by John Jacob, Symposium Editor
Karl Young, chief proprietor of Light and Dust, has already preceded these words with a few of his own. Margins magazine, under the General Editorship of Karl Young, published a print symposium on McClure more than twenty years ago. Tom Montag was publisher at that time, though his magazine was soon to be abandoned.
Around August, 1997, I wrote to Karl and wondered if he was interested in several different publishing ventures. I learned that his efforts are being directed to the World Wide Web, where you can read, in addition to this symposium, the poetry of a wonderfully diverse group of important poets.
Karl was enthusiastic about another symposium. After all, the first symposium had generated a lot of interest by both critics and readers, but copies are now unavailable. Karl made it clear that I was to make all final decisions regarding inclusions and direction. What no one has ever known is the tremendous amount of work that Karl put into the first set of symposia. He applied the same vigor, enthusiasm, and interest to this web/computer symposium, often recommending writers or ways to present visuals. It was also Karl's idea to allow this symposium to remain "open," for it not to be a fixed series of products to which nothing may be added. After I sent most of what I thought would fit well into this new consideration of Michael McClure and his poetry, prose, and plays, Karl and I have agreed on new additions. There will be in the future additional Foley and Berry material (unless it precedes me by a week or two), more material by McClure himself, and a project that Karl and I have discussed at length, an audio clip of McClure communicating with the lions at the San Francisco Zoo as he reads from his Ghost Tantras. I don't understand the complexity, but Karl assures me that the time will come when that will be added. Anyone who has heard that tape or seen a segment of film of that encounter knows how essential it is to a discussion of McClure's world view. We will also present a clip of McClure performing his work with keyboardist Ray Manzarek. A videotape of their work is available for $20, as is a compact disk. Check this out in the Love Lion reviews.
Michael plans to send along a part of a series of lectures he has given on Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of several major influences on McClure.
I would be completely remiss not to acknowledge all of the work that Michael has done for this project to be viable. At one point I developed the idea that readers and viewers of this symposium should have a complete view of McClure's published material. I asked him to choose and send along two poems from each of his books, not just the New Directions and City Lights and Grove Press material, but the small publishers as well. Here is his response: "What a pleasure it was to make this little anthology from my books of poetry. There are two poems from each book--as you suggested. I've added Peyote Poem as an extra." Nowhere but in this symposium are there examples of all of McClure's interests, styles, and contents. His Selected Poems is an excellent book but with different goals.
As Karl has explained, we decided to utilize germane material from the original symposium, essays that will never be repeated or duplicated like Sir Francis Crick's amazing essay, or Robert Creeley's personal but objective view of the poet he has known now for almost 50 years. (Be on the lookout for more material from Creeley.) Fifty years of writing, I thought a year ago, deserved an occasion such as this. Do not think that we have assembled a group of "ringers" for our symposium. Criticism is the name of much of the prose included, on both sides of the ledger, though McClure, I know, would argue against strophe and antistrophe, as I will in a moment. All of what you encounter here is food for the brain, probably the single most important element in McClure's universe. His world is about expansion, not just deliberation.
As I argued in my introduction to the first symposium, there are more dimensions than personalities to the man Michael McClure. If you want to see him in a way that probably will surprise you, rent Peter Fonda's film The Hired Hand, starring Fonda, Warren Oates, and Claire Bloom. It's the kind of film called a "sleeper," but it's also the kind of film for which Fonda was nominated for an Academy Award in 1998. Michael McClure has a small role, but watch him carefully and see which of his personae he appears to be wearing--if any.
Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote twenty years ago, "... as is the case with myths, masks, too, cannot be interpreted in and by themselves as separate objects. Looked upon from the semantic point of view, a myth acquires sense only after it is returned to its transformation set. Similarly, one type of mask, considered only from the plastic point of view, echoes other types whose lines and colors it transforms while it assumes its own individuality." If you have read commentary about Michael McClure, you might think that he wrote that passage, or that it was penned by Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, or Gary Snyder. McClure's extreme importance in the world of poetry, in the world of the plastic arts, in the world in general, is his thinking about transformation and individuality co-existing at the same moment.
