An Unimpoverished Style: the Poetry of George Elliott Clarke

by M. Travis Lane

Many of our contemporary Canadian poets have adopted for their verse a deliberately plain style, whose lack of ornamentation, allusion, and musical grace is intended, in most cases, to portray a sense of newness, of emptiness — what they perceive as the linguistic and cultural barreness of the Canadian "landscape," the Canadian experience.  This style conveys a sense of cultural de-racination, but, sometimes, also a kind of cultural inhibition — as if a turn of speech natural to an educated mind might be somehow un-Canadian.  At its best (Atwood, Kroetsch) this style of heightened simplicity can be powerful, but, as in the comparable paintings of Colville, it is not so much a representation of reality as it is an artificial conventionalization of reality.  The adoption of this plain style may have helped our poetry sever its colonial roots, and, as practiced by its masters, it need never be rejected.  But a mature literature needs to use the whole of its inheritance.   The poetry of George Elliott Clarke, author of the substantial collection Saltwater Spirituals and Deeper Blues1 can help free us from a convention that sometimes, in some hands, seems to make of the sense of the Canadian experience, of the Canadian language, a sense of impoverishment.

     Clarke does not write as if he feared being rejected by an audience imagined distrustful of educated reference.  Instead he uses the full range of the cultural resources available to him as a Canadian, a Maritimer, a descendant of the Black Refugees of 1812.  The art, music, literature, religion, and history of Europe, North America, and Africa are native to him.  His being at home in this larger world reminds the reader of the respected, if unfashionable, poetry of A.G. Bailey and Ralph Gustafson.  Like them Clarke possesses a sense of history as continuous and present in his own context.  But, and here again he reminds me of A.G. Bailey, Clarke also possesses a rich sense of what the Canadian found in Canada — of Indian history, of nature — as well as what the Canadian brought.  Not even the arctic tundra was barren. The emptiness of a field is in the eye of the beholder.  For Clarke, to whom erased villages, abandoned homesteads, and lost nations are present in history, the "boulder-barren, stone-strewn soil" of Canada, like its language, is not naked.  Consider, for example, Clarke's "Musquodoboit Road Church":

micmac windpoems sing
Spring's resurrection,
foretold by the sharp, fused fragrance
of jubilee roses,
and the appearance of shiny, new
blue cars of waves,
cruising the beaches.
knowing this sensual verse
we ensure fertility.
we prepare a path through the wilderness.
we prepare the Easter Sunrise Service;
blue-grass banjo jamborees,
sepia saints in ivory robes, and the flash
of fish, flapping and flopping,
the hooked close of a gossamer line
predatory poetry.

we prepare the way of the Lord.

The experience from which this poem is written, with all its specific celebration of the local, includes a sense of the richness of ancient Micmac culture.  It includes European Christianity re-traslated into Afro-American culture ("sepia saints in ivory robes") and the special Afro-American sense of "jubilee" with its remembrances of freedom lost and regained.  Here too are the ancient fertility myths of Africa and of Europe, the heart of the resurrection myths.  And here too the blue-grass jamborees, music original to the New World, not imported from the East, which represent the closeness to the black American South that makes part of Canadian "country" music, and of the Canadian black experience.  And with all this is the modern and continually predatory world of commerce and of nature "making style" (as the West Indians put it) in new cars, new fashions, new poetry.  The sensuous vitality and multiculturalness of this verse is as Canadian as those sharply fragrant beach roses.

     It is good to be reminded of the richness of our world, as in Clarke's poetry we are.  But it is primarily Clarke's technical richness that creates the excellence of his writing. He has a gift for the adjective and a good ear for consonance, assonance, alliteration, rhyme, and rhythmic stress. This textural richness makes his lines what in a painting would be called painterly — although to call a poem poetic nowadays is almost regarded as an insult.  So much of what is called poetic, as technique, has been vulgarly poetic (v. Aldous Huxley's famous essay on "The Vulgarity of Poe") that modern poets, scrupulously trimming technical vulgarities from their verse, can sometimes achieve a verse so purified of technique that there is nothing left in it but sentiment.  Clarke, on the other hand, is still making art.  Thus the repetition of consonants, of vowel and stress patterns, in poems such as "Musquodoboit Road Church" is far denser than prose and contributes directly to the sensuality of the reading process. Further, stressed associations of sound assist the hinting of nuances of meaning. "Prepare the way of the Lord" is thus linked to "predatory" — and thus, indirectly, to the predatory images of the blue, cruising cars, and to the sharpness of the fragrance of fertility, and to the hook on the poem's line.

