Very sad news in the poetry world: the poet Tom Clark died this week at the age of 77 after being struck by a car while walking across a street in Berkeley, California. A prolific and controversial writer, Clark was the author of over 25 volumes of poetry and biographies of Jack Kerouac, Charles Olson, and Robert Creeley. He was a pivotal figure in the New York School’s second generation, both as a poet in his own right and for the important role he played as poetry editor of the Paris Review, a post he held from 1963 (when he began at the ripe old age of 22!) to 1973.
During the late 1960s and 1970s, while living first in New York, and later Bolinas, California, Clark established close friendships with second-generation New York School poets like Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan, and Bill Berkson. According to Terence Diggory, while in New York, Clark’s “brief but intense involvement in the local poetry scene was capped in March 1968 by his marriage at St. Mark’s Church to Angelica Heinegg, the muse who inspired the title of Angel Hair magazine. Padgett served as best man; Berrigan gave the bride away; [Larry] Fagin, Dick Gallup, and David Shapiro, and painter Mike Goldberg provided music; Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh hosted the reception at their apartment.”
In the mid-1960s, Clark opened the pages of the august Paris Review to a wide range of poets associated with the avant-garde, and with the New York School in particular, including John Ashbery, Amiri Baraka, Berkson, Berrigan, Joe Brainard, Jim Carroll, Joe Ceravolo, Clark Coolidge, Kenward Elmslie, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, John Koethe, David Lehman, Frank Lima, Gerard Malanga, Harry Mathews, Alice Notley, Frank O’Hara, Padgett, Peter Schjeldahl, James Schuyler, Tony Towle, Warsh, and Waldman, along with other “New American” poets and fellow travelers, like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Larry Eigner, and Philp Whalen. When Lou Reed turned to poetry after the Velvet Underground broke up, his poems found a home in Clark’s Paris Review.
In essence, Clark dramatically transformed the rather staid Paris Review, turning it into one of the more important venues for New York School-affiliated poetry: thanks in part to Clark, the Paris Review became the place where many landmark New York School poems first appeared, including John Ashbery’s “Soonest Mended” and “The System,” Schuyler’s “Crystal Lithium” and “A Few Days,” Frank O’Hara’s “Memorial Day 1950” and “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island,” and many others.
In later years, Clark certainly courted controversy in various ways, but there is no question that with his sudden, tragic death, he leaves behind a complicated but important legacy for the poetry of the New York School. For more on Clark, see here and here, for a 2003 interview, and this tribute by Terence Winch.