I don't pretend to understand the DNA molecule or how it was discovered; I do know that Francis Crick shares views with McClure. Poet and scientist. That's how it was always supposed to be in a Renaissance world. McClure's genius, to me, is his ability to take what he needs from the Romantic poets, from the Beats, from the Black Mountain School, and finally to stand alone with his poetry and prose about culture and society. As I said last time around, I do not consider McClure to be a "beat." Group participation almost always weakens the message; Pound knew that, Olson knew that, and most of all Robert Duncan was afraid of that. To McClure, even random movement is accepted as it is. McClure writes, I think, in a manner that echoes the quietness with which he reads. If you have a chance to hear him, do so, or look at his riveting performance in the film The Last Waltz. McClure would not argue that he doesn't use masks or a persona in some of his work. The issue is how difficult it is for him to assume those identities, and what sorts of transformations occur when he switches back and forth. Read his "little anthology" here and I think you'll see that while some poems are strident and others silent, a reader need not make a semantic or syntactic leap one poem to another. Certainly Muscled Apple Swift, a personal favorite of mine, does not resemble Organism, but look twice, look at the structures, look at the transforming devices and what they do, why they are there. Most poets want to carve out a chunk of the world and claim it as their own. Thus Sylvia Plath and the Ariel poems. But this interest can backfire, as anyone who has read Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish" or even Berryman's The Dream Songs can attest.
Michael McClure would prefer to be in the mix, the maelstrom, the transformative act as opposed to deciding didactically what that act will become (Frost), or being happy with a narrative, almost prose conclusion (Len Roberts). With the possible exception of Berryman, McClure is more important. I didn't know that in 1975 when in the midst of his first symposium; I only learned it this time out. McClure knows an uncommon amount about many things, but just what he thinks about how poetry interacts with a life has taught me a great deal about biology, the life of the planet, and the choices we face as human beings--and the choices we face as mammals, though McClure has gone further than his interest in the type of animal that we are.
Poets make choices, and this is not a competition, anyway. I have just been amazed at the breadth of knowledge possessed by this man. Long ago he decided to utilize his famous form of centered lines, which is more than cosmetic to him. But I cannot help but recommend you read him for what he knows, in both poetry and prose, not because he's a Beat or because he wrote The Beard, some performances of which were charged with obscenity. Look deeper.
"Outside of our stable vision of ourselves and behind the walls in our spirits is EVERYTHING! All unmade acts and generosities and aspirations move there in a tangle, weaving one into the other like vines and briars. Among them are a few actions that would cause suffering but how much more good lies there!" (McClure, "Phi Upsilon Kappa," 1962, in Allen and Tallman, eds., The Poetics of the New American Poetry, New York: Grove Press, 1973) I must add that this is from an essay requested by Gregory Corso, who wanted to free of impediments the word "fuck." Still, McClure adds his signature breadth to what could be a very small and limited piece of writing. McClure is suspicious of boundaries in those rare moments when he simply dismisses them. And while one might think that McClure's short passage above is metaphor, I would argue that it is both literal and figurative. McClure believes in these interrelationships, and if one reads enough of his writing, one can see them, even if proselytizing is not the point, because it isn't.
This symposium really reflects very little of Michael McClure's writing and criticism of it. We have touched very little on biography and have ignored entire books. The plays remain largely virgin territory, as do many of his essays, such as his words on Bob Dylan. We have presented some poems, but many remain, many in books out of print, to be perused. Any symposium is a starting point, and that is what we have decided to present here. We hope that you will pursue more McClure material on your own, and that you will revisit this web site upon occasion. Happy reading--and thinking.
Go to The Michael McClure Home Page
Go to Light and Dust Poets
Light and Dust Mobile Anthology of Poetry.