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You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Current Issue > Vol. 5 > Beyond the Page: The formal possibilities of Thomas A. Clark
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Beyond the Page: The formal possibilities of Thomas A. Clark
Author: Gavin Goodwin
Gavin Goodwin examines poetics of Thomas A. Clark’s public poetry.

Abstract

Following his friend and mentor, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Thomas A. Clark has long been interested in exploring the “formal possibilities of poetry”. Since 1973 he has published poems on postcards, bags, and kites, as well as embarking on larger installation works. This work, often produced in collaboration with his wife, the artist Laurie Clark, is considered here within the context of Objectivist and Concrete poetics. And drawing on ideas from Marion Milner and D.W. Winnicott, alongside Kate Soper’s theory of Alternative Hedonism, this article aims to highlight the significance and importance of Clark’s work to our contemporary moment – and stress to other writers the creative possibilities of writing beyond the page.

 

Key words: Thomas A. Clark, Laurie Clark, Visual Poetry, Public Poetry, Marion Milner, D.W. Winnicott, Medical Humanities, Mindfulness, Alternative Hedonism, Ecocriticism

 

Just to the right of the screen onto which I type these words, there stands a small card. On it is printed a drawing of three bluebell stems in flower, and below these flowers are the following words: “Attention to detail revives the sense of scale” (Clark and Clark 2016a). The drawing, by Laurie Clark, is delicately detailed, the product of a sustained and careful attention to the plant itself. The text, by her husband, Thomas A. Clark, is a reflection on this drawing and the act of its composition. It is also, however, suggestive of a larger point about how paying attention to the small and the close at hand can restore in us an appreciation – both spatially and temporally – of magnitude; it prompts us to contemplate how we find ourselves in, and a tiny perceiving part of, a world and a cosmos, at once intricate and enormous. It gestures towards an experience of what the secular Buddhist writer Stephen Batchelor has called the “everyday sublime” (Batchelor 2017: 208).

The poetry of Thomas A. Clark (b. 1944) has received an increasing amount of critical attention over the past decade. This critical work has predominately focused on what one might call his page poetry – the poetry presented more or less conventionally in his books (mostly recently published with Carcanet). However, following his friend and mentor, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Clark has long been interested in exploring the “formal possibilities of poetry” (Clark 2014a). Since 1973 he has used his own Moschatel Press to publish poems on postcards, bags, badges, and kites, as well as embarking on larger installation works. This work, often produced (as in the example above) in collaboration with his wife, the artist Laurie Clark, has received far less attention.[1] I will consider it here within the context of Objectivist and Concrete poetics. Moreover, drawing on the psychological theories of Marion Milner and D.W. Winnicott, alongside the political philosophy of Kate Soper, this essay aims to highlight the significance and importance of Clark’s work to our contemporary moment – and stress to other writers the creative possibilities of writing beyond the page.

 

Persisting on the Margins

Clark has been producing poem-cards, micro-pamphlets, and other media for over four decades now. Clark considers all such works “extensions of some formal possibilities of poetry”, and thus refers to badge, kite, and installation alike as “poems” (though he suggests “poem object” as a possible alternative) (Tarbuck 2016). Many of these smaller works were recently collected in A Box of Landscapes (1st edn. 2010, 2nd edn. 2016b). In this black cardboard box (315 x 220 x 40mm) we find, among many others, the following short poem:

 

Figure 1: Thomas A. Clark, Poor Poetry (2016)

 

This idea of “a spare poetry, / not given by the culture but passed from hand to hand” highlights two significant aspects of Thomas A. Clark’s poetics: its minimalism and its marginality.

Clark’s poems, on the page, often appear as fragments, brief reflections. Even his long poems (such as his book-length works for Carcanet) are collections of often very short poems – a collation of thoughtful pauses and pared-back observations on a walk. It is a poetry rejecting excess, but it is never or rarely austere (and the pleasure of the poetry is something I will return to later). In this, it resembles the work of Objectivist writers such as Charles Reznikoff (1894-1976) and, most significantly, Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970), whose work seems ideologically committed to a smallness and marginality that, as Rachel Blau DuPlessis argues, stands in opposition to the “culture of materialism, bellicosity, bigness/bestness, and fame” that came to dominate post-war culture in the U.S. (DuPlessis 2004: 143). In significant ways, Clark, based in the U.K., has also remained on the margins, working outside and sometimes in opposition to mainstream culture. But there is another significant way in which Clark’s work, particularly his choice of form, has affinity with Niedecker’s, and that is in the fusion of folk and avant-garde traditions. DuPlessis argues that Niedecker’s choice of “folk forms” (ballad, Mother Goose rhymes) was an act of “resistance” against (among other things) “class assumptions” (ibid: 143).[2] Clark would seem to enact a similar politically resonant fusion with his work away from the page.

