by Francis Crick
We spent the summer of 1959 at Berkeley where I had a job in the Virus Laboratory. In our spare time Odile and I would put on our jeans and motor over the Bay Bridge to North Beach. It was while I was poking about the basement of City Lights bookshop that I came across a poem "folded broadside tipped into brown stiff paper folder" by a (to me) quite unknown poet called Mike McClure. The poem - a little under 100 lines - was entitled "Peyote Poem". In those days I was so innocent I did not even know what peyote was but the poem had an immediate appeal. The basement of a poetry bookshop is not a good place to judge a poem - one is weighed down by all those shelves of slim paperbacks - but I bought it on impulse and found that it grew on me. I liked it so much that when I got back to the Golden Helix I pinned it up in the hall and there it stayed for quite a number of years. I would glance at it on occasions, as I went in and out,
In recent years I have come to appreciate how well it con veys the effects of the hallucinogen but at the time I was fascinated by its radiant quality and also by its unexpectedness.
There is no Time. Iam visted 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.
I also found the style hypnotic but this is difficult to convey by short quotations. It was not just the little explosions INTO CAPITALS - almost a McClure signature - but the quite personal rhythm of the sentences. And parts of it were very quotable, so much so that when I came to write a short book about vitalism (I was against it) I lifted a couple of lines:
They were quoted quite out of context but they described my feelings exactly.
What I did not know, or even guess, at that tirne was Michael's profound and very personal interest in science. I only found that out later, when, through my publisher, we got into contact and I read his later work. Almost all poets writing today are rather ignorant of science; most are hostfle as well. Worse, their most profound beliefs are usually quite unacceptable even to sophisticated scientists. It is impossible to brush aside either Yeats or Eliot as poets (even though fashion may have dimmed them) but the ideas they cared about most - Yeats' mysticism and Eliot's Anglicanism - are patently ridiculous to someone who lives every day of his life among atoms and molecules, pondering on the evolution of the Universe, the origin of life and trying to explain the almost inexplicable oddity of biological organisms. A poet's beliefs cannot be ignored completely. However seductive the surface of his words may be the deeper content is closely woven with his general ideas about the nature of things. A poet with a serious and obtrusive belief in astrology, for example, is more than most scientists can swallow, try as they may.
This situation leaves the scientist in a cultural desert, at least as far as poetry is concerned. I hope nobody still thinks that scientists are dull, unimaginative people, forever measuring things in cold blood. Every profession has its dullies but good scientists are, if anything, romantically attached to their subject and often passionately involved in its pursuit. It is almost true that science itself is poetry enough for them. But there is no effective substitute for the subtle interplay of words and from time to time one becomes wearied by the exact formulations of science and longs for a poetry which speaks to one's bones.
Of course, some scientists write verse, but it usually makes painful reading. An occasional poet tries to digest and reprocess large chunks of scientific knowledge but they'almost always deaden the poetry which only comes to life when more personal matters sweep the science aside. The English poet, Ronald Duncan, has tried his hand at it but with only partial success. Michael McClure is so at home in the fantastic world that science has conjured out of ourselves and our surroundings - a world which makes that of other cultures seem contrived and pedestrian - that he takes it all in his stride. When he writes lines like
LIFE BEGINS WITH COILING - MOLECULES BE NEBULAE
ACTION IS PROTEIN
someone like myself ran accept them as naturally as a nonscientist can accept
CITIES ARE SWIRLS OF POPULATIONS
which even a flat-earther could write.
Michael has written a long unpublished prose work (if anything that he writes can be called prose) entitled "Wolf Net" which deals explicitly with his attitude to the world and shows clearly his wide knowledge and enormous enthusiasm for science. In his poerns the science is often more incidental and any unusual subject matter is carried along by his intense involvement with each poem.
What appeals to me most about Michael's poems is the fury and the imagery of them. I love the vividness of his reactions and the very personal turns and swirls of the lines. The worlds in which I myself live, the private world of personal reactions, the biological world (animals and plants and even bacteria chase each other through the poems), the world of the atom and molecule, the stars and the galaxies, are all there; and in between, above and below, stands man, the howling mammal, contrived out of "meat" by chance and necessity. If I were a poet I would write like Michael McClure - if only I had his talent.
Copyright © 1975 by Margins for the author, to whom it devolves.
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