constrained, sometimes painful subjectivity could, for a few moments at a time, be addressed as objective content, so that the content seemed to evaporate entirely. Sometimes this happened with an almost perceptible, semi-audible whispering sound, which was felt just beneath the threshold of sensation but nonetheless palpably. There was a sort of expectant trembling at the edges of the pattern-recognition pleasure centers of the brain, and if it hadn’t been my brain, I’d have said it was like the ecstatic pause of a swimmer quivering at the brink of a dawn plunge into cool, clear water. And then, a sharp sense of surprise, as when, at the last minute, as the diver is about to dive, through the surface of the water he or she glimpses the strange moving shadows of dark, unexpected depths. At this point my written words, my notebook monologue, my subjective utterance, upon which, as J. S. Mill would have it, the future might forever eavesdrop, began to seep, like a blot or stain, beyond myself. The language — English, I thought; American, as my friend Joanne Kyger now helpfully corrects me — at that stage itself became audible, I’m not sure where, maybe in my inner ear; the language at that stage acquired its own voice, and became my proxy speaker — the stand-up clown standing in for me, the lyric imp or cosmic goof. There momentarily existed in this now blissfully vacant subject a merciful self-forgetfulness, a quasi-intelligent unself-consciousness. This subject was for once detached from its own isolation, as it found itself submitting or surrendering itself to language, almost as if to something objective, what a relief, almost as if becoming immaterial, who could say no to that, and yet at the same time remaining firmly at the material controls, what a pleasure. A strange calm, and those pleasured pattern-recognition centers take over, they’re sure and purring in the certainty of their work, the oiled keys turn in the locks, there are a series of quiet clicks and here are the words of the poem — a mere 66 of them, in this case, a linguistic pittance really. Set out in a six-sentence arc over five three-line stanzas, they create the music played by the musical instruments which were once so loud and aggressive, so obnoxiously involved in their own sound, but are now so strangely quiet. It’s as if suddenly the real music the instruments haven’t known before, the music they were meant to play, is at last sounding through them; it’s both silence and sound; it makes a sound that is not quite a sound, because it is in fact merely a set of chemical and electrical actions and operations in the brain — that rich blue and green, pulsating, glowing, growing garden. Everything external dies away, within a wild chaos of forms everything is formal and nothing moves. By the way, the poem took about one minute to write. And the thing I still like best about it is that, unlike this reply, it’s totally simple. It’s the easiest of my poems to learn by heart. Aren’t lyrics supposed to be simple?

Still, this is a very subtle lyric, and therefore it surprises me that it was written in one take, particularly the last two stanzas, which so effectively introduce a major turn in the poem by use of the rhetorical device of inversion: “You feel like / You’ll never feel like touching anything or anyone / Again / And then you do.” And as far as sound goes, it’s a masterpiece. The caesura after the end words “field,” “quiet,” and “alert” sculpts the sound in a way that rhymes in cadence rather than in specific syllables, although quiet/ alert end on a percussive “t,” and to my ear share an “a” — qua/ all (the “d” sound in “field” has a quite similar percussive ring to the “t” sound if you say it softly). At least that’s how I read it. And I read it with an extended pause after “quiet” that would almost require punctuation, were it not that the meaning of the word “quiet” renders the silent pause a period would. Is this so?

This is a nice close analysis of the sound structure, which certainly has a musical basis, but when it comes to discussing the details, without being coy, I’m afraid that those mysteries of the art to which I referred earlier, when they are luckily or miraculously present, are all too easily dispelled by attempting to articulate the craft acts that went into them. Explaining how the rabbit comes out of the hat makes the trick less fun for the audience the next time it’s pulled off, because the interesting mystery’s gone. And anyway, the stylistic choices that specifically occurred in that poem, as in many of my better poems, didn’t result from conscious decisions at all, but from a sort of stylistic instinct that had developed over that six- or seven-year learning process I described above. However, as to that “turn” you describe, I’ll have to say that’s what really makes the poem, and that “turn” probably has at least as much to do with the actual rhythms of one’s emotional life as it does with any sort of stylistic trick. Not just my emotional life, but the reader’s, that is anyone’s, especially anyone who is young. So that confirms your suggestion that it’s ultimately a youthful poem. The odd thing is, various discrete readers seem to have got something out of it over the years, and, thankfully, some of them weren’t even all that young. So that must mean there’s something in it — about, what... growing up? — that’s actually... what can we say, “universal”? Do we dare say that?

2. “Hazard Response”: The White Sky Darkens over the City of Ashes

I believe “Hazard Response” was written not too long after the fateful events which led to and proceeded from 9/ 11. Your admiration for Fitzgerald’s classic Gatsby is as pertinent as Fizgerald’s own ardor for the works of the aforementioned John Keats (especially “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” as you point out in your lectures on Keats), who is of course evoked in the title Light and Shade, your forthcoming book. How does the opening image of the “grey exurban wasteland” feature in opening the floodgates of call and response in this poem, which seems to be arranged on a suddenly active faultline?