Take, for instance, Clark’s poem Generosity, originally produced for the Poetry Beyond Text research project (Clarke et al 2011a):[3]

 

Figure 2: Thomas A. Clark, Generosity (2010)

 

The Poetry Beyond Text exhibition blurb notes how it is “reminiscent of ‘free’ literature offered in tourist bureaus or doctor’s offices” (Clarke et al. 2011b). Although Clark is often discussed in an avant-garde context (in connection with the Concrete Poetry movement or the British Poetry Revival), there is something distinctly “commonplace” about Clark’s choice of diction, form, and physical materials.

Class is rarely remarked upon in discussions of Clark’s work, partly because his subject matter does not seem to invite it. But his use of other media beyond the book – and Clark’s persistent interest in and experiments with it – might make us think again about this.

Clark grew up working class in, to use his words, “a rough neighbourhood, in a rough town” (Clark 2017a). He left school at fifteen where, he says, he had “stopped paying attention for ages anyway” and worked as a “low paid unskilled labourer”, first “in a factory and then [in] an electrical warehouse”. He came to literature through music. He was, like many of his generation, a rock and roll enthusiast, but later became interested in jazz, which led him to the Beats. Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums (1958) was the “entry drug”, stimulating not only Clark’s interest in literature, but also in Zen and landscape – interests which, in one way or another, have continued to inform his work throughout his life (Clark 2017a).

Clark never re-entered formal education, but became a life-long autodidact. This combination of “remaining outside the system” of mainstream academia and culture contributes to the second significant aspect of his work: its marginality. He has never been nominated for a major poetry prize, and only relatively recently has his work been reviewed in broadsheet newspapers. For a long time, Clark worked from the periphery, on the outskirts of his culture, producing small poem-cards that must be “passed from hand to hand” (Clark 2016). His subjects are rarely grand. Clark is, by and large, more interested in hillside gorse than in the view from Ben Nevis. “[T]he commonplace is an interesting concept for me,” he has said, “because I am always suspicious of the exceptional” (Clark quoted in Herd 1993). Generosity resembles a large postcard, and what, formally, could be more commonplace than that?

The Generosity card would seem at first glance, as many of Clark’s cards do, to be not too dissimilar to the sentimental verse or blessings one might find in a gift shop or on a fridge magnet. But looking closer at the text is to encounter its strangeness and undecidability. The poem “is based on an early Celtic fragment about the generosity of the hero Finn” (Clark 2018a). As so often with Clark though, this is a walking poem. A walk is unrepeatable and unpredictable, even when taking a route one has trodden many times before. The conditions – both external (weather, condition of the terrain) and internal (mood, physical sensation) – will always be variable. The opening and recurrent “if” of the poem suggests both possibility and precariousness. If the waves are silver and the leaves are gold and the hours are joys, then this experience is a gift. And “if” this were the case, “you would give them all away”. But how does one “give away” waves? Or is it the experience – of the waves, leaves, and miles – that one gives away? This is again, in the strict sense, impossible. But the experience can be represented and communicated. Language might not be a glass through which we can view the experience of another completely, but the gift of experience can beget the gift of a poem. Clark’s poems, in their various formats, are rooted in experience as much as they are aware of the visual material and sonic aesthetics of language. Both inform the finished artefact.

For Clark, the “gift” of the card “is twofold: the joys he evokes and the printed card itself, a memento of the experience” (Clarke et al. 2011). The encountering of “banks of wild strawberries” is visually salient in the choice of material itself: a strawberry-red coloured card. The final lines point to the fact that this gift is not just a physical encounter in the landscape – of waves and strawberries – but of perception: “whatever your thought can touch”. It is as much through attitude or mental capacity, as through reflected light and photosynthesis, that the “hours” of the walk become “joys”. Attention is crucial. So, too is a reader’s imaginative engagement with the card – the white text on a strawberry “field”; it is this that activates the full gift of Generosity.

Despite, then, its simplicity of form (a plain red card) and language (the “plain diction” of Poor Poetry), it is a complex poem, difficult to reduce to one meaning, resistant to simplification. The card is meant to function as a gift (in the way the “folk form” of a postcard or fridge magnet might, and was literally “given away free” to attendees of the Poetry Without Text exhibition in Dundee (Clark 2018a)).[4] But instead of platitudes and homilies, it offers something quite different. As such, the work, like Niedecker’s, resists assumptions about what this kind of form is capable of.

