Tom Clark has combined the diverse roles of poet, biographer, novelist, dramatist, reviewer, and sportswriter during his writing career. In addition to dozens of books of poetry, a play, two novels, two story collections, and numerous biographies of literary figures, Clark's works include a book co-written with star baseball pitcher Mark Fidrych, poems about such sports legends as Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue and Bert Campaneris, and a history of the Oakland A's baseball team. As Steven Young notes in Contemporary Poets, "Clark is a fan; he doesn't write about baseball, he celebrates it." Speaking to Contemporary Authors, Clark easily finesses the apparent gap between his interests in poetry and sports: "I think they have a natural relationship. The best poems and the best baseball games share a dramatic tension you can't find in very many other places." In his essay for the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Clark tells how his "religious involvement" in baseball developed at an early age, fostered initially by his father, who took him to his first big-league games at Comiskey Park on Chicago's South Side. He describes "suddenly emerging through a tunnel into the radiantly illuminated, enchanted emerald green space," and goes on to state: "Perhaps religion is the wrong term, though. Part hobby, part escape hatch from endarkened household, for me baseball opened up a secret door in the wall to numinous worlds religion promised but never delivered."
Clark's interest in poetry blossomed at the University of Michigan, where he lists his early influences as Rilke, Wallace Stevens, Theodore Rothke, and Boris Pasternak. However, the contemporary academic poets he met at that time failed to impress him, later causing him to reject the chance to become "a university poet . . . thus irrevocably exiting, with a headstrong lack of foresight surely to be regretted, the moving staircase of academic poetry-careering." Taking an advanced degree at Cambridge, Clark became strongly influenced by the work of Ezra Pound. While in England, he hitchhiked around the country with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and gave readings and associated with other writers such as Robert Graves, Gregory Corso, Andrei Voznesensky, and Adrian Mitchell. For ten years, starting in 1963, after being recommended to publisher George Plimpton by his former teacher, poet Donald Hall, Clark served as poetry editor of the prestigious Paris Review.
Though he is known for his poems about sports, Clark writes poems in a wide range of styles and on many subjects. He has written parodies of traditional poetry in The Mutabilitie of the English Lyrick, poems of tribute to such figures as Lenny Bruce, and political poems. Lewis Warsh in Poetry claims that Clark lets "go of all restrictions as to what goes into the poem while creating the ability to make everything come out right." He possesses, Chad Walsh writes in Book World, "the ability to look at the ordinary world and see it for the first time, with the freshness of a Zen Buddhist painting a landscape or composing a haiku."
Many of Clark's poems are concerned with the state of contemporary America. In The End of the Line, for example, Clark presents an "affecting, anguished vision of a collapsing America," as Amy Gerstler writes in Poetry News. "A writer known and loved for his enthusiasm, curiosity, purity and scope of imagination, and an amazing ability to blend humor and cosmic concerns, Clark has turned the considerable force of his gifts to produce a despairing book, concerned with the fate of his country." In Paradise Resisted, Clark examines the American West, offering "a wide-ranging body of work examining 'the West'—a state of mind, unique geographical terrains, qualities of light, restless, boundless dreams," according to Don Skiles in the San Francisco Chronicle. Skiles finds the collection to be "a tough, beautiful book—a rare combination. . . . This is the real West of our time, as significant as John Ford's cinematic legends."
Clark's collection Sleepwalker's Fate: New and Selected Poems, 1965-1991 offers a significant sampling of his poetic work over several decades. Reviewing the book for the San Francisco Chronicle, Joel Lewis explains that "Clark has been one of American poetry's most consistent and constant chroniclers of our long sleepwalk to parts unknown. . . . What we have . . . in the 'Sleepwalker's Fate' is poetry's first successful X-ray of [the] American psyche as it swims through the '90s." Writing in Small Press, Peggy Shumaker found the collection to be "complex, alive in every line, tender, unbearable, and necessary. Clark embraces in one book twenty-five years of poems, plus baseball, classicism, jazz, physics, trout kills, popular culture, 'the smashed weirdness of the raving cadenzas of God,' and 'infinite gifts we are unable to discern.'"
Young sees definite changes both in the form and subject of the author's poems from the 1960s to the 1990s. According to Young, in Clark's early work "chaos can sometimes reign." He faults Clark's "fondness for quirky modifiers" (for example "secretive tambourine") and remarks that "thin, or nonexistent, punctuation often creates syntactical confusions." Young contends that by the 1970s Clark's poems became more unified: "This work seems clearer, cleaner, though with the same drive and energy . . . the range of subjects widens here, the introspection of the earlier work giving way to concern with things and people in the world." Though critical of Clark's minimalist poems of this period, Young feels that his longer works produce "exciting poetry." He singles out the poem "Chicago," which describes Clark's experience working as an usher at various baseball stadiums, as successfully evoking the entire era of the 1950s. In Clark's later work, Young is partial to his poems about other writers and artists, such as Ungaretti, Kafka, and Lenny Bruce. He describes Clark as "a world-class spectator, his work a grand record of his looking on."
In prose, Clark has made a mark as a (sometimes semi-fictional) biographer of pop musician Neil Young, and of such literary figures as Damon Runyon, Jack Kerouac, Ted Berrigan, Louis Ferdinand Celine, Charles Olson, and Robert Creeley. Clark's biography of Jack Kerouac draws on previous studies and personal accounts to give an overview of the Beat novelist's career. Clark focuses in particular on how Kerouac used the details of his life to create memorable fiction. The biography, John Montgomery notes in the Toronto Globe and Mail, "is readable, condensed and documented with extensive footnotes. . . This book is an antidote and a model for academics who usually aren't able to cope with a writer like Kerouac." K. N. Richwine of Choice finds that Jack Kerouac "is written with the grace, clarity, and density of detail of one of the better New Yorker profiles."
In tackling the life of poet Charles Olson, Clark again provides a study of the relationship between a writer and his work. His Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet's Life is, according to Bruce Campbell in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, "clear, compelling, and makes Olson's life more coherent than it has ever been." "Olson," writes Thomas M. Disch in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "was a pioneer in the dismantling of the college core curriculum and its replacement by a kind of autodidacticism that differed little from autointoxication. He was, in short, the high priest of high times, and Tom Clark's biography is a balefully fascinating account of both the man and the milieu he did so much to form."
With the biographical novel The Exile of Celine, Clark explored territory some reviewers found unnecessary. The story of French novelist Louis Ferdinand Celine's flight to Denmark after World War II, The Exile of Celine covers a story already told by Celine himself in a trilogy of novels written in the 1950s. "If," writes Francois Sauzey in the New York Times Book Review, "you have read Celine's own chronicle of the period . . . , why, you may ask in disbelief, would anyone even try to re-evoke novelistically Celine's hectic landscape?" Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times admits "one finds it hard to tell what Mr. Clark is up to in his novel." But Charles Monaghan in the Washington Post finds much value in the novel. "The novel form," Monaghan argues, "permits Clark to make the most of the story line, to pick and choose his material as a biographer could not. . . . He has recreated the best moments of Celine's books and done it in a clean, sweet prose that displays a poet's concern for conciseness."