A Calmer Unease: Tom Clark’s Truth Game

Tom Clark Cover ImageIf the biggest factor impacting poetry in the United States for the past forty years has been its professionalism, adapted from disciplines it doesn’t share many assumptions with, then a few questions about that impact are especially urgent.  What commitment can we possibly make to an art that’s thousands of years older than most of our institutions?  Does a professional poet have the authority that amateurs claim to possess?  Have we been trained that nothing passé deserves our attention?  Although Tom Clark’s new collection Truth Game offers a lot of pleasure, you can read it for reasons besides enjoyment too—strange as that may seem for anyone who has yet to encounter this writer, who calls himself “out of it”, “an old crank” and “a bore and a jerk.” 

Truth Game is the mellowest of Clark’s late work, but that’s not to say that a peaceful easy feeling is embracing him.  Actually, any serenity you find in his writing after about 1980 would be your own.  A reversal takes place between the calm of his books published by BlazeVox (five from 2010 to date, alongside his blog, Beyond the Pale) and the contrarianism of a middle-period run of nine books published by Black Sparrow Press from 1984 to 2000.  The late work starts with Light and Shade: New and Selected Poems (2006), published shortly before the New College of California closed its doors, where Clark taught for twenty years as a core faculty member in the Graduate Poetics program.  Light and Shade shows him using the Selected Poems as a form, cutting, revising and retitling his work in a way that recalls W.H. Auden, since Clark’s New and Selected is an interpretation that changes the meanings of the poems and the contours of the oeuvre.  At the time of publication, for those of us who’d been following his work, Light and Shade opened the way to a new period—one that reaches a milestone now with Truth Game.  Here the poet lets his urbanity and suavity take the lead as he hasn’t done since the early days—except in Truth Game, there aren’t any jokes.  Clark is a lot more serious now. The humor of old is nowhere to be seen in the blog where these poems first appeared, yet his moral conviction is in evidence online and in the printed poems.  Large ethical concerns multiply and proliferate.  And for this writer, the ethics of a poem aren’t confined within the poem’s content (its rhetoric)—instead they emerge from the poem’s relationships to the English language.  Ethos is prosody.

If prosody is a poetics, then we might be excused for thinking that it’s not typically American, but British—a British English poetics, moreover, of a certain orientation (and a certain era). Clark’s England is the England of early Pink Floyd. It’s also the England of Samuel Johnson, Ben Jonson, John Donne, Jonathan Swift, Thomas Wyatt, Andrew Marvell, John Keats, and William Wordsworth. Clark attended Cambridge University as a graduate student, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, who’d taught there, is a commanding presence in his work.  Clark also attended the University of Essex, where Donald Davie served as his advisor. From Davie, Clark absorbed a set of attitudes toward prosody and toward the written word as an artistic material. Davie’s attitude toward words was the product of several generations of war trauma on the island where he was born and grew up. The English experience of the two World Wars was communal and national in a way that no experience has ever been in the United States, with the possible exception of the Great Depression. The personal characteristic of individuality—that universally prized American trait, with its own sort of enforced conformity (or, to put it more accurately perhaps, the societal norm of individualism)—is for the midcentury English poets something very different: a concept with which one sees them engage fiercely, in a distress verging on panic that strikes one as tied to a larger public debate: an argument, not about identity per se, but about nationality, about Englishness, and about the end of an empire. Davie captured this widespread anxiety the most fully out of all the poets in his generation, because every aspect of his work expresses a deep ambivalence about the relationship between the ethics and the art of his day. Among Davie’s contemporaries and near-contemporaries, D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, Wilfred Owen, J.H. Prynne, F.R. Leavis and William Empson loom large for him; and so do Philip Larkin, Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes and J.R.R. Tolkien—but not in the same way.  At issue for Davie was the artist’s response to a general tragedy. His approach to the problem was to consider himself a writer who had a responsibility to the vernacular, and who endeavored to write well, in its service.