 

An Alternative Hedonism

What Clark’s work does, is point to and celebrate the simple but profound pleasures of existence, such as light on water and the changing colour of leaves. These are pleasures which exist apart from consumerism. Clark’s poetry is not (or rarely) manifestly concerned with warnings about climate change or descriptions of environmental degradation. Instead, his work tends to describe the joy and existential richness of encountering the natural world. One could even describe Clark’s work as hedonistic. But his is not hedonism in the late-capitalist model of consumer-driven pleasures, the dopamine “hit” of shopping. Instead it points us to the deeply satisfying and inexhaustible joys of walking in a wood or beside water: joys which are not only are under threat from climate change caused by our consumerism, but also which our endless growth-driven economic model, and its long-hours work culture, prevents most of us from enjoying in the present.

The philosopher Kate Soper argues:  

 

Just when we need it least from the point of view of human or environmental wellbeing, we are committed to an economic system that can only flourish if people keep spending – which means they must keep working, which means they have less time to do things for themselves, which means they have to buy more goods and services to make up for the time deficit. (Soper 2011)

 

Rather than seeing the current lifestyles of those in the developed world as too sensually indulgent, Soper contends that our current way of life is “in many respects unpleasurable and self-denying”. It deprives us, she says, of many of the things and activities that might provide us with real pleasure. In response, she advocates what she calls “Alternative Hedonism”: an “altered conception of what it is to flourish and to enjoy a ‘high’ standard of living” (Soper 2008: 571). This does not involve some kind of disciplined corrective to our indulgent society, but offers the opposite: an argument for real leisure time and the “diverse, enriching and lasting satisfactions we have sacrificed through overwork and overproduction” (Soper 2011).

Soper acknowledges that on ecological grounds the current Euro-American model of consumption is unsustainable. Thus, if we are to maintain a version of the world which is inhabitable by humans, it needs radically remodelling. Such a transformation is often discussed in terms of loss (that is, what aspects of the good life will we need to give up?). But Soper questions how good this “so-called good life is” (Soper 2011). Just how good is the proliferation of overwork, chronic stress, mental illness, and obesity, as well as chemical and noise pollution?  Rethinking our attitudes to both consumerism and work (which are inextricably linked) is important not just from an ecological point of view, but because “the creation of a material culture of ever-faster production turnovers and built-in obsolescence” prevents us from availing ourselves of “more worthy, enduring or entrancing forms of human fulfilment” (Soper 2011). Soper’s Alternative Hedonism does not reject contemporary consumer culture in favour of a new asceticism. What it aims to alert us to are the “puritanical, disquieting, and irrational aspects” of that very consumer culture and to highlight the altogether more satisfying pleasures we sacrifice to maintain it (Soper 2011).

Art, Soper contends, can play (perhaps, must play) a key role is any significant shift in sensibility in this regard. The examples Soper provides, such as Paul Bonomini’s RSA “Weee Man” (a “robot” sculpture built from Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (Weee)), aim for a kind of perceptual reassessment in their viewer, where a once coveted consumer item is made less attractive through its association with un-recyclability and unsustainability, with sound pollution and toxic waste (Soper 2008: 580). But Thomas A. Clark’s work, I would argue, offers a different way of approaching this. Rather than working to de-glamourise commodities, it points towards what such commodities might distract us from, what we might be missing.

 

Figure 3: Thomas A. Clark, Hölderlin’s Shopping Bag (2014). Courtesy of The Thing Quarterly.

 

Hölderlin’s Shopping Bag (2014) pictured above, is, as the title suggests, a found poem. “What you seek is near” is a translation of “Was du suchest, es ist nahe”, an extract from “Heimkunft” (“Homecoming”) by the German Romantic poet, Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843). “Homecoming” celebrates Hölderlin’s journey home to Lauffen, Germany, from Hauptwyl in Switzerland in the spring of 1801. The poem is an elegy constructed of six eighteen-line stanzas; the mood of the piece, as David Constantine comments, is one of “elation and gratitude” (Constantine 1990: 159). The quotation Clark uses is taken from the beginning of the fourth stanza, describing the addressee’s joy at setting foot on his “native country and soil”:

 

Freilich wohl! das Geburtsland ists, der Boden der Heimath,

Was du suchest, es ist nahe, begegnet dir schon.

 

And no wonder! Your native country and soil you are walking,

What you seek, it is near, now comes to meet you half-way.

