And then there’s the parade’s finale, a barn-burner of an ending, which usually comes sometime after 8:00 p.m.: a huge lit-to-the-hilt dragon, hoisted and carried by about forty people, a dragon that snakes up and down the streets to cheers and firecrackers galore. Here’s how the chamber of commerce people fairly accurately describe it:
The Golden Dragon is over 201 feet long and is always featured at the end of the parade as the grand finale and will be accompanied by over 600,000 firecrackers!
The great poetic meditation on this magnificent parade-ending tradition is Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “The Great Chinese Dragon,” first published in his 1961 collection Starting From San Francisco (New Directions). The poem title and author name, in Ferlinghetti’s hand, displayed above, are scanned from the book.
Ferlinghetti’s poem, among other things, imagines that the parade’s dragon is alive and, except for the parade, kept locked in a basement. This is key, because the poem also says the dragon “represents the force and mystery of life” and is “the great earthworm of lucky life,” the “first sign of Spring” that “sees the spiritual everywhere translucent in the material world . . . .”
The beast, in its tremendous potency, is feared in the poem by the “blue citizens on their talking cycles” (that’d be the police). They fear that the dragon will “go careening along . . . chewing up stanchions and signposts and belching forth some strange disintegrating medium which / might melt down the great concrete / walls of America . . . .” In other words, the dragon might upset, majorly, the status quo. So, the authorities have “secretly and securely tied down the very end of his tail” so that it cannot escape.
But let me get back to “The Great Chinese Dragon.” In addition to its anti-establishment underpinnings, what I really like about the poem is how its form – blocks, mostly large and sometimes huge, of unpunctuated wiggly twisty prose – pulse across, down and over the pages, thus perfectly echoing the look and feel of the parade’s dragon. Here are two stanza-graphs (my term) from near the poem’s start, imaged and slightly enlarged from the 1961 edition:
Mairéad Byrne’s State House Calendar is one of 49 chapbooks, each its own pdf file, posted about two weeks ago on the web as Dusie 9. These 49, the third big batch of “Dusie Kollektiv” e-chaps posted since 2006, were published mostly in 2009 ( a few in 2008), and it’s great to have them up, out and available to all with internet access.
I stress the up, out and available part because before they were posted as pdfs it was very, very hard to get your hands on this poetry. The chaps exist as physical books, handmade by Dusie Kollektiv (their spelling) members (somebody different makes each title). However, only 50 or 100 copies of each chap are typically made. Copies are distributed to kollectiv members, with any extras retained by the particular publisher (the person who made them) and/or the poet. As such, general sales are very limited. So the web posting pf these books, which much have involved much work by Dusie Kollektiv editor Susana Gardner, is much appreciated.
Of the new Dusie e-chaps, State House Calendar is the one I’ve so far most often re-opened and re-read. I’ve also printed out a copy to read around the house or while commuting on BART (nope, I don’t carry a laptop or other mobile wireless internet device). There are 29 total pages, including the cover, preface, and colophon. Thirteen pages contain a month of the calendar (September 2009 through September 2010), and an equal number have a poem. Each poem corresponds to a month (e.g., “State House, September” is the first). The hard copy was bound at the top by two rings, calendar (natch) style. Here’s a small shot of the hard-copy, swiped from GoodReads:
Byrne explains the basics of the poetry in State House Calendar – its genesis and method – in a short prefatory note. Here’s the first of five paragraphs:
Byrne’s explanation makes clear that State House Calendar is a kind of list poem, that most ancient and adaptable of poetic forms. Larry Fagin, of course, wrote the book on these – The List Poem: A Guide to Teaching & Writing Catalog Verse (Teachers & Writers, 1991). Among dozens of other observations therein, Fagin reminds that “lists are the stuff of everyday life” and that lists and poetry have gone together since day one, including Homer, the Bible, Ovid, and plenty others since.
But I don’t know about poems that use this approach. Are there other poems that had the recording a particular matter day after day as their sole purpose? I can’t think of one. Am I missing something, or is State House Calendar, in its procedure – poems made from the daily recordings of a particular view – without precedent?
The Rhode Island State House Providence, Rhode Island
Byrnes’ poems excite me regardless of whether they are one of a kind or one of many. I like these poems, a lot, first because who – at least among us who schlep to work each day along the same route – hasn’t been struck by seeing the same dang thing every morning and noticing how it looks the same as, or a bit different from, the day before. We all see these things, even if the experiences, in the grand flow of life, register only slightly in our consciousness. I like that Byrne takes this most human of experiences as the starting point of her poem.
Even more, I got excited that for Byrne (and her daughters who, per the preface, were sometimes were with her and who sometimes took notes what she saw), each daily encounter with the State House was, as she writes in the preface, “a moment of great attention . . . .” Let me, please, repeat that:
“[A] moment of great attention . . . .”
You better believe I stood up and shouted “HELL YES!” when I read that. I love poets who in effect decontextualize Arthur Miller’s classic Death of a Salesman line – “Attention must be paid” – and transform it into a motto for engagement with the world. I love those who live in, or even exploit, the locked in, super-focused perspective.
Another “HELL YES!” bellowed through my head when I read, also in Byrne’s preface, that during these moments of great attention she was “intent on color” and subsquently discovered, after taking photographs that showed little of what she’d put into her poem, that she had been “able to handle light better with words than with a camera.” Let me repeat the core of that last statement:
“[H]andle light better with words than with a camera.”
How’s that for a twist on the ol’ canard? Look, I like photographs as much as anyone, but generally speaking, find the cliched equivalency of one picture for a thousand words extremely disturbing. I like the idea of words, formed in imaginative emulsion, trumping the mechanical eye of the camera. Maybe that explains why the ratio of poetry books to photography monographs in my collection is – you do see this coming, right? – roughly a thousand to one.
More important here, though, is a principle implicit in Byrne’s comments about being intent on color and handling the light. I’ve been reading Frank Samperi lately, and in his long series of poems collectively titled “Triune” there’s a line that I think says it all: “Mind the light.” May I also, for emphasis, repeat that?
“Mind the light”
Samperi’s suggestion could – should – support all sorts of wondrous poetry, and I think State House Calendar is a great example of what can come about. Day after day, for about a year, Byrne went out and took a look at one particular place, with “mind the light” as her credo. And what do you know: State House Calendar is one de-light-ful poem-project.
State House Calendar’s thirteen poems (one for each of the thirteen months of Byrne’s project) have a total of 370 lines. All poems except the one for the month in which she was in part away have the same number of lines as days in the month which serves as the poem title.
Each line represents the written record of a particular observation. A few lines lines are but three words, most are four, five, or six, and the longest has eight. Byrne’s takes are concise. All lines are unpunctuated, and have the same basic grammatical structure: a noun or adjective-noun combination, a preposition, and then another noun or adjective-noun combination.
The particular wonder of Byrne’s chap lies first in the variety of what’s reported line-to-line, observation-to-observation. There’s quite an array, and its fun to read, even if such variation must be expected. Over the course of a year, and even day-to-day, there can be considerable change in the weather and/or angle and amount of light. And the same is true – truer, maybe – with regard to the filter of one’s own perceptions. Heraclitus neatly tied this all together about 2500 years ago when he said, “You cannot step into the same river twice, for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.”
But the real wonder of State House Calendar is how Byrne varies “how” she tells what she sees. This of course is what gives the poem its poetry, what makes it something more than a “mere” list of the colors of the stone and sky or a simple catalog of what the light looked like. As Larry Fagin puts it, “[s]urprise in the sequence – a poetic bump in the road – is often desirable.” The particular fun in Byrne’s work is how, within the very short and grammatically simple (and thus language-limited) line structure, she keeps things fresh (while nevertheless also showing, and honestly, that sometimes the day-to-day changes can be quite subtle).
Byrne’s sometimes presents “the color of the stone against the color of the sky” in the most minimal way imaginable, using basic colors or very literal nouns. These are effective, to-the-point depictions, language equivalents of (to stretch a bit here) something like Agnes Martin’s art. Consider the following (these lines, as with all excerpts below, are pulled from the poems as a whole, as examples of the approach being discussed):
ivory on blue-grey
pink against purple
white on grey
marble against fog
“white on grey”
Most of the depictions in Byrne’s poems, however, even if as concise as the examples above, or longer by just a word or three, are far more evocative than the minimalist type lines. It must have been interesting and a challenge to write, line after line (day after day), an observation of color and light that is unexpected, that might jolt the imagination, but still be true to what was seen.
