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:
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.
wrote, will have no
easy time of it when
powers of the mind
are so blunted that
exertion dies, and
public is reduced
to a state of near
savage torpor, morose,
no attention span
whatsoever; nor will
the tranquil rustling
of the lyric, drowned out
by the heavy, dull
of persons in cities,
where a uniformity
of occupations breeds
cravings for sensation
which hourly visual
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:
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—
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.
For twenty years now Berryman’s lineI conclude now I have no inner resources has been plinking around the inside of my dumb skull. The line is plinking like crazy lately, as I shuffle final exam essays into some kind of order (what order?) that might align with my ability to offer the student, the writer, some meaningful note, some suggestion for improvement, some revelatory remark. Plink plink plink. No inner resources.
It is bad to start with a complaint so I will dress up the preceding paragraph (I dress it mentally) as an apologia. (Why the hell did I decide to write about books online?!).
I’ve been reading some really great books lately, folks. People, yes, you, listen. It’s not true that I have no inner resources. I am unstuck as a reader. I’m all gummed up with what I’ve read. Well-fed. And yet I go to scribble out a, like, review and plink plink plink. Nothing.
But like I said, the reading’s been really good. From the bottom up:
Let me strongly recommend American Candide by Mahendra Singh. I recommend this book for people who enjoy laughing at tragedies that should otherwise make them weep. You can and should purchase this book from Rosarium.
Above American Candide in the stack so lazily pictured above is Yuri Herrera’s neon noir novella The Transmigration of Bodies, which I also highly recommend. I managed a few words on it here.
If you were to describe Henri Michaux’s Miserable Miracle 1956 book to me, I might politely decline with a small gesture of my hand. It’s about a guy who takes mescaline and writes about the experience and he draws these pictures and then he later takes “Indian hemp” and compares it— you might say to me, you, knowing as you know that I dig weird books, but I would cut you off at with an em dash, polite but firm, Not interested in drug novels these days (and besides dude, you know that Aldous Huxley did kinda the same thing at kinda the same time). And then you, having the book with you might press it into my hand, declaring, No, look—
—and I would say Thanks and consume the book in two sittings.
And so after a few years of false starts, I finally broke through the second chapter of Stanley Elkin’s satire The Franchiser. The many years of recommendations, exhortations (and scoldings) to read The fucking Franchiser were correct and good and now appreciated, as I work my way into the novel’s rich fat middle—but I admit it was Mr. William Gass who finally sold me on a commitment. I read his introduction published elsewhere—in A Temple of Texts—and that was that.
Thanks to Jon for sending me Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay collection The Language of the Night. The collection collects the collective introductions to Le Guin’s so-called Hainish collection, which I read this winter, and wrote about here. Not one of my editions featured the reflections Le Guin (or more likely her editors) called “Introductions” in later essays, and reading the Hainish intros is, in a very slight sense, like rereading those books. Lovely.
Last and never least: Tom Clark’s The Last Gas Station and Other Stories. I’ve thought often of Clark’s poems as stories pretending to be poems so maybe these are poems pretending to be stories. Or maybe I have no idea what the fuck I’m talking about. (Plink plink plink). I read most of them except for the longest one, “Incident at Basecamp,” which I will save save save for the future, an old habit, maybe a bad habit, that, to read all but one story in a collection, to maybe keep the collection afresh somehow or not wholly discovered—eh? Plink plink plink. Wag.
I just spent the past hour reading from Tom Clark’s 1980 short story collection The Last Gas Station and Other Stories. Is this the only collection of short stories by Clark? I don’t know. Maybe I prefer not knowing. I was excited to find this at the bookstore yesterday so maybe I’ll be excited to find some other phantom collection in some eventual phantom future. Stories that are like poems, or infused by poems—or dialogues, or spirit rants, ersatz music reviews for bands that may or may not exist. Heidegger complains to Hitler; Ty Cobb gets turned on to Little Orphan Annie. Tales of sex and love and other things. Find it if you can get it.
Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick is a riff-novel, or a thought-novel, or an I-don’t-know-what, I mean. Is it about memory? Or is it memory? “If only one knew what to remember or what to pretend to remember”—If I remember correctly, this is the first sentence of the novel’s second paragraph.
Mahendra Singh’s American Candide is forthcoming from Rosarium. It is funny and sad and even cruel, but also sweet (and bitter and very very funny). I’ll have a full review forthcoming closer to its pub date, but the short review is: Buy it.
I wrote about Ashley Dawson’s Extinction a week or two ago…finished it since then and it’s a good, sad, angrifying read. I read Extinction with/against a viewing of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, and then I got sick, like, the next week, which led to a big re-read of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. I’m better now, thanks to fantasy and manga.
Collected Stories by William Faulkner. 1977 first edition trade paperback from Vintage. This book is 900 pages, exactly, not including the ancillary pages that detail publication dates and rights, as well as Vintage’s back catalog—and yet not one of those pages manages to credit the cover designer or photographer.
I’ve been reading/re-reading this very slowly, with the loose goal of finishing this year.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Vol. 4 by Hayao Miyazaki. English translation by David Lewis and Toren Smith. Studio Ghibli Library edition by Viz Media, 2010. No designer credited, but the cover is by Miyazaki and I imagine we can probably credit Studio Ghibli with the design.
I started rereading Nausicaä this week after revisiting Princess Mononokethis week. Then I got horribly ill, and the only stuff I can really read when I’m really sick are comics. I scanned Vol. 4 for this week’s Three Books post; I finished it pretty late last night. Vol 5-7 remain.
Junkets on a Sad Planet by Tom Clark. First edition trade paperback by Black Sparrow Press, 1994. Cover design by Barbara Martin. The image is of Benjamin Robert Haydon’s life mask for John Keats (from a photo by Christopher Oxford).
I awoke around 1am in the middle of last week, and unable to sleep, I wandered to our den and randomly took this from the shelf to begin reading/rereading. The book (its title is a pun) is difficult to explain, a beautiful experience, rich. Here’s Clark’s own description: “…an extended reflection on the modern poet’s life, as Keats lived it. The book may be read by turns as poetic novel, biography in verse, allegorical masque, historical oratorio for several voices.”
I tried to scratch up a few lines on rereading William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions this afternoon, but distracted myself by remembering this poem of Tom Clark’s (collected in Paradise Resisted) which is an oblique summary of said novel (or not. Why should it be? It isn’t. There’s only my will here, trying to organize these keystrokes into thoughts of some order. Happy Friday).
Victor Halfwit: A Winter’s Tale by Thomas Bernhard. English translation by Martin Chalmers. Illustration and design by Sunandini Banerjee. First edition oversized hardback from Seagull Books. On thick, heavy paper, Banerjee’s rich full-color digital collages illustrate what is essentially a microfiction by Thomas Bernhard. I bought this a few years ago at Faulkner House, a tiny bookstore in New Orleans.
Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner. 1973 Vintage mass-market paperback edition. Cover photo by Robert Wenkham; no designer credited. My favorite Faulkner, although I’ve not read them all. I bought this for grad school, which explains the cheap used mass-market edition, but I love the cover. Fractured Karma by Tom Clark. First edition trade paperback from Black Sparrow Press. Design by Barbara Martin. The cover painting, Waiting Room for the Beyond, is by John Register. This is the first Tom Clark book I read. Amazing.