Poet and biographer Tom Clark dies at 77 after car accident

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Renowned poet and biographer Tom Clark, 77, died several hours after he was hit by a car in North Berkeley on Aug. 17.

During his wide-ranging literary career, he published 30 poetry collections, biographies on literary figures such as Jack Kerouac and Robert Creeley and many pieces about baseball, among other works. Clark was born in Chicago in 1941 and went to the University of Michigan, Cambridge University and the University of Essex.

“I’ve been thinking about him a lot, of course, since this tragedy occurred,” said Larry Bensky, who worked with Clark when he was an editor for The Paris Review in the 1960s. “What a dedicated and hard worker he was, every day, every month, every year, he wrote.

Writer and UC Berkeley alumnus Steve Silberman, who has known Clark’s work for several decades, said Clark was an outsider by choice who “preserved his solitude.” This was a unique perspective during a time when many poets were identifying themselves with certain tribes, such as the Beat generation, Silberman said.

Although Clark pursued a more solitary career, he was a highly important figure in the poetry landscape since the 1960s, according to Bensky.

Clark’s 1966 interview with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg for The Paris Review is “one of the most important literary documents of its era,” according to Bensky. He said it is an “extraordinary” example of how to do an interview and reflects the “genius” of both Clark and Ginsberg. The two poets developed a friendship when they hitchhiked through England together, as the 1966 interview details.

Bensky said that during Clark’s first years as a poetry editor of The Paris Review, he rejected the submissions of more traditional poets whose works had been accepted in previous years and filled the publication with a diverse range of contemporary writers. Clark’s instincts for talent were “incredibly astute,” Bensky said.

Charlie Getter, another Bay Area poet and former student of Clark’s when he taught at the New College of California, described Clark as the “perfect combination of thoughtful and surly.”

He would give his classes in his living room in North Berkeley… he would start to talk and before anyone would realize, the three hours would be over,” Getter said in an email. “He was an encyclopedia and could tell a story and you would leave accidentally knowing more about the craft than you expected.”

Hours before Clark was hit by the car, he posted photos to his blog — which has more than 3,400 posts since 2009 of Guatemalan families being reunited after months of separation under President Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy. Silberman said this kind of social awareness was characteristic of Clark.

“He found his niche in poetry and worked tirelessly to produce his own art,” Silberman said. “Tom embodied the poet.”

Contact Cade Johnson at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @cadejohnson98.