Biography in Verse: George Elliott Clarke’s Traverse

To those who have followed George Elliot Clarke’s writing, this commemoration of his 30th anniversary as a poet adds some biographical background to the man and his favoured personas. (I use biography and omit the ‘auto’ because this is the poet writing about the man.) And one can no more tire of reading Clarke’s poetry than hearing Albert Collins play the blues.

Sing and play Clarke does, eschewing the natural AAB form to instead belt out loosely constructed sonnets, driven and riffing with puns, rhymes and the entire poetic vocabulary of a technical master ornamenting at will. Take:

alert but hurt, limping,
moanin open-heart-surgery blues—
facin the stink of bad news,
slop of bad shots, sobs of liquor,

Another blues contrivance, he writes as if the audience is familiar with his travails, not only of desire and disappointment, but particulars, such as being speech writer/assistant to Howard McCurdy. While being familiar with his career adds flavor, as with any talented crooner, it is hardly necessary for enjoyment, where he also continues inundating the reader with his particular lexicon, riven with French and references Classical to Négritude:

My Marxism-Leninism enlisted
Pushkin, Pasternak, Rasputin,
plus Nabokov’s Lolita.
My Maoism mixed sake and haiku
et les bons mots de Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

While footnotes would be useful for a more casual reader, Clarke largely refrains from doing so, though he does include a list of all the places he’s traveled. And this is perhaps a symptom of the weakest parts: there are a series of poems that just seem to be reciting content, noting milestones and achievements. This not only is a clash against the idea noted above, but mechanical. Adding too-brief juxtapositions against historical events further elevates an untamed self-importance.

But at the risk of being rather meta, this too is in line with the improvised (he wrote much of this essentially in one sitting) jam of a man getting on stage for an hour with nothing but a mic and his ego. The poems progress into one another, unfolding his story, but also stand on their own. The theme of a poet finding his voice is universal to anyone reading this review, and knowledge of Clarke’s achievements are unnecessary to identify with the struggle.

Clarke’s strongest voice exhibits pride and disdain for his vast erudition, a theme common to poetic outsiders, be they Africadian or just plain Nova Scotian. Canon gives access but not truth, and so he forms an uneasy alliance:

I yammered out an essay on Baudelaire—
a.k.a. Bo Diddley—
his sexing up of da alexandrine,
while I hammered LOTS of Gov.-Gen. rum,
tryin to make French mean more than diddly squat.

Through this sly, sustained improv, Clarke did a real favour to his future biographers: they can skip these years, as he got everything important, and in truer style than any stranger’s keyboard could hope to bash out.


Roy Wang is from Toronto, but has lived in Detroit for the last 12 years. He has reviewed poetry for the online New Pages, and has been published in Prairie Fire, Jones Av., and Shit Creek Review.



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