I’ll tell you this: as I started to read the State House Calendar poems, I didn’t foresee hardly any of the things I came upon. Byrne does surprise. Plus, these richer depictions still correspond to color and light, but do so more allusively, and sometimes seem charged with reverie, all the while not varying from the grammatical structure and concision common to all the poem’s lines. These “moment[s] of great attention” rendered in words are especially effective, and themselves create, on the page and in readers’ minds, moments of great attention:
dead tooth against factory smoke
conch against inky sea
lemon-tea stain against cracked cup
worn dime against storm clouds
blueberry in milk
bone against bruised vein
orange ice against faded denim
mouse fur against glass
Aren’t those something? The last of the bunch – “mouse fur against glass” – is actually an example of a subset that can be culled from among the many particularly evocative lines. I characterize the lines of this subset, broadly, as “marvelously oddball.” They might cause you to cock your head, as in “let me think about that.” A few might even make you laugh, or cause a grimace as when coming across something slightly gross. In these lines, the unexpected has an extra kick:
sandwich in church buffet
stale oatmeal against gruel
hiccup against grand plan
smegma against lint
arthritis against glaucoma
cucumber slice against Himalayan peak
Now that last line is super-special, I think. The building, I imagine, must have been slick that morning, maybe wet with dew, glistening in the morning air. And the sky that day, well the sky must have been enormous. ENORMOUS. And jagged, snow-capped, and traversed by teams of well-equipped climbers escorted by shaggy yaks and unflappable sherpa. See what I mean? Byrne’s lines make you see!
The “arthritis against glaucoma” line is pretty special as well. The color of the sky, paradoxically given the noun used, is clear enough: I imagine a hazy whitish-grey. Arthritis, in turn, suggests the color of the stone as bone, but stiff, swollen, slow. Does it surprise you that it shows up in September, when hot late summer days abound?
Another type of line Byrne’s poems – and the final group I’ll discuss here – are hardly literal at all. These lines, with regard to the State House and its backdrop, the color of the stone and the color of the sky – are mostly or even entirely abstract. And yet, somewhere, somehow, they still convey the particular presence of light:
blur against comprehension
presence against white noise
endurance against onslaught
resignation against saturation
Of these, I’m especially enamored with “white noise,” the second half of the second line, in that it half-suggests synaesthesia, the experiencing of color in sound.
Readers of the glade, the 22 lines I’ve used as examples in this post amount to only six percent of the 370 lines in State House Calendar. There are almost 350 additional examples just waiting to be read. For free. Click here, and go, courtesy of Dusie and Byrne. Read the poem-months all at once or take it slow, a month at a time, turning the pages as the year ahead of us unfurls. Either way, or any way, I recommend the trip, and highly. The color of the stone against the color of the sky: a daily practice of poetry, the slow accretion of closely observed color and light translated into words, now calendared and available to all.
Over the last three months, and more intensely since the new year, I’ve re-read all the writing by Michael McClure that I have at hand. It’s a lot: more than fifty books or other items, including almost two dozen full collections of poetry, all published over the last approximately five decades.
I’ve read and greatly enjoyed McClure for many years. The current “big read” (my term) was sparked last October, when a friend asked me about McClure’s work. Reading it all again, I decided, would help me better know all that’s special in it, and be fun as hell too.
The other reason I undertook this short-term “saturation job” (to use Charles Olson’s term for a deep study) was seeing New Directions’ announcement that in April it will publish an all new McClure collection, Mysteriosos and Other Poems. This will be McClure’s first full poem-book in eight years. That’s major! A re-read of McClure’s previously published work seems a great way to get ready for the new book.
This re-reading project has been a BLAST. And so too the writing of this post, with one exception: I limited my list here to 17. That number is entirely arbitrary, chosen simply so I could use the graphic at the top of this post, which I adapted from a photo of a now-gone San Francisco advertising sign. It’s a cool image, and so I went with it. But 17 is not nearly a large enough number to contain the multitudes of what I love in McClure’s poetry. An afterword at the bottom of the post mentions some of what I couldn’t fit in.
What’s on the list, you might ask? Well, read on and scroll down, and then, if you please, read and scroll some more, and then even more (yes, this here is a H-U-G-E post). My “17 Reasons” for loving the work of Michael McClure are sometimes predictable and probably at points idiosyncratic. Still, I think this can serve as a general if personal introduction to McClure’s poetry, while at the same time spur the most devoted McClure-ites to read a few things again.
The list is numbered, 1 to 17, and proceeds mostly chronologically (but diverges from that approach twice, near the middle, to discuss matters applicable to the work as a whole). It also mixes in a bit of history, mostly directly related to McClure, but the focus here is on his poetry, and I provide many great excerpts and examples. With regard to the poetry, the list is always – let me tell you – fervent! To repeat, and to end this introduction with a bit of McClurean spirit-mojo, when it comes to the poetry:
L I S T
– let me tell you –
The Six Gallery Reading (October 7, 1955) + “For the Death of 100 Whales” (read that night by McClure)
Invitation / Announcement 6 Poets At 6 Gallery, October 7, 1955
Putting this one on and at the top of the list is predictable, but from where I sit, still NECESSARY. As is well known, McClure read at this epoch-making event, when Allen Ginsberg first read “Howl.” It was his first public reading. McClure wrote about the night in his long essay, “The Beat Surface,” collected in Scratching the Beat Surface (North Point Press, 1982). He suggests the night gave voice and vision to certain poets at a time when “the art of poetry was essentially dead – killed by war, by academies, by neglect, by lack of love, and by disinterest.” We all know the rest of the story. Long Live 6 POETS AT 6 GALLERY!
Among the poems McClure read at the 6 Gallery was “For the Death of 100 Whales.” To me, it’s a classic. McClure’s poem responds to the news, reported in Time magazine (excerpts from the April 1954 article serve as a preface) that the US military, at the request of the Icelandic government, had chased, rounded up, and then machine gunned 100 “killer whales.” The article depicts the whales as savage nuisances, and the soldiers’ hunt as heroic.
In contrast to Time magazine’s view, McClure puts horror, anger, and loss at the core of his poem, which is thirty lines long and centered on the page. He twice, for example, invokes Goya, whose series of prints, “Disasters of War,” stands as an exemplar of creative protest against violence, mayhem, and random slaughter. McClure first invoke’s the artist’s name in the poem’s fourth stanza. It’s just a parenthetical insertion between two lines about the whales, and it’s all very simple. Simple, but effective in suggesting the horror visited on the whales:
Turned and twisted (Goya!!) Flung blood and sperm.
Francisco Goya from the Disasters of War (circa 1810)
In the final stanza of “For the Death of 100 Whales,” Lawrence’s ecstatic religious scene has vanished. How could it not? Here’s how McClure puts it:
Goya! Goya! Oh Lawrence No angels dance those bridges. OH GUN! OH BOW! There are no churches in the waves, No holiness, No passages or crossings From the beasts’ wet shore.
The four repetitions of “no” in these lines underscore what’s missing, establish a rhythm (as do the three uses of “Oh” and the repetition in the first line of “Goya”). The capitalized interjections that McClure interposes (the “OH GUN! OH BOW!” in the stanza’s fourth line) point the finger at the culprits, but also, because they are two syllables each, and each followed by an exclamanion mark, those two interjections also directly tie back to the doubled “Goya!” in the stanza’s first line, and thus to the horrors the artist’s “Disasters” project.
Oh that every poet’s first book could be printed as superbly was McClure’s: Passage (Big Sur: Jonathan Williams [Jargon 20], 1956. This book, hand set in an edition of 200 copies, is a beauty:
Passage includes six poems, including “For the Death of 100 Whales” and others read by McClure at the Six Gallery. One of those is “Night Words: The Ravishing.” It’s another of my favorite early McClure poems.
Historically, “Night Words: The Ravishing” is noteworthy not just because it was heard at the Six, and included in Passage. In the famous 1957 “San Francisco Scene” issue of Evergreen Review, it was the first poem in McClure’s section, and it was the poem that McClure recited on the San Francisco Poets album that followed (here are the covers of the ‘zine and LP):
As such, “Night Words: The Ravishing” was the first McClure poem read or heard by a wider audience.
In addition to its place in McClure’s particular history, “Night Words: The Ravishing” excites me because of its poetry and substance. It’s a simple, direct poem that mixes, among other things, a few details (e.g.,“[a] black longhaired cat” and “[a] soft white robe”), punchy rhythmic lines, and a lot of repetition – there’s at least a dozen instances of it, involving several different words or phrases – to create something very memorable. Here’s how it looked in Passage, resplendent in its hand set type in two colors and lots of space between the poem’s title and text (click the text to enlarge, if necessary):
I’ve always loved that last line – “And I must sleep” – given how it works with the rest of the poem. No doubt the poet-speaker “must” get some rest. However, and this is both ironic and funny, it seems obvious that sleep ain’t going to happen, at least not real soon. Take a look at the pace of the poem prior to last line’s self-command to sleep: the lines and thoughts come very quick, sometimes almost staccato-like. And while the room in which the poem takes place may be “calm and still and cool,” the poet’s mind is moving, darting here and there. Three times in the short poem he tells us that “songs flit through [his] head” and most directly, he’s “taken with insomnia / With ambrosial insomnia.” McClure here is wide awake, hyper-alert, with miles to go before he sleeps.
The key phrase in “Night Words: The Ravishing” is the one that’s most repeated: “without proportion.” The phrase, which appears four times in the poem, tells much about an idea that I believe is of great importance in McClure’s poetry. In his 1982 “The Beat Surface” essay, McClure explains (italics added):
Ernst Haeckel and Alfred North believed that the universe is a single organism – that the whole thing is alive and that its existence is its sacredness and its breathing. If all is divine and alive – and if everything is the uncarved block of the Taoists – then all of it and any part of is beauteous (or possibly hideous) and of enormous value. It is beyond proportion. One cannot say that a virus is less special or less divine than a wolf or a butterfly or rose blossom. One cannot say that a star or cluster of galaxies is more important – has more proportion – than a chipmunk or floorboard. This recognition is always with us.
