"Let Us Throw Out the Word Man":
Michael McClure's Mammalian Poetics

by Rod Phillips

Author's note: The following essay is a chapter from the forthcoming book "Forest Beatniks" and "Urban Thoreaus": Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Lew Welch, and Michael McClure, available in the Fall of 1999 from Peter Lang Publishing. This study examines McClure and other Beat writers as an important force behind the growing ecological awareness of the 1960s and the Beats' role as what McClure has called "the literary wing of the Environmental Movement."

"If there shall be love and content between the father and the son and if the greatness of the son is the exuding of the greatness of the father there shall be love between the poet and the man of demonstrable science. In the beauty of poems are the tuft and final applause of science."

Walt Whitman, introduction to Leaves of Grass (1855)

"Science walks in beauty."

Gary Snyder,"Towards Climax," Turtle Island (1974)

Beat writers of the 1950s and 60s took a variety of approaches in their attempts to reconnect with the natural world, among them Gary Snyder's emphasis on the physical body and its place in the world, Jack Kerouac's romantic rucksack quest for truth and solace in nature, and Lew Welch's anti-urban withdrawal into the wilderness. Often, these approaches utilized older models -- what Gary Snyder has referred to as "the old ways" -- as vehicles in this reconnection: Buddhism and other forms of ancient Eastern thought, American Indian religion and myth, as well as the Romantic traditions of eighteenth and nineteenth century English and American literature.

Poet, playwright, essayist, and novelist Michael McClure shares these interests in "the old ways" with several other members of the Beat circle, often relying on them as both source and background for his own literary efforts. More often, however, the primary vehicle in McClure's nature poetry is not seventh century Buddhism or nineteenth century Romanticism, but instead the twentieth century scientific disciplines of biology and ecology. More than any other writer within Beat Movement, McClure relies on the scientific disciplines of the present as a means of discussing environmental issues and forging his own reconnection with the natural world. [1] Despite the many modern scientific sources of his poetry however, McClure's journey as a writer has taken him even further back into history than those of his colleagues within the Beat circle; his is a journey whose ultimate goal is the "recovery" of what he has referred to as "the biological self" [2] and " the frightening and joyous" acknowledgment of a visceral "undersoul" which unites all of nature (Surface 26). "My interest in biology," McClure notes,"has remained a constant thread through my searching" (Surface 11).

The author of more than forty volumes of poetry, fiction, essays, and plays, Michael McClure has become known as one of the most prolific and enduring figures to emerge from the Beat Movement. He shares a long and rich history with Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Robert Creeley, and many other writers of the San Francisco Beat period. As one of the youngest members of the Beat circle, McClure played an important role as a bridge between writers and artists of the Beat Movement and the region's youth counterculture during of 1960s, and has been a close friend and collaborator with figures such as Richard Brautigan, Bob Dylan, and Janis Joplin. [3] For nearly four decades, what Lawrence Ferlinghetti once called "McClure's lush green ideas" have been a highly visible and controversial topic of both American literary and environmental discourse. [4]

"The Fields of Kansas"

Born in 1932 in Marysville, Kansas, Michael McClure divided his early childhood years between the farmlands of Kansas and the Pacific rain forests of Seattle, Washington, where his interest in nature was heightened by time spent with his maternal grandfather, physician and naturalist Ellis Johnston. Poems such as his "MEMORIES FROM CHILDHOOD" (included in his 1983 collection, Fragments of Perseus), recall the writer's formative years, and an early awareness of a clash between the human and non-human worlds:

of Kansas and the laws

that made
them flat and bare

I know when and where
the field mouse died.

I watched the rivers tried
for treason,

then laid straight,
and the cottonwood and opossum

placed upon the grate
of petroleum civilization! (43)

Educated first at the Universities of Witchita and Arizona, McClure gravitated westward towards San Francisco during his senior year. Following his marriage to Joanna Kinnison, he enrolled at San Francisco State College in 1954. It was here that McClure's long-standing interest in poetry was sparked by a writing course with a poet who would be a mentor to many of the Bay Area's new voices, Robert Duncan. Despite his new teacher's efforts to introduce him to free verse, McClure's early poems display a rigid formal structure which is absent in much of his later work -- the result, perhaps, of his intensive study of Milton, Blake, and Yeats during his undergraduate education. His earliest published poems, which appeared in the prestigious journal Poetry when McClure was only 23, are two villanelles dedicated to Theodore Roethke, a fellow Midwesterner also much enamored with the natural world. Even in these early formal poems, there is evidenced a strong desire on the poet's part to experience the world not as a "civilized" human, but on a more instinctual level, as other life forms must. The first of the villanelles, "Premonition," speaks of the poet's desire to see life as a bird views it, and his frustration at finding himself bound to Earth; the final stanza reads:

The skin and wingless skull I wear grow tight.
The echoes from the sky are never clear.
My bones ascend by arsenics of sight.
Beginning in the heart, I work towards light. (218) [5]

As he matured as a writer, the form, as well as the subject, of McClure's poetry from the mid-1950s onward became reflective of his growing interest in biology and nature. The stiff, imposed structures evidenced in the iambic measures of early poems, such as the villanelles for Theodore Roethke, gave way to innovative free-verse poems which were centered on the page, a form which has become a recognizable trademark of McClure's verse, and one which, according to the poet, "gave the poems the lengthwise symmetry found in higher animals" (Rebel Lions vii).

The Six Gallery and Hymns for St. Geryon:
Unveiling the "Undersoul"

McClure's friendship with Duncan quickly led to associations with others in the rapidly emerging San Francisco poetry community, including Kenneth Rexroth and the mystic surrealist poet Philip Lamantia. In early 1955, he met Allen Ginsberg at a party given in honor of visiting poet W.H. Auden, where Ginsberg told him of his intentions to organize a poetry reading featuring himself and several other young poets from the area -- the event which later become known as the Six Gallery Reading. Here, McClure, along with Philip Lamantia, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Allen Ginsberg, helped to launch the Beat Movement, and his presence at the event helped to instill in the fledgling movement his life-long fascination with the natural world. The poems which McClure selected to read at this, his very first public reading, are indicative of his early environmental concerns. They include "For The Death of 100 Whales," a powerful poem which condemns the slaughter of a pod of Icelandic killer whales by the United States military (and in doing so, predates by more than a decade the many calls for protection of marine mammals which would emerge in the late 1960s), and "Point Lobos: Animism," a poem which provides an early glimpse of what the poet would later refer to as the visceral "undersoul" through which all of nature is united. The poem's final stanzas read:

(I knelt in the shade
By a cold salt pool
And felt the entrance of hate
On many legs,
The soul like a clambering
Water vascular system.

No scuttling could matter
Yet I formed in my mind
The most beautiful of maxims.
How could I care
For your illness or mine?)
This talk of bodies!

It's impossible to speak
Of lupines or tulips
When one may read
His name
Spelled by the mold on the stumps
When the forest moves about one.

Heel. Nostril.
Light. Light! Light!
This is the bird's song.
You may tell this
To your children.

(Hymns 4-5)

In his 1982 essay "Scratching the Beat Surface," an essay in which McClure argues that nature and ecology were a central theme to many of the poems read at the Six Gallery as well as to many other Beat texts, he recalls his visit to Point Lobos, and his motivation in writing the poem:

I wