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This article is taken from PN Review 256, Volume 47 Number 2, November - December 2020.

Thomas A. Clark: Into actual space Matthew Welton
In June 2017 I approached Carcanet with the idea of producing a volume of Selected Poems by Thomas A. Clark. The process of putting the book together has involved going through dozens of pamphlets, cards and other small paper objects mostly published by Clark’s own Moschatel press. The aim has been to create something that, in the context of a bound book of around two hundred pages, will serve the poems as sympathetically as those original publications.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the poetry of Thomas A. Clark is its aesthetic. Clark’s poetry is recognizable for its simplicity, quietness and attention, and these values are present both in what the poems are saying, and in the way it is said. Most of the poems in the volume of selected poems, The Threadbare Coat, were first published by Moschatel, the small press Clark and his wife, the artist Laurie Clark, set up in 1973. In the original editions, the aesthetic goes even further, and presentation becomes an aspect of the form.

Each Moschatel publication usually features a single poem. In some instances the poem is very short – some poems have only a few lines, and some have only one line. In the poems that break down into stanzas, each stanza usually has a page to itself, even if that means two lines to a page. Some of the shorter poems are presented on a single sheet of card, around the size of a postcard. Sometimes that sheet is folded, like a birthday card, which, importantly, allows it to stand up. Some of the publications come in envelopes, and in some the pages are bound in a cover of a contrasting colour, and the binding is often stitched by hand. Some Moschatel publications present drawings by Laurie Clark, often of a small bird or a wildflower, alongside the poem. There are poems in which some of the words are in printed in colours other than black. The paper and card from which all these publications are made is of good quality, the kind of materials found at an art supplies store. Moschatel editions do not have ISBN numbers.

Making presentation an aspect of the form in this way means that all aspects of the presentation – layout of the page, illustration, paper, sequencing – may be part of the meaning or feeling of the poem. The turning of the page, for instance, can be a more tangible revelation than a stanza break or a line break, so allowing a line or stanza a page of its own will slow the pace of a poem. There is arguably an ethical aspect too: if something is sufficiently important or special to be included in a poem, then giving it a little more space in this way may mean the reader will give it a little more attention.

A stanza from Clark’s poem of woods & water (forty-eight delays) might stand as something of a manifesto for this approach:

you will have to walk
all round it to see it
you will have to stay
with it to know it

In publishing with his own press, Thomas A. Clark has been able to approach poetic form in a way that includes every aspect of the poems’ presentation. This understanding also takes in poetic form in a more conventional sense. In Clark’s poems, the regular aspects of poetic structure, such as line and stanza, and the ways in which the language is used play a significant part in creating meaning.

With much of Clark’s early writing, the work of concrete poets such as Eugen Gomringer and Dom Sylvester Houédard was a strong influence. Concrete poetry was something that Clark felt offered a stillness in the poem that rivalled signs or advertising – and therefore a way into a non-literary culture – and a basic vocabulary and lack of expertise.

The poem ‘by kilbrannan sound’ shows how Clark makes use of the conceptual aspect of concrete poetry in his own writing. The poem consists of eight lines, each of which includes a single phrase. The opening line is ‘the glare of a black stone’, and each of the lines that follow is identical except that, for example, in the second line ‘glare’ is swapped to ‘gleam’, and in the third, to ‘glimmer’. The pattern of substituting a word which begins with the consonant cluster ‘gl’, and refers to the way light behaves continues to the end of the poem. The poem’s form is playful and direct and functions as much as a kind of discovery about language as the expression of a feeling or idea.

That sense of the poem as object, as a small carefully made thing, has persisted in Clark’s practice. Like a small artwork, a poem that can be taken in almost at a glance can be held in the mind and carried around. This perhaps fits with the way people often remember not whole poems but lines and phrases. There are resonances and echoes around words, so the small poem, like a stone dropped into water, can ripple out.

In many of Clark’s other poems, line and stanza are used in ways that appear more conventional. Again though, there is an attention and a quietness in the way these elements are used that contributes to the effect. Within each poem the stanzas are generally regular in length, often of four lines. The lines are also regular, and in many poems are of no more than six or eight syllables. The way the lines function feels like an important part of Clark’s poetry: each line ends where the phrase ends. Within a longer sentence, these line-endings often mark a turn in the attention, and never feel like the kind of break that fractures the sense of the poem.