Davie’s attitude toward the English language is Clark’s as well. We can see it in Clark’s easy way with the mot juste and in his aversion to the sublime. Nonetheless, when Clark rocks the common tongue to the fullest, he waxes his most individualistic. Fiction is complex because of its unities, poetry because of its paradoxes. Clark grew up in Chicago, on the West side, a Catholic school kid and an usher at Wrigley Field. He went to college at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and was mentored by Donald Hall. In his early work, there’s a pleasure in Americana of all kinds. He lived on the Lower East Side and was a part of the New York School, second generation. He lived in Denver, Los Angeles, and Bolinas before settling in Berkeley. He edited the Paris Review for ten years and his first collection Stones was published by Harper & Row. He’s been married to Angelica Heinegg for forty-five years. At this juncture it’s fitting to mention what is perhaps the most salient point about this poet: the fact that he is a Poundian. Ezra Pound’s status in the postwar USA was not academic and canonical, but dark and risqué. (Side note: Clark was responsible for Ed Sanders’ pirated Fuck You edition of Cantos Drafts CX-CXVI, with a cover by Joe Brainard.) In any collection of Clark’s poems, the thematic breadth, the imaginative empathy, the interpretation of the histories of art and civilization, the appreciation of the natural world, the cosmology, the indignation at abuses of power, the analysis of economics, the scorn for mass culture, are all right out of Pound. We also find Pound’s influence in the way Clark took on the role of journalist, in “Stalin as a Linguist,” and exposed the Language poets’ esprit de corps and emphasis on theory (as well as certain Beat and New York School poets’ complicity in the association between Naropa University and Trungpa Rinpoche, in The Great Naropa Poetry Wars) as hypocrisy and careerism. And ultimately the source of Clark’s kind of individuality is not to be discovered in any of the biographies he has written—even of Kerouac, Olson, and Dorn: it is in his lifelong study of Pound, who, for all the problems he poses, promulgated grace in verse and intellectual honesty. And this emphasis returns us to the book of poems in hand.

Clark’s poetry is an art of culture rather than consciousness. His poems construct a persona, an isolato, a marginal figure who is preoccupied with the centralized, the sanctioned, and the celebrated. In Truth Game, this outsider self lodges the latest installment in a series of poems spanning many years that registers a distaste for Rainer Maria Rilke in the Stephen Mitchell translation. Clark rusticates Rilke in a hilarious parody:


from Elegies of the Far North

Who, if you cried out, would hear you in this village of the stone deaf
and eternally benumbed? Would they, to humour you
in your bewildered questionings, interrupt their rude
drinking games, their gropings in the violent dark of the cottages? and even if one
of the maids of the village, caught up in the solitude
which holds in its gentle palm the space around you at every moment of this world, her rustic
dirndl stained by the splashed droppings of the cattle she so lovingly tends, were to
leave off early from the labours of the husky barn
and press you against her breast heart: you would be consumed
in that overwhelming existence.


In its parody of the opening lines of the first Duino Elegy, this poem ridicules the tendency among American poets to fetishize a translation of an author’s work as if it were not translated—and therefore culturally mediated—but instead, somehow open to a free interpretation. Clark’s long periodic sentences, plural gerunds, British English orthography, and awkward collocations (“her breast heart”) transpose the foreignness of the original onto the thematic plane, and his replacement of “the angelic orders” of the original with the implied provincialism of “the village” warns readers against taking translations out of context and endowing them with qualities they do not possess. In the case of the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus, a generation of American poets of diverse orientations accorded to Rilke’s poetry a spiritual authority which—Clark’s poem implies—is really just a religiose wheedling that has more to do with those Americans’ wish to be distinguished from their peers than with what we can identify within the text by way of the humbler, more exacting, but less showy, means of literary analysis. But the true artfulness of “From Elegies of the Far North” can be found in its vocabulary, particularly in a word choice which not only affords pleasure but also invokes a set of premises as to how meaning is made in a poem. The epithet in the phrase “the husky barn” evokes a specific time and place in the history of poetry—the 18th century in England, when the “-y” adjective was in vogue—but, more importantly, this phrase lands unequivocally on one side of an old debate, precisely by evoking a past moment in poetry at all. “The husky barn” is nothing if not a piece of poetic diction, referential, polyvalent, stylized—and at several removes from a selection of the language really spoken by people. Letting the writing make his claims for him, so to speak, Clark shows in a few words what would take many another writer (the present reviewer, for one) a paragraph to explain: the tendency of context to problematize and forestall transcendence.