     Although Clarke is aware of the major traditions of English language poetry, he mostly writes in rhythms that are, to my ear, typically Canadian.  That is, he does not write in the complexly sinuous rhythms of the best West Indian verse, nor in the colloquial "loose iambics" of the best American verse, nor in the more cautious iambics of British verse.  Rather Clarke tends to use the short-lined loosely trochaic rhythms which at its best (Pratt, Marty) can sound Beowulfian, at its worst, a trifle like brick-laying.   In the "loosened trochaic" form most Canadian poets use, the strongest beats of the line are most often at the beginning of the line.  The lines usually end with a weakened stress and often with a dropping of the voice.  The verse is not usually constructed as a rhythmic paragraph (as in Milton or Hopkings); rather the structural sense is declamatory — the heaping or layering of one statement upon another.  Reading this material out loud, the Canadian poet speaks with emphasis and, at times, a driving, pulpit force, rather a bob-tailed-Dylan-Thomas effect at its best, at other times more like dictation, or the delivery of one-line jokes.  The total effect is that of a hammer rather than that of a dance.  In a few poems, however, Clarke goes beyond this somewhat delimited rhythm, with magnificent effect.  One such poem "The Emissaries," will be looked at in detail later in this paper.

     Clarke's instinct for visually just but fresh imagery gives originality to the Old English or Dylan Thomas style of linking nouns and adjectives in strong stresses and falling rhythms: "incandescent angels/ whirling in crayon blaze" ("The Stars are Winged Creatures Over a Blue World," section V from The Book of Jubilee).  The physicality and the childishness of crayon colours suggests the peculiar, innocent brilliance that only child artists — and Van Gogh — can give to a representation of the heavens.

     At his best, Clarke develops and connects his imagery. From "Signs" section VII of The Book of Jubilee:

i saw the seagull, saint of harbors,
grey pier-prophet, miles inland,
burning, but not burning;
i saw a book of stone through water-light,
its words moved when read,
scattering like tadpoles,

(Notice the Beowulf rhythms.) The readers' recognition of the force of these images deepens gradually.  First we envisualize the tadpoles' tiny ink shapes as they scatter and vanish in a pond.  Then we perceive the implied question — what happens to what we have read as we read it?  Is the word static while our eye moves, or is it our focus, our attention, that is static, while life and the words which are part of the process of living move away from us into our past, into our memory, into the pond / context of our lives?  Water-light is a reflected light — punningly, the light of reflection, and, here, a spiritual light.  Light and water conjoined to that which burns but is not consumed, i.e. the divine bush of the Holy Spirit, and to a book of stone, carry a wealth of literary and religious allusions, from the Old Testament through.Dante, Eliot, and Thomas.  With these earthly elements is the creature of the air, the gull prophet.  The gull's cry, warning, raucous, unflattering, dire, is suggestive of old testament prophecy.  The reader who recalls that the saints and prophets were often querulous, mangy, wild-eyed, garbage-eating, can recognize a saint in a seagull.  The gull is also a conspicuous white bird, and, like the equally vulgar pigeon, a symbol of the Holy Spirit.  The bird / spin / prophet / saint of the air is thus connected to the burning bush whose fire, also, is the Holy Spirit, and to the book which does not decay, being written in rock, which is the book of the law, and the Word.  The Word, of course, is also the fourth element, the water of life.  But the Word is also alive — like the tadpole, with all the ambivalences their scattering suggests.

     The sequence from which this excerpt is taken, The Book of Jubilee, is supposedly spoken by Richard Preston, founder of the African United Baptist Association in 1854.  This beautiful long poem is not a simple narrative record of the steps toward the proclamation and founding of the African United Baptist Association; instead it records the experiences, depressions, and exultations of the prophetic Preston, and how, not emptied of his mission in the founding of the African United Baptist Association, he moves on.  The conveyed sense of a fullness of living keeps the historical facts from being dead issues.

