New Directions: New York, NY, 2010.
one of the original and most gifted of the Beat Poets,
has over the past fifty years published scores of poems, along
essays, plays, interviews, CDs and DVDs. However,
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
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
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.
AND IT IS NOT LOVELINESS! BUT CHARITY BUT PURE
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."
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
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
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
languages, the grrrrr of animal speak, his
all Earth’s species suffering under humankind's imperious
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
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
Five years before
David Eyton, former vice president for BP’s deepwater
developments in the Gulf of Mexico, warned: “If
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
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
However, when comes to the "style of old age" 6 in old
THE SCENT OF DECAYED APPLES
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
"shared an interest in Nature, Mind, and Biology," 5 but
whose vision, though brilliant for its time, was politically,
spiritually less elemental than his, have succumbed to canonical
EMOTIONS AND WATERFALLS
in frozen ponds
and in hell realms:
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
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
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 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
the thin scarlet varnish
is assembled of sub-miniature
our mutual arising.
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
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
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.
do not arise intermittently or discontinuously; they
co-arise at the
same time. This is the so-called principle of simultaneous-mutual-arising." 9
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
his hoe: an act of "suchness" that
angles towards freedom.
this poem with words that arose from his meat: "I
live it." (57) Here
we have an example of a poem as "a living
written to the beat of heart/mind, circling an even deeper
sense of what meaning is—one that doesn't snare cooked
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
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
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
A CHUCK OF LAPIS (CHUNK) HELD BY THE SILVER
ON MY WRIST, ORANGE
beads of coral. Pitted with cavities
Encircling the blue-black stone flecked
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)
the Philosopher's Stone, lapis
to be forgotten, nor to be known. Thus, "the rich complexity
of what we do not know, becomes the foreign language of our
CORRUPT AS THE CLOUD
encircling a daydream
and fresh as the faces
of dead friends
Abstract Expressionist painters of the 1950s, McClure said,
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
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
flings, splatters, patches and blots pigments of diverse
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,'
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,
transmitting, just as in ancient times. Although
most them were younger than the Abstract Expressionist
were strong aesthetic, and anarchist, links
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
the medium, is sited in liminal space.
LIKE A MOTH OR A
HUMMINGBIRD TURNED INSIDE
in the lightning—or a small boy
bit by a coyote pup on the tip of his finger,
ALL THE SAME.
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
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.
Rowland, S. (2010) C.G. Jung in the Humanities. New Orleans: Spring
13- Ginsberg, A. (1973) Quoted in, A.
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.