To the writer who is susceptible to the varying demands of subject matter, a stark circumstance may stake a peculiar claim to the attention, setting in motion a response that’s apt in tone to that dimension and scale. It is impossible to read the title of “Fallen (Forest of the Argonne)” without thinking not only of the soldiers who died on the battlefield but also of the Biblical post-lapsarian condition of humankind—who, the story goes, are gone from the Grace of the Earthly Paradise of innocence, and find themselves lost in a wilderness, a forest, of conflict: “They died / a century ago without ever knowing the fate of the fallen German machine gunners / whose charred remains became compost amid the general spill of / composted remains littering the grassy field beyond the decimated / tree stumps at the edge of the Forest of Argonne.” The gravity of he poem’s three declarative sentences, for all their dispassion, is delicately balanced, draped across the line ends, such that a pause in the mind’s breath saves the reader by the difference of a single syllable from having to accommodate a too-insistent rhythm, a too-hasty tempo. “Fallen (Forest of the Argonne),” as the reader may infer upon consulting the blog entry where it first appeared, was occasioned by viewing a series of archival photographs from the First World War. Other poems in Truth Game are explicitly ekphrastic, among them “Dürer: The Quarry”, “Oculus (Mantegna, Ceiling Oculus, Mantua / Pantheon, Rome)”, and “Advertising (Walker Evans, Alabama / Tennessee, 1936).” The culture and history of visual imagery, in an era of digital mass-sourcing and mass-distribution via screen technology, figures prominently in this collection as one of its contexts within contemporaneity. Clark’s blog project is not unlike others that have been inspired by the Arcades of Walter Benjamin. In Benjamin’s book, a collage largely composed of found material, meaning is made by the viewer, through inference, from a multiplicity of juxtaposed images and intertextual connections and disconnections. It is as if a solitary but watchful subject strode through the global dustbin of history, and, by his misperception of that world as a fascinating place, brought it to life for his chance companions.

A pronounced autobiographical strain, which hasn’t been conspicuously fictionalized, runs through several poems in Truth Game, notably “(Post) Moderne,” with its anecdote of lost innocence in the presence of mortality, its period detail, its unfussy tale of a time before the protagonist put childhood away, its intimation of a Yeatsian entropy: “Things would be very different in that imagined brilliant future / things would no longer require being mended / because they would never fall apart.” No less energetic and affecting a revelation of vulnerability is offered in “Nocturnal Resolutions”: “Be opaque / Have no memory / Make no attempt to be understood / Stop suffering fools ... ” The knowledge that these injunctions would be impossible to carry out is registered with the word “Try.” Only in the last line, “Don’t turn on the light,” does the poet concede his certitude that his own resolutions are futile even though they must be made, and he adds the Latin “aetat 72”—short for “in the 72nd year of his life”—to indicate why his poem betrays the necessity to write these lines, addressing himself while at the same time revealing that the piece can’t be left to stand as a list poem rattling off unqualified rules of thumb like so many tips for good living. For this poet, the autobiographical impulse leads to a particular sort of fiction, dramatizing a persona that, although articulate, remains immature in its inability to conceal a state of psychic estrangement—and the subject perseveres, unaware (or willfully ignorant) of being at odds with his self, irreconcilable or unresolved. There was a time when Clark would have set his autobiographical character at odds with what he has termed “the administered world,” and not only at midnight. In handling this trope—the personality as a sop to society—“Nocturnal Resolutions” shows Clark developing an ever-so-slightly-more nuanced perspective.

A decade and a half into the new millennium, the poetic figure of the Self as the antithesis of socially constructed identity shows every sign of being here to stay, and Clark reasserts the universal and perennial nature of this relationship, in his translation of a poem by the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro (1893-1948). Clark’s version contains two slight but notable variations on the original. Here is the piece:


Vicente Huidobro: Poetry is a Celestial Transgression

I’m not here but at the depths of this not being here
There is a waiting for myself
And this vigil is another way of being here a waiting
For myself to come back into myself
While waiting I go out
Into other
In this going out I give away a little of my life
To certain trees certain stones
That have been waiting for me
All these years
Tired of waiting they have given up hope and fallen back
Into themselves

I’m not and I am
I’m not here and I am here
In a waiting
They wanted
My language
To express them
And I wanted theirs
To express
And in this lay the mistake the great
This pathetic state
Carving myself deeper into these plants
My clothes falling away from my bones
My bones reclothing themselves in bark
I’m beginning to feel like I’ve become
A tree I’ve been changing myself
Into so many other things how dolorous
How tender

I could cry out but this cry would frighten away the desired
Must keep silent Waiting completely


For the reader inclined to notice this sort of thing, the opening lines of Clark’s version delightfully recalls the recent film I’m Not Here, in which a number of actors play Bob Dylan at different stages of his career. (Clark and Dylan are exact contemporaries, both born in 1941. Clark’s relationship with a younger rock ’n’ roll generation bears mention as well: Steven Malkmus and the Jicks recently used one of Clark’s paintings as an album cover.) And the reader who knows even a little Spanish will infer with pleasure that the word “dolorous” is a deliberate mistranslation of doloroso, which simply means “painful.” And a glance at the original text confirms one’s suspicion that the translator intends his changes in diction and lineation to elevate the tone of the literal English.