     That the spirit of jubilee still lives and struggles is evident in the preceding section of Clarke's collection, Soul Songs and Blues Notes.  But the short poem for Clarke has a limiting tendency.  Too often it is a lyric of a single mood, and the expression of the single impulse does not, as a form, demand the structure-risking complexity of redefinition or development. Clarke's shortest poems, especially in the Soul Songs section, are sometimes only collections of unexplored images linked by the general mood of the poem, but by no more than that.  For example, "Guysborough Road Church":

we are the black loyalists;
we think of the bleak fundamentalism
of a ragged scarf of light
twined and twisted and torn
in a briar patch of pines.
and then, of steel-wool water,
scouring the dull rocks of bonny
bonny nova scotia —
this chaste, hard granite
coast inviolate; the dark,
dreary mountains where sad Glooscap broods
over waters void. . .
we are the world-poor.
we are the fatherless.
we are the coloured Christians
of the african united baptist association.

     Br'er Rabbit's briar patch is not organically connected to steel wool, which, though it can suggest both the colloquial reference to African hair and to hard labour, is casually dropped for an allusion to Nova Scotia's sentimentalized Prince Charlie.  To none of these are chastity and the supposed inviolateness of the coast related — nor are any of these related to Glooscap (who is not a rabbit trickster figure in the Malecite tales.)  While it could be argued that the failure of these pieces of cultural reference to cohere is part of the impoverishment and abandonment felt by the "coloured Christians," the impoverishment affects the poem itself.  In this poem, at least, the inheritance is not yet owned; the material world not integrated.

     But Clarke's second section, Blues Notes, has more poems with a minimal degree of narrative cohering the imagery.  Too, the Blues Notes poems more often take as their structuring point not a subject but an image.   A poet who works first from a subject may be tempted to use imagery decoratively, so that the images refer only to the subject, never to each other.  (As for example, the "scarf of light" in "Guysborough Road Church" can not be connected to the "steel-wool" scouring pad of water a few lines later.)  Where a poet takes the risk of allowing a central image / emotion complex to develop its own suggestions, without reaching for "subject," wholeness of effect is more often achieved.   Giving a poem "its head" in this fashion is as risky as recording one's dreams, and as dull, if one does not, at the same time, exercise one's deepest understanding.  It is a poet's emotional understanding of the images which insist upon coming to the poem that controls the poem's strength.  Emotion is not a matter of imagery alone; it is, in fact, primarily, a matter of rhythm.  One of Clarke's finest poems, "The Emissaries," shows what Clarke can do when allowing his understanding of imagery and emotion to create the poem, to become pure poetry, what Robert Frost meant by "poetry" when he called it what could not be translated into a different sound. 

red apples and brown coffee
in the indigo dawn early
paired, dark forms of ducks
moving in water,
seem like strange rocks
or the breasts of my daughter
as the motorway develops
images of autos and truck stops.

a motel sign glares blood-red,
opposite a home of the freshly-dead.
the black body of a Bible,
lynched on the tree of a table,
is motionless as possible.  i would read it if i were able
(if its words were not birds of prey
in a bomber-sky, olive and grey).

coin-operated lovers
exchange lucre in cold covers.
piercing lights of moloch lamps
hurl arrows of electricity
to drive out darkness where it camps
in the stock markets of the city.
i would alter if there was change
to alter what is not pre-arranged.

i have lost so much of what was nothing
(even the stars above the lakes are frothing).
have i said that my daughter's breasts
are like two, young, black swans?
that each generation of emptiness rests
upon my toiling for such futile funds?
going forth mornings to keep alive
the human doom, the "twoo-human drive. . . .
                                                                                      ("The Emissaries")

Notice how Clarke does not desert the central location of his perceptions and concerns.  Everything is organically connected to the literal level; everything relates, corresponds.  The motion of life against the motionlessness of death (and of the unreadable, killed Bible) is paralleled with the deep ambivalence of the coin / change complex.  The delicate queries about the possibility of change (as alteration) is entwined with the knowledge of the malignity of human drive, human change, human greed (coin).  The frothing of the stars remind us that they, too, like the generations of man, pass and decay in futility.  And the movement of the bird imagery — from the black ducks, which are at once rocks — hard, strange, unalive — and soft, pulsingly alive breasts of a young girl, to the birds of prey, the bombers, and then back to the black swans, and the daughter's breasts, again, is a movement from beauty observed through the recollection of despair towards an assertion of beauty imagined and existing — the imagined swans, the existing daughter.

     In most of Clarke's poetry, as in "The Emissaries," Clarke expresses an intense sense of the motion of time.  He expresses a sense of a past whose pain seems not to have ceased to exist (the Bible, the lychings) and of a present which, as it surges and yearns toward the future feels rootings mounting within it — to use the wonderful assertion of Clarke's "Can't Seem to Settle Down" that roots "will mount with the shrink of time: / they will ooze through me / when i am still atoms of earth".  Repeatedly in Clarke's verse the images of highways, railways, automobiles, ships, airplanes, flying, dancing, driving, and the motions of sea and wind occur.  Even his fettered black loyalists are fettered to storm-winds and water, to the "revolving sea," to the surging motions of time and nature.  This sense of being fettered to time, but to time which is change and motion, lies at the heart of "The Emissaries."