And that recognition – via the poetic repetition of “without proportion” until that term takes on an almost talismanic presence – charges the energy transfer of McClure’s “Night Words: The Ravishing.” McClure has also remarked, in a 1983 interview, that:
What I’m speaking of is the Taoist notion that the universe that we perceive is an ‘uncarved block,’ that all time/space occurrences of the past, present, and future are one giant sculpture of which we’re a part. It’s not as if something is going to exist in the future or that something has happened in the past, but that it’s all going on at once. And we’re in it. If we’re aware of that, there’s a proportionlessness that is a liberating state or condition. If we understand that we’re not of a particular size, of a particular diminution, of a particular ‘behemothness,’ then we sense that we are without scale. We’re without measurement in the same way we’re without time. When we have that particular experience, there’s a peace and understanding that can come over us. [ . . . ] As a poet, I observe moments of proportionlessness.
And in “Night Words: The Ravishing,” McClure observes, and reports on, such moments. Moments of, to quote from the poem’s first lines, “beautiful things.”
“Peyote Poem” (1958) + “Lines From A Peyote Depression” (1961)
Semina 3 (1958)
First, a bit of background, and forgive me if I’m covering stuff you already know: Semina was a little “magazine” hand-made by the artist Wallace Berman between 1956 and 1964. They were usually made in editions of 200 copies, which he mostly sent in the mail to friends.
Issue number 3 of Semina was solely given over to the first section of McClure’s “Peyote Poem.” The poetry was presented as a broadside that was folded and tipped into a simple folder, the cover of which is pictured above. (Actually, that’s just part of the cover; its total dimensions – 9" by 12" – are too large for the scanner.)
There is no Time. I am visited by a man who is the god of foxes there is dirt under the nails of his paw fresh from his den. We smile at one another in recognition.
Crick also wrote that he later came “to appreciate how well [the poem] conveys the effects of the hallucinogen.” On that, I suggest we trust the Nobel laureate. Crick also made the reader’s observation that McClure’s writing is “hypnotic,”an effect he suggested was caused “not just [by] the little explosions INTO CAPITALS . . . but the quite personal rhythm of the sentences.” I agree with that too. Short quotations, Crick wrote, don’t fully show McClure’s style to full advantage, but still – and because I think it would be fun for you to see – here are the final sixteen lines of the first section of “Peyote Poem,” as published in Semina 3:
You gotta especially groove – if you love poetry – on the final three lines. First, there’s “Dante’s spirits,” suggesting among others Virgil, who in The Inferno guides Dante the seeker through the circles of hell. Then, “becoming an osprey frozen skyhigh,” a phrase that VERY effectively conveys the wondrous weirdness possible when consciousness is altered. Here, of course, it is McClure’s words that move the mind. Skyhigh, indeed.
McClure’s “Lines From A Peyote Depression,” published in The New Book/A Book of Torture (Grove Press, 1961), can be read as a kind of complement to the earlier poem. As its title indicates, “Lines From A Peyote Depression”arises from a less euphoric and more challenging part of the peyote experience. Credit McClure here with honesty in reporting and poem-making. The same is true, by the way, of his discussion of peyote in his essay “Drug Notes,” published in 1963. It too mentions the great emotional and mental pain possible with peyote, as well as the highs.
“Lines From A Peyote Depression” runs approximately 40 lines and convincingly conveys the fright and pain that presumably were experienced during a particular trip. It’s persuasive in part due to its relatively short length: much is packed into the poem, and its overloaded content perhaps mimic the overwhelming emotions that were actually felt. But McClure’s very effective use of details, repetition, and modulated emotional dynamics also creates great intensity.
In the poem’s first section, McClure reports he’s high and then lists what he sees as he looks around the room. There’s a lot of things noticed, and it’s mostly very vivid: “India-prints. Green fantastic- / patterned curtains on one wall. Gold-umber velvet drapes // with light light white and unseen.” There’s also another person in the room, who stands “within it all.” And also “red and green diamonds / (like Kachina markings) / on the wall.” Plus, a “purple velvet sofa. Scratched / brown floor. Orange-pink / rubbings.”
It’s an impressive and colorful amalgamation of details, a great way to start a poem. If, as W.C. Williams insisted, there’s “no ideas but in things,” then this section runneth over with ideas. In any event, there’s plenty for a reader to see, to grab onto to enter into the poem.
However, for McClure the poet relaying his experience, this mosaic of observed details is definitely NOT a good thing. Quite the contrary. After laying out all he sees, McClure immediately rejects what he’s done, and the authenticity of that which he’s reported, by declaring:
. . . And this is no start to what I have to say and is not real.
This complete dismissiveness – emphasized by the two-word, centered on the page line “not real” – tells much regarding McClure’s emotional and mental state. The depth of his feelings are further emphasized by the very next line, which leaves no doubt of his bleak perspective:
. . . ALL IS COLD COLD AND EMPTY EMPTY COLD COLD AND THAT IS ALL
McClure subsequently writes, “I am down,” “I can’t go on,” and “I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY FROM HERE.” And then, in another pair of lines, he refers to the stars in space as:
COLD COLD COLD COLD COLD COLD COLD COLD COLD AND FAR AWAY
In this peyote trip, the universe is one big distant freeze-out. But then McClure’s poem takes a turn, presumably in accord with what happened during the particular trip documented in the poem. Immediately after the chilly lines about the stars, quoted above, come the following five, which end the poem:
And we are not cold in our space and not cool and not indifferent. And I do not mean this as metaphor or fact, Even the strained act it is.
Bending by the brook and filling cups.
What a change here, eh? McClure in his essay on peyote writes that the painful and frightening parts of a peyote trip are cathartic, and that appears to be what’s happened here in the poem. Instead of isolation, McClure emphasizes the warmth and concern felt by him and his companion. He also tells us he’s not talking poetically, nor of something provable (“I do / not mean this as metaphor or fact”), meaning it’s an intuitive or emotional truth that he’s relaying. And the warmth and concern are true even though his telling us, in the poem, is “a strained act.”
The final line of the poem is something else, as in most excellent. Coming after a double-spaced pause, as shown above, it becomes super-emphasized. It’s substance also jumps from the page. To that point, the scene or location of the poem has been a room with colorful furnishings, or McClure’s mind and emotions. Now, the scene shifts, and we’re outdoors:
Bending by the brook and filling cups.
What a simple, lovely image! The act described – a primal one, that of using a simple tool to gather water from a natural source – is one that connotes well being: thirst is being quenched, and vitality restored. As such, the poem ends on a decided up note. In addition to suggesting the cathartic end of the peyote depression, the final lines, and particularly the final image, counter-balance the cold, far away, “I can’t go on” energy that dominates the much of the poem, and show by contrast just how brutal the previously described depression had been. This both sides of the mirror approach works very well in this poem.
A bibliographic note: The full version of “Peyote Poem”– all three sections, comprising approximately 250 lines with slight revisions to the first section as it appeared in Semina 3 – was published in McClure’s Hymns to St. Geryon (Auerhahn Press, 1959). That collection (including “Peyote Poem”) was re-published in 1980 by Grey Fox Press, together with McClure’s 1961 Auerhahn Press collection Dark Brown. As stated above, “Lines From A Peyote Depression” was published in McClure’s The New Book/A Book of Torture (Grove Press/Evergreen Books (1961); it has not been re-printed. McClure’s essay “Drug Notes” appeared in his collection Meat Science Essays (1963 and 1966 (the latter published by City Lights).
McClure, Painter and Abstract Expressionism + Gestural Poetry (late 1950s / early 1960s)
“Emblem” (circa 1959) Michael McClure
When he first came to San Francisco in 1954, McClure intended to study art, and become a painter. He instead mostly wrote poetry, but also continued to make art too, including paintings. A few of McClure’s art works were shown in the mid-1990s “Beat Culture and the New America” museum exhibition.
McClure also had a one-man gallery show in San Francisco in early 1961. The announcement card for that exhibition is, as the song puts it, still crazy after all these years. Here it is laid on a blue background, an artifact from another time’s not-yet-forgotten space:
Wow! I love the poetic exhibition title, the marvelously keyed up (“VISIONARY”) description of the art, and the off-beat (or should that be, given the era, pure-beat?) typography, including the doubled exclamation marks at card’s upper left, the free-floating “M” on its right, and the mix of italics and regular fonts. This announcement card seems to superbly reflect the playful seriousness of the mindful exuberance of McClure and those with whom he worked.
According to a scholarly catalog published about a decade ago, McClure at this exhibition showed large paintings of heads, done on cheap paper with housepaint, and smaller pieces made by splashing a blob of shiny blue-black enamel and then moving the paper to achieve drip and swirl effects. The art work above – used on the cover of McClure’s Hymns to St. Geryon (Auerhahn Press, 1959) – is an example of a blue-black enamel painting, I do believe.
