Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Walking into Poetry

I’ve always liked the idea of walking into a poem. Certain kinds of poets walk their way into their poems. They take walks and compose poems out of what they see, as in the case of Charles Reznikoff in his walks around New York, or they use walks to work out a poem, finding in the physical rhythm of the walk an inner rhythm that releases the imagination. I think of Jacques Réda out for his daily fix of asphalt in the vingtième, whose whole aesthetic is constructed out of his explorations of the spaces around him, or of a poet like Thomas A Clark who also walks very deliberately into poetry, whose daily practice of walking is the reason and impetus for the work. And this is where the notion becomes interesting. It's not simply that a poet engages in an activity, goes hill-climbing or flyfishing or haunting second hand bookshops, but that there's a synthesis between the activity and the deepest intentions of the poetry. What follows is in part an exploration of what it means to walk into poetry.

‘Standing Still and Walking in Strath Nethy: An Interview with Thomas A Clark’ by Alec Finlay (Edinburgh Review 94, Autumn 1995) begins with a quotation from Mandelstam speculating on the relationship between walking and prosody:

The question occurs to me - and quite seriously - how many shoe soles, how many ox-hide soles Alighieri wore out in the course of his poetic work, wandering about on the goat paths of Italy. The Inferno and especially the Purgatorio glorify the human gait, the measure and rhythm of walking, the foot and its shape. The step, linked to the breathing and saturated with thought: this Dante understands is the beginning of prosody.
Osip Mandelstam, THE NOISES OF TIME, trans. by Clarence Brown

This, though, is the least interesting aspect of the subject, as Clark is quick to point out – ‘I'm not really sure that the rhythm of walking gets into the poems much at all'. What interests Clark and affects his practice is how the walk can remove his mind from its normal routines and provide a separate, defined physical space, ‘a time in parenthesis, a contemplative time’.

You walk out of your usual context, into a more open relation with things. Hopefully, you arrive at a clarity, an immediacy of perception, and you lend attention to that, stay with whatever is happening, internally as well as externally, instead of being displaced into the past or future, instead of being caught up in an attitude.

(‘Standing Still and Walking in Strath Nethy: An Interview with Thomas A Clark’)

A walk, in this sense, is a stepping outside of the self; it is necessarily a journey, a movement away from routine into perception. There's a link here between walking and immediacy: the poet who walks keeps his eyes open, and senses alert. There is a relationship between what is seen and what is written down, the poetry is in the encounter. Clark’s poems are in fact ‘more about standing still than about walking’, and this stillness is at the heart of walking into a poem. He makes a distinction between a walk and a journey:

Early one morning, any morning, we can set out, with the least possible baggage, and discover the world.

It is quite possible to refuse all the coercion, violence, property, triviality, to simply walk away.

That something exists outside ourselves and our preoccupations, so near, so readily available, is our greatest blessing.

Walking is the human way of getting about.

Always everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with paths, visible and invisible, symmetrical or meandering.
A journey implies a destination, so many miles to be consumed, while a walk is its own measure, complete at every point along the way.

The pace of a walk will determine the number and variety of things to be encountered, from the broad outlines of a mountain range to a tit's nest among the lichen, and the quality of attention that will be brought to bear upon them.
from ‘In Praise of Walking’

If walking becomes an exceptional activity it loses flavour; it is the ordinariness and dailiness that interests Clark. To have any meaning it needs to be constant and unencumbered.

In walking you should travel light, carry as little as possible. It’s a simplification of the kind used in philosophy or science. By a process of distancing, or selecting, you mark out an area of enquiry. It seems to be the case that as you leave behind your everyday consciousness you come closer to things, to natural objects and their particular ways of being.
(Standing Still and Walking in Strath Nethy: An Interview with Thomas A Clark)

Pleasure, perception, lightness. To read the prose poems of Distance and Proximity is to be conscious of their silence: physically, in that the pieces are a series of short declarations surrounded by white space but also because their response to the world is that of a mind that has been cleansed of thought or self or the myriad of accompanying noises we surround ourselves with. Clark’s verses and prose poems are trying to find a way of inhabiting the world with the lightest human print possible, as in the opening line of ‘Jouissance’: ‘The first of all pleasures is that things exist in and for themselves.’