Yes, the title Light and Shade evokes Keats, who, in a letter written as he was dying, told a friend he could no longer write poetry because it took too much out of him — to write poetry, he suggested, required a tremendous effort to distinguish “light and shade,” the “primitive information,” and he no longer had that kind of energy. I can understand that. As to Fitzgerald — who owed at least as much to Keats as I do (there’s a beautiful letter to his daughter in which he recounts reading the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” a hundred times before beginning to sort out the exquisite mechanics, the inner chime), and who was definitely a favorite writer of mine when I was a young man — yes, the poem “Hazard Response” begins with a deliberate reference to his work. His early prophetic vision of a wasted post-industrial America was very much in my mind. I was thinking specifically of the opening of the second chapter of The Great Gatsby in which he describes a stretch of road on Long Island, about half way between West Egg and New York, where the highway seems to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. “This is a valley of ashes — a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.” The ash-covered men are railway workmen, but they are also symbolic men, of course. “Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight.” Just what is it those surreptitious men are doing, in that ash-gray cloud?

What a beautiful writer Fitzgerald is. It’s a road between worlds. Between the world of leisure, dreams and consumption — Daisy’s world — and the world of iron mills, stock markets, production — Gatsby’s world. The main line of late capitalism in its full traffic. Things are just beginning to go to rot, so the society has to go a little out of its way so as not to look at its own corruption, the ashes that have begun to accumulate at the margins of its dream, like an off-taste in its mouth that needs washing down and away with a good stiff drink, and maybe then another one.

I had that passage in mind when I started the poem: “As in that grey exurban wasteland in Gatsby / When the white sky darkens over the city / Of ashes, far from the once happy valley, / This daze spreads across the blank faces / Of the inhabitants, suddenly deprived / Of the kingdom’s original promised gift.” With “happy valley,” I was thinking, perhaps, of the America of Johnny Appleseed, in the Disney version, bright and abundant fields and orchards, that cartoon dream of an American past supplanting the endarkened vision of the present and future which Fitzgerald saw, or vice versa, the two perhaps colliding, vision and dream, at the post-9/ 11 moment when the inhabitants are suddenly and abruptly forced to see the shadow of a possible ash-gray cloud descending over their erstwhile bright world. The poem was written in that interesting early Fall of 2001, just after 9/ 11 and during the subsequent anthrax terror scare. One gaped with wonder at one’s TV while white-lipped network newscasters grimly presented footage of Hazmat teams in yellow plastic suits swarming pointlessly around outside suspected toxic terror sites — the parking lots of drab office blocks, suburban school buildings, gray hospitals. It made one think of gangs of lost, bumbling astronauts who’ve landed on the wrong planet and aren’t quite sure what to do next. Meanwhile crowds of evacuated workplace normals could be seen apprehensively looking on, too sheepish to acknowledge the real terrorists might be those they’d chosen to govern them. That image of the doubled wastelands, the wasteland in Gatsby, the wasteland in the suburban office building parking lot was indeed, as you’ve said, the switch that opened the floodgates of the “call and response” structure that holds the poem together, even as it tries to fall apart.

If the poem is about the apocalyptic disintegration of the founding illusions surrounding “the kingdom’s original promised gift,” what is your role in this process as a sometime citizen of the United States? After all, one cannot help noticing that you are engaging in a series of spiralling questions directed at your own assumptions. Are you allowing that your own subject-engagement with the perceived shift in historical epoch be counted among the other “inhabitants”?

Absolutely. The “call and response” — the self-corrective, interrogative series that follows the wasteland image — actually turns the argument of the poem over to the reader to play with and sort out. It’s definitely a kind of confession of being at a loss along with the reader. That’s what takes the poem over the falls, that identification with a common nescience. It scares me every time I read it.

3. “All”: A Dangerous Game

I am playing a dangerous game — looking to my right is a counter that reads 26:04. That is how much time I have to convey my questions about “All.” So I’ll get straight to it. In this touching tribute to your friend and fellow poet Robert Creeley, life and death seem to be brought all too close together due to the almost hypnotic langage that often pauses in the middle of the line, creating a tug like a tide, and a bridge between two worlds. What is the role of language in life events? Death events? Their momentary intersection? Finally, another trick you’ve taught me about the lyric is the ability of great poets, and I remember in particular a poem by F. T. Prince that you pointed to — to conclude by pulling or panning away from the scene in the concluding lines. However, in this poem, I feel you first focus in, bringing us “Here,” and then pan out in the closing couplet, almost like a last gasp or breath. Was this a conscious strategy?

