Tom Clark, Teacher
I was fortunate enough to study with Tom Clark the last couple of years I lived in San Francisco. He teaches one graduate seminar per semester at New College, the small, private, expensive arts college located in the Mission District. For health reasons, however, Tom no longer holds classes at the San Francisco campus, and so his students commute to his Berkeley home, where he teaches in his dining room. There we would gather, at three o'clock on Monday afternoons, lining up along his front steps, waiting for his beautiful wife, Angelica, to open the front door so we could come inside. There would be a subtle, quasi-dignified race to see who'd get the comfortable chair in the corner next to the dining room table, or a spot on the futon sofa. Everyone else played musical chairs with less cushioned seats ranged around the room. There was always a beautiful, fragrant arrangement of flowers on the table or on the counter top of a shelf of books that ran along the side wall, gathered by Angelica from their garden. Eventually Tom would emerge from the kitchen and class would begin.
Tom was generous enough to take me as an unofficial auditor. There were several of us. The amount that I paid was not much, and would have been a bargain at several times the price. But such was Tom's interest in sharing his knowledge on the subject of poetry, and in having a lively group to hear his lectures, that he allowed us to join his class. Some of the others were former New College students who came back to audit the same classes they'd taken before. The rest of us were people who had sought Tom out through some mutual connection, having read his poetry and heard about his lectures. Along with the New College students, who ranged from seven to 10 per semester, there were probably as few as 10 or as many as 13 in any given class.
The first seminar I attended, in the Fall of 2003, was on Ezra Pound. We covered some of the early work, the short poems from Personae, Hugh Selwyn Mauberly, and Cathay, and then moved on to the Cantos, paying careful attention to some, skimming over others, ending up with the famous Pisan Cantos and a few of the final Rock Drill series. I believe the original intention of the class was to look at some other poets who were particularly influenced by Pound, such as Creeley, Olson, and Duncan, but we never really got around to that. There was no syllabus, no exams, and just one assignment that was due at the end of the term: we were to gradually, over the course of the semester, work on a series of our own Cantos, informed by what we learned about Pound and the effect of his poems on us. We were not supposed to copy Pound's technique, of course, or specifically respond to anything in his poetry; the object was to begin to think of poetry as series, as a monument to one's life or a part of that life, as something with continuity, one day to the next. The results, when we finally read them at the end of the class, were of disparate length and style, but they all shared this quality.
There was also very little class discussion. Having already studied in private workshops with Diane di Prima over the years, in a democratic but still controlled environment, this was off-putting at first, as I sensed it was for many of the younger New College students who were used to having more of a voice in class. The format was that Tom talked. He talked, it seemed, about anything that came into his head. He talked about current events, celebrity gossip, an ad he'd seen in the back of the Sunday section of the Chronicle. His knowledge about popular culture – as it was about almost anything, especially sports – was encyclopedic, all-encompassing. But this was not the aimless nattering of a blowhard, burned-out professor, although, until one had become acclimated to Tom's teaching style, it could appear so. Instead, it was as though some thread of thought on whatever bit of news had caught Tom's attention led him inexorably back, over the edifice of the poem we were looking at that afternoon, to a crevice that yielded fresh enthusiasm and insight.
To say that one had to be there is an understatement, for it is impossible to reproduce the incredible leaps and connections Tom was able to forge between seemingly irrelevant complexes of information – the death of Britpop star Robert Palmer, for example, or an exchange he'd had with some punks on Telegraph Ave., or the autobiography of a minor starlet – and the poet or poem at hand. But certainly anyone who has studied at the graduate level is familiar with the shop-worn professor who has taught the same subject many times, and recites his or her lines by rote, never adding to or altering the lectures in any way, content to transmit, as if from a time capsule, scholarship that is probably many years old. In contrast, it was refreshing to see Tom's mind at work, to watch him "make it new" for him as for us, and impossible not to catch some of his enthusiasm for the work.
And this is not to say that it was a completely ad hoc approach. Very often, he would bring out the door. The door was an actual door that had been unhinged. He would go and get it from the living room and carry it sideways into the dining room, where he would set it upright against the wall. The effect was not quite that of Moses bringing a tablet down from the mountain. It was covered in various layers of butcher paper on which he had reproduced poems, in his meticulous script, accompanied by careful, humorous drawings and notes on just about every word in every line of the poem, so that it resembled a crazy eye chart. Tom's analysis of a poem was breathtakingly thorough. Where one had read a poem from Cathay, for example, and thought it a nice enough thing, and maybe gotten a sense of structure after several careful readings, Tom had seemingly squeezed the juice out of every line and examined each drop under a microscope.