Clark’s walking is a deliberate, unhurried activity. It’s not a frenetic rush through the landscape. It doesn’t attempt to be comprehensive or particularly active. Nor is there any attempt to insert the self into the natural world through anthropomorphic fantasy or Wordsworthian egotistical sublime. There’s no Hughesian fever for a kind of total description, with all the resources of the language deployed for empathetic alignment with nature in its force and ferocity. What there is instead is a meditative sparsity, a minimalist paring down of things to their essential aspects. The language is presentational rather than analaytic and the human relationship with nature isn’t so much problematised as gently foregrounded. Clark’s relationship with the natural world is essentially celebratory. ‘It’s important to realise that both the poems and the walks are in answer to a movement of desire – for clear air, silence, responsiveness, in the midst of a life, no different from anybody’s life, in which these are largely absent.’ (Standing Still interview)

The poems do note and observe but the mode isn’t descriptive and the rapture is kept well in check .This may come partly from the sense that the poems don’t set themselves any agendas in advance – their commitment to a kind of contingent discovery means that the poems tend to function in a zone of calm alertness. It may also have something to do with the fact that Clark has ‘always kept a distance from the idea that the writer is someone who knows or feels something special which is expressed in the writing’. Part of the freedom, and the quietude, of the lines stems from that sense of having ‘nothing to say’. Nothing, that is, which is predetermined; the attempt instead is to let the world, observed and attended to, inscribe itself on the poet’s mind:

as I walked out early
into the order of things
the world was up before me
as I stepped out bravely
the very camber of the road
turned me to its purpose
it was on a morning early
I put design behind me
hear us and deliver us
to the hazard of the road
in all the anonymous places
where the couch grass grows
watch over us and keep us
to the temper of the road

from ‘Sixteen Sonnets’

These lines are typical – the world up before him, allowing himself to be led by the road, putting ‘design’ behind him and putting his faith squarely in the contingent and in the small, unnoticed places. They move and observe and recall and are at the same time a studied declaration of poetic intent, as explicitly concerned with the singing as with the song, and even if the inclination and ambition of the work is to let the world have its say – ‘I’d always want to attempt to see things in themselves, from their side, to take le parti pris des choses’ – the poems exist in the space between the perceiver and the perceived and are quite at home in the self-consciousness of the relationship.

somewhere in the poem
a stag should enter
but the stag is lost at
a crossroad of sunbeams
what the poem weaves
the forest will unravel

(Sixteen Sonnets)

Clark is a poet of place, or rather, of specific places. These are occasionally named or identifiable – Scottish landscape is important for him – but he’s not really interested in the particular lore of a place; even placenames can be ‘too historically or socially determined for my purpose, too tied to habitation’. He is instead more interested in ‘on the one hand, a geological or geographic spread, a landscape, or on the other hand, with a much smaller sense of place, a place in a hedge, or under a rock.’ The poems are encounters with land and sea-scapes which are specific yet exemplary. Wherever he is, whatever he is looking at, the result is a poetry of benign encounter, of the intelligence quietly apprehending the world.

it is a time to speak
to say that the light
this afternoon is lovely
and that all the small
expedients we manage
within the light are lovely
the most fragile devices
what else do we need
not the glitter nor the music
nor the overcrowded air
we need each other
and a space in which to speak
to say that the light
this afternoon is lovely

(A Rumour over Heather)

This ‘space in which to speak’ is where the poetry characteristically takes place

the little decisions
crossing rough ground
is it here or there
I will plant my feet
small crucial decisions
they are never taken
there is only the air
that I tread upon until
some levity or gravity
bears me to the earth

(Byrony Burn)

Walking into poetry for Clark implies a whole series of decisions: about subject matter, form, publication and distribution; it is the expression of a complete aesthetic. This is part of the attraction of the work, the sense that it is all of a piece, that all of the parts connect. It accounts too for the uniformity of the work, the sense that no one piece draws undue attention to itself, no one line seems more privileged than another.

