John Clarke brought a much wider array of references to his class than other professors, and he had the focus and self-control to carry off the spontaneity. I can give you a sample of his performance. Shortly after I graduated, Clarke published a volume of transcribed lectures, From Feathers to Iron, delivered at the Poetics Program at the New College of California. These lectures unfolded like his classes. This lengthy passage will give you the flavor of Clarke’s winding discourse:
From feathers to iron comes from a letter of John Keats’ to Benjamin Bailey, March 13, 1818, in which he wrote:
Every point of thought is the centre of an intellectual world—the two uppermost thoughts in a Man’s mind are the two poles of his World. He revolves on them and everything is southward or northward to him through their mean—We take but three steps from feathers to iron.
The artist Shusaku Arakawa asked if I might “turn up with something to feed a Model of Mind,” a project he and Madeline Gins are working on. These lectures attempt to complete the intellectual world implicit in Keats’ “point of thought” prompted by Arakawa’s proposal.
The first topic—“The Disappearance of Ordering Intervention”—is from a book by Marie-Louise von Franz, a protégé of Jung’s, in fact the one who substituted for Jung at Black Mountain College in the “New Sciences of Man Lectures” instituted by Charles Olson in 1953. She wrote an interesting book called Number and Time in which she quotes a French cyberneticist, Olivier Costa de Beauregard, who says that when the ordering intervention in a system disappears…
Aud: What is ordering intervention supposed to mean?
If a poet comprehends his work, brings that comprehension to his work, and adds that comprehension to his work, that’s an ordering intervention. Both the course of the work and the world are changed by that. Someone asked last night, where do the Dead go? The question is: when ordering intervention disappeared from the cosmos, where did it go? In a world abiding by some law of conservation, “negentropy” can’t simply be lost. It has to go somewhere.[i]
The passage sounds slapdash to those of us used to writerly prose. Clarke doesn’t have a point to prove. He doesn’t craft a disciplined argument in a step-by-step chain of logic of the kind we find in academic lectures turned into books. Clarke name-checks eight people in half a page. He veers off his first topic, the Keats quote, after 71 words and leaps to a third topic, the disappearance of ordering intervention, after just 45 more words. He then manages to utter 76 words before someone interrupts him with a question. By the end, he’s talking about the dead and the obscure “negentropy.”
He doesn’t go into anything systematically. He throws out tantalizing fragments of ideas without exploring any of them deeply. This rhetorical practice must leave critical readers feeling dissatisfied, robbed of understanding. But we can see something different and valuable going on if we examine the passage on its own terms.
Clarke has proposed a topic for the evening, the disappearance of ordering intervention. He aims to invent something useful for himself and his audience by talking about this abstract phrase. The awkwardness of its wording pushes the audience off balance. It’s not sure exactly what Clarke is talking about. It can’t peg the subject rationally and thereby shut down its imagination. The value comes from the talk, not from an analysis of the topic itself. The topic serves as an occasion—almost an excuse—for talk. Clarke hasn’t arrived with a ready-made answer; the answer still needs to be discovered.
As we can with any topic, Clarke approaches this one from many angles and thinks many different thoughts about it, some disjointed. He doesn’t pre-select from this mass of ideas to fashion a coherent argument. Instead, he allows all the ideas, unformed as they are, into the room with the audience, which will also generate its own ideas about “the disappearance of ordering intervention.”
This technique introduces uncertainty into the talk—no one knows where it’s going to go—though it also creates the possibility of unlooked-for insight. Talk remains linear, so Clarke has to start talking about his topic at a particular place. He might have started at any number of places. None is the “right” place to begin or better than any other place. He happened to choose the Keats quote. He then winds through ideas about the disappearance of ordering intervention in no predetermined order. This kind of open-ended inquiry comes upon insights circuitously and needs to avoid addressing its topic too directly the way a preacher announces his theme at the start of his sermon. “The disappearance of ordering intervention” happens to pop up in third place during the natural flow of Clarke’s talk. On another occasion, it might not have appeared till much later as with egoism and The Scarlet Letter in our classes.
[i] John Clarke, From Feathers to Iron (Bolinas, CA: Tombouctou Books, 1987), p. 25.