Two of these interpretive alterations are worth notice. First, Clark renders Huidobro’s line Se cansaron de esperarme y se sentaron (“They got tired of waiting for me and sat down”) as “Tired of waiting for me they have given up hope and fallen back / Into themselves”—reducing to absurdity the mild pathetic fallacy of the original text by intensifying the objects’ impatience beyond exasperation and into despair: a condition, the translation implies, that’s far closer to our own experience, however distant the inanimate things of the physical universe may remain from us in their ipseity that so obviously lacks any characteristic with which their human neighbors can identify themselves, short of indulging in self-deception or plummeting into insanity.

The second of Clark’s changes is more elusive, being tonal in nature. Huidobro’s text reads He aquí el equivoco el atroz equivoco, and Clark renders it “And in this lay the mistake the great / Error,” where a conjunction, a syntactic inversion, a different verb (He is an auxiliary verb that means “I have”), the substitution of “great” for atroz (“awful”), the lack of repetition of equivoco (“mistake”) due to a substitution of “Error” for that noun in its second occurrence, and a line broken between a modifier and a substantive which then stands isolated as a line unto itself—all of these factors together make for the transformation of a mild (in any case individual) melancholy into a cataclysm whose consequences threaten to prove species-wide if not cosmic. Capitalized and isolated, “Error” reminds the reader of its etymology: to err is to stray, and this intensified reading of Huidobro justifies itself by the original’s transformation of objects into written words via a “desired / Transubstantiation”—the metaphor is of course taken from Christian cosmology, and it’s within this context that the tonal associations of Clark’s diction begin to sharpen. The translator’s phrase is Dantescan and Miltonic: its nearest precedent is in Inferno III, where Dante sees a Pope who made il gran rifiuto, “the great refusal” of service or duty, and who now indicated by his presence in the entryway to Hell why he and his fellow sufferers were condemned to languish there: they had not chosen to be either good or evil while alive. Clark’s “great / Error” carries over into his version of Huidobro a modicum of this ambivalence, and in doing so implies a present-day secularized cosmology in which such lapsed systems as Dante’s have left a trace—barely discernible, perhaps, but still there all the same. Which is to say that Clark’s text is not only a translation but also a poem.

In this respect, the piece belongs to a tradition comprising material translated into English—sometimes a phrase or line, sometimes passages and whole poems—beginning with Chaucer’s borrowings from Boccaccio and The Romance of the Rose, to Wyatt’s versions of Petrarch, to Johnson’s Juvenal, to Pound’s Propertius and many others besides. The domestication of a poem written in a foreign language, via the creation of a tone for it in the destination language, expands the resources available to poets; and the history of English literature and the English language, bound up as they are with imperial conquest, exposes as exoticism any approach to translation that falls short of a sophisticated method like Clark’s, with its formalism and restraint—crediting the author of the original and gesturing in the direction of homage, while still observing the conventions of a “straight” translation.

In our moment, the insistence that all human society is globalized reaches our ears by way of a futurist nomenclature on loan from American English. A body of work in poetry which does not demonstrate its author’s awareness of the spoken tongue’s potentially debased condition will limit itself to purely escapist pleasures. The content of contemporary American English tech jargon is doctrinal and propagandistic, and although of course a poet writing in the American English language need not unpack the ultramodern terminology of domination, or indeed even allude to it at all, one way to deal with the widespread attempt to impose a perverse intention upon the common tongue is to define the phenomena taking place. This is Clark’s method in “Network”:


A “natural” state of things
may or may not
ever have obtained.
That no longer matters.
The thought of a “natural”
state of things troubles
and distracts.
The time of nature has passed
like the dinosaurs.
All that is left,
effectively, is the present
drawing towards it
as a magnet attracts
iron filings
the mechanical regime
of a future
from which the players of the game,
as in bubbles
by their socially enforced subscription
to what is perceived
as an inevitable
and necessary
would not be able to escape
even if the inchoate impulse to escape
were to become a conscious motive.


