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  • The Vagabond Spirit of Poetry by Edward Clarke
  • Rachel Malkin
The Vagabond Spirit of Poetry.
By Edward Clarke. Alresford: Iff, 2014.

Edward Clarke’s contention in The Vagabond Spirit of Poetry is that “poetry matters” (19). It matters not only in the ways for which a case can be made for all of the arts as mattering, but because poetic language correctly disposed negotiates the boundary between the material world and another realm. Clarke is concerned with “the intensest rendezvous” (Stevens qtd. on 4): the kinds of encounters, and even spiritual “marriage,” that “true poetry” makes possible (158, 88). The distinction is his, and not all verse qualifies (for example, confessional American poetry of the mid-twentieth century is excluded). On the view that all “true poetry is mystical” (88), poetry is not merely iterative of human spiritual potential, but performative: something happens.

Clarke sees a collective need for a practice of “soul-making” to which such verse is integral (71). Further, the sense of intimacy between poetry and the spiritual world is for him a concept in urgent need of revival, and spirits are not to be understood as simply metaphorical. Key classical and pre-Enlightenment poets, romantic poets, and later poets working in the romantic tradition (with whom he counts Wallace Stevens), are cast here as guides to a knowledge too easily lost under the conditions of a frenetic (post)modernity. The vagabondage of the book’s title is a kind of productive “repose,” a Words- worthian “holy indolence” that has something in common with meditation, sharing the virtues of slowing, and paying attention, a deceleration making [End Page 268] room for other kinds of “quickening” (1, 13, 4). Clarke’s method is to quote extensively, allowing room for the experience of reading the verse to become apparent. The quotations are a pleasure, and encourage one to re-seek the originals, which is no doubt the objective.

Although the section on Stevens is fairly short (pages 183–92), a famous line from the late “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour”—“We say God and the imagination are one” (CPP 444)—serves as a refrain throughout the book, and anchors the case Clarke makes for Stevens, who is aligned both with a romantic lineage and with Eastern thought, as a searcher bringing hidden inner truths to light. His interpretation has points of contact with work on Stevens and Heidegger, and with explorations of Stevens in relation to Buddhism, as well as with scholarship on Stevens and English romanticism. However, criticism in these areas is not foregrounded, rather the idea is exfoliated by way of reference to other poets. Although Stevens’ belief in the power of poetry was indeed profound, the complexities and turns of his verse are not fully represented, perhaps because the analysis is not intended for Stevens specialists.

Clarke’s book is a diagnosis of contemporary ills and a prescription for a remedy, and he distinguishes it from criticism understood as a purely professional practice. It is also an openly personal project. As such, its tone is deliberately defined against scholarly conventions—it is at times anecdotal, at others a little jeremiadical. His asides also seem to indicate a feeling of isolation (though he is not alone in locating a potential space of recovery by drawing out the links between philosophical and poetic insights that demonstrate a continuity of thinking from romanticism into the critical present). Clarke’s erudition is evident. But he is moved to announce that “My piety before the poetry I would explicate makes me say also that if you do not believe that the poet should fulfil such a vital, central and elevated role, then you are part of the problem. . . . [Y]our very scepticism is one of the illnesses that the true poet must try and cure” (153). This approach will likely divide opinion, even among those sympathetic to the thesis that the “slow reading” of verse might be conducive to re-enchantment and reflection. Clarke anticipates the kind of audience that would highlight the book’s conscious eccentricities, characterizing his position as polemical from the outset, but these do remain relevant. They include gendered arguments about poetic authority, a...