Fred Smith


Tom Clark: Craft and Process

Empire of SkinIn poetry, as in the other arts, a distinction has been made between craft and process, the craftsmanship that produces a product, in this case a poem, and the process of writing a poem. Criticism has traditionally dealt with details of craftsmanship, the formal aspects of a poem: meter and rhyme, stanza forms, figures of speech, resemblances to (and the influence of) other poets and poems. Process has been a matter of biography and psychology. The fact that Yeats used his wife George to take dictation from the spirit world is an odd piece of biography subject to psychological speculation but doesn't affect the critical appreciation of his poems.

A poet trained in understanding craftsmanship--as I was at the University of Minnesota and as Tom Clark was at the University of Michigan and Cambridge University--will compare his own poems against the best poems of the past to see if his measure up. Most often as in my case, they won't. Alan Tate said my student poems were pastiches. He was right as well as being kind; he knew he didn't need 16-inch guns to knock my patched together poems out of the water. An editor of a poetry journal wrote on the printed reject slip: "Don't you think they're too Eliotic?" She was right. Standards of craftsmanship give rise naturally enough to canons of the best poems and the best poets, with minor poets and minor poems pendent from them.

Beginning sometime in the middle of the 20th century, or so it seems to me, most artists and not just poets seem to have become more interested in the process of creating art than in the artwork itself. Intention became more important (and non-judgmental) than accomplishment. In the visual arts interest in process is seen in conceptual art, arranged happenings, earthworks, and galleries with junk and such strewn across the floor. Several years ago in the annex to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the floor in a corner of the building had been dug up exposing the foundation, the dirt piled beside the hole. At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, a sculptor flung molten lead at the bottom of a wall and on the floor, the area roped off because of the danger from the exposed lead, the danger part of the conception.

This trend towards interest in process may have been a rebellion against the commodification of art (whatever that might mean since conceptual artists need money to live on; even if they have nothing to sell, they will want a teaching job with tenure and health benefits for their family, or at least a foundation grant). In poetry this was also a reaction to canons and the New Critics, poets trying to put their poetry beyond the reach of criticism, artists and writers on the outside (blacks, women, gays, and Latinos) demanding to come inside.

In poetry the leading example has no doubt been John Ashbery. David Lehman has written that Ashbery's poetry is a "recording of his own mind in motion." In other words, recording the process of writing poetry. Not surprisingly, Ashbery is famous for writing quickly, voluminously, and revising what he writes minimally or not at all. Language Poets have claimed Ashbery as their progenitor though he has disavowed any responsibility for them.

In his memoir of Ted Berrigan Late Returns, Tom Clark has told how he learned while visiting in Paris about what was happening in American poetry:

I stopped at Shakespeare's, and browsing there, found these [Lower East Side mimeo] magazines, which proposed a kind of writing--and an approach to life and experience--so radically dissimilar to those I'd previously pursued that I felt the boards shake slightly under my feet as I stood and read amid the quiet shelves.1

While in school in England, Clark became involved in literary magazines: first as poetry editor of The Paris Review, promoting "the work of most of those contemporary poets I had latterly come to admire: both older ones (Olson, Dorn, Creeley, Ashbery, O'Hara, Schuyler, Duncan, Zukofsky, Whalen, et al.) and younger ones of my own generation (Berrigan, Padgett, Sanders, Saroyan, Coolidge, et. al.)," and second, publishing the "runoff" in his own "giveaway mimeograph magazine, the ‘Once' series (Once, Twice, Thrice, etc.)."2

I don't think any one writing after 1950 could ignore--or should have been immune to--this shift of interest and practice from product (trying to write great poems) to process (producing poetry but not necessarily distinguishable poems). A crafted poem has a beginning and an ending. A process poem starts and stops. Not surprisingly, process poets frequently omit all punctuation, including a period at the end of the poem. What we have is similar to the contemporary situation in the visual arts: the possibility of great poets and great poetry but no possibility of great poems, what used to be called masterpieces.

There were trends, I think, which encouraged process (writing) instead of products (poems):

Interest in experiencing the workings of the mind through mind altering drugs (LSD, Ted Berrigan's little pills, marijuana) rather than understanding its workings through Freudian psychology (that crutch of writers in the 30s and 40s).
Lack of ability to read, understand, and appreciate complex writing, including irony and paradox, those levels of meaning beloved by the New Critics. Sincerity has long since replaced complexity as the criterion for truthfulness.
Reduction of words to one dictionary meaning which facilitates language poetry. Words are all denotation since there can be no meaningful interaction between words (connotation).

The results are:

Very democratic since one poet's writing process is much the same and just as good as another poet's. Without standards of craftsmanship, there can be no real distinctions, no meaningful criticism, and no canons.
Process poetry tends towards abstract words, abstract words used for emoting rather than meaning, abstractions substituted for reality. In this sense language poets have more in common with Swinburne than with Eliot and Pound. Marjorie Perloff has asked whether we have to "read Coolidge wholesale?" In 1920 Eliot asked the same question about Swinburne. The answer is "yes" in both cases.
It is process poetry that makes it possible to have 30,000 published poets in this country, all sounding pretty much the same, at least to my ears. And to have 30,000 poets bemoaning the fact that the other 29,999 poets write mediocre poetry. On Ron Silliman's blog, the same people who are against canons (which enforce standards of craftsmanship) have also asked who among contemporary poets are writing the great poems. This is either very sad or very funny, perhaps both.
Process poets may have repealed standards of criticism but they haven't repealed the law of gravity. Without standards the only criteria is whether a poem is "interesting" to a reader, remembering that unread poets don't exist.