     A second major theme of "The Emissaries" which is common to much of Clarke's work, and which is the prevailing theme also of The Book of Jubilee, is the theme of being sent out, of reaching out, of striving — and of being among things which also seem to have purpose, indication, and messages.  Who are the emissaries of "The Emissaries"?  The unreadable, terrible words of the closed Bible?  The suggestive, paired, dark forms of ducks?  The piercing lights driving out darkness?  The human spirit, futilely, mysteriously striving?  All of these, the reader feels.  There is some sense in the word "emissary" of a secret message — something very important, but not spelled out plain.  What we feel with the brilliant, moving forms of this poem, is Melville's sense that these things are "not without significance."  These things portend.

     One of the most interesting ways Clarke loads his forms with significance in this poem is through colour.  His colour sense is always a painter's, and the colours of "The Emissaries" are chosen for their emotional and symbolic values as well as for their coherence to the literal morning-in-the-motel landscape of the poem's "place."  Indigo is the colour of a dark Canadian dawn, literally, for in our short day seasons the world of human commerce dawns while it is still night.  But indigo is also the blue-black peculiarly Afro-American in historical suggestion — the indigo of the plantation economy and of "the blues."  The red of the apples and the brown of the coffee, as colours, and as plain nourishment, support the colour history — as do the blood-red sign and the black body (breasts, Bible, lynching victim) — the same colours of body and blood, of Afro-American history, here suggestively sacramental.  As the poem progresses, Clarke reminds us of the slow progress of morning light (and of history).   The colours pale, but remain the colours of death, now the military colours of Moloch, god of war and greed.  Against the bleak olive and grey of a cold Canadian morning, Clarke places electric arrows whose fierce commercial "drive" echoes the motion of the highways, mimics the glitter of the stars, and reminds us, subtly, of what has happened to Blake's Jerusalem, our modern world.  As usual, in Clarke's verse, alliteration assists stress and colour patterns.  (And it is of course splendid to discover that it is still possible to write rhymed verse in English without sounding awkward.)

     But what I most particularly like about this splendid poem is the way Clarke subtly alters the rhythm of the lines as the poem progresses from the shorter lines of the opening stanzas, written largely in "loosened trochees," with major stresses at the beginning of the line and falling rhythms, towards the more beautiful, longer, and more iambic rhythms of the last stanza.  There are kinds of meaning for which the trochee, however "loosened," is not appropriate.  It is too crisp, too hammering a rhythm for some kinds of statements, for the ultimate, flowingly meditative affirmation of the poem.  For it is not simply the image of the beloved daughter's breasts that contains the affirmation of this dark poem, but the piercingly lovely melody of the concluding stanza.  Notice how, by placing the major stresses later in the line, Clarke affects the emotional tonalities.  Notice how the last four lines grow into a paragraph, not as four units but as a single unit strongly stressed.  No brick-laying here, but organic form.  The shorter, more trochaic lines of the opening stanzas convey just slightly that sense of construction and unmusicality that suit the opening mood.  But the sense of constricted despair and hammering stress ("piercing lights of moloch lamps") alters to a calmer sense of having lost "what was nothing" — after all, even the stars are temporal.  The relaxing of the mood is conveyed in part by the way the rhythm of the line swings away from the hammer-beat or the mechanical impulses of the highway and the motel sign.  For the natural grace of birds, of organic nature, which the concluding imagery affirms, comes in a slower metre.  The darkness of the opening perceptions of the poem remains, but the exploration of these perceptions has deepened the emotions away from the constriction, and the accompanying sense of incapacity and hopelessness, of the opening lines towards a stronger, more tragic, and more life-accepting irony, towards a greater dignity of expression, of sentence sound.  The speaker of the poem has become the master of his mood.  It is this change of rhythm, this gaining of expressive, melodic dignity, that is the poem's point, the secret message of the "emissaries."

     We must, more of us, learn to write like this.


  1. All subsequent quotations from George Elliott Clarke's poems are taken from Saltwater Spirituals and Deeper Blues (Potters Lake, N.S.: Pottersfield Press, 1983).[back]