William Oxley: The Early Poetry of Douglas Clark

Since the publication of Clark's five volumes of poetry from 1985 onwards, I have been attracted to this unusual poet for a number of reasons, not the least of which `reasons' has been the very special way he is able to personalize his historic and mythic scholarship through a kind of controlled messianic egotism. `I have come pure from the beginning...', `I was born a god'. `I pretend to be the master poet. / I tell stories of a thousand years'; and there is the secret, the constant switching back and forth from the self-centred `I' to the universal `Thou'. As the poet says in the last two lines of the Selected Poems, `I write these words and think of Heaven / You will understand'; and both God and the Reader -- having completed this volume -- do get the picture not only of the poet's many preoccupations (His-story and History) but of his especial technique as well. And, more fully, here it is:

     What is best is what is old.
     My life has been a raw bleeding wound, 
     Healed I look back and savour its richness,
     Poetry is love, and it is ever new to write it.

And pushing the logic further still:

     I believe only in poetry. The supernatural is a voice
     in the head. It is necessary to be absolutely modern.

You will hear, faintly, in that last line the influence of MacDiarmid: and Clark, though English-born, is deeply of a Scots' background.

All poets are hewn from the same piece of laurel wood; but in some the grain runs one way, in some another -- hence their varied temperaments and elective affinities. Clark is a brilliant dreamer. All poets, of course, are dreamers, but some are more obviously so. And Douglas Clark in his poems dreams up much of myth and recorded history into his poetry. For the past -- whether it is the long ago past of Celtic or Arthurian myth; or of recorded history; or of his childhood and his lost loves -- is obsessively interwoven with the emotionalism of his present. It is this mixture of past and present that he intimately personalizes for the reader's pleasure which is so pre-eminently an attractive feature of his poetry. Yet, oddly -- and this may be augur of greater work yet -- his most outstanding poem is `The Mong', an historical meditation on the campaigns of Chingis Khan. And this is his greatest achievement because it is the only historical work of Clark which completely transcends the author -- i.e. the poet vanishes from it; which, in one way, contradicts what I have said is so attractive in most of his other poems. But, in defence, I would say that even where the personal intrudes (as it mostly does) it, too, becomes objectified, so that the poems are not marred by sentimentality, whimsey, mere self-expression, therapy, etc.; and that it is because the personal elements are, as it were, always being subtly measured and tested against his more synoptic knowledge, his universal learning. See, for example, the poem `Cernunnos' where the `self' and its privately-lived life, is re-lived through a pagan god-figure: here autobiography is apotheosised.

Another, and smaller and wholly unphilosophical test -- but one that is absolutely final in the general reader's mind -- is the poet's gift for fine phrasing and beautiful lines. This Douglas Clark undoubtedly has, `They listened to the sad music played by fountains, / Elegies sponging up their own hearts'; `Babyland was a feast of monsters'; and, from his poem `Stonehenge', `A landscape of unwanted sounds // Mark the serenity of old stones'; or `For I will go where the starships go / And follow the bleating wail of a child'; or `Little cat and I / Sit huddled before the fire, / We know the price of magic.'

But beyond all that, what really counts is poem-making -- what makes poems genuine and not `mere verse' -- is the poet's ability to put across feeling. Poems are not about things or events but, in the final analysis, they are about what the poet feels about things and events. To parody Laura Riding, the true poem-event is feeling. And it is two kinds of `feeling' that Douglas Clark is best at putting over; the historical sense, and the lament for loss of love. And how does he echieve this? Well, of course, by following Sydney's famous advice, as he admits in the poem `The Moor's Sigh': `If you want to write poetry it must be done with all the heart'. And Douglas Clark's poetry is not only individual -- as all achieved poetry must be -- it is also sufficiently unusual to be more than usually attractive.

Taken from a review of `Selected Poems' of Douglas Clark in `The Avon Literary Intelligencer', January 1996, pp. 5-6.