In his 1963 essay, “Reflections After A Poem” (published in Meat Science Essays), McClure explains that these paintings came about after he’d read Gerard de Nerval’s poem, “The Black Spot,” which has the lines (in the Robin Blaser translation),
. . . mingling with everything like a token of grief, everywhere, in places where my eyes rest I see it perch also, a black spot
McClure in that same essay also explains that his blue-black paintings were his own “mammalian extensions” of Nerval’s lines.
Yet also in that essay, McClure mentions the late 15th century Ink Splash painting, by Sesshu of Japan:
Sesshu’s great painting surely also was an influence on, or source for, McClure’s blue-black swirl paintings, and that fact underscores that he, as did others in San Francisco at the time (think of Rexroth and Snyder, among others), looked to and learned from the traditions and masterpieces of the Pacific Rim and Far East, not just those of New York and Europe.
McClure’s interest was to bring this Ab Ex approach to his writing. A mid-1990s publication (The Beat Generation – Galleries and Beyond) quotes McClure as saying he “wanted to actually experience gestural painting as a way of getting to gestural poetry.” With regard to the late 1950s, McClure has also said (in a late 1960s interview with David Meltzer, published in The San Francisco Poets (Ballentine Books, 1971)), that a poem did not interest him much “unless it was both intellective and emotional.” He continued:
It was like what was happening with the abstract expressionists at that time. They were learning to write their biographies in the movements of their body on a canvas. Whether this painting is looked at in two hundred or three hundred years was not of interest to me. What was of interest to me . . . was the fact that it was a spiritual occasion that I could believe in. And it was alive and brilliant while I looked at it. I was very much taken with that concept, and that’s influenced me enormously.
The title poem of Hymns to St. Geryon (1959) directly concerns the Ab-Ex influence and the writing of gestural poetry. “Hymns to St. Geryon” begins with the words “THE GESTURE” (yes, all in CAPS) repeated seven times. A quotation by Clyfford Still, an Ab-Ex painter mostly identified with the Bay Area, then follows. Still’s words no doubt informed McClure’s ideas about gestural poetics. Here’s the quotation, as it appears in the poem, centered on the page:
Clyfford Still: “We are committed to an unqualified act, not illustrating outworn myths or contemporary alibis. One must accept total responsibility for what he executes. And the measure of his greatness will be the depth of his insight and courage in realizing his own vision. Demands for communication are pre- sumptuous and irrelevant.”
McClure echoes or translates certain of Still’s ideas later in the poem, writing:
[ . . . ] I must believe my gesture. Beauty fades so quickly
that it does not matter. Belief, pride, – remain. AND AND AND AND AND AND AND AND
the gesture. The mark of the strong shoulder and hand.
Even more direct are these lines, from near the poem’s conclusion:
I am the body, the animal, the poem is a gesture of mine.
Around the time of this book McClure wrote, “[a] poem is as much of me as an arm.” Many of his works from the mid to late 1950s, and very early 1960s, can be read as gestural poems, spiritual and emotional occasions, strongly biographical and with much use of dynamics (shifts in tone and focus), as well as other manifestations of action (thought, emotion, and thus, in language). Here’s an example, “Night Piece,” scanned (and enlarged 25%, for readability, though please click on it for even larger image) from Hymns to St. Geryon:
“Night Piece” neatly illustrates McClure’s abstract expressionist influenced approach. It has both emotional and intellective content, a kind of spiritual occasion involving biographical details and shifting dynamics. There’s also the use of a classic Abstract Expressionist’s work for a simile. And on top of all that, you gotta just love – especially if you know the tobacco habits of Ab Ex-ers and society in general (including, obviously, McClure himself) at the time – the cigarette and smoke with which the poem respectively begins and ends. This poem, I submit, is one strong GESTURE.
Mark Rothko Untitled (Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red), 1949.
“. . . a plume of smoke . . . .”
Ghost Tantras (1964, republished 1969)
The poetry in this now almost 50 years old but still ever-fresh (and originally privately-published) book is mostly written in beast language, a mix of guttural and laryngeal sound that brings together lion roars, a touch of detonated dada, and emotional truths. McClure describes the tantras as “ceremonies to change the nature of reality.” Tantra #1 (there are 99 in all) begins:
and if that doesn’t kick-start some kind of phenomenological shift in your world then I can only suggest that you wake up and smell the lion’s den (and take another look at the book’s cover image, a photo of McClure brilliantly montaged by Wallace Berman). Many of the tantras, in addition to beast language, include regular ol’ words. The first seven lines of #49 are an example of the more content-laden approach of some tantras, although even here – see the second and fifth lines – beast language appears:
SILENCE THE EYES! BECALM THE SENSES! Drive drooor from the fresh repugnance, thou whole, thou feeling creature. Live not for others but affect thyself from thy enhanced interior – believing what thou carry. Thy trillionic multitude of grahh, vhooshes, and silences. Oh you are heavier and dimmer than you knew and more solid and full of pleasure.
After these opening lines Tantra #49 continues for eight more lines, entirely in beast. The eight lines contain forty-one sentences, all but one of which consists of only a single word (the exception has only two words). The words of those sentences (or sentence fragments with a terminal period, if you prefer) consist entirely of variations on or repetitions of variations on, the beast-roar “Grahhr.”
Go ahead and take a half-minute and growl-speak a few “Grahhrs” at your computer monitor. As McClure instructs in the book’s introduction, “Pronounce . . . as spelled and don’t worry about details – use a natural voice and let the vibrations occur. “Grahhr.” That’s right, once more, “Grahhr.”
There’s an extraordinary recording, available on the Howls, Raps & Roars CD set, in which McClure recites Tantra #49 in the San Francisco Zoo lion-house. The lions, especially in the final eight lines with its repeated variations of “Grahhr,” roar right back at him, sometimes in the pauses between the sentences and continuing in the silence after the poem ends. The energy of poet voice and beast together and in call and response is beautiful.
But today I want to celebrate the gorgeousness “on the page” (and on your screen!) of those final, wild eight lines of Tantra #49. Specifically, I want to appreciate and to have you see, the forty-two beast-roars as they look and as they were made, including the fact that twenty-six of them are unique. As such, these concluding eight lines can be used to study visual and phonetic variation: how adding a letter (or letters, sometimes as many as five) changes the look and sound of a word. This must have been a blast to write, and a challenge too: big-fun and intense focus, exploring and arranging the variants and repeats, the rhythms and the sounds.
But the final lines of Tantra #49 are also a tour-de-force example of how words can be, or are, things. McClure’s words here are truly things of this world: not of the dictionary, but still of the page and fully working – with emotional but not full intellective content – in the eye-mind alchemy we call reading. The things, these words, sentence-to-sentence, move. And yet, each of these things, if you give to them any close attention, can come almost to a stand-still, as the eyes and mind check back to see how it differs, if at all, from those the came before.
Dig it, beast-readers, the final eight of McClure’s Ghost Tantra #49:
Can you spot the repeated words, and correctly count how many times each is used? Or am I the only creature who does that kind of thing? Well, regardless of that, here’s the answer to the main question: the words repeated in these last eight lines (along with the number of times each is heard) are: Grahhr (6), Ghrahhr (5), Grahhrr (4), Grahhhr (3), Ghrarrrr (2), and Ghrahrr (2). Plus, as mentioned above, twenty-six variations that are unique.
And speaking of unique, let me once again give it up for Ghost Tantras: Grahhr!
The Beard (1965-1967)
The Beard is a play, written by McClure in 1965 and privately published that year (the first trade edition, pictured above, was published in 1967, with a cover by Wes Wilson). It’s a two character drama, a dialogue between Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid set in “blue velvet eternity.” First produced in December 1965 in the Bay Area, it was busted by the police after four performances. Other arrests and harassment followed; eventually the ACLU won a court order dismissing all charges.
However, subsequent performances in Southern California and elsewhere, up to the end of the 1960s at least, continued to be harassed. Elected officials in California tried to pass a law, specifically mentioning The Beard, banning what was termed obscenity, and McClure also had deal with least one other lawsuit, arising in Los Angeles, attempting to squelch his play.
What riled up the authorities and others? Well, and of course, the play’s ending, a climax that fully lives up to that name, with The Kid on the floor, head between Harlow’s thighs (see the book cover, above). There is nothing like an exuberant physical, spiritual, and emotional happy ending to freak people out.
But even without THAT, the action in The Beard, the build-up to its conclusion, is highly sexual, sometimes symbolically, other times directly. Harlow strokes the velvet and walls, combs her hair, stretches her legs and arches her feet, “adjusts herself sexually,” and as the play progresses removes her shoes, stockings, and panties (which she eventually hurls at the Kid). The Kid, among other things, bites Harlow’s foot, tears her panties in half, and pulls out a handkerchief and polishes the toes of his own boots (that last move is deliciously poetic!). All this no doubt put the police prudes on full clamp-down alert.
