|Clark makes poetry while remaining in what he perceives as an increasingly sterile and stilted civilization. Instead of flying off into ecstasy, or descending into Hell, however, as is the wont of the heirs of the French avant-garde, Clark pulls poetry precisely out of his steady, uncompromising antagonism.
The picture he presents of modern culture is hardly optimistic. Foremost among his insights is that today, not only are people being overwhelmed with consumer ads and images at an alarming rate, but we also are being force-fed phrases, words, and other pre-packaged language for describing our experiences and feelings. Empty words and phrases like relationships, interpersonal interactions, this is as good as it gets, have a nice day, and you gotta love it, permeate the culture, and, by extension, our thinking. With sarcasm bitter enough to win him admittance into the green room in the Hotel de Coutoure, Clark takes hold of the official manufactured language and turns it against itself, ridiculing it and at the same time magically transforming it in a new spiritually-satisfying context.
In the poem Early Warning, for instance, Clark peruses the West from a roof above the hills of Los Angeles (the quintessential savage-futuristic city), and echoes Rimbaud while growling at what he sees. He rails at a vast assortment of American foibles and vices: our false laid-backness; our compulsive work habits that lack either idea or feeling; our socialization and inevitable marketing of self improvement; our light-headed faith in science; and our groundless social optimism. Clarks other targets include materialism, fellow poets, and death; but his most severe jousts are reserved for muddled language and for those who would use language for their own crass and selfish ends. Clarks discontent, in fact, is so strong that this poem could well be re-titled How the West was Lost. Yet what is admirable about his work and makes it enduring is the complexity and multiplicity of themes that thread throughout and make it transcend language and literature. He takes poetrys role in society seriously, and like Rimbaud, puts stock in the power of language to clear up the air and bring about personal and collective change. We are living, he warns in...
...an age of linguistic collapse, when speech
has been reduced to idiot mumble
meaningless except to fellow perpetrators
of the mass atrocity against sense-
silence which is least pure
like a nuclear blast-
the race with thought and action is a higher
way. Only clear speech which
language in contact with emotion and
thought can spread the truth that brings
the pyramid of power down to pieces on
By comparison, Rimbaud described the urban sterility of his time as:
...a metropolis considered modern because all known taste has been eluded
In the furnishing and outside of the
As well as in the plan of the city.
Here you will find no trace of a single monument to superstition.
Morals and language have been reduced
To their simplest expression, that is all!
These millions of people with no need to
know each other
Lay down so equally the path of
education, of trade and old age,
That the course of life is probably
several times shorter
Than anything a crazy static sets up
for people on the continent.
And from my window, what original specters roll
Through this thick eternal smoke-
Our Crowded Shade, our Midsummer Night!
Latter-day Erinys fly before this cottage
Which is my country and the depth of
Because everything here looks like this:
Dry-eyed-Death, our diligent daughter
A hopeless love and a pretty Crime,
wailing in the mud of the
Perhaps out of despair, like Rimbaud, at times Clark seems to be writing to a small, select, audience; an imagined, or real, American avant-garde. Some of his poems are cryptic, code-like as if he were trying to prevent them from being preempted or Xeroxed. Consequently, some are too esoteric, too subjective, perhaps too singular and precious. But other poems, like Rimbauds, shed light on and expose a cultural predicament. And although most of his poems start like Rimbauds poem above, with a daily observation, Clarks work is highly analytical. The infrastructure-the threads running throughout the poems-are conceptual since Clark believes, I think, that concepts are more revealing and less easily domesticated and compromised than images. Conceptual reveries prompted by matter-of-fact observations are at the heart of Clarks work, and the source of his analytic poetry is a Rimbaud-like disaffection in a kind of running argument with his country.
Those who came from places that produced corn, wheat, butter and eggs
to a place that produces celluloid images,
drive-in taco stands and aerospace
have never stopped wondering, What am
I doing here?
They believe this because somebody told
Its a belief thats really a lot more like a
They cant remember who it was that sold them
all those neon poems
you hear echoing through this cathedral
headed intentions they call home. The only false
note here is my referring to them as they.
Clarks debt to Rimbaud is obvious. Yet Clarks vision and voice is more sober than either Rimbauds or Morrisons. Perhaps his analytical sarcasm will lead him in a different direction.
In any event, Tom Clark is the author of a massive ongoing work that deserves, if only for our own sake, to be read.
The search for new forms of artful experience spurred by the power of disaffection, resonant in Rimbauds poetry, has offered some artists of our era a model not afforded elsewhere in a Anglo top-heavy tradition. Strangely enough, the influence of the room in the Hotel de Coutoure may have found, if not an ideal, at least a suitable home in the highly technological and peculiarly primitive imagination of modern America.
Tracking Rimbauds influence suggests that, as we catch up with Europe historically, we can expect similar poetic responses to our experience; responses that are due perhaps less to similar temperaments than to an ongoing situation, which if anything, is getting worse for poets and anyone else who still values the originality of ones own experience and the freedom to express it in ones own words. As Rimbaud foresaw in his lifetime, mercantilism has brought on an unprecedented slew of not only things-commodities-goods-but has extended its influence even further into the marketing of images and words. Perhaps Rimbauds poetry still speaks to us because we are still riding the wave of mercantilism and alienation that Rimbaud rode. Beneath the responses of two very different American poets, Jim Morrison, the Dionysian, and Tom Clark, the conceptual antagonist, one can hear muffled the hopeful, desperate warning of a French visionary.
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