Tom Clark & Dale Smith
Six Short Essays & Correspondence
Last fall I began an email correspondence with Tom Clark on the subject of a feature on him and his work for Big Bridge. It was exciting to have an opportunity to bring my mind to bear on his writing, for he has been a great teacher and friend over the years, and certainly he is a master of the poem. It was good timing too for a feature, for in April 2006, Coffee House will publish Light & Shade, Clark's selected poems. Moreover, Effing Press recently published Threnody, a chapbook with line drawings and poems.
Someone more biographically inclined might step back and consider Clark's recent selected in relation to the University of California 2005 publication of the Collected Ted Berrigan. Indeed, there's a lot in the archives of the gone 60s and 70s for future divers of the personal to excavate. But in honor of a kind of new critical attention--my own retrospective re-discovery of late--I wanted to speak with Tom about his work and the arguments it makes as documents of the present. His quick intelligence put my dull and scattered attention at ease, writing to me in October 2005 with the following suggestion:Dale,Truly sorry to have taken so long to let you know how moved I was to hear you've set out putting together a magazine issue on my work. Certainly no one else is doing such a thing these days, and just as certainly there's no one else I'd rather have to do it. So--terrific.It's been weighing on me I ought to offer to do something to help, and it's embarrassing I can't line you up with a useful roster of solid Clark scholars. The momentary attentions of others to my writing come and go, mostly go, mostly so momentary and questionably motivated and outright silly as to add up to nothing at all that you'd want to bother with. But maybe you'll turn up some surprising candidates under a stone.Anyway I have been thinking about it, and trying to come up with an idea of some kind of interview--one thing you mentioned that I actually might be able to give a hand with. I'm constrained by two very real factors. First, my acute consciousness of the fact you're now in, and probably overwhelmed by, a serious new academic regime, which doubtless leaves little time free for you to exercise other interests. (I mean god knows how you're pulling all this off, but more power to you, and I respect your bravery.) The other real constraint, at this end, is Angelica's continuing and by now very worrisome illness, which makes the execution of all business of any kind, even this pleasurable kind you've proposed, subject to a kind of steady daft distraction; as I guess you know, Angelica's the source of most purposive activity around here, particularly everything connected with our venerable computer, whose eccentricities only she can coax into a performing state. She's bushed, and so we're being very selective about taking on even small jobs.So I've come up with a kind of mini-interview scheme that might work, one that would aim to offer a few useful angles on the poems in Light & Shade without too much or really any homework for you, without too much typing for Angelica, without any of the wandering and gossip that make most writer-interviews mere exercises in vanity, and--hopefully, like they say--with at least some larger resonance or extrapolation potential for shedding representative illumination on the work as a whole. Finding the larger unit in the micro-unit, maybe.The idea would be to give you a document of three poems, one from the beginning of the book, two from toward the back, to cover both ends of the 40-year span the book does cover. That document will come to you with this. You might try to imagine it as a manuscript you've discovered in a dusty vault of a ruined castle in Anatolia, to which you've gone in the course of trying to track down surviving evidences of the writings of a mythically obscure and forgotten author. These would be the only evidences you've discovered, and there's nothing else to go on.That sounds a bit of a stretch, now that I see myself saying it, but perhaps you get what I mean--a deliberately reductive assay that could perhaps surprise itself by revealing more than it intended to discover.If you could give me a question or two about each poem, and I could give you thoughtful, succinct replies, we might have something that would be clean, quick, marginally useful, and (this is the important part), entail no extraordinary strain on your work time or Angelica's typing energy. Say a page and a half? Something to fit on a signet ring, the kind you got in cereal boxes when I was a kid, back in old Anatolia.Oh well, just a thought.But anyway--speaking of giving Angelica a rest--so much for that. (You can forget the Anatolia joke, by the way--probably just my errant way of trying to sugar the pill.)All love to you & Hoa & the dear babes,
Some months later, after completing fall course requirements and surviving a dazzling social season of December holiday obligations and ablutions, I sent the following note to Tom. I include it below with the poems in question, my inquiries, and his insightful replies. Since he responded to certain elements of my questions with meditative essays, as the reader will soon discover, I have arranged them together instead of trying to attach them to specific poems and questions. Tom perceived accurately the pith of my curiosity, and with generosity did the work of compression to ensure my inquiry and his preoccupations with language equally merged into a document worthy of the dust of centuries. Think of the following as a dialogue between two Anatolian scribes deciphering the words of the other in order to arrive at a point of completion before the onset of a long, much needed rest. As travelers, however, the dust will not long remain still, and individually we'll be on our way down separate paths that do nonetheless cross on occasion--for the ritual sanctions related below demand careful tendance and precise aversions.
