Critiques of Poetry and Poetics

Joel Weishaus



Michael McClure, Mysteriosos.
New Directions: New York, NY, 2010.



Michael McClure, one of the original and most gifted of the Beat Poets, has over the past fifty years published scores of poems, along with novels, essays, plays, interviews, CDs and DVDs. However, my interest in his work begins on a personal note. It goes back to the mid-1970s, when we met at a class in San Francisco given by instructors in the method of body awareness training founded by the late Israeli physicist and Judo black belt, Moshé Feldenkrais.

What impressed me about McClure being there, and prompted this review so many years later, was that I saw he was not just interested in writing about biological systems, but also in exploring his own somatic potentiality. In a 1968 interview, he said: "Besides our body's being a genetic accretion of billions of years,

it is the actual accretion of our physical contacts with our environments, our psychological contacts with our propaganda and our intuitions. It's is the actual meat on your bones, the constellation of the perception and events, and, in addition, we have a storage center in which the events that we can symbolize and verbalize about are activated." 1

Reading McClure's recent collection of poems, I see that his basic concerns, and the revelations of their Blakean complexities, have not changed.

And see in a face or breast an animal
And feel my chest and stomach beat for it.

To address McClure's seventeen collections of poems, each book would have to be slowly acquired, as "the idea of a book as something new—an active part of me of all my feelings and moods and my life is what I am carrying now." 3 The reader recognizes the psyche of the poet disguised as a book. "The work immediately rewrites itself in the book. This repeatability is part of its own breathing and the reduplication of each of its signs." 4



"Our unending war against nature is the crisis from which I write. My poetry demands the tearing down of what we are and letting our energies and bodies of meat and nothingness rebuild themselves."(ix) While each of the major Beat poets developed their work somewhat differently, they shared the principle of compassion and an expanded consciousness. With the exception of Allen Ginsberg, more than any of them, McClure wears the integument of an ancient prophet. Sometimes pacing forth in the oldest of languages, the grrrrr of animal speak, his vatic voice addresses all Earth’s species suffering under humankind's imperious greed.

Before April 20, 2010, when news spread of the disastrous sinking of BP's oil-drilling platform, Deepwater Horizon, in the Gulf of Mexico, with each day for months millions of barrels of oil—life-blood of contemporary economies that is poisoning the planet—polluting the already ecologically fragile sea and marshlands, killing untold numbers of marine life, and depressing local economies, along with failure after failure of corporate technological solutions to plug the hellish hole they had drilled—McClure had already described how "the lapis lazuli kingfisher...

as we float on a sea
of petroleum.

Five years before the tragedy, David Eyton, former vice president for BP’s deepwater developments in the Gulf of Mexico, warned: “If we’ve learned anything so far about the deepwater Gulf of Mexico, it is that it contains surprises. And that means an operator needs depth—depth in terms of resources and expertise—to create the capability to respond to the unexpected.” 5 Although Charles Olson's well-known poem, "The Kingfishers," begins with, "What does not change / is the will to change," what we actually see in human emotional life is that the will not to change, especially as one grows older, is usually stronger.

Here I want to raise the problem of the artist who finds his or her mature style when still young. In fact, it may be that the major poets of the Beat Generation maturated too quickly into the voices that brought them to the attention of critics and publishers . So that, although some of their philosophies may have deepened over the years (with the glaring exception of Jack Kerouac, the one most identified with the Beat Generation), many of their poems written in late career look as if they could have been made decades before. As to evolve means to discriminate toward desirable traits—in McClure's case, this means the centered texts and eye-capturing capitalization—, perhaps Darwinian evolution, when applied to creativity, needs further scholarship. However, when comes to the "style of old age" 6 in old age—

in the desk drawer
is a wall of stars
and shining shimmering dust.

