RIP Tom Clark

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RIP Tom Clark, 1941-2018

The American poet Tom Clark died in the first hour of Saturday, August 18th, 2018 in Berkely California. The cause of the death happened a few hours earlier, late Friday night, as a motorist collided his sedan into Tom Clark as Clark tried to cross the street. Clark was 77.

Tom Clark authored over two dozen poetry collections, many published by Black Sparrow Press. He also wrote a number of literary biographies, including a pair on Jack Kerouac, bios of Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, and a biography of John Keats called Junkets from a Sad Planet that is actually a series of poems. (But also actually a biography of Keats). Clark was the poetry editor for The Paris Review from 1963-1973 (maybe you read his interview with Allen Ginsberg there). Clark was also a blogger—an excellent blogger. He updated his blog a few hours before the car collision that killed him.

I first read Tom Clark in the middle of September, 2013. I read Fractured Karma (1990) and I had never heard of him before. I know the time specifically not because I have a good memory (I don’t), but because I wrote about it then:

I picked up Tom Clark’s Fractured Karma two weeks ago somewhat randomly. My local bookshop had reorganized some shelves, putting all the Black Sparrow titles together. Fractured Karma must have been on top, because I don’t see how else I would’ve picked up a book with the word “karma” in the title. The book opened to this page:

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That’s all there is on that page, and something about it—the form, the phrasing—cracked me up. It’s part of a long poem called “He was born blind” about the British comedy actor George Formby. The poem is amazing: I read it there in the store. It reminded me immediately of David Markson’s notecard novels—something about how Clark includes so much reality into his poem. But there’s also this perceptive (if oblique) sense of humor behind it all. I ended up devouring the book, reading the whole thing that weekend. It was one of those holy shit reading moments, frankly. Once I finish typing this I’m going to go pick my kids up and we’re going to go to the bookstore and I’m going to get another Tom Clark book and read it this weekend.

I actually did go to the bookstore after writing that post and pick up another book by Clark, Sleepwalker’s Fate (1992). The store had several books by Clark, and I wasn’t sure which one to get. I remember that the title Sleepwalker’s Fate stood out, so I picked it up and thumbed through it, and I remember reading the poem “Terminator Too” there in the store—it did something electric to me—the goofy title, the winking irony, but also the earnestness of the poem, which paraphrases a few lines from Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads. Here it is:

“Terminator Too” by Tom Clark—

Poetry, Wordsworth
wrote, will have no
easy time of it when
the discriminating

powers of the mind
are so blunted that
all voluntary
exertion dies, and

the general
public is reduced
to a state of near
savage torpor, morose,

stuporous, with
no attention span
whatsoever; nor will
the tranquil rustling

of the lyric, drowned out
by the heavy, dull
coagulation
of persons in cities,

where a uniformity
of occupations breeds
cravings for sensation
which hourly visual

communication of
instant intelligence
gratifies like crazy,
likely survive this age.

Sleepwalker’s Fate is a good starting place to read Tom Clark’s poetry, as are Fractured Karma and the collection Paradise Revisited (1984). Here’s one from Paradise Revisited:

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The later poetry collection Like Real People (1995) is also pretty great. It includes this humdinger:

Like Real People also includes a series of autobiographical sketches and stories told in an engaging but straightforward manner. The epilogue there is particularly good—Clark mulls over what it means to write an autobiography, straining against his anxieties over framing his own life stories. Tellingly, he lards the essay with quotes and ideas from other folks. Clark’s poetry often takes on the form of translation, citation, history, or reinterpretation (as we see in “Terminator Too,” above), and works like Empire of Skin (1997) and Junkets on a Sad Planet (1994) are particularly ambitious. Empire of Skin is a series of poems that take on the history of the American fur trade through a lens critical of Manifest Destiny. Junkets on a Sad Planet is an impressionistic series of riffs on Keats’ short life (“junkets” is a pun). From Junkets

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What a lovely condensation of biography, history, and poetic anxiety!

I’ll close with one of my favorite Clark poems, “Heavy,” which discharges poetic anxiety. Clark dedicated the poem to Jack Kerouac and Charles Olson—the gods in the first line, perhaps?–figures he would later write biographies on.

Peace be with Tom Clark.

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“The Girl” — William Carlos Williams

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“Eternity Time Share Rebus” — Tom Clark

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“The Uses of Poetry” — William Carlos Williams

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“Walter, leave off” | D.H. Lawrence on Walt Whitman

From D.H. Lawrence’s chapter on Whitman in Studies in Classic American Literature (more):

POST-MORTEM effects?

But what of Walt Whitman?

The ‘good grey poet’.