He would have analyzed not only the meter, but the diction, and pointed out where the poet had used a Latinate or an Anglo-Saxon word (not to mention, in Pound's case, Greek, Chinese, etc.). If possible he would have reproduced an earlier version of the same poem to speculate on choices the poet had made, or versions by different authors from the same source material, comparing and discussing the differences in each one. Often he had drawn what resembled thought balloons leading out from various lines and words, containing tidbits from letters, critical remarks, and background material glossing the poem. There was seldom a square inch of blank space on the yards-long piece of butcher paper where he had scribbled his notes. In the case of the Cantos, especially, there is already a great deal of glossary material available in the excellent companion text by Terrell, but Tom went far beyond those notes to give us a depth and texture that brought the poetry vividly to life.
He further enriched the lectures with details, not only about the life of whatever poet we were discussing, but his contemporaries, the historical milieu from which his work sprang, and, especially in the case of Pound, details about some of the historical moments and classical literature that inspired the poetry, toggling with equal authority between Chinese dynasties and Medieval courts, Homeric Greece and wartime London. Often it would require the entire three-hour lecture to begin to communicate a sense of his many-layered approach to a single poem. He would pace back and forth before the door, pausing to refer to it occasionally or recite some part of a poem by heart, or to play us a recording of a poem from a little boom box he kept close at hand. One can see that it would be difficult to interrupt him with one's own half-formed opinions once he got going.
Which is not to say that it was a passive sort of performer-and-audience environment. Tom welcomed questions, and would often ask us something about a poem to test our attention and see what insights we had. An unexpected response might prompt a new direction in his own thoughts, or it might be passed over entirely, only to be taken up unexpectedly an hour or a week later. I have been told that he has mellowed a great deal from even 10 years ago, when he was known to hold students for an hour after class, if a lecture was really cooking. He seldom held us more than half an hour after class was supposed to end, and never got angry – at least not at any of us. But the depth of his own passion and erudition discouraged the kind of speaking-to-hear-myself-talk blatherings that so often waste everyone's time, even in graduate-level classes. His intense focus made us focus, too, and the tone of the lectures on our part was an active listening, from which he seemed to draw energy as he went along.
I audited the next seminar he gave, on the English Renaissance poets, which included Thomas Wyatt, Ben Jonson, John Donne, Robert Herrick, and Andrew Marvell. The following Fall I took his class on John Keats. Both of them were excellent, with the Keats seminar, especially, changing my life, inspiring me to not only a fresh dedication to the art of poetry, but to belatedly continue my own studies in a formal setting, which I am currently doing. Tom is not perfect, and he is not always the perfect teacher. I am probably not alone in believing that he identifies with someone like Pound, a controversial outsider who pissed off a lot of his contemporaries and made a number of questionable choices. He has that sort of bitterness, and when his lectures would go off-track, as they infrequently did, it was usually in this direction. Tom is an outsider. He has pissed off a lot of people, and he has paid for it, in terms of decreased opportunity and attention to his work in the highly political landscape of American Poetics.
But there is also something of the quick-witted innocence and idealism of John Keats in Tom Clark. The genius for clear, lyrical voice, the attention to contrast and tone, the impatience with intellectual posturing, the appreciation for humor, especially when it comes black. His book on John Keats, a sort of "novel in verse" (though it is much more, and better, than that) called Junkets on a Sad Planet, is truly great, and seems to indicate an affinity of a level that goes far deeper than biography, into the soul of this most tragic of English Romantic poets. And there is this: I had occasion, this past Fall, to write a paper on Keats for a class on the Romantic poets. Needless to say, a great deal has been written on Keats over the years, and as I plowed through a broad sampling of that scholarship, sifting it for useful material, I was struck by how much of it seemed familiar to me. Indeed, there did not seem to be much that had been written that I had not heard, in one form or another, in Tom's class. He had a way of weaving various critical opinions into his lectures, discounting some, embracing others, always adding his own ideas into the mix, while encouraging us to speculate ourselves. Quite a good deal of his interpretations of and ideas about certain poems did not appear in any of the literature that I came across, although they represented far more insightful and creative lines of thinking than what had been published and applauded, if not accepted as conventional truth.
For this, I can only thank Tom. Not only for the gift of allowing me to attend his lectures for little more than a token tuition, but for giving me a glimpse of his passion for poetry, of what it means to think about poetry, and what it means to teach.