In an essay titled, "Mozart and the Apple," McClure wrote, "The odor of the apple may stimulate nonverbal, nonintellective, nonrational parts of my consciousness that send apple-related associations to the periphery of the screen (within his head)." 7 This was written almost thirty years ago, on the subject of how "experience-information (memory)" is stored "hologramistically" throughout the brain, at a time when most neuroscientists were still probing for strict module models. (This is stored here, that is stored there.) Of course, now Apple would also recall an odorless computer, unless it burst into toxic flames. What genius, still! Painting for the senses a smooth picture of the universe from the complexity of decay. However, the problem is of ripening too soon, and not falling, but hanging onto the branch the critics prefer. It is Pablo the prodigy who never dared to paint Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Perhaps, then, besides publishing books, McClure works in new genres because he feels the intimations of something like this.



Over the years McClure has built a body of work based on a consistent belief that a poem has the potential to "come to life and be a living organism." A Pygmalion agenda, in an age when scientists are beginning to achieve computer- and laboratory-conceived life. No wonder his voice still sings in the solar plexus, while many poets of his generation who "shared an interest in Nature, Mind, and Biology," 5 but whose vision, though brilliant for its time, was politically, scientifically or spiritually less elemental than his, have succumbed to canonical rigor.

in frozen ponds
and in hell realms:
beauty burrows
in the lacquer

One never knows what was in a poet's mind while writing, not even the poet. Words flow uncontrolled from mind to fingertips. In turn, the critic interprets from his or her own being and non-being. (Having slightly more being than non-being makes consciousness possible.) In McClure's poems, the letters themselves may descend, yet not, as their referent is always waiting below. What is happening has already occurred, as print is frozen in space and time. Perhaps some poets perform in order to thaw their work. Yet the poems are theirs only in name. In reality, they belong to the reality's indomitable mystery

McClure leaps into a stream of emotions, hissing, burrowing into what beauty? "The beauty of soul," wrote psychologist James Hillman, "which alone surpasses the allure of Aphrodite..." 8 Beauty mars the veneer of historical time, of civilization's favorite myth of itself,

and before
and after that
the thin scarlet varnish
is assembled of sub-miniature
lightning bolds
our mutual arising.

Miniatures originally meant pictures in which red predominated. (From the Latin, minium: red paint.) But the poet takes us below the surface, to the gods monotheism varnished over. Their lightning bolts quenched, too, by the Buddhist concept explained as, "a cup of water, which can be viewed as merely a form of liquid to quench one's thirst, as the compound H2O, as aggregates of molecules, as the fleeting particles in a sub-atomic field, as a manifestation of causality. All these different 'entities'

of different realms arise simultaneously in a harmonious manner without impeding one another. They do not arise intermittently or discontinuously; they co-arise at the same time. This is the so-called principle of simultaneous-mutual-arising." 9

(Imagine leaning
towards freedom.)

Like many other Beat poets, especially on the West Coast, McClure stepped onto the path of Buddhism. So I think of the Zen Master who, while working in the monastery's field, taught his disciple by leaning on his hoe: an act of "suchness" that angles towards freedom.



McClure concludes this poem with words that arose from his meat: "I live it." (57) Here we have an example of a poem as "a living organism," written to the beat of heart/mind, circling an even deeper sense of what meaning is—one that doesn't snare cooked information, but gnaws on raw knowledge. "When a man does not admit that he is an animal," McClure wrote, "he is less than an animal. Not more but less." (5) Steeped in the embers of ancient lore, stalking the latest theories science has coldly calculated, McClure is a poet with the audacity to live at a time when not only poetry, but language itself has lost its footing and is constantly in danger of sliding into cliche, plotting the attenuation of its metaphors into a "Disneyfied mixture of fantasy or dream and mechanized pseudo-reality" of media-speak. 10 Like a primitive man McClure "knows that the possession of words gives him mastery over things," yet also knows that "the relationship between words and the world is so close that the manipulation of language is as difficult and as fraught with peril as contact with living things." 11


beads of coral. Pitted with cavities
Encircling the blue-black stone flecked

Cracked blue mineralized veins, red of a feral animal's tongue, black as satanic eyes fished up from "the secret ocean. / Glowing like a new bodhisattva / and an etched line by Rembrandt"(38) on the Philosopher's Stone, lapis philosophorum, never to be forgotten, nor to be known. Thus, "the rich complexity of what we do not know, becomes the foreign language of our psyche." 12

encircling a daydream
and fresh as the faces
of dead friends


Addressing the Abstract Expressionist painters of the 1950s, McClure said,

“Whether this painting is looked at in two hundred of three hundred years was not of interest to me. What was of interest to me, although I couldn’t formulate it until years later, was the fact that it was a spiritual occasion that I could believe in. And it was alive and brilliant when I looked at it. I was very much taken by that concept, and that’s influenced me enormously. I still see things in those terms.” 1