(Hölderlin/Hamburger 1966: 257)

 

By removing these translated lines from their original context, Clark radically repurposes them. In the original poem the seeking is related to a specific place. But via extraction and decontextualisation, the line “What you seek is near” becomes far more expansive in its implications. The omission of any information regarding either what is sought or what is near, and the fact that these words are printed on a bag – a mobile object – mean that each reader in myriad different places is encouraged to look for what is sufficient in their own present material and social environment. In this way it functions as a kind of anti-advertisement. Advertising, Soper contends, “works not just to offer consumer solutions to pre-existing human needs but also to create new ‘needs’ – provided these can be met through articles or services provided on the market” (Soper 2017). Or as David Foster Wallace succinctly put it in Infinite Jest, adverts “create an anxiety relievable by purchase” (Wallace 1996: 163). Hölderlin’s Shopping Bag functions in contradistinction to this. A shopping bag, of course, is an ironic choice, demonstrating Clark’s sense of humour: as an object it is linked quite clearly to consumption. But that is just its power. That these words appear on a shopping bag encourages us to think about this in the context of – in opposition to – the Euro-American consumerist model. (Thus the object on which the text is printed is intrinsic to its effect and meaning.) Rather than the advertisement that generates dissatisfaction (and offers purchasable remedy), Hölderlin’s Shopping Bag points us to the sufficiency of the close at hand, the here and now, if only we could pay attention. A viewer’s attention, of course, is what all advertising aims to target. But the kind of attention Clark’s poem-bag encourages is somewhat different.  

 

Wide Attention, Standing Poems

In A Life of One’s Own (1934), psychoanalyst Marion Milner discussed two types of attention. The first she calls “narrow attention”. It is automatic and “probably essential for practical life”. This mode of perception sees “items according to whether they served its purposes, saw them as a means to its own ends, not interested in them at all for their own sake. But since it saw everything […] as a means to some end, contentment was always in the future.” The second type of attention, however, which Milner calls “wide attention”, can “attend to something and yet want nothing from it” (Milner 1981: 108). This second kind of perception brings “a contentment beyond the range of personal care and anxiety” (ibid: 142). The world becomes luminous, sustaining – “enough” in and of itself. Milner describes that in the second mode “I would perhaps suddenly find myself breathing deeply in the calm impersonality of colours, or even in a sudden glimpse of someone’s character seen from a viewpoint that had stepped clear of the distortions of my personal interests” (ibid: 109).

However, this wide attention is elusive, “difficult” (ibid: 142). The mind is always reverting to the automatic, narrow attention of everyday functioning. Milner, though, developed a number of methods for achieving and sustaining this way of experiencing the world. She discovered that certain imaginative acts, what she calls mental “gestures”, would allow her access to this state. On listening to an orchestra for instance, she would imagine the sounds entering up through her feet or herself standing beside the musicians. Looking at a chair, she would imagine she was the chair and this would enable her to get a sense of its objectness, it being in the world as a shape and presence, not just a utility. However, sometimes access was provided by “a jingle of words” or “charms” such as “There’s a pattern of bare branches against a white sky” (ibid: 143). Such phrases, or charms, could move her into “wide attention”.

I would argue that, in many ways, the standing poems and cards of Thomas A. Clark function like “charms” in this respect. Consider the following standing poem (the card is about four inches high and just over an inch wide):  

 

Figure 4: Thomas A. Clark, Untitled (2013)

 

The lineation enacts the motion of water trickling. The card standing vertically enhances this sense of words trickling down. As is often the case in Concrete poetics (in English stretching back at least to George Herbert’s “Easter Wings” and “The Altar” from The Temple (1633)), the form of the poem is informed by its referential quality. There are harmonies of both sound and vision at work here: there is the visual repetition of “t”– six of them meandering down through the text, and there is the assonance of the repeated “i” sound (“thin”, trickle”, “is”), along with more obvious repetition of “water”. All these conspire to create a softening, a tenderness when encountered, when seen and read. Clark says: “before [the poem] signifies, it registers” (Clark 2017b). And what we register is a gentle motion: of water, of words trickling. We are brought softly into the present – pausing from the urgencies of our narrow attention, from our mental chasing of the next thing – to enter into an aesthetic experience. What the words signify also matter. “Enough” is the key word here. To find a standing poem or a trickle of water enough, sufficient, is to have moved into wide attention, in Milner’s terms.