The sequence is the favoured mode, though his deployment of it calls for a looser term. The kind of sequences or gatherings that Clark writes distribute their parts evenly and neutrally in a democratic ordering where each self-sufficient unit carries equal weight. The parts or even the lines seem interchangeable. This is also because their movement isn’t linear, impelled forward by argument or seeking definitive resolution – each step of the journey is important, as in these examples from The Path to the Sea

the seal in the cold water
rises to a clarity
of curiosity, a lapping
of silver, a lapping of grey

(from ‘Forest without Trees’


behind cloud
a mountain’s
implied weight

(from Rills and Tussocks)

The poems want to give themselves up to the small journey. Sometimes, with their second person address, these ‘path’ poems read like instructions or guides for the journey:

trust the tangled path
the sea at your elbow
it will lead you through
complex information
meadow-grass and bent-grass
to a fine sea-view

in among the grasses
are the manifold
spaces little places
where intention is
no longer gathered
but ramified dispersed

(from ‘The High Path’)

The final lines of The Path to the Sea avoid any kind of finality, they are another injunction to take a small, repeatable journey:

on a clear day
unfasten the gate
and take the path
over the machair
through the daisies
down to the sea

(from ‘Turning’)

All of this adds up to a poetry of deliberate and, for Clarke, liberating limitation. If the work is attentive to the marginal and ‘the overlooked places’ he also cultivates his own distance from the metropolitan mainstream (if there is such a creature) and from the normal channels of poetry distribution and commerce. These channels are in any case so marginal in the culture that a further distancing from them is an act of willed isolation – but mitigated, as are all of today’s marginal positions, by the use of the internet. Clarke runs an interesting and entirely characteristic site ( It’s characteristic in the sense that it defuses many of the expectations of a reader/browser encountering a site. At the time of writing it presents a blue screen with the poet’s name which, when clicked, presents an image of a wall with the word AURORA. There are no instructions, frames, side panels, links or any of the usual cluttering paraphernalia of websites. Nor is there any way except to navigate except by going forward. If you click on the wall you are presented with the following lines

when you walk by the sea
the light shifts on on the water

and then subsequently, two lines on each page:

attention comes and goes
when you walk by the sea

when you walk by the sea
it waits by your shoulder

it is the same and not the same
when you walk by the sea

when you walk by the sea
the mist tastes of rosemary

your dimensions are variable
when you walk by the sea

Eventually we learn that the wall in the photograph was designed by Thomas A Clark and Donald Urquhart as part of a regeneration project in the mining village of Dysart. We also learn that before the project was completed the wall was demolished ‘on “safety” grounds, and in response to “public demand”’, so that photographs and the texts are only available to the public through the internet. The site is therefore an act of record and a highly controlled aesthetic space, made in the way a book might be made.

The project and the means of its presentation reminds us of the importance of the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay to Clark. Finlay combined poetry and sculpture in his famous garden in the Pentland Hills, Little Sparta, and resisted the convention that books were the only means of distributing poetry. Finlay’s interest in the poem as material object is echoed in Clark’s practice of publishing poems as cards, or in home-produced limited editions – he set up his own press, Moschatel Press, with his wife the artist Laurie Clark, using a small press they were given as a wedding present. Indeed, about a third of his biographical note in The Path to the Sea is devoted to the press: ‘At first a vehicle for small publications by Ian Hamilton Finlay, Cid Corman, Jonathan Williams and others, it soon developed into a means of formal investigation within his own poetry, treating the book as imaginative space, the page as a framing device or as quiet around an image or a phrase, the turning of pages as revelation or delay.’

Finlay’s work offered Clark an example of ‘a very careful, small, meticulous making’ and it’s a way of making he has continued to profit from and develop into a subtle, rewarding instrument.

Books discussed: Thomas A Clark, The Path to the Sea, Arc, 2005; Distance and Proximity, Pocketbooks, 2001; The Tempers of Hazard (with Barry MacSweeney and Chris Torrance), Paladin, 1993. See also Thomas Clark’s website at

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