And then there’s the play’s language! Oh imagine the badge-wearing Babbitts’ horror! McClure’s dialogue is frank, intelligent, vulgar, charged and delicious, a mix of the profane and a bit of the sacred, poetically done. For approximately an hour, Harlow and The Kid have at each other, verbally. With words. Their quarreling exchanges, heavily spiced with obscenities or vulgarities (choose your term) are explosive bolts of foreplay.
In this way, The Beard is electric and loud, a kind of rock ‘n roll in words. As such, it should come as no surprise that one of its earliest performances – on July 24, 1966 – was before a crowd of hundreds at San Francisco’s (and Bill Graham’s) fabled Fillmore Auditorium. Here’s the poster, day-glo colors, almost psychedelic lettering, and all:
With its minimal set and props, and use of repetition, circling back, and non sequiturs in a two character dialogue, The Beard has some of the same feel – and it’s a great theatrical feel – as Waiting for Godot. But unlike Beckett, McClure’s play, as already explained, is highly erotic. Harlow and The Kid’s verbal dance brings them steadily ever closer in blue velvet eternity.
Excerpts can’t really show the full brilliance of McClure’s play, since its real dramatic power lies in the dynamic accretion of tension and emotion, exchange by exchange, between Harlow and The Kid. To really understand this play right, to do it right, I highly recommend buying two copies (you’ll have to find them used, as it’s out-of-print). Then get together with someone you love, and block out about an hour. Then read The Beard out loud, the two of you, in real time, and create your own blue velvet eternity. Trust me, it’s a hoot, and, better yet, it’s hot!
In the meantime, here are four very short excerpts from the play, to get the juices going, and provide a taste of the wanton, wild, indecorous, intelligent, provocative, poetic, vulgar, visionary repartee in The Beard:
THE KID: I want you to sit on my lap and touch my cock.
HARLOW: I don’t give a fuck where we are . . . I’m sick of this talk!
[ . . .]
THE KID: Listen, WE’RE DIVINE!
HARLOW: I wouldn’t listen to you shit in a rainbarrel!
THE KID: We’re divine, Baby, we’re DIVINE! This is really it. We’re really here!
THE KID: I mean it!
HARLOW: Sure you mean it! You’re crazier than fuck!
[ . . .]
THE KID: Here!
HARLOW: Where’s here?
THE KID: Where we’re divine!
HARLOW: I wouldn’t be divine with you on a bet! You’re full of shit and you’re a God damn monomaniac bore!
THE KID: What about my cock?
[ . . .]
HARLOW: WHAT MATTERS?
THE KID: We’re here!
HARLOW: Keep the fuck away from me!
THE KID: I’m not even near.
HARLOW: Before you can pry any secrets from me, you must first find the real me! Which one will you pursue?
THE KID: You’re right here! – Sit on my lap . . .
HARLOW: And touch your thing?
THE KID: There’s nobody here!
HARLOW: Just like grown-ups, huh? Why isn’t blond hair on blue velvet enough?
“Word Sculptures” (1965, 1966/1971)
Over a five year period in the mid-1960s, McClure published three “word sculptures,” as he calls them. These sculptures consisted of collections of individual words printed on small cards and presented as a unit.
The first of these projects was titled Dream Table, published in an edition of 200 by Dave Haselwood in 1965. This work consists of 30 small cards, each just 3.5" tall and 2.5" wide. Two cards serve to present the work’s title, author, and publisher information. The remaining 28 cards each as a pair of words printed on them, one word on each end. The versos of each card, similar to any deck of playing cards, all have a uniform design, marked with lion and tree ornaments, pica squares, and blue dots. Here are three of the cards, words facing up, and then flipped:
The 56 words in Dream Table include one – SMILE – that’s repeated three times, and eight that are repeated twice: SPACE, EMPTY, LACE, HAND, DARK, BLOT, CRY, and GRACE. The remaining words, including for example HISS, RAINBOW, SWIRL, FLASH, MOVING, STAR, and ROAR, appear just once.
Are these a record of a particular dream, with the repeated words reflecting the actions, feelings, or visions that seemed to predominate? I don’t know, and don’t know whether McClure has ever said. Maybe they’re actually your dream, and the cards and words have been waiting all these years for you to recognize them!
McClure’s most wondrous combination of words and cards is one done in 1966, a collaboration with the late, great artist Bruce Conner (the two had gone to high school together in Wichita, Kansas). What makes this so great? First, the number of words per card was increased to four. One word is printed at each of the four edges of each of 25 cards. Second, no words are repeated, meaning there are 100 total words. This greatly increases the possible combinations of words, should you want to use the cards in that way.
In addition, these Conner/McClure cards have reverse sides quite unlike the rather pedestrian, and uniform reverse sides of “Dream Table.” Specifically, these cards feature reproductions of felt-tip pen, squiggly line, and/or mandala drawings by Conner, in a style that he mastered and blew minds with from about 1964 to 1972. Each of the 25 cards reproduces a different Conner drawing of this kind. Thus, each card, on both sides (words and drawing), is unique.
The first editions of these beautiful Conner/McClure cards were published in 1966 by Dave Haselwood, who’d known both artist and poet since high school in Wichita, and who had published McClure’s early books, Hymns to St. Geryon (1959) and Dark Brown (1961).
The first edition features 2" square cards printed in black-and-white and packaged in a small (5.5" by 4.25") envelope. On the front of the envelope were printed ten words: “left overs” that didn’t fit on the cards themselves. That series of words is used as the work’s title. The reverse of the envelope printed the poet’s and artist’s names, and the year of publication. Here’s the envelope, front and back, laid on a blue background (I’ve scanned these such that the print on each side is properly oriented):
LOBE | KEY | STILLED | LIONMAN | LACED | WINGED | APRIL | RAPHAEL | DANCE | WIRY Bruce Conner | Michael McClure (San Francisco: Dave Haselwood, 1966) [edition size unknown, but probably fewer than 50]
[reverse side of envelope pictured above]
And here is a grid, two grids in fact, each with nine of the Conner/McClure cards, a bit more than a third of the 25 total. The first image shows the words on five and the drawings on four. On the image that follows, the exact same cards have been flipped. I apologize for the slightly off-kilter look (you try lining up nine small items in a scanner!).
If you please, enlarge the images by clicking on them, to better see McClure’s words and the incredible details of Conner’s fantastic felt-tip pen drawings:
A second edition of the Conner/McClure collaboration was published in 1970-1971 by Conner, as a kind of artist’s book. The words and drawings are exactly the same, but the cards’ size was almost doubled, to 3 and 7/16 inches square, and instead of black-‘n-white, Conner’s work was lithographed in brown against a tan background. In addition, the first edition’s envelope was replaced with an elegant fabric-covered box, on which the simple title, CARDS, was stamped. Here’s a scanned photo of the cards and the open box, with a few cards taken out and fanned so that the words are seen:
CARDS Bruce Conner | Michael McClure (1970-1971) [Edition of 50]
In a 1976 lecture at Naropa, McClure explained how to make what he calls “a personal universe deck” (italics in original). To make such a deck, a person must choose 100 words – the exact number found in CARDS – that exemplify their personal universe. These words, McClure said, should “exemplify your past, your present, and, if you can imagine it, your future.” He provides other rules and suggestions, but says a key requirement is that the chosen words “must sound good together in any random combination.”
Presumably, the 100 words found in CARDS are an example of a project in which McClure made his own personal universe deck. In his lecture, McClure insisted that he did not consider such decks a poem, or the raw material for a poem, but rather a “word sculpture.” This information McClure’s words here, in addition to being carriers of meaning, connotations, and emotions, are primarily objects and things, and are even a kind of ur-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing project.
Nevertheless, I must insist that McClure’s words, either one at a time, four at once (i.e., a single card), or across multiple cards, can be used to incite a riot of reverie. I’ve also seen persons make poems, dada style or more studied, by using the cards. I’ve even heard of CARDS being brought into a hospital, to perhaps heal the sick (however, no double-blind tests have been done to verify the existence of the latter quality).
But the main thing with CARDS is more fundamental than their role as an aid to creativity or as a type of talisman. The big thing with cards – and this, I believe, is consistent both with seeing CARDS as a kind of poem and McClure’s view that it’s a sculpture – is that they are just plain BIG FUN. Array the cards – one, three, or all twenty-five – on a table, with the drawings facing up, and then turn over one or more, to see what words are beneath. It can be a wild Ouija kind of fun, a magic by which the hidden becomes revealed kind of fun, or just a goofy fun, to take one’s mind away from the cares of the day.
I came to CARDS rather late in life, seeing them for the first time only about 15 years ago, a quarter century after they were published. Ever since, whenever anyone asks if I’d like to play cards, I always answer, smiling broadly, “CARDS? I’d LOVE to play!
A Lovely Tip o’ the Poem to Lew Welch (early 1970s)
Mount Tamalpais, Marin County
Lew Welch, as I hope you know, wrote the great poetry books Wobbly Rock (1960), Hermit Poems (1965), On Out (1965), Courses (1968) and The Song Mt. Tamalpais Sings (1970). He vanished in May 1971, apparently committing suicide.