Such a poem is not tucked away in a book. One does not need to consciously pull it down from the shelf. A standing poem, a form and term invented by Ian Hamilton Finlay, is a card where words are not printed on the inside as is usual with a greeting card (and a book), but appear on the front, the outside. As a result,

 

poetry moves from the private into the public realm! Instead of being assigned to a secluded, literary space, it enters the ordinary, everyday world, taking part in the occasion. […] It sits quietly within the situation, making a difference, suggesting another possibility. (Clark 2011)

 

We see again here Clark’s emphasis on the ordinary, as opposed to a special “literary space”. This other possibility, this alternative, that the standing poem suggests, involves a shift in both the focus and the quality of attention. Though we slip back into the narrow easily, encouraged rather relentlessly by contemporary consumer culture, the card (unlike a book where we must seek out a verse) can take us by “surprise” when we “discover it again”, reactivating that wide attention (Clark 2011).

 

Mindfulness, Poems with a Life of their Own

One might note at this point that Milner’s description of wide attention has similarities with certain Buddhist and mindfulness practices. The “Zen quality” of Clark’s work has often been remarked on. Though describing something as Zen-like is a contemporary commonplace for anything minimal and/or peaceful, the observation (as suggested by my opening paragraph) is not a superficial one regarding Clark. Clark’s interest in Zen and the Beats can be traced back to his beginnings as a poet in the mid-1960s (Bann 2014). His work has evolved over the years, but it has maintained a Zen-like suspicion of the importance of the self. “I’ve always kept a distance,” he says, “from the idea that the writer is someone who knows or feels something special which is expressed in the writing” (Clark quoted in Herd 1993). Instead Clark, influenced here by both Objectivist and Concrete poetics, has aimed to make “objects that have a life of their own in the world” (ibid.).

 

Figure 5: Thomas A. Clark, evening light on evening light (2015). Photograph by Carol Robertson.

 

Having a life of their own, however, does not mean that such works demand being the centre of attention. On the contrary, in a discussion of art in the landscape, Clark argues for “an ethic of minimal intervention”. The art should not “draw attention to itself,” but rather “redirect attention away from itself back onto its surroundings” (Clark 2014). The poem evening light on evening light is not landscape art, but it functions – at least initially – in the same way, redirecting our attention to the light itself. The blue box is placed below a window where the light of evening falls. The words, echoing each other, interact with the light, and bring us into full awareness of it. The poem, in its gentle way, throws us into the intensity of the here and now. The light, like the moment, is unrepeatable, irretrievable. As a statement of fact this is, of course, all quite obvious and unremarkable. But one of the insights of Buddhist psychology is how our “[m]ental habits” (no doubt for once sound evolutionary purposes) “impose a veneer of sameness on the ever-shifting detail of the present” and “dull our senses, blinding us to the perplexing uniqueness of each moment” (Batchelor 2017: 235). Restoration of this uniqueness is famously, for Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky, what literary practice is about: “the author’s purpose,” he says in “Art as Technique”, “is to create the vision which results from that deautomatized perception” (Shklovsky 2004: 19).[5] Buddhism has impacted on the literature of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in various ways, but Lawrence Normand has argued that its foremost influence has been on our reading experience itself, which “has been transformed to bring it nearer to meditative apprehension” (Normand 2015: 16-17). This contention is perhaps nowhere more relevant than when considering the work of Clark.

But Clark’s poems or poem objects cannot be reduced to a series of mindfulness-generation devices. Regarding evening light on evening light, this reading is useful and appropriate. The other possibilities that Clark’s works suggest are not always so singular in their focus, though. They aim to achieve something rather more complex and paradoxical. I will end this essay with a reflection on work rather more ambitious (yet still in its way modest and minimal) than those discussed previously: that is, Clark’s site-specific installations at New Stobhill Hospital.

 

A Grove, A Glade, A Hospital

New Stobhill Hospital in Springburn, Glasgow, opened in 2003, and replaced the old Stobhill Hospital, which had opened almost a century earlier as a Poor Law facility. Designed by the architectural firm Reiach and Hall, New Stobhill went on to win a plethora of awards.[6] “[T]he ethos behind the project,” say the architects, “is that the patient comes first.” In effect, this meant practical and measurable issues such “all tests and consultations [being] carried out on the same day on the same site if possible” (Reiach and Hall 2015: 5). But beyond this, Reiach and Hall were interested in health – not as the absence of illness, but in wellbeing, or “wellness” as R&H architect Andy Law puts it. Wellness here is seen as something psychosomatic, and something that design can impact. As churches can uplift and fortresses intimidate, so the aesthetic informing the construction of a hospital can enhance wellbeing and a sense of care.  “Caring, helpful and competent staff,” writes Law, “must be supported by a caring, helpful and competently designed environment” (Law 2009).