Was he a ghost, with all his physicality?

The good grey poet.

Post-mortem effects. Ghosts.

A certain ghoulish insistency. A certain horrible pottage of human parts. A certain stridency and portentousness. A luridness about his beatitudes.

DEMOCRACY! THESE STATES! EIDOLONS! LOVERS, ENDLESS LOVERS!

ONE IDENTITY!

ONE IDENTITY!

I AM HE THAT ACHES WITH AMOROUS LOVE.

Do you believe me, when I say post-mortem effects ?

When the Pequod went down, she left many a rank and dirty steamboat still fussing in the seas. The Pequod sinks with all her souls, but their bodies rise again to man innumerable tramp steamers, and ocean-crossing liners. Corpses.

What we mean is that people may go on, keep on, and rush on, without souls. They have their ego and their will, that is enough to keep them going.

So that you see, the sinking of the Pequod was only a metaphysical tragedy after all. The world goes on just the same. The ship of the soul is sunk. But the machine-manipulating body works just the same: digests, chews gum, admires Botticelli and aches with amorous love.

I AM HE THAT ACHES WITH AMOROUS LOVE.

What do you make of that? I AM HE THAT ACHES. First generalization. First uncomfortable universalization. WITH AMOROUS LOVE! Oh, God! Better a bellyache. A bellyache is at least specific. But the ACHE OF AMOROUS LOVE!

Think of having that under your skin. All that!

I AM HE THAT ACHES WITH AMOROUS LOVE.

Walter, leave off. You are not HE. You are just a limited Walter. And your ache doesn’t include all Amorous Love, by any means. If you ache you only ache with a small bit of amorous love, and there’s so much more stays outside the cover of your ache, that you might be a bit milder about it.

I AM HE THAT ACHES WITH AMOROUS LOVE.

CHUFF! CHUFF! CHUFF!

CHU-CHU-CHU-CHU-CHUFF!

Reminds one of a steam-engine. A locomotive. They’re the only things that seem to me to ache with amorous love. All that steam inside them. Forty million foot-pounds pressure. The ache of AMOROUS LOVE. Steam-pressure. CHUFF!

An ordinary man aches with love for Belinda, or his Native Land, or the Ocean, or the Stars, or the Oversoul: if he feels that an ache is in the fashion.

It takes a steam-engine to ache with AMOROUS LOVE. All of it.

Walt was really too superhuman. The danger of the superman is that he is mechanical.

“To Greet a Letter-Carrier” — William Carlos Williams

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“To Any Reader” — Robert Louis Stevenson

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“At the Bar” — William Carlos Williams

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“May 1st Tomorrow” — William Carlos Williams

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“When I Was a Boy” — Roberto Bolaño

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Clarified and transfigur’d

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From the Heritage Press edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, illustrated by Rockwell Kent, 1936.

“Troubling are masks . . the faces of friends, my face” — John Berryman

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“They may, because I would not cloy your ear– ” — John Berryman

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“Keep your eyes open when you kiss: do: when” — John Berryman

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A review of The Paris Review’s overproduced podcast

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In his introduction to the first episode of The Paris Review Podcast, former editor Lorin Stein tells us that we’re going to hear some great writing. He then claims, “what you won’t hear is much in the way of hosting from me or anyone else. We’re just going to let the writing speak for itself, the way it always has in the magazine.” The first two parts are true—there’s plenty of great writing here from The Paris Review archive, and there’s no one hosting the pieces. The last part of Stein’s claim is the problem though: The Paris Review Podcast repeatedly refuses to simply let the writing speak for itself. Prose and poems alike are slathered in distracting and silly sound effects and busy musical cues. This is a shame, because the estimable voice talents the producers have enlisted do a marvelous job conveying the tones, mood, and rhythms of the pieces the producers have selected (most of which are excellent). Perhaps the podcast’s producers simply don’t trust their readers enough to stay engaged without all the buzzing clutter—but for me the overproduction is too much.

There are ten episodes of The Paris Review Podcast to date. I have listened to half of them: episodes 10, 1, 5, 2, and 3 (in that order). Episode 10, “The Occasional Dream,” was perhaps an unfortunate starting point, as it contains some of the most overproduced segments I heard in the series.

The problem wasn’t the first selection, a fantastic Frank O’Hara poem called “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” which I’d never read before. David Sedaris’s reading conveys the poem’s wit and depth, and the musical cues are only mildly intrusive, bleeding in at beginning and end. Then we get to Roberto Bolaño’s poem “When Lisa Told Me,” read by Dakota Johnson. The poem is set in a phone booth, so the producers, not trusting Bolaño’s powers of mimesis, or the auditor’s imagination (or both), include phone booth sound effects, like change dropping into a slot, buttons being punched, a dial tone. There’s also some distracting music. All of this takes away from Bolaño’s music (and Johnson’s capable reading).

