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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

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