To help with this, Reiach and Hall called on the services of Clark. The poet’s inspiration came from the hospital grounds themselves. Noting that the hospital is located “within an apparently random planting of silver birch,” with open courtyards of larch at the building’s heart, Clark proposed that the architect’s new building should be thought of, imaginatively, as “a grove of larch in a forest of birch” (Clark 2009: 79). For Clark,

 

While breaking up the density of the building, bringing in light and space, the larch courtyards also introduce a contemplative element. Patients spending time in waiting areas here have access to a different scale of time, that of the seasons or the growth of trees, or to the timelessness of looking. (Clark 2009: 79)

 

As lead artist, Clark commissioned four other artists (Kenneth Dingwall, Andreas Karl Schulze, Donald Urquhart, and filmmaker Olwen Shone) and asked them not just to respond to the building itself, but to this idea of “a grove of larch in a forest of birch.” The work of these artists appears in the spiritual care centre, along corridors, and in waiting rooms, where they “mingle” with “brief texts” by Clark himself (79). Clark’s work in New Stobhill is very much a continuation of the Concrete poetry project of positioning “linguistic materials in a new relationship to space” (Solt 1968). And again the brevity of the texts is important – not only in relation to Concrete’s emphasis on “reduced language” (Solt 1968), but in its Niedeckeresque smallness and modesty: the words are available but not imposing.

“What words can bring to a building,” writes Clark, “is imaginative space: a situation is not only as it appears to be but as it is said or thought to be.” This statement points beyond a simple sense of being in the present moment. Clark continues, “The imagery of a poem can direct the mind elsewhere, towards light and air, to a rustle of leaves or the sound of flowing water” (Clark quoted in Reiach and Hall 2015: 7). Yet in the architects’ mission statement they say that “[t]here are no televisions in waiting areas, as we wished to create an atmosphere in which people do not disengage from their situation” (Reiach and Hall 2015: 5). There is a conflict here: between the architects’ wish for engagement and Clark’s directing the mind elsewhere. And it is a conflict – or perhaps a paradox – apparent in much of Clark’s work. His texts can often bring us more fully into the space we physically inhabit – we become more mindful of it – but can also point us away to an elsewhere in the imagination, usually a place in nature.

Responding to the charge of escapism in his work, Clark has said:

 

There are some situations in which one needs to escape. If one lives in a crowded culture it might be useful to have images of empty landscapes, broader spaces. […] It is a wish for certain things that are absent, or not sufficiently present, which are deliberately conjured up in order to further or to heal. To me that is how the poems work. They manage small harmonies which attune our ears to harmony. (Clark quoted in Herd 1993)

 

Clark is not speaking about his work at New Stobhill here, but the comments seem highly applicable to it. One might quite understandably want to “escape” the hospital. But the installations do not provide the escape a novel might – which transports us imaginatively to another place, quite separate from our surroundings – because Clark’s text is part of the surroundings, part of the environment.

 

Figure 6: New Stobhill Hospital (2009)

 

Take for example the installation above, situated in a waiting area. Walls in hospitals are often labelled – Radiology, Coronary Care Unit – to direct and inform patients. Clark’s words here, lexically so different, tell us: this is a glade: an opening in a forest, a place of brightness and stillness. The lettering – deep forest green and sun yellow – assists in establishing an imaginative connection between this hospital space and the natural world. This minimal text, working in conjunction with a photograph of trees and a yellow panel (by Donald Urquhart) mounted on the perpendicular wall, does not invite the reader/sitter to escape elsewhere (as a distraction from the painful or overwhelming present). Instead, it attempts to facilitate a transformation of the space itself, or one’s experience of that space. This area, with its rows of blue chairs, is quite obviously not a glade, but in engaging one’s imagination with this text, its visual embodiment and accompaniment, something of that brightness and stillness is brought into the hospital waiting room. The text functions quite differently to how it would in a book because Clark’s words work in tandem with – in fact, directly refer to – the physical space being inhabited by the reader. This is possible because it is not a page poem but a poem as site-specific installation. As Claire Bishop comments:

 

Installation art […] differs from traditional media […] in that it addresses the viewer directly as a literal presence in the space. Rather than imagining the viewer as a pair of disembodied eyes that survey the work from a distance, installation art presupposes an embodied viewer whose senses of touch, smell and sound are as heightened as their sense of vision. This insistence on the literal presence of the viewer is arguably the key characteristic of installation art. (Bishop 2008: 6)

 

The words on the wall are not to be taken in isolation – not something like an epigram to write down and take away – because outside this specific context they will mean something quite different. Their meaning and effect are environment dependant. It is a poem-installation “which the [reader] physically enters,” and the words, their colour, the photograph and coloured panel, as well as the architecture of the space itself, must be regarded as a “singular totality” (Bishop 2008: 6).

