Monday, July 23, 2007

Poetry Book of the Week: Tom Clark's Light & Shade

I am reading Tom Clark's selected poems, Light & Shade. Tom is the epitome of the minor poet; the journeyman, the friend of better known writers.

There's nothing wrong with his poems. Well, actually there is. His poems are good, not great. You can pick up his book and find several poems that grab your attention. A phrase here or an image there that holds true and shines. But then you'll read for pages inwardly shrugging your shoulders.

The fact is, Clark's poems are better than most of what's out there. They aren't obscure (intentionally), they aren't pretentious, they don't pretend to be something they are not. His poems are, as a whole, a fairly complete record of a man's life, his thoughts, and his milieu. Clark writes out of his experience and the settings of his poems read like the travelogue of a life: New York, San Francisco, Europe, Santa Barbara, etc.

Unfortunately, Clark's thoughts and expressions are just not very deep. It is a damning assessment of a person's life and artistic work to say so, but I am afraid it is both true and far too often the case with modern poets. Clark isn't alone. And of the horde of minor poets, he's actually quite good. But it doesn't get better than that.

So I am reading his book and I am finding things to enjoy. But I am thinking more about why it was written than what was written. And although I'll probably read it to the end, I don't expect I'll be going back to it any time soon. If ever. I'd like to like the book more, but I don't think that will happen.


Susan Kay Anderson said...

I think you are an incredible chump.

Andrew Gent said...

Well, that is succinct. Sorry you feel that way.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Andrew, listen to this...

from Tom Clark's Distance pg. 62, poem is "Light In The Window"
"The singer lit his purest
candle and placed it in
the window of the fleeting

What do you think? Is there any way to describe what is happening in this poem besides reading it over and over again and being amazed?

Andrew Gent said...

Susan, I am glad you like Tom Clark’s poems. Part of the joy of art is that we can -- we must -- interpret it through the lens of our own experience and values. Our response to art is connected to the emotions, the “gut”, as much as it is about logical understanding.

That said, after a while you feel the impulse to say more than just “I like this... and this... and that one... but not that one...” You start to recognize what triggers your appreciation of the art work. Again, this is not a precise science -- one can never totally rationalize one’s responses and there are always happy incidents where something completely unexpected enthralls you. But understanding what it is you respond to, why, and how it works helps make discussion of art both interesting and informative (and, at its best, enlarges our own appreciation of the form). My posts concerning poetry and art are part of my personal exploration of what makes me tick, aesthetically speaking.

So, for example, in the case of the lines you cite, I recognize them as a permutation of the song “Morning Glory” by Tim Buckley. Clark points this out when he says “The singer lit...”. Obviously he is incorporating the song into the overall experience of the poem’s narrator.

What I respond to most strongly here is the phrase “the fleeting house”. Why? Because that is the line that struck me most and stays with me today, forty some years after I first heard it as sung by Al Kooper and Blood, Sweat & Tears.

But for me, Clark’s use of the song, or his poem, doesn’t enhance or extend the experience in any significant way.

If you are not familiar with the song, the poem might have a very different affect on you. Again, that is part of the subjectiveness of art. Or perhaps you think he does more to integrate and enlarge the song as part of the poem than I do.

I never said Tom is a bad poet. In fact, one of the reasons I felt compelled to write about him is my frustration that, as good a writer as he is, his poems should be better than they are!

Susan Kay Anderson said...

What do you think "house" could really signify? Do you think it could be a symbol for the body? Or for this physical experience that we have that is so fleeting?

It is best to read Clark's poetry slowly in order for them to do their magical hard-core cruises via roundabouts.

Maybe Clark's poetry asks us to put ourselves aside, as great art tends to do...put aside our opinions, references, over-thinking and start unwrapping the bandages that have encased us for so long in an ancient crypt point of view.

Andrew Gent said...

Susan, you seem to miss my point. The "fleeting house" line was written by Tim Buckley in his song, not by Tom Clark. It is an impressive image, but it is not Tom's and I don't think Tom does much to alter or improve it from its original context.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Do you think Clark could be using irony here or playing with perception of distances and what is close and what is far, especially when you look at the lines here and how they seem to wrap around in the above? Do you think Clark is writing about music (he does mention a singer, after all) and maybe puts in this reference so we can move sideways with this in feeling something other than what the words themselves are telling us. Maybe the image that we see is what is being played with.
Now, take a very famous poem called, "Smiling Starbucks Faces" from a famous blog called Hawaii Teacher Detective...yes it is my poem and my blog but that is very beside the point, or is it? Anyway, Andrew, for that poem, I took what was playing in Starbucks and wrote it down. I found this was a way I wanted to document that particular place/time/space in time: poetic time.

Check it out, Andrew. Perhaps Clark was not practicing something so mundane but he does a lot of playing around with language, especially the poetic line.

Could Clark be doing the same in this poem?

And Andrew, I don't want to insult you, but missing the point is what I am good at, really. This is how I get enjoyment from what I read. It is the residue which intrigues me and lead me to read more. I think that poems and poet do all sorts of things we might not be aware of. Not at all and certainly not if we expect only super duper original or raw things from a poem.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

I forgot to add that try as we might, we will never be as cool, as couth as Clark, but there's always next year. I don't know about you, but I keep trying. Happy New Year, Andrew! Have you tried Clark's Truth Game? At least you might enjoy peeking inside to see why a giant slide would be on the cover. This book might help you appreciate the others or maybe even lead you to hate them even least you won't remain unaffected or blase' about any of his poems after reading it.