To start from your last question, Ryan, and perhaps try to answer earlier ones as well — the strategy, if any, wasn’t conscious, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a strategy. I’m a pretty distant person at times but I am prone in my old age to many tears, as it seems life deserves. It’s true that I wept my way through that poem from start to finish. Writing weepy poetry is a pretty dangerous game, like writing in internet cafes. The poem’s few readers have mostly been persons of a certain age and more than one of them have reported to me they wept too, upon reading it. That seemed odd to me, because there were finally no tears in the poem at all. Don’t cry for me, Argentina. I had been thinking about Bob’s death for months. I hadn’t been sleeping. The poem was written very swiftly, in one draft. In the draft there was an opening stanza, which was pretty soppy and which Angelica sagely and helpfully cancelled, with a huge “x” in the notebook. What she rescues of the poem I do think also rescues itself, perhaps, again, as was claimed for “Like musical instruments,” by moving from the strictly personal to the not-so-strictly personal. It appears that what is being summoned up here is possibly not only our late lamented friend, whose death is the immediate occasion, but other things as well. The language itself is the form of the memorial summoning and the rather quiet lamentation. The final lines allow a certain shaping or openness in the saying. That carries the poem out of itself, for me. It’s not a fully open-mouthed lamenting, which would not befit a rather distant poet like me. But it’s about as open as I ever intend to get. Bob was a dear friend. In a way this poem is also about a number of dear lost beings, including, oddly enough, several animals. As one gets older one’s inner landscape fills up with the phantom figures of one’s late loved ones. There are more gone than here. There’s a whole inevitable penumbra of concentration that gathers around one, into which one reluctantly creeps, as the curtain comes down. But one keeps creeping on — a creep, finally.

If this were to be my last poem, It’s unlikely anyone would much mind, and I’d be with them. As it is, it’s one of two written in 2005. The other is a long, rather distant (in a way I like) poem about history, Threnody. It’s about the outside of something; “All” is about the inside. Threnody’s a work with drawings and poems. It’s not in Light and Shade. It’s been published by itself in a beautiful book made by effing press in Austin. It came after “All,” so it seems I have not yet succeeded in shutting up, after all.

“Like musical instruments”

Like musical instruments
Abandoned in a field
The parts of your feelings

Are starting to know a quiet
The pure conversion of your
Life into art seems destined

Never to occur
You don’t mind
You feel spiritual and alert

As the air must feel
Turning into sky aloft and blue
You feel like

You’ll never feel like touching anything or anyone
And then you do

Hazard Response

As in that grey exurban wasteland in Gatsby
When the white sky darkens over the city
Of ashes, far from the once happy valley,
This daze spreads across the blank faces
Of the inhabitants, suddenly deprived
Of the kingdom’s original promised gift.
Did I say kingdom when I meant place
Of worship? Original when I meant
Damaged in handling? Promised when
I meant stolen? Gift when I meant
Trick? Inhabitants when I meant slaves?
Slaves when I meant clowns
Who have wandered into test sites? Test
Sites when I meant contagious hospitals?
Contagious hospitals when I meant clouds
Of laughing gas? Laughing gas
When I meant tears? No, it’s true,
No one should be writing poetry
In times like these, Dear Reader,
I don’t have to tell you of all people why.
It’s as apparent as an attempted
Punch in the eye that actually
Catches only empty air — which is
The inside of your head, where
The green ritual sanction
Of the poem has been cancelled.

                            — for Robert Creeley (1926–2005)

With Bob and Joanne then, rounding
the cliffs from Wharf Road
to the beach one idle late summer
afternoon, as if time were endless,
sitting down then to rest
as if at home, at water’s

edge, the seabirds swooping,
the beach empty, the talk lapping,
inconsequential, nothing brings
consequence, all happens, all this
sweet nothing. The moments flood back,
a blurring tide, and then withdraw

again into the ever
accumulating pool of ebbing
attentions, lost hopes, forgotten so
called dreams. No longer here to live,
simply to snatch another breath.
Three sat talking on the beach, one

doesn’t know what was meant,
one doesn’t know what was
said. But the faces, the voices
come for a moment clear. There, in
that light. Here. The tide incoming.
So it was then as the sun went down.

‘Hazard Response’ was published in Jacket 21 with twelve other poems, and ‘All’ in Jacket 28.

Photo of Tom Clark

Tom Clark

Tom Clark is the author of numerous volumes of poetry as well as of several critical biographies of writers, including Jack Kerouac (Harcourt and Thunder’s Mouth), Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet’s Life (Norton and North Atlantic), Robert Creeley and the Genius of the American Common Place (New Directions) and Edward Dorn: A World of Difference (North Atlantic). He teaches writing on the Core Faculty in Poetics at the New College of California in San Francisco, and lives in Berkeley. You can read Tom Clark’s biography, a detailed bibliography, a statement on poetics and a list of live links to all his pieces in Jacket magazine here, at Jacket’s Author Notes page.

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