I approached three pieces from your upcoming selected poems Light & Shade (Coffee House, spring 2006) with the spirit of inquiry you suggested in an October 2005 email correspondence. "You might try to imagine it as a manuscript," you said, "you've discovered in a dusty vault of a ruined castle in Anatolia, to which you've gone in the course of trying to track down surviving evidences of the writings of a mythically obscure and forgotten author. These would be the only evidences you've discovered, and there's nothing else to go on."
Of course, I've since read the book, and am therefore informed by the other work. And I've known you and your writing many years now. But I think these poems are good ones to consider, though "The Lyric" might also give us another angle. Anyway, here are the poems, with a few questions to follow.
"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
There's a new Neil Young song--"This Old Guitar"--in which he talks about the medium of that instrument as a measurement of time. He is not its owner; he only "takes care of it" for a while, for it will outlast his life. It think the guitar belonged originally to Hank Williams. Anyway, I don't mean to digress so far from your poem here, but there is a sense of time being measured in the self and I was wondering what time and self have to do with the lyric poem. The lines float and the sense of the poem is fragile, hovering between personal feeling and impersonal comprehension of the poem's fleeting life in the body of the writer. What is the conversion here for you, and why does it seem "destined / never to occur"?
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.
This poem introduces a sense of moral urgency, and structurally, it makes an argument about the present condition of things as they appear against the "green ritual sanction / of the poem." The argument is specific and direct, for you seem to say the world is shit and given that fact "No one should be writing poetry." And yet, here is a poem, with a carefully crafted use of rhetoric to both invite a reader into listen to an argument that ultimately pulls the rug out from under the poem's audience. But given the noetic life span these days (about 15 minutes, or seconds), who do you think is listening? What is this "green ritual sanction" and why is it "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.
This lovely poem for Creeley is more than only a kind of homage, for it questions the authority of the memory of an occasion of a beach sunset shared with friends. You say "nothing brings / consequence, all happens, all this / sweet nothing." Against this "sweet nothing" there is an "accumulating pool of ebbing / attentions." I see the "sweet nothing" as a positive space, the human, transpersonal migrant zone of true warmth and interaction. And so I can only wonder about those "lost hopes, forgotten so / called dreams." Is it good to lose hopes? How does this poem fit into our forgetful world, where the poem is denied by a rapacious and flickering drive of scattered attention?
All of the poems above share common themes that emerge in my reading of Light & Shade. The past and future work themselves out in the momentary attentions given to the present condition of things. There is a fragility of life in the work that the lyric magnifies, or puts into relation with the indifferent world of things. Somehow, feeling is the constant human state that brings meaning to the reflective and intensive struggle to perceive the intersecting forces of one's life. Let me end by quoting all of "The Lyric" below, and adding a final question.
lament, sorrow and wild
joy commingle in
the lyric--a collective
sigh of relief comes cascading
out of the blue--
a yearning to submerge
in life like the swimmer
in the pool forgetful
immersed and quenched--
water trailing scattered
diamonds in a rustling
voice of resigned subsidence
as though in the same stroke
everyone alive were speaking through you--
What is it that compels and repulses you about forgetfulness? Okay, that's not a fair or easy question. But there is something about immersion that appears throughout your work. The moral invective of some of your work indicts a broad cultural forgetfulness and its failure to find fidelity for our common human frailties. In a sense, our common humanness can be ignored or forgotten because it's cash that matters, and other professional concerns. But you also seem to find lasting strength in forgetfulness, and through immersion in its pool you can access the voices of "everyone alive speaking through you." What is useful about forgetfulness?