By the time I got to Mary-Louis Parker reading Joy Williams’s story “Making Friends” I was dismayed. Cheesy calypso music crawls all over the story. When Williams notes a dog panting, the producers employ the sound effect of a dog panting. This is not how fiction works. In my distracted consternation, I forgot to pay attention to the story itself.

The worst offender by far though is an archival recording of John Ashberry reading his poem “Soonest Mended” which has been, for some reason I do not understand, accompanied by a new guitar composition by Steve Gunn. Gunn’s music is wonderful, his guitar evocative of fingerpickers like John Fahey and Leo Kottke, and I would be happy to listen to it on its own. Mashing it up with Ashberry’s poem adds nothing—or rather, we have subtraction by addition.

Archival recordings fare better elsewhere. In Episode 2, Jack Kerouac tells the story of the Buddha without any fussy interruptions. Kerouac’s unadorned riff showcases the podcast’s potential to present wonderful little moments, stitching them to other wonderful moments, without any overproduced impositions. Similarly, the inaugural episode, “Times of Cloud,” gives us Maya Angelou and Paris Review founder George Plimpton in conversation. The producers choose an apt moment; Angelou essentially offers a raison dêtre for The Paris Review Podcast:

I want to hear how English sounds; how Edna St. Vincent Millay heard English. I want to hear it, so I read it aloud. It is not so that I can then imitate it. It is to remind me what a glorious language it is.

The most “glorious language” in Episode 1 of The Paris Review Podcast comes from Wallace Shawn reading Denis Johnson’s classic story “Car-Crash While Hitchhiking.” A really good reader—and Wallace Shawn is a really good reader—can help us hear a story we’ve read a dozen times in a new way. It’s a testament to both Shawn’s reading and Johnson’s prose that they withstand the goofy sound effects and needless music the producers daub all over the story. Johnson’s narrator has already told us that it is raining; we do not need a canned rain shower murking up the audio.

The mimetic cloudiness of sound effects can be cheesy, but the unneeded musical cues are often the more damaging imposition. In Episode 5, Alison Fraser reads Lucia Berlin’s  “B.F. and Me,” conveying the story’s odd flirty energy with aplomb. The bluesy vamping soundtrack adds nothing though—again, it takes away from the auditor’s experience of the prose. In the same episode, Caleb Crain reads his wonderful short story “Envoy.” The tale’s strange poignant climax manages to survive the unnecessary intrusion of a heavy-handed musical cue that could easily have disrupted the ambiguities in the last few sentences. A Dorothea Lasky poem in Episode 3 begins well enough. Its imagistic contours of concrete reality unfurl without any noisy claptrap. But when the poem’s second half steers toward abstraction, the producers add a piano étude to compete with Lasky’s own music. And in the climactic moment in Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?” (also in Episode 3)—you know, the part where the characters, um, dance—the producers actually add a fucking country waltz.

The Paris Review Podcast perhaps suffers from an anxiety of influence. I imagine the show wishes to separate itself from The New Yorker’s no-frills Fiction Podcast, where one author reads another author’s story, and then discusses the story with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman. The Paris Review Podcast veers far more closely to the busy buzziness of Radiolab, with a dash of This American Life. I can understand the appeal there, the attempt to capture some of that ole timey radio Foley stage energy. But Radiolab is its own medium with its own formal innovations. The Paris Review is a mixtape, yes, but it’s a mixtape of poetry, prose, and interviews. A poem that John Ashberry wrote and read aloud in his own voice does not need the innovation of a contemporary guitar score. We do not need the sound of shallots simmering in a pan to convey that someone is cooking, as happens in Shelly Oria’s story “My Wife, In Converse.” We do not need a bluesy-guitar bend or the sustain of melancholy piano chords to convey the emotion that the writer has already conveyed through the language.  The effect of such impositions is like someone doing shadow puppets over an oil painting, or talking during a film, or pouring soup over a really good salad.

And yet you’ll note above that I listened to half of the podcasts. I listened while walking or driving or doing small household chores or yard chores. The stories, the poems, the interviews are quite good. There’s so much potential here. But it often seems like The Paris Review Podcast is content to present the material as an ambient backdrop, an aural texture that might compete with a commute. This is wholly unnecessary. The form is already there, embedded in the content—the language itself. And the language is best—most glorious, Angelou might say—when it is naked.

 

“The Scarlet Woman” — Fenton Johnson

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“To America” — James Weldon Johnson

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