This installation works quite differently to evening light on evening light then. Though both encourage a contemplative mood, the former facilitates a mindful appreciation of the present unrepeatable moment, directing our attention to the light. The hospital installation, however, is more complex. Alice Tarbuck has argued (in regards to a related installation in the hospital’s spiritual care centre) that this creates a “third space” (Tarbuck 2017: 11) – we are not in a forest glade, nor are we in a hospital waiting room in quite the same way as we would be if this installation wasn’t here. We are in a third area. Interestingly, the “third area” was another name for what psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott elsewhere called the “potential space”: an area not entirely internal (the private world of imagination) nor entirely external (the objectively observable or shared reality), but an “intermediate” space which is the location of human meaning and creative experience (Winnicott 2006: 86). For Winnicott, a creative engagement with the world is a healthy engagement with it; his theory of creativity is not chiefly concerned with the products of art, but with the “colouring of the whole attitude to external reality“ (86). The opposite of this experience is the colourless one of compliance.  

In a hospital we are constantly called on to be compliant: to follow that sign, to wait here, to submit to bodily intrusions (of a syringe, say, or scalpel). It is disempowering, but we do it for the good of our own health. Problematically though, Winnicott argues that “[c]ompliance carries with it a sense of futility for the individual and is associated with the idea that nothing matters and that life is not worth living” (Winnicott 2006: 87). To be compliant on a consistent basis means to be constantly fitting-in-with. A hospital environment constantly asks us to prioritise our false self, in Winnicott’s terminology: the acquiescent, obedient, unquestioning self. When we are unremittingly compliant (in the way that illness often demands of us), we live “uncreatively, as if caught up in the creativity of someone else, or of a machine.” In the hospital both of these scenarios are often true: we are “caught up” in the creativity of a doctor or surgeon or some innovative medical technology. Ideally, this will be coupled with pastoral care and support that will help us manage the pain and fear inherent in our illness, treatment, and the vulnerable and strange situation we find ourselves in. But we will also spend a considerable amount of time at hospital waiting, perhaps alone. 

Winnicott argues that “[i]t is creative apperception more than anything else that makes the individual feel that life is worth living” (Winnicott 2006: 86). What Clark’s work in the hospital does, is invite patients and visitors, viewers and readers, to engage imaginatively with the environment – as Clark says: “a situation is not only as it appears to be but as it is said or thought to be”. These short colour-coordinated texts do not instruct nor demand compliance but facilitate creativity in the Winnicottian sense of the term. A patient or visitor in the waiting area is invited to bring their imagination to bear on the environment: to imagine a glade that is at once shaped by the textual materials on offer – the visual “brightness” and visual and audible “stillness” – and interfused with personal memories of trees, leaves, sunlight. The unobtrusive minimalism of the text is suggestive rather than prescriptive; it encourages collaboration. In its modest way, it strives to create a nurturing imaginative space of safety in a locality where we are often apprehensive and fearful. One should not overstate the case here. To be clear: if suffering from cancer or heart failure, it is paramedics, nurses, and doctors, in tandem with pharmaceuticals and medical technologies which are going to be the engines of one’s survival. No artwork can or should supersede the importance of this. Nonetheless, in terms of the criteria outlined by the architects – that is, thinking of health not just as the absence of illness, but in terms of wellbeing – then Clark’s text performs an important supplementary function within the hospital context. It encourages an imaginative act of self-care, helping to soothe – both biophilicly[7] and through imaginative agency – a mind having to cope with painful and anxious experiences. 

In this sense Clark’s work is thoroughly of a piece with the architects’ aim to achieve a “caring” environment. And for Winnicott there is an intrinsic connection between care and creative/aesthetic experience. As mentioned above, the latter has its origins in infant experience and playing. But in Winnicott’s view, the intermediate area which makes both playful and creative interactions with the world possible, is dependent on certain environmental factors. In the first instance, this concerns establishing a trusted, safe space as provided by the responsive care-giving of the mother figure (Winnicott 2006: 67).  This is what leads Christopher Bollas to claim that “[t]he mother’s idiom of care and the infant’s experience of this handling is the first human aesthetic” (Bollas 1993: 41). Clark’s bright and still glade suggests another, adult, kind of nurturing space. There are no rustlings of threat, none of the deprivations of darkness. As the child who imagines a cardboard box a boat sails on both carpet and sea, so the reader in the waiting area is invited to co-exist paradoxically in the hospital and the forest.[8]

 