The supposition that all human beings, by virtue of living within the confines of a society, subscribe to its conditions of membership, and thereby become its de facto members, is a conventional Enlightenment premise, and this contractual metaphor was famously elaborated by Rousseau, although it’s at least as old as Plato, whose Crito debated unconvincingly against a similar argument proposed by Socrates. It’s no accident therefore that “Network” also features the conventional Enlightenment metaphor for the separation of private experience from social discourse: the shipwreck, the castaway, “cut adrift, / stranded.” Only by way of allegorical narratives of isolation, written in the style of reportage, has a reading public imagined its condition as if from the outside, gaining a new perspective on modern societies where the notion of progress exerts massive power in the domain of opinion.

Network is the stitching by which a net is woven, and a net is an implement in which to trap an animal. In this light it’s instructive to note that the concept of nature is a late formulation, one that could only have come after our estrangement from its referent. As such, nature is an over-refinement, effete, backward and destructive, positing a separation between—to use Rousseau’s terms—civil society and a state of nature. The doctrine of progress and the ideology of conquest have always been fast bedfellows; and domestic arrangements, so to speak, have always gone hand in hand with commitments abroad. According to the new means of disseminating propaganda, we’re told that non-networked commitments and loyalties don’t matter until they’re updated, presumably because they aren’t supported by these new means. Moreover, in the brave new dispensation, we’re told that a tradition only exists as an image transmitted for mass consumption: in this future, the ancient art of poetry is a sarcastic joke. Hence—in reply as it were—the flat tone of “Network,” its repetitions, its tediousness, its dull statement of what is undeniably the case, its hopeless explanation of the perfectly obvious.

The curiosity, the appalled amazement, the admiration and respectful scrutiny of our fellow creatures here on Earth—things that, depending on the view we take of them, may disclose an idea to the imagination—makes up a significant portion of modern poetry. The nonhuman world has a place in Clark’s oeuvre too. Within Truth Game, it appears in a piece called “The Cranes Are Flying”: “Overhead, against / a high / cloud-spackled / November sky // the cranes come calling ... ” A stateliness in the flock’s ability to move instinctively in concert bespeaks the dignity of the organism and the species. A birdwatcher’s eye extends its warmth to these graceful beasts for their difference from us, evoking their long migratory flight with a succinctly respectful echo of William Carlos Williams.

In the title poem of Truth Game, Clark the fabulist reminds us that the early names of the art of poetry include trobar—“finding”—where a poet was a troubadour, a finder, someone who could find the words: “the people said / ‘We can’t find the words’ / The people sounded like lost children then / ‘The words have given up on us’ / ‘We can’t explain ... ’” Words and their meanings can’t exist without us, yet they only betray their indifference to our concerns. Words and their meanings throw us back upon ourselves in the knowledge that the universe, where by sheer accident we happen to be living (unless it’s all a dream), is not anthropocentric. And that’s a good thing. We might also observe that our condition—the impossibility of arriving at a truth except by way of playing at truth-telling—finds expression in “Truth Game” without pathos, but also without froideur. Drawing a comparison, between people who have lost the words they need to say, and children who can’t find their parents, sets off a deep resonance in the imagination, because even though innocence is lost to us, we retain a belief that innocence exists, and on occasion we even momentarily regain it.

Among much else that falls outside the scope of a book review, themes and patterns in Tom Clark’s body of work breathe the spirit of continuity, which animates all poetry of a conservative bent. I’m using the term “conservative” advisedly, to indicate a class of poetry that conserves traditions by serving them. Clark’s achievement is a synthesis of disparate modes, sustained, expanded and refined over many years. Exceptional consistency and centeredness characterize that synthesis. It assimilates any new style or method its author comes into contact with. Truth Game represents a new movement in this progression, toward calm.


Originally from Los Angeles, Erik Noonan attended Hampshire College and the New College of California, earning an M.A. in the Graduate Poetics program, where he wrote a thesis on the midcentury American poet Paul Blackburn. He is the author of the poetry collections Stances and Haiku d’Etat, and he has translated the prizewinning French author Pierre Michon. His poems and criticism appear in The Denver Quarterly; Invisible Bear; 32 Poems Magazine; [sic]: a Journal of Literature, Culture, and Literary Translation; Forum; and Cross-Strokes: Poetry Between Los Angeles and San Francisco.