Shortly thereafter, McClure wrote “A Spirit of Mount Tamalpais,” publishing it first as a broadside and then including it in September Blackberries, his 1974 collection. The poem’s title obviously recalls and invokes that of Welch’s final book. Mt. Tam, as the locals call it, is a 2,500 foot peak that is the central geographic feature of Marin County, just across the Golden Gate from San Francisco.
McClure’s “A Spirit of Mount Tamalpais” has a pay-off, a kicker, a surprise ending. Such things in poems sometimes – often, actually – become thin after a single reading or two, either because they are forced, telegraphed, trite, or simply because the surprise is no longer there. However, NONE of that happens with McClure’s poem.
Why does McClure’s kicker always work, including I’ll wager even here, after I’ve announced that there is one? Well, it helps that it’s short – two words, and friggin’ perfect (you’ll see in a minute). But mostly, it’s because the poem itself has plenty – plenty – of life aside from the ending, and as good as the kicker is, it doesn’t dominate, even on repeated readings.
More specifically, McClure packs the poem with details about Mt. Tam. In fact, so many particulars are used that the main part of the poem can’t contain them all, and so (and I love this) McClure places a supplemental list of fifteen at the left margin. These specifics marvelously evoke Mt. Tam and all that McClure associates with it. The details and evocations get the mind going, and the eyes get going too, given the additional details at the left margin. In this word-charged movement of mind-and-eye, the poem’s ending always rings true, and somehow always retains an element of surprise. Give it a try, if you please (and click to enlarge, if need be):
What more can I say? Yes, yes, yes yes yes, and of course:
The Symmetrical Poems of Organism (1974)
Symmetry, as wide or as narrow as you may define its meaning, is one idea by which man through the ages has tried to comprehend and create order, beauty, and perfection. – Herman Weyl, Symmetry (Princeton University Press, 1952), page 5
I’ve always been a sucker for symmetry, and for at least one book of poems, it seems McClure was deep into it too, at least enough to try a poetic experiment based on the concept. I’m referring to the poems in (here’s the cover):
Organism (Institute of Further Studies, 1974)
Each poem in Organism is between 31 and 35 lines long. Each line in each poem is presented as a sentence, with a terminal period, even if it’s but a single word or does not grammatically parse into a proper sentence.
But the key element is how the lines are arranged. First, each line is centered on the page, itself a symmetrical organizing principle, but one very common in McClure’s poems (it has the advantage of giving the poems a certain strength, almost as if each is a vertebrate, with a backbone).
The real experiment with symmetry in Organism is that the lines of the first half of each poem, after a unique middle or hinge line, are repeated in precise reverse order in the poem’s last half. Can you picture the symmetry? Well, how about taking a look at one of the poems, scanned direct from the book (click to enlarge, if need be):
Although the poems are untitled, I’ve taken to calling this one “Kansas” after the one-word sentence that serves as its middle or hinge line. Kansas happens to be where McClure was born (in 1932) and spent much of his childhood (he moved to San Francisco in 1954). This particular poem, line-to-line is especially rich, with vivid and surprising images. There are even two long lines (the third and fourth from the top, and – natch – the third and fourth from the bottom – that consist of nothing but single, seemingly unrelated words (see “Word Sculptures,” above).
In addition to admiring their symmetry, the poems of Organism make me consider whether some sort of Doppler effect exists for lines of poetry arranged like these are, such that they are “heard” by a reader differently depending on whether they are “coming” (read from the poem’s start to its middle) or “going” (read, in reverse, from the middle to the poem’s end).
Although dopplering probably isn't the proper verb (if it is a verb at all!), McClure’s lines in these poems do shift in tone, and even meaning, when the order shifts 180 degrees in the poems’ bottom half. And I think the shift has to do with the order, not just the additional resonance that results from each of the lines in the lower half have been previously read or heard before (in the upper half). For all these reasons, and because they look so damn good on the page, I find these poems in Organism a wonderful and winning poetic experiment.
Embrace of the Non-Human + the Biologic
The non-human (other species, in particular other mammals) and the biologic processes underlying life are central to McClure. It’s probably the most noted aspect of his poetry, along with the predominance of lines centered on the page and frequently capitalized words.
McClure’s focus on the non-human and biologic inspires, and serves as a tonic. Still today (to say nothing of the 1950s, when McClure began publishing), we too often focus solely on other humans (and do that only after we finish focusing on our selves).
As indicated in the discussion above regarding “For the Death of 100 Whales,” McClure’s concern and interest in other species and the biologic began in his very first poems. Another poem recited by McClure at his first reading, at the Six Gallery, was “The Mystery of the Hunt.” The “hunt” with which the poem is concerned does not involve killing animals. To the contrary, it’s the quest of the seeker, who is after knowledge and the unveiling of mysteries, including those hidden in non-human nature:
The search for a bright square cloud—the scent of lemon verbana—
Or to learn rules for the game the sea otters Play in the surf.
Perhaps the most direct and persuasive articulations of McClure’s views regarding the non-human and biologic are the following two excerpts, the first from the poem “Old Eyes,” found in the “Christmas in Kenya” section of the book Simple Eyes (New Directions, 1994), the second from “Antechamber,” a long poem in the 1978 collection with that same title (the two excerpts here are separated by an image):
SEE THE HYENA’S FACE as she stands up from the pool of dripping gray mud.
Her face, my face, and the face of the old Masai woman from whom we buy the beaded earrings, ARE ALL THE SAME. [ . . . ] It is one alertness and wisdom in all eyes.
A MAMMAL PATRIOT
in an expanding helix
through the waves and fields and forces . . .
When McClure in the excerpt just above writes that he “LOVE[S] / “all life,” and then repeats “all life,” he REALLY means “all life.” As in everything in this world, not just the mammals. For example, in “Antechamber,” McClure celebrates “black flocks / of nectar-drinking / flies” and insists that (spacing as in the original):
THE GNATS AT SUNDOWN
in the rosy lovely light
Similar to the poetic embrace and veneration of flies and gnats, McClure in other poems calls the garter snake “THE SLEEKEST ANGEL” and asserts that “THE AWKWARD HOP OF THE SILVERFISH / is perfect!”
In still other poems, he considers the consciousness of millepedes and suggests that a crushed snail is like a star gone out. More generally, and fundamentally, McClure asserts that “Life, the PLASM, . . . SURGES!” and that, “There is no teleology but / surging freedom.”
McClure’s most memorable assertion about the non-human – the one that I always remember – is in Specks (1985), a collection of almost notebook type prose and poetry. In that book, he writes:
The sea urchin is a great philosopher.
What?! It’s an audacious, even impossible claim, all the more so because it’s made just as I quote it, in a single, unelaborated sentence. Years ago, when I first read it, I couldn’t believe it. I wanted McClure to unpack his idea, justify the declaration. Did he believe the urchin – which according to biologists has no true brain – not only thinks but investigates the truths and principles of being? Or did McClure make his claim because urchin anatomy and physiology – the creature’s spines, Aristotle’s lantern (a-ha!), and statocysts, for example – answer, perhaps metaphorically, fundamental questions of existence?
Well, I can’t explain it, even after o-so-many years of tides rising and falling. Instead, I’ve come to the conclusion that McClure’s claim –
The sea urchin is a great philosopher.
– is a one-line prose poem that works precisely because it’s not, and probably can’t be, explained. Because it remains a perplexing, obdurate aphorism, the line continues to startle and stick to the mind. I can’t figure it out, and I can’t forget it. To me, that’s one definition of great poetry.
The Role of The Poet in Our Society
Interviewer: What is the role of the poet in our society?
McClure: The same as any other artist – to maintain the thoroughfares, to maintain the pathways of the imagination in a society that would close down the pathways of the imagination. We all find social functions, also. We’ll be environmentally inclined, or biologically inclined, or socially committed. But what we do as artists is to maintain free pathways for the imagination.
– “Nile Insect Eyes: Talking on Jim Morrison,” in Lighting The Corners (University of New Mexico, 1993), page 254.
The Steinian repetition in “Stanzas From Maui” (1991)
“Stanzas From Maui” is a 14 page poem included in Rebel Lions (New Directions, 1991). In an “Author’s Note” that serves as a preface to the book, McClure explains that his poem uses “repetition as the nervous system uses repetition, the exact moment in which one who is dying of one love falls in love again.” This certainly is true.
As I was saying every one always is repeating the whole of them. As I was saying sometimes it takes many years of listening, seeing, living, feeling, loving the repeating that is in some before one comes to a completed understanding in them, the repeating coming out of them. This is now a description, of a way of hearing, seeing, living, feeling, loving repetition. [¶] Mostly every one loves some one’s repeating. Mostly every one then, comes to know then the being of some one by loving the repeating in them, the repeating coming out of them. This is now a history of getting completed understanding by loving repeating in every one the repeating that is always coming out of them . . . .
Stein in The Making of Americans goes on as in this quotation, regarding repeating, for paragraph after paragraph, page after page. The bit set out above is actually just a taste: it comes from around the middle of an approximately 20 page passage that repeatedly repeats regarding repetition!
