Friday, May 05, 2006

A Note on Jack Clarke

Jack (or, more properly, John) Clarke was a singularly significant figure in the circle around Charles Olson during Olson's years at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He worked with Albert Glover to develop the Curriculum of the Soul, based on Olson's prospectus, after Olson left. He was a Blake scholar, a jazz pianist, and, of course, a poet. I met him once, at a west side bar named Maxl's, where he was playing into the wee hours in the middle of the week, but I never had a class with him, or conversation of any depth. Friends, though, did take his classes, and thought him a man of broad and deep intellectual gifts, and a brilliant teacher. I know him mostly by his books From Feathers to Iron and In the Analogy - and both are rich and, at times (at least for me), challenging texts, well worth spending days and nights with. From Feathers ... could be described as a book in visionary poetics and cosmology, and speaks from a location whose coordinates included not just the work of Blake and Olson, but also, equally, the conversations of the Dogon sage Ogotemmeli, the Encyclopedia of Novalis, and ... how about the reflections of Ornette Coleman? If Creeley continued Olson's exploration of poetics on a practical level, Clarke pushed Olson's intellectual adventure into further territories, where it became his own.

He also wrote some fine poems. In the Analogy, published in 1997, after Clarke's death, a collection of more than 200 (nothing like any other) epic (yes) sonnets, is probably his defining work as a poet, but From Feathers ... , published in 1987, contains in its extraordinary notes a range of his earlier poems. Here's one:

Now Reason Is Past Care

The lovely sound of the rain
dropping from the eaves on to
the alley pavement with time
measuring the advancing thunder
makes me think of you as those
two extremes of nature, beautiful
& raging, calm & silent as the rose
yet loud & earth-shaking when full
of the storm you were meant to herald,
a siren says something must be struck
with lightning, a mere by-product
of the clashing forces, not to harm all
the whole town, you in your gown
at last secure from the renown.

Ken Irby hints at the scope of Clarke's project in the cover text for the book, noting that From Feathers... "is a rich and subtle poetics of world attention, from the closest parts of the self on ... We are given 'an historical grammar of poetic myth,' but carried far beyond Robert Graves' sense of that."

Far, far beyond.

Till now, oddly, there's been no resource for Clarke's biography or work on the net. So today I created a Wikipedia page for him, just a brief entry based on the note about the author at the end of In the Analogy. I hope others who knew him, who studied with him, who've read him, will fill it out over time and help make Clarke's work available to a new generation of poets and readers.

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Anonymous Kevin Goodman said...

Hi Jeff

Nice to see something on Clark. Michael Flanigan had been a friend and student of his and will be dedicating a show at Blogtalkradio in his tribute. I don't know exactly when or which show it will be but the schedule can be found at

The next show will be a tribute to Charles Olson who was also a close friend and mentor to Michael.

Michael was poet-in-residence at Buffalo State College from 69-71. I don't want to be overly promotional but I think the background information helps. Michael is a great story teller and I'm sure he'll have info on Clark and Olson that's not been shared yet.

But your right there’s not a whole lot of reference on Clark which is interesting because he was certainly an intellectual giant. I myself have not read any of Clarks work other than the poem you offered but I hope to get my hands on the books you referenced.

Thanks Jeff

1:30 PM  

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