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:
F e a t u r e s /
W e l t o n 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.
Note 1 Bellingham D., ‘Thomas A. Clark in Conversation with David Bellingham’, Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry 11(1). (2019) https://doi.org/10.16995/ bip.756
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