Even poets that were oriented towards traditional forms have been affected by the move towards process. Think of James Merrill at the Ouija board. Or Robert Lowell writing and rewriting his two Notebooks into History, his interest in process and craft hopelessly mixed up. I'm not sure if Lowell understood what he was up to.

I propose to situate Tom Clark's poetry at the intersection of these two traditions, between craft and process, so that his poetry can be read as a key to the shift from craft (trained as he was in the Modernist poets and the New Critics) to process (moving to New York in 1967). His collaborations with other poets were a form of process art, as was writing poetry in real time (not waiting till it turns into history, into emotions recollected in tranquility).

I want to discuss just one of Clark's many books, Empire of Skin, to show how he has adroitly positioned his poetry to take advantage of both craft and process. His subject is the Pacific Northwest fur trade. The book could just as easily have been written as history or a novel instead of poetry, but these different forms are fluid in Clark's work. His excellent novel Exile of Céline, for example, is written as a series of set pieces or prose poems. The fact that that Empire of Skin was written as poetry seems almost accidental, as if this is the way his material, histories and journals, happened to coalesce. As a result, what Clark wrote is that rarest of things, a book of poems that is a page turner.

The opening poem is titled "apparitional canoe" though one wonders in whose mind, Indian, trader, or otter, it is apprehended:

a singing                              wind rushed
                                                             through cedars
                               silver moonlit
               beached whale                    gleamed
out on the Sound
                                              wave washed
otters slept on kelp beds
                               back floating3

This is followed by a poem titled "mild" which is normal narrative:

They're easy together
                               inside the pod
when there's no hunting

the yelp of the little
one is not heard    on good days4

This pattern of alternation, process and craft, will persist throughout the book, depending on the material, moving towards one or the other. Sometimes the overall movement of the book will stop for a moment for a lyric poem. One such is "Old Canton" that deliberately invokes, as Clark has commented, Pound's poems in Cathay:

Mandarin boats move up and down the river slowly
Barging into vision with gay pennants flying,
Propelled by double banks of oars
Moving up and down in hypnotic, stately cadence,
Like pagodas sailing into a busy paradise.5

This is a poem of great beauty, a poem I do not hesitate to call a masterpiece, which shows a masterful poet in full control of his material and technique. The movement of the verse captures exactly the movement "up and down" of the boats on the water. Notice how much landscape painting and atmosphere has been compressed into this stanza. Most of Clark's books are a collection of poems, both long and short, but this book has a unity of purpose and accomplishment that places it among the most important work he has written. The book ends with the title poem, the mind considering what it has done:

The impress of empire in a flipping coin
A chance impression—empire of skin—
The act of representation itself
Has its own powers of implication.
Becoming once more a still, plane surface
After having engulfed a person, life goes on
Without even a ripple at the vanishing point,
And from that life that person's excluded,
As will, as knowledge, as any other thing
Except a memory, growing dim,
The way a sentence left uncompleted
Appears to sink deeper into the paper,
As the coin falls toward tabulated
Foliate columns, a flat unscrolling moon.6

This last poem could very well be a statement of what Clark has attempted in poetry and his method of writing. Taken together, the poems in this book are typical of Clark's poetry as a whole and help us to understand it. His poetry moves back and forth between craft and process, necessarily so, situated as he is by training, maturing as a poet at a particular time in American poetry, and associating with poets (Beat, New York School, Black Mountain, etc.) turning in different ways to process poetry. That he never deserted the idea of masterpieces creates the possibility (which I think he has achieved) of both great poems and great poetry. This is a remarkable and unique achievement at a time when the possibility of great poems had flown the coop.

In her perceptive and provocative essay, "The Aura of Modernism," available at the Buffalo Electronic Poetry Center, Marjorie Perloff discusses the rejection of Modernist writers with their expectations of great art and great poems and how there now appears to be a return of just such expectations to common readers, or at least those who post comments on She gives examples of enthusiastic comments about such Modernists as George Oppen (Collected Poems), Gertrude Stein (Tender Buttons), and Marcel Proust (A La Recherche du Temps Perdu). If there is indeed a movement back to an appreciation and enjoyment of Modernist writers with their tradition of craftsmanship and "masterpieces," then Clark's poetry should be at the contemporary center of that movement.

1 Tom Clark, Late Returns, Tombouctou, 1985, page 13.
2 Tom Clark, "Exile," Like Real People, Black Sparrow, 1995, page 219.
3 Tom Clark, "apparitional canoe," Empire of Skin, Black Sparrow, 1997, page 17. 4 Tom Clark, "mild," Empire of Skin, page 18. 5 Tom Clark, "Old Canton," Empire of Skin, page 81. 6 Tom Clark, "empire of skin," Empire of Skin, page 232.