McClure’s use of repetition in “Stanzas From Maui” is not nearly as intense as the example from Stein (what could be?), but it is intense. Here’s a sequence, from near the end of the poem, in which the repetition, and much else, is especially vibrant:
THIS IS SPONTANEOUS AND PLANNED SPONTANEOUS AND PLANNED as the wave ruffle, wave ruffle, wave ruffle, ripple ripple, payload, payload, payload of tiny shells, tiny tiny shells in the surf lap tiny tiny shells in the blue warm surf lap when you pick up a handful when you bend, plunge hands into the surf, and pick up a handful of tiny shells in the surf lap pick up a handful of tiny shells and hold them to the sun –all tiny shapes and colors–pink, mauve, brown and foamy –pink mauve white brown, blue flash, silver foaming, and hold them to the sun hold them to the sun hold them to the sun hold them to the sun hold them to the sun hold these shells upward to the sun hold these shells upward to the sun shells upward to the sun shells upward to the sun shells upward to the sun hold these shells upward to the sun outward in your hand OUTWARD IN YOUR HAND UPWARD IN YOUR HAND AND PALM UPWARD IN YOUR HAND AND PALM
This has most Steinian feel to it, I think, and I also think it works extremely well. Here’s a poet falling in love, or re-living in language the moment when love exploded in blossom, the building of thought and emotion. These lines read almost as a slo-mo film, with many frames repeated, would look. Gertrude, I believe, would love it madly, and I hope you do too!
“Senate Hearings” (1994)
When in comes to poetic commentary on public events, particularly when the tone is condemnatory, there’s a risk of shrillness or shooting-fish-in-a-barrel predictability. Those risks are probably particularly high when elected officials are in the cross-hairs.
The beauty of “Senate Hearings,” from McClure’s Simple Eyes (New Directions, 1994), is that it avoids these potential liabilities. It’s a wonderful if sobering reminder of the awfulness and stupidity too often encountered in organized governmental affairs.
My professional work sometimes requires that I observe or even participate in state government hearings. Too often, those proceedings, seen up close, are deeply discouraging, to say the least. As will come as no surprise, legislators can grandstand, purposefully disregard facts, and showboat with transparently superficial dog-and-pony theatrics.
Disgust at these legislative spectacles often leaves me speechless. At those moments, I return to “Senate Hearings.” McClure’s poem, with its poetic articulation of exactly how bad such sessions can be, and why, provides a kind of comfort and hope: I’m not alone in how I see and feel it. Perhaps someday more will understand how these things really are.
McClure’s poem arises from unspecified legislative proceedings in the “early years / of the nineties.” However, the source event is easily identified. “Senate Hearings” references the “early years of the nineties” and includes the lines, “[w]ith black faces or white faces / we are always / this way.” As such, the germinating source must be the 1991 hearings confirming the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. McClure was right not to specifically name that event. First, it’s not necessary, the poem’s clues are enough. More than that, doing so would have limited the poem to a particular time and place. Instead, it becomes more universal, not just a historic relic.
“Senate Hearings” begins with an assertion that sounds at first surprising but which quickly resolves into a very sharp attack on official idiocy:
IT IS ALMOST BEAUTIFUL when fraud and hypocrisy reach this peak and become exquisite, exquisite in contempt for intelligence.
The use of “BEAUTIFUL” and the doubled “exquisite,” typically terms of endearment or praise, both underscores McClure’s ability to appreciate the divine in the profane and tightly focuses his negative take on legislative mendacity. The line break that separates the repeated “exquisite” also the peerlessness of the parliamentarian putridness.
After these opening lines, McClure makes a depressing and discouraging, although convincing, assertion about the mess he’s observing (spacing and alignment as in the original):
we are always this way
Freud and Whitehead
had never been born! – As if our most contemptible or laughable lies   are the mountain tops of our aspirations.
These lines work in large part because of the plural pronoun “we” with which the statement begins. McClure doesn’t give a pass to you, me, or himself. The sorry spectacle is us.
I also love how McClure suggests the baseness of the proceedings by naming two titans of human thinking, the first associated with human psychology and the other with the relation of process to substance. Can you imagine Freud or Whitehead seriously discussed in Congress? Oh, the ignorance of fundamental ideas in the body politic! I also love the last lines of the section quoted above, with its direct comment on how spectacles of transparent falseness seem to be our highest achievement.
Can we get any worse? Yes, we can, as the saying goes. This entire schmeer of base and phony posturing, the poem reminds us, is played by strutting players that are recognizably and disgustingly human – and seem completely alien. McClure explains it, in the lines that end “Senate Hearings,” by writing that he feels (again, spacing and alignment as in the original):
as if I live in a movie with spittle-spewing, sneering, sullen snide, plotting figures from the caricatures of Daumier
and the nightmares of Goya!
The movie McClure finds himself in is not a pretty picture, is it? “The caricatures of Daumier // and the nightmares of Goya!” Yikes! This explains why sometimes the best cartoons and horror flicks on TV are seen on C-Span!
Honoré Daumier Le ventre législatif (1864)
Francisco Goya The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1799)
The Quasi-Automatistic “Stanzas in Memory” (1995)
“Stanzas in Memory” is the first section of “Dolphin Skull,” a poem written in the 1990s and included in 3 Poems (Penguin Books, 1995). “Stanzas in Memory” consists of 17 untitled poems, each a bit longer than a page. Each poem (a.k.a. stanza) is made up of a number of complete sentences of various lengths, some a single word, others complete (i.e., containing a subject and predicate), a few with multiple, comma-separated clauses. Sometimes a sentence (or two) is set forth in a single line, but more often they are spread over more than one. As is common in McClure’s poetry, almost all the lines are centered on the page, and many have words that are entirely capitalized.
In the book’s introduction, McClure writes that poems of “Stanzas in Memory” were “written directly from the unconscious in the sense that Jackson Pollock’s ‘psychoanalytic drawings’ were from the unconscious – what I saw was simply there and was not planned in order or method except the systemless one that is the creative act.”
Jackson Pollock Untitled (Number 37) circa 1939-40
I find divine this almost-automatic approach to writing. I love the poet, poet on the range, where the mind and spontaneity play. The resulting poems are fresh, and full of surprises, as might be expected when the intellective is let free.
The surprises, sentence-to-sentence, sometimes arises because linear logic is not always the connective thread. Ideas or thoughts serially appear, sometimes but not always directly related to that which comes before, or after. Consider the end of the second poem in the sequence:
TAILGATING DRIVERS behind me with stoic faces of Arnold Schwarzenegger. The city is a mammal vision in peaks of fog. Jack Pumpkinhead is laughing with the Tin Man and an AXE chops through it all showing the dry grain and the whorls. Raphael found the rules and was freed.
Similarly, feast your eyes on the first several lines of a later poem in the sequence, which more-or-less directly concern the writing method being used, and which vividly convey the charge that can result when the mind is let free:
THERE IS NO CONFLICT IN MEMORY while the bell rings. Free association is a red-blue tongue up the ass. She looks like Elizabeth Taylor. It’s a penthouse and the mind is somewhere else. Robert Duncan called these things G L A M O U R S.
I haven’t been able to pin down the source of the Duncan “glamours” reference (can anybody help?) but to me the concept suggests less tangible, more ethereal connections between things. Which is exactly what happens in the lines and sentences of these poems.
Haiku with Motor Vehicles (1990s - 2002)
Starting in the early 1990s, McClure has generally included haiku in his published books. These poems don’t hew to the traditional Japanese syllable counts, but instead mostly consist – in a style McClure has said Philip Whalen told him about – of a perception, an ellipsis (which sometimes is not shown, but implied), and then another perception.
Of the approximately 80 haiku McClure has published, about a half-dozen feature motor vehicles, generally a car or truck. These haiku fascinate me (count this as one of the idiosyncratic among my 17 reasons!). It seems to me that cars don’t show up in poems of our time nearly as much as their ubiquitousness might suggest they would. McClure, by featuring the automobile in a few haiku (and, by the way, in a number of non-haiku poems as well), at least recognizes that these machines are here.
But there’s something else, less easily explained, that I like about McClure’s motor vehicle haikus. Here are three of them. The first is from Rain Mirror (1999), the others are from Plum Stones (2002). I use a “(+)” to separate each poem. Turn off the key, set the brake, and take a walk around your poem-mind with these:
THE GREEN APPLE core rolls along as the car passes it
THE BLUE-GREEN MUD PUDDLE is parked beside the sports truck
SILVER OCELOT S P O T S race past the crescent moon.
Car door slams.
In each of these, the car or truck is paired with (paired off against) something decidedly not related to internal combustion. The effect is to either put the vehicle in its place, but in a paradoxical way. In each haiku, the car or truck comes off as something decidedly intrusive and even inferior. A part of this is the typographical and structural facts that the non-vehicle perception is capitalized and come first. But more than that, the vehicles seem to dominate, and not to good effect, those first perceptions. In the last poem, for example, the stellar vision – and it’s a marvelously surreal one, the colored markings of a big cat speeding across the moon – seems to vanish in the slamming of the door.
