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Working Words

Clemens Starck brings a craftsman's care to the hard labor of poetry

By Morton Marcus

'WORK POETRY" came to the fore of literary attention in this country when the great American poet Philip Levine won the Pulitzer Prize several years back for a volume of what was termed the "poetry of work." Instead of being a compliment, however, such an identification could tend to diminish a poet's work by making it seem one-dimensional. To do so would be a mistake in regard to Levine's poetry, which is wide-ranging and many-faceted. The same is true for Clemens Starck's marvelous new book, Journeyman's Wages.

Work poetry proselytizes nothing more than using experiences in the work place as the subject for one's poems. Tom Wayman, the prime mover in this "nonschool," points out that a third of our lives is spent on the job, yet almost no poetry addresses or uses this fact. It's no surprise then, that four of Starck's poems hold a prominent place in Wayman's anthology Paperwork: Contemporary Poems From The Job. All four are also included in Journeyman's Wages.

Starck's book is an extraordinary collection that I almost feel impelled to divest of the "work poetry" label. As with Levine, such an identification may suggest to the prospective reader a limitation in content and range that is wholly untrue.

Although Journeyman's Wages is his first book, Starck has been writing for more than 30 years, and he was a popular figure in the San Francisco poetry scene, known for his incandescent readings in the mid-1960s. After many life changes, Starck settled in rural Oregon, pursuing the life of a carpenter. Journeyman's Wages shows him to be a master poet at the height of his powers.

Starck brings a metaphorical resonance to the several meanings of the words "work," "craftsman" and "skilled laborer." The precision and commitment he demands of his work is the same kind of insistence on excellence he brings to his words and to living his daily life. Through his highly suggestive use of language, the three words are many times indistinguishable from one another.

Although the poems generally run 20 lines or fewer, they are weighty meditations--done with a painter's light touch--about maintaining spiritual and mental balance in all aspects of living, and they have a distinctly Asian cast of thought and utterance reminiscent of the Chinese sage poets and Japanese Zen masters. It is no accident that the book's cover illustration is from a T'ang Dynasty silk painting showing the Buddha practicing archery, nor that the painting is the subject of the evocative poem "Practicing Archery," which ends the book's third section.

Starck's range can be seen in the book's structure. The attitude that underlies the entire volume, however, should be noted from the start in order to make clear how the sections form a cohesive whole.

Simply, the poet says that our well-being is achieved by maintaining an awareness of the usually ignored aspects of our existence, whether those aspects be pride in the most mundane tasks we undertake, or observation of things so ordinary we usually fail to acknowledge them. Divided into four sections, these ideas are pursued in a stringently condensed workaday language.

THE FIRST SECTION provides a good example of how Starck's blueprint works. It finds the poet on the job, in the outside world, knowing that each of his tools, in one case a saw, "uses my hands for its own purposes." Such a statement, typically paradoxical and wry, helps keep one in balance with the scheme of things through knowing that he is "lucky to know [his] own uses!"

But in a world where the powers-that-be care little about a craftsman's sense of perfection, one must be continually vigilant to maintain the right attitude, always ready for the moment of epiphany, of heightened consciousness, that may occur at any time during the endless hours of meaningless activities. As the poet says with a seeming shrug, "In the meantime I stay busy," by caring for his tools, an emblematic reference to keeping his awareness sharp and ready.

The perceived indignity of a craftsman's labor in our society, and the shoddy, jerry-built projects, with their conscious-deadening designs and wholly commercial purposes proscribed by the powers-that-be, are the forces that oppose the poet/worker's attainment of a meaningful existence. They are nullified, however, by Starck's pride in his craft, as he finds a significance in the act of work as well as in his attitude toward it, that his bosses will probably never comprehend.

All work can be meaningful, therefore, since the worker is really employing his self in every job he undertakes (from "Remodeling the House"):

Now every true apprentice knows
there are principles to reckon
with, spirit
level and plumb bob; so,
I honor the man who taught me
the soul is a house<
and you build it ...

Maintaining a historical perspective is an important part of this process, as the poet reminds himself (and us) during a card game he has with fellow workers while on lunch break. The game, he says, "has been going on for years,/at least since the time of the Pyramids," an offhanded reference, typical in style and manner of so much of the book, that connects him with builders of an illustrious past. And the vision of the future, of time, really, is that (from "Putting in Footings")

millennia later,
after the Pyramids
have pulverized and
Jake has disappeared
and reappeared many times,
as grouchy as ever,
angels will come to measure
our work,
slowly shaking their heads.

PART II TAKES place in the private world, at home, where the worker, at rest, ruminates on books or during personal experiences that occur at those moments, past and present, when he is driving through the landscape, and the ordinary suddenly becomes charged with significance.

Such moments, it should be noted, are almost always presented in a quiet, unassuming manner, which is the hallmark of Starck's approach.

At a railroad crossing he remembers passing 20 years before when he was "riding the freights," he sees how much he's changed by simply observing, in lines full of unworded meaning, that I squint impatiently into the afternoon sun,/engine idling,/waiting for a train to pass" (from "Railroad Passing").

Everything the poet observes, in fact, is radiant with far-reaching meaning, even though he may fail "to observe/any change," he says while looking at an eclipse, "in the shadow cast by this earth on the moon." To put it another way, we influence the scheme of things in everything we do, although we may not be able to see the changes our actions cause.

Part III is filled with exquisite nature poems and the poet's unique observations of the world of minutiae, an extension of his notions of the usually disregarded aspects of our lives. Here, the poet and his children spend time together, and the sense of life's continuum is ever present, even in snow drops "floated in a dish of water," which look like "white petals streaked with green" and are "like my children floating on clear water."

In this section, there are many references to ancient China and Starck's reverence for Chinese culture, but there is also an acute sense of his own life's vibrancy as he sees in rural Oregon a landscape that matches China's, and realizes, in typical understatement, that "Oregon is not so far from China."

If the third part is concerned with the microcosm and the past, the fourth and final section deals with the macrocosm and the present, and is made up of social commentary poems on subjects as diverse as war, materialism and the lost ideals of American life.

Starck's good humor and bonhomie are ever present in the poems' shifting tones of voice that at one time or another are meditative, excited, self-deprecating, reverent, dispassionate and even raucously humorous. Although in no way Pollyannaish, Journeyman's Wages is essentially a celebration of the human spirit and the possibilities for enlightenment that are always present in the most uninspiring and least exotic situations.


Journeyman's Wages by Clemens Starck; Story Line Press; 65 pages; $10.95 paper.

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From the May 23-29, 1996 issue of Metro

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