The life of the numinous, here and now, is also a Beat aesthetic, especially in the work Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, along with the illusion of spontaneity,* "so that you'd realize you are already in eternity." 13 Even those Beats with a politically radical agenda worked well within modernist aesthetics, and it is notable how much Abstract Expressionist painting influenced them. When it comes to spontaneity, the model would of course be Jackson Pollock's late paintings, for which he

"drips, flings, splatters, patches and blots pigments of diverse colors and substance on the canvas in complex arrangements which cancel not only the illusion of space, still central to modernism, but all the hierarchies of form, and above all deny the 'wholeness,' and 'singleness of image,' to use William Rubin's epithets of the art work—the raison d'étre of modernist aesthetics.14

The Beats, most of whom grew up in WWII, worked well within modernist aesthetics, even when mistakenly called "postmodern." For where modernism marked itself with "movements," postmodernist artmaking maneuvers with collaborative projects towards the end of sequestered signatures. Here the work itself signifies: connecting, mutating, transmitting, just as in ancient times. Although most them were younger than the Abstract Expressionist painters, there were strong aesthetic, and anarchist, links between the two schools, along with the art of Jazz. However, poets work in a language that is, for the most part, used in ordinary conversation. What they have in common is that every artist creates tensions between the alien and familiar, the comfortable and uncanny, and that the soul of every work of art, no matter what the medium, is sited in liminal space.

in the lightning—or a small boy
bit by a coyote pup on the tip of his finger,
Old age or childhood, it is all renewable,
reversible, delivered with a warranty
that nothing is there in the nothingness.



1- McClure, M (1971) In, David Meltzer, Editor, The San Francisco Poets. New York: Ballantine.
2- McClure, M. From, "For Artaud." (1958).
3- McClure, M. (1960) "From a Journal. (Sept '57)" In D.M. Allen, Editor, The New American Poetry. New York: Grove Press.
4- Jabès, E. (1991) "The Book." From the Book to the Book: An Edmond Jabès Reader. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press.
5- Eyton, D. (2010) In, E. Rosenthal, “Our Fix-IT Faith on the Oil Spill.” The New York Times, May 28.
6- H. Broch (1947) "The Style of the Mythical Age." Introduction to, R. Bespaloff, On the Iliad. New York: Pantheon. See also, J. Rasula, "The Style of Old Age. Sulfur 12 (1985); E.W. Said, On Late Style. New York: Pantheon, 2006.
7- McClure, M. (1982) Scratching the Beat Surface. San Francisco: North Point Press.
8- Hillman, J. (1991) "The Divine Face of Things. In, T. Moore, Editor, A Blue Fire. New York: HarperCollins.
9- Chang, G.C.C. (1971) The Buddhist Teaching of Totality. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
10- Noel, D.C. (1988) "Realizing Dreams: Star Wars, 'Star Tours,' and the Anima Machinae. Spring Journal.
11- Blanchot, M. (1995) "Literature and the Right to Death." The Work of Fire. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
12- Rowland, S. (2010) C.G. Jung in the Humanities. New Orleans: Spring Publications.
13- Ginsberg, A. (1973) Quoted in, A. Charters, Kerouac: A Biography. San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books.
14- Ebert, T.L. (1978) "The Aesthetics of Indeterminacy: The Postmodern Drip Paintings of Jackson Pollock." Centennial Review (Spring)

* "An analogy with Impressionist painting may not be out of place here. Many Impressionist works in which the appearance of spontaneity and hasty manufacture is most striking are utterly deceptive. Close analysis has revealed that the work was produced laboriously and painstakingly, building up layer upon layer, allowing days of drying time in between, sometimes over a period of years. The effect of spontaneity is not necessarily produced by spontaneity." M. Leja, Reframing Abstract Expressionism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.