And yet there is also the sense in each that the car or truck is just as natural as that with which it is paired. The mid-haiku “is” in the second example above, encapsulates this idea: the verb serves to equate the puddle and parked sports truck. See both, the haiku seems to suggest, neither is bigger or better than the other. “Without proportion” anyone?
In any event, even if I’ve overstated the workings of these haikus, they are still potent little poems. After I read them, the rush and blur of traffic, and all that takes place around and within that, sounds clearer, and seems more focused. That’s another sign of great poetry.
The poem of crisis – “After Meltdown” (1999)
McClure has never shied from including unpleasant or difficult emotions or events, personal or cultural, in his poems. I’ve discussed above the poems on the slaughter of whales and peyote depression, and there are plenty of others.
For me, the most deeply moving of these kinds of poems is “After Meltdown,” from Rain Mirror (New Directions, 1992). In a prefatory note to the book, McClure states the poem was written after a psychophysical crisis that required hospitalization. “After Meltdown,” he explains:
. . . strings words in the only way I could hear or speak them when I wrote it. It is not an attempt at style; fortunately, it is a rare state of being, and I captured it as it began to leave me.
“After Meltdown” runs for fifteen pages, with 14 unnumbered sections, most about a page long. The sections, individually, are best described, as McClure states in the preface, as strings of words. The words are all capitalized and the “lines” – there are typically between 15 and 20 per page – are centered on the page. I use scare quotes because about three-quarters of its approximately 250 “lines” are only a single word in length. The others have only a couple words, or even just a single letter (where a word is spelled vertically down the page).
Here’s one of the sections, from near the poem’s start:
VIOLETS AND PANSIES
RAINDROPS AGAINST WINDOW
Despite the echo at the start of Joe Brainard’s classic set of poetic remembrances, the word-string here does not coalesce into a grammatical sentence or unified memory. Even the phrases that appear can become wholly fragmentary – “TAR” and “NECK” for example, seem particularly untethered.
The sense I feel behind or arising from these lines is of a struggle, an inability to articulate complete thoughts, an inability to transfer energy efficiently or with grace. There’s also an obvious ability to settle on an idea – “VAGUE” immediately followed by “VERY / CLEAR” – a common and particularly difficult experience for people in crisis.
The words most often used in “After Meltdown” – and on average one or the other appears on almost every page – are “DELUSION” and “DREAD.” That pretty much tells it all, doesn’t it?
In a few sections, W.C. Williams-ish observed or heard particulars form phrases or images that reverberate against one another. In these instances, where coherent poetic tropes appear, McClure’s mental and emotional state seems especially painful. Consider this stretch of lines, from the poem’s second section:
WHITE FEATHERS FLOAT
TREES INTO MULCH
No explication is necessary here, but just look at those verbs: CRASH, FLOAT, ROAR, GRIND. Crushed or, at best, at the surface, with a soundtrack of mechanized noise. Reading “After Meltdown” I sometimes think of King Lear in the storm, proclaiming he’s encountered “the thing itself.” The poem’s basic and raw, drenched in vulnerability and the inability to articulate.
This crisis, and the writing of the poem, must have been supremely difficult for McClure, given that for decades his hallmark has been poems that convincingly and efficiently transfer great amounts of energy. “After Meltdown” is fascinating and terrifying. I deeply appreciate McClure’s willingness to share the work. And I’m glad he made it through.
Zen Poetry (1999 and 2002)
Following the harrowing “After Meltdown,” McClure in Touching the Edge (Shambhala, 1999) and Plum Stones (O Books, 2002) published collections of what the Library of Congress (right there on the books’ copyright pages) label “Buddhist” or “Zen” poetry. The subtitles – Dharma Devotions from the Hummingbird Sangha and Cartoons of No Heaven, respectively – suggest the turn of mind.
I’m not a practitioner of Zen and have only superficially studied it. As such, I’m not qualified to consider McClure’s writing in relation to that practice or discipline. But I can respond to the poetry that comes through, the words that come across.
One thing that’s clear is that certain states or perceptions that were deeply frightening in “After Meltdown” are, in the Buddhist/Zen poems, accepted or even fully embraced. For example, in the earlier poem, during the psychophysical crisis, “delusion” repeatedly reared up, and it seemed ugly, a part of profound pain or unease. But now, to quote from a poem near the end of Touching the Edge (all poems in that book are untitled), McClure reports “smiling / with pleasure / in / delusion.” He understands that, quoting now from a different poem (the spacing, including the off-centeredness of many lines, approximates the original):
There’s always CALM IN THE CENTER o f DELUSION – resting on something else surrounding it while the calico cat snores.
Similarly (and again quoting from Touching the Edge), “the crashing / of big mobile / machines,” which in the earlier poem of crisis seemed to connote an unspeakable crush of thought, is now welcomed as a part of “THE CONTENT OF ENLIGHTENMENT,” along with hummingbirds, clouds of butterflies, and a morning glory tree.
Another thing about these poems – and this might be the most compelling feature – is the acute awareness within them, the magnificent presentation of details. With the acceptance that – to speak a bit cheaply – presumably results from his zen practice, it seems as if McClure’s perceptions, always vigorous, are even more focused. As he puts it in a poem in Touching the Edge (spacing approximates the original):
That which is “ALL HAPPENING” is both without (the world around) and within (as in his body and mind, including imagination). McClure in these poems observes and then poetically records some of the “ALL HAPPENING” that he experiences.
The clarity of perceptions presented in these Zen poems – which until the new collection in April are the most recent trade publications by McClure – are easily the equal of any in his decades of poetry. Consider, for example, the vividness and richness – the many different perceptions brought into the poem – in the following lines, which open a poem in Touching the Edge:
THE YELLOW CAT with the fox tail is sleeping curled in the sun on a scatter of deer shit.
M O R N I N G
F O G
arrives at night to cover the full moon.
That image, or series of image, almost reads as nested haiku. So too does the following excerpt, eight lines taken from Plum Stones “ELEVEN.” The final image here, I think, is particularly sharp and surprising, and thus fresh:
Drifting of morning fog, marbling on edges of books. The authenticity of a clock, incense smoke, candle flickers, or sports utility vans painted the color of nail polish.
At other times in these two books of zen poetry, the “energy of consciousness” (McClure’s term, from the short paragraph that serves as a preface to Plum Stones) on display is of a wilder, almost surreal kind. These images suggest that imagination in the contemplative mode, at least when McClure translates it into words, can sometimes shine LOUD. Here are three such images, pulled from Plum Stones “EIGHT,” “THIRTEEN,” and “FIFTEEN,” respectively; I’ve separated each excerpt with a “(+)”:
Chaucer rides with his flock of horse-back pilgrims and the red-shouldered hawk, bright with himself and his striped tail, POSES in the green laurel by the curb of the street.
Ordinary. Plain as a toothpick. Not sacred or borne with faith, R E A L as strep colonies in a throat. PRECIOUS.
Six-trillionths of a moment.
Sometimes a Stan Brakhage film projected on the skin of a tadpole; more often WISDOM DISGUISED AS COMPASSION.
I love the bringing in of Chaucer in the first excerpt, the unusual use of strep in the second, and the wonderful mention of experimental film maker Stan Brakhage in the third.
The Brakhage image seems particularly powerful, given that the name conjures thoughts of wild, colorful images, which McClure has flashing on the shimmering surface of a creature that embodies metamorphic life. That is just great! And so while the computer screen is a poor substitute for a tadpole, I’ll end this section with a short (three minute), silent Brakhage film (I’ve deliberately kept the dimensions small, to minimize the impact of the pixelation endemic to YouTubia film-to-digital transfers):
Stan Brakhage *
Glaze of Cathexis (1990) (3 minutes, silent)
As said in the introduction, my list of 17 – and I think it a great 17 – isn’t nearly enough to include all that really charges me up in McClure's work. What wasn’t I able to fit on the list? Well, among other things there’s (take a deep breath): the sexual frankness and energy of “Fuck Ode,” in Dark Brown (Auerhahn Press, 1961); the engagement with projective verse, and the concept of the poem as a biologic entity; the short poem on the double-murder in Dallas, published as the final issue of Semina (1964); “Poisoned Wheat,” a political-prophetic poem on war and over-population, first published in 1965 and gloriously featured in the center-spread of The San Francisco Oracle in August, 1967; McClure’s essays, including in particular his beautiful explication of why Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues is a masterpiece of a religious poem; the oral poetry with music recordings (and live performances) with Ray Manzarek of The Doors and (separately) Terry Riley; his large-sized poster poems, featuring bold reds and blues, letter in the style of the carnival or circus, and lay-outs lifted from boxing posters; several other plays, including the Obie-winning Josephine: The Mouse Singer; his fiction, including The Mad Cub, set in part in 1950s Wichita; his fairy tale type story, Adventures of a Novel in Four Chapters, printed with reproductions of (and one original) magnificent inkblot drawings by Bruce Conner; his children’s story, Boobus and the BunnyDuck, written in 1957 and illustrated then in bright crayon by Jess, but not published until 2007; and his most recent work, Deer Boy (2009), an artist’s book collaboration that combines poetry with the art of Hung Lui.
Well, what do you know – that’s just about 17 more reasons why right there!