The folk song or poem is one influence here, and Lorine Niedecker and early Ian Hamilton Finlay – both poets influenced by folk poetry – are others. The modesty, the anonymity and the country feel of folk poetry and music find an echo in Clark’s poems. The writing is not some grand literary endeavour but, like a jig or a slow air, something that matters without lasting too long.

The music of language contributes to the form of the poems in other ways too. Many of Thomas A. Clark’s poems do not use punctuation, yet the rhythm of the phrasing and the sense of what is being said mean its absence does not feel like a loss.

The opening stanza of ‘at dusk & at dawn’ gives a good illustration of Thomas A. Clark’s approach to form:

before the day begins
or when the business of the day
is over there are intervals
densities of blue or grey
when you stand on the brink
of a different possibility
a stillness that opens
out into clarity or
a subtlety that folds
back into stillness again
you might almost touch it
an occasion in the air
as steady as a great tree
branching into delicate life

It is one of a number of Clark’s poems that use fourteen-line stanzas though, while it may take the form of a sonnet, there is none of the usual formality. Instead, the movement of the poem brings a series of small surprises which might refresh the way we think of things.

The lack of punctuation here is unlike the lack of punctuation in some avant-garde poems where the unsettling of readerly assumptions is the aim. In Clark’s poems, a momentary hesitation might allow the reader a means of sharpening wits, and deepening their connection to the poem.

Another feature common to Clark’s poetry is the use of the second-person pronoun. It is a subtle innovation that opens up a number of possibilities. The poems are not necessarily tied to Clark as a protagonist. While he may, of course, be talking to myself, he might also be addressing a companion. And this technique may be a way of putting the reader at the centre of the action. In that sense it is ‘you’, the reader, who walks up a hill or stands by a loch.

A pithy view might be that Clark’s poems bring together the lyrical elements of folk song and the conceptual approach of concrete poetry in a way that erodes the distinction between those two genres. Even his shortest, most formally playful poems, like ‘the earthly paradise’ or ‘cress & mint’, are rich in imagery and rhythmic phrasing. And the poems that seem to speak most from experience and to be most firmly rooted in nature, such as ‘from a grey notebook’, play with language in ways that create parallels and variations.

Over a lifetime of writing, Thomas A. Clark’s work perhaps aligns more closely to the kind of practice common in the visual arts than to the approach of many poets. The connection may be most evident in his and Laurie Clark’s work in running Cairn, the gallery they first set up in Nailsworth in Gloucestershire and later at their home in Pittenweem in Fife. The connection is there, too, in the integration of Laurie Clark’s drawings with Thomas A. Clark’s poems in many Moschatel publications. Rather than simply illustrating the poems, the drawings give character. Their precision and lyricism matches that of the writing. And over a number of publications, the coherence of the visual and the poetic become gives the body of work a sense of continuity.

The bringing together of poetry and visual art is also an element of the influence Ian Hamilton Finlay has had on Thomas A. Clark’s work. This influence may be felt both in the poetry and in the way Finlay’s Wild Hawthorn Press may be seen as providing the example that Moschatel has followed.

A sharp insight into that influence is given in the approach to the materiality of the poem, revealed by Thomas A. Clark in conversation with David Bellingham at a symposium on Clark’s work held at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh in 2016:

Ian Hamilton Finlay, who in the mid-sixties, about the time that I first met him, made this astonishing little discovery that if you took a piece of card, and folded it in half, it could stand up and support itself. And then if you take the words and put them on the front of the card, something equally astonishing happens, which is that poetry comes out of the imaginative space, out of literary space, and into actual space.1

This refusal of literary space has a parallel in the ways in which Moschatel publications have been offered for sale. Without spines or ISBN numbers, much of Clark’s poetry has been unavailable through bookshops, and it has been either from Thomas A. Clark himself at poetry readings or from Laurie Clark at small publishers’ fairs or artists’ book events that readers have been able to get hold of the work.

The ways in which Moschatel books are produced and sold might be understood as being a good fit for the modesty and intimacy of the poems. In refusing the conventions of production and exchange in this way, the press may be thought of as offering a quietly radical alternative to the practices of mainstream publishing. Taken together, the ethic of the press and the aesthetic of the writing offer readers a unique approach to how the practice of poetry might be carried out.

  1. Bellingham D., ‘Thomas A. Clark in Conversation with David Bellingham’, Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry 11(1). (2019)

This article is taken from PN Review 256, Volume 47 Number 2, November - December 2020.

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