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Tramping the Bulrushes by John Clarke
reviewed by Patrick James Dunagan

Tramping the Bulrushes
John Clarke
Preface by Michael Boughn
Introduction by Lisa Jarnot
Afterword by Daniel Zimmerman
Dispatches Editions / Spuyten Duyvil, 2017

“Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining.” In other words, don’t bullshit me. A colorful bit of poetic witticism I recently overheard down at the bar the other afternoon during a stop-in while doing my laundry next door. And quite apropos of the poet whose book I had in hand, John “Jack” Clarke’s Tramping the Bulrushes. Highlighting archival material, the collections presents unvarnished firsthand documentation of a lifetime’s dedication to poetry by a poet who bucked “the System” in his own distinctive manner.

Any sort of critical interest in Clarke’s work has yet to emerge to any measurable degree. He toiled in near obscurity under the cover of a professorship in the English department at SUNY Buffalo until his death in 1993. All the while pursuing his work within a prophetic mytho-poetic tradition drawn from off the poetic lineages of William Blake and Charles Olson. Once Olson hit Buffalo in the mid-1960s a fascinating energetic spasm of poetry activity started to occur (various publication, readings, and visiting poets, university-affiliated and otherwise). Clarke was soon smack dab in the midst of it and that’s right where he remained, always on his own terms, even as the vast majority of the outside poetry world paid little if any interest in his activities. Ironically enough this was as the Buffalo Poetics program grew in recognition with a faculty of poets including Susan Howe, Charles Bernstein, and Robert Creeley.

Tramping the Bulrushes offers an expansive sampling of Clarke’s voluminous outpouring of work. Editor Michael Boughn, a poet himself and former student of Clarke’s, dived into the poet’s archives in Buffalo churning out a grand assemblage of material in the many formats Clarke avidly engaged with equal commitment and aplomb. A few items have previously appeared in a clutch of stable-bound chapbooks and/or fugitive small press magazines — such as Clarke’s own Intent. Letter of Talk, Think, & Document produced and mailed out from his home address — yet the vast majority of the work gathered together here never saw publication. Thus making it the long-awaited companion volume to Clarke’s set of challengingly dense yet brilliant lectures, the colossally ambitious: From Feathers to Iron: A Concourse in World Poetics (1987).

There are several poems and poem-series — a form Clarke came to favor working in, frustratingly leaving his projected epic ten book sonnet-series In The Analogy (1997) unfinished at the time of his death — along with lectures, short essays, and correspondence. All of which, at points, boil over into each other. Clarke’s letters oftener than not bleed into becoming poetry and/or statements of his poetics; just as the opening piece “Lots of Doom” first reads as a “lecture” yet in reality turns out to have been a poetry reading. This is a result of, as Clarke was well aware, it being “a matter of stamina of being able to stay with it, with the things, of the presence to be made permanent by articulation.” (“Fire Delighting in Its Form”) Each occasion triggered into action expression of the visionary poetic knowledge in back of Clarke’s work. Every opportunity to be heard became an all or nothing situation requiring titanic energy on his part.

There are also a set of protective well-tempered diatribes in reaction against an anti-Olson sentiment sparked by Tom Clark’s 1991 biography Charles Olson: Allegory of a poet’s Life which invited critiques of the poet on personal grounds as well as antipathetic views towards his work in general. Clarke’s admonitions on Olson’s behalf are staunch in their unfailing allegiance to adhering to accuracy towards the work itself. His interest is with the larger movements of ideas Olson held to and the creative space he opened and left behind for future adherents to continue working in. “Olson was one of the last to dare intervention upon our time. He left a huge monkey wrench in the works and, I think, that’s what is so resented by the Hierarchy.” (“Tramping the Bulrushes”)

To be clear, Clarke was no mere Olson imitator. Boughn describes the nature of the Olson-Clarke relationship: “They travelled in the company of each other’s thinking. Clarke found a boundless potential there, a thinking that resonated with Blake’s thinking, opening into otherwise occulted complexities of our strange condition.” (“Preface”) And to be sure “Clarke moved, as Al Cook stated, as far beyond Olson as Olson moved beyond Pound.” In addition, poet Lisa Jarnot’s Introduction recalls her time as an undergraduate student in “tweedy Dr. Clarke’s” class “Approaches to Literature: Mythology (Greeks and Romans)” and how she “stopped doodling” on “day one” when he declared “Mythology is about what happened before the System took over”. Clarke’s “subversive maneuvers” in classroom discussion kept her interested while his “light touch” when it came to avoiding pushing his own poetic allegiances to Olson and others was in hindsight quite admirable. The only agenda in back of Clarke’s work is full immersion in furthering the possibilities of the work itself. There is no pandering to obligations from outside of that framework.

In today’s poetry world it feels more and more as if MFA programs are corralling poets into AWP-sanctioned territories. The poets writing and being recognized for their work are indeed a broader group than ever. In terms of skin color and gender identification it’s certainly a far more diverse crowd of individuals gathering together at poetry events across the country than at any previous time. Yet that’s also reflected at the broader cultural level in the U.S. as well. Problems remain at heart with the role of underlying characteristics within the larger institutional forces at play, which remain unthreatened. Poets like Clarke always keep a steady eye on this other level, where the levers of the powers-that-be truly operate. Poetry’s ongoing business should remain one of wariness over any slacking off in that regard. In other words, “Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining.”

Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library for the University of San Francisco. His recent books include from Book of Kings (Bird and Beckett Books) and The Duncan Era: One Reader’s Cosmology (Spuyten Duyvil).

This review originally appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books 23.