Conclusion

All the poems (or poem objects) discussed above draw their power in part from being encountered beyond the usual circumscribed literary spaces. Freed from the confines of the book, these texts enter into our everyday environments: living rooms and offices, work lockers and cafés, town centres and hospitals. Clark is, of course, not the only writer to produce work of this kind. But for four decades he has consistently, inventively, and modestly explored formal possibilities of writing, still largely underutilised by both writers and publishers. As I hope to have demonstrated above, these practices can offer us surprising aesthetic opportunities that can have potentially profound effects: both phenomenologically and politically. In their gentle way, Clark’s poem objects perform important interventions in the ordinary. They point us away from the reactive and narrow attention demanded by our competitive, consumer-capitalist culture. Instead they gesture towards an appreciation of the already present and already sufficient; they encourage a restful, wide attention – an imaginative, fructifying engagement with the world, even in very trying circumstances. As I hope to have shown, it would be a mistake to see this as an art of consolation or as advocating for political quietism. Clark’s work invites us to experience our present world in a way contrary to some very pernicious cultural norms. In this, his poems are as politically important as they are restful and beautiful, demonstrating a range of ways in which writers can think and work beyond the page.

 


 

[1] See Tarbuck 2016 and Tarbuck 2017 for an interview and article, respectively, which do discuss these aspects of Clark’s work.

[2] Commenting on Niedecker’s use of haiku, Du Plessis notes that “from a class perspective the lack of high poetic language (in Anglophone haiku) infuses dailiness and life as it is lived with the possibility of poetry” (153).

[3] “Poetry Beyond Text: Vision, Text and Cognition is a multi-disciplinary research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and based at the Universities of Dundee and Kent. The project uses methods from literary criticism, aesthetics, experimental psychology, fine art and creative practice to study how readers respond to hybrid works which combine the textual with the visual, including digital poetry, concrete and visual poetry, artists’ books, text film and poetry combined with photography.” (Clark et al. 2011a)

[4] It should be noted, however, that the card pictured in this article is from the aforementioned  A Box of Landscapes, which retailed at £120. http://thomasaclarkblog.blogspot.com/2016/04/a-box-of-landscapes.html

[5] For a more extensive discussion of the relationship between mindfulness and defamiliarization, see Walpert (2017), 57-80.

[6] In 2009 New Stobhill won “Best Designed Hospital” (Building Better Healthcare Awards) and “Best Public Building: Gold” (Grand Prix Roses Design Awards); in 2010 it won a Prime Minister’s Award for “Better Public Building”. For a full list of New Stobhill Hospital’s awards and commendations see: http://www.reiachandhall.co.uk/Project/Healthcare/stobhill_01.html

[7] “The so-called biophilia hypothesis suggests that the ability to recognize healthy natural environments is a survival advantage, since these environments provide the best resources. This ability has, therefore, been inevitably encouraged by natural selection during the evolution of modern humans and is rewarded with positive emotional responses” (Lankston et al 2010).

[8] An article by Louise Lankston, Pearce Cusack, Chris Fremantle, and Chris Isles in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (Lankston et al 2010) offers an overview of the evidence regarding the effect of visual art in hospitals. Though New Stobhill is one of the case studies in this article, the authors focus chiefly on the pictorial works commissioned rather than the textual work by Clark. Still, their article highlights some relevant findings. For instance, “patients frequently express a preference for landscape and nature scenes”. Studies surveyed found that patients who had a view of a “natural setting” or were shown images of nature had a higher tolerance of pain, taking fewer painkillers in postoperative recovery and experiencing less postoperative anxiety. The use of colour was also found to be an important related factor. “Colours that elicit high levels of pleasure with low levels of arousal are most likely to induce a state of calm, whereas those causing displeasure and high levels of arousal may provoke anxiety.” Blue and green were generally shown to be more calming and pleasurable than red and yellow. And as the authors point out “nature scenes […] are often dominated by blue and green.” The article does not cover the effects of imagining a natural scene in response to texts. However, given that imagining something has a similar effect on the body as actually experiencing it in “real life” (for instance, if we visualise a meal when hungry, our mouths produce saliva and our stomach, gastric acid (Gilbert 2015: 210)), then it seems probable that the effects of the texts would be similarly beneficial to the reader/viewer as the visual art studied. And, of course, the findings on colour only reinforce the likelihood of this. In the example discussed in this essay, although, the word “glade” appears in yellow the majority of the text (over 80% of it) is green. In another of Clark’s installations in the hospital there is a single line of text in yellow but set against a blue wall – blue being far and away the dominant colour. 

 

References

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Gavin Goodwin lectures in English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University. He is the author of Blue Rain (Cinnamon, 2018) and Estate Fragments (KFS, 2014), and co-editor of Writing Urban Space (Zero, 2012).

 

 

 

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