Finally, I find your commitment to the lyric honorable and doggedly brilliant. You taught me more about the poem than anyone alive, and I will always honor that. I think ultimately in your work there is an instructive edge that is not didactic, but one of example. Your generosity and warmth animate the language with human strength.
*Dale,Resuscitating (or channeling?) a mythically obscure and forgotten author would hardly seem an easy project in the best of times--and these are hardly those. But since you've trekked all this way, scuffed your soles over the cold dusty stones of Anatolia, hacked your way into the vault of the ruined castle, and cast these remarkably penetrating beams into the dubious remains, what can one possibly do but try to extract some sort of reply from the reluctant troglodyte author?The original rumblings from the trailer park indicated the sorry beast was typically unable to get past your entirely pertinent terminology, which by the way probably dignified his productions more than they deserved, but in the end, after several nights of civilized persuasion, he was induced to supply at least a summation of what he apparently took to be the key terms of your inquiry (i.e. self, lyric, time, world, forgetfulness, etc.), with his comments thereupon. I'd beg you to look upon his response (admittedly the dog's breakfast of a miscast scholiast, but all that could be salvaged) with a merciful eye and keep in mind that, in his own curious fashion, he appears to be expressing his gratitude (I guess it takes all kinds--?).TomPS. Certainly your fine questions would have to precede his dull-witted replies, since without the former (and perhaps even then!) not much sense could be made of the latter (obviously)--and for that matter this letter (from his "keeper") might also help clarify matters a bit.
Answers for Dale
In our kind of society the self is a shadow figure, an ideological screen-image. Without the system that projects it--and upon which it is entirely dependent, so that the less it can do about the situation, the more intentionally and unintentionally it's led to believe that everything depends on it--it would cease to exist. It's an abstraction, but it's been deceived into a firm conviction of its own objective substance nonetheless. The pursuit of its own interests against the interests of all the other selves has settled into and now defines the social character. So you can see in the herd drive of the lonely crowd a reaction to this process. The individual monad can withdraw only into its own isolation; the lonely crowd is simply a banding together of completely cold people who cannot endure their own coldness and yet cannot change it. This is the general law of the status quo, whose sound is the silence of the terror and whose weather is the coldness of the societal monad, the isolated competitor, indifferent to the fate of others. (Is there anybody out there?)
Since lyric poetry has no more content and offers no more useful information than the immediate, spontaneous, intensely subjective expression characteristic of a drunken street person, what accounts for its curious status as an art form? How is it this likewise famously subjective instrument, the lyric, actually transforms an intense subjectivity into a particular objective substance accessible to others? Could it be the human race requires this mediation in order to continue to survive? Is it possible to bear this individual existence any longer? Could it be the subject, brought to the point where it can't take its own strangeness one minute more, becomes mysteriously freed from the humiliation of its isolation, literally by its absorption in the particular linguistic moment? And is this drowning of the subject in the intrinsic being of language, unselfconsciously, spontaneously, immediately, beyond the realm of ends in fact the "conversion" that produces the mediating of lyric poetry and society? And does that explain the universality of the particular in the lyric? And what about that sound--is it the breathless rustling of a stream heard at a distance through a forest at night? Or is it merely the selfless whispering of the evening breeze through the dense inexplicable thickets of the collective trees (the language itself speaking)?
III. Time and Tide
Time: To the Old Norse, time meant good time, prosperity. The Germanic base is the same as tide, eventually superseded by time in the strictly temporal senses. Tide as time has to do with the alternate rising and falling of the sea due to the attraction of moon and sun. The time between two successive points of high water or between low water and high water, in which various work might be done, once had an obvious and practical human meaning, measuring people's lives. But in our late age the rhythm of time has become distorted. Formerly measured by the steady course of a person's life, now it's fractured into artificial and insubstantial mechanical units which can be seen streaming past on your computer screen, logging up your connection time. Everything that in the past would have been handed down has vanished from the universe because in a technological society people no longer have time for it. Time is no longer a river into which one can dip one's toe and count on getting it wet. We're told one could walk along a beach, pick up a handful of sand, and in that handful, any single grain would represent 2000 years if the beach were to represent the total time of the universe. Are the living therefore right and the dead wrong? Do we escape the spell of our forebears by experiencing anger toward them? Where can we find them, in this timeless now, so endarkened, with their boats over their heads as they trudge up the endless beach toward home? The contemporary historical moment, lacking in memory, is always ready to subscribe to the state of things as it is, even mirroring it where it opposes it, as though this would tide it over through the present crisis. But then one notices the faint glimmering of a masked light on a little boat just afloat on the incoming tide, which waits for no one.
IV. Hope for the World?
The world appears to be a human invention, the Germanic base cognate with Latin *vir*, man, plus the Germanic base of old, having lived or existed for a relatively long time, of a certain, age, far on in the natural span, not young, worn with use, decayed, shabby, stale, disused, outdated: it's hard to see how anyone could hold out much hope for it; like all other human inventions there appears to be an obsolescence built into the design, whether or not apparent to the designers, who of course have long since passed away and been replaced by the machine functions that project and control the motions of this curious gadget.
V. Forgetfulness? Get some!
Undamaged experience is produced only in memory, far beyond immediacy, and through memory aging and death seem to be overcome in the aesthetic image, which we shall designate ecstasy. Yet memory also produces the most intense pain. Every time one's tempted to think one's finally learning to forget, one forgets to remember, and the whole terrible cycle starts up again. Forgetting, we remember, compounds get with for--a prefix corresponding to Greek peri or para, Sanskrit pari, para, signaling away, off, thus rejection, distancing, exclusion, prohibition, destruction, exhaustion, and so forming verbs from verbs with the sense of abstain, neglect, renounce: as forbear, forego, forgive, forget, forsake, forswear. And in the base of forgetting, that which is being abstained from, neglected, renounced, is getting, Anglo Saxon gitan, cognate with Latin hendere, from Greek khandanein. So the root relates us to apprehend, comprehend, reprehend; apprise, comprise, enterprise, surprise; and along the way we pass through Latin praeda, booty; praedium, estate; praedari, seize as plunder, pillage; praedator, plunderer; arriving inevitably at praehendere, lay hold of: thus mapping the linguistic family tree of predation. To get is to grasp, to acquire as result of effort or contrivance, seize, procure, seek out and take, come into possession of, win, gain, succeed in having, understand. It wasn't worth the trouble, the blood, the sweat, the tears: wrong, wrong from the start. Small wonder one attempts by sublation and erasure to reverse all this before it's too late, very much in vain alas, too much wearying getting and spending of memory relentlessly goes on, yet at length one dozes off, and then at last one can dream--the river of forgetfulness flows through that sweet ungrasping dream. Still the memorial function of poetry--to keep green the memory of what on earth is loved--denies this dream to poets, in the end, even old, exhausted, demented ones. So let's get out of bed, get some clothes on, get our shit together, get our heads straight, get up some steam, and get on with the show.
VI. The Green Ritual Sanction--Cancelled?
The green ritual sanction of the poem, where the memory of what on earth is loved is kept green as an objective external linguistic event, was evidently cancelled by the historical rupture implied in the poem; but in so acknowledging the historical cancelling of that space, one merely transposes the area of sanction to an objective internal conceptual space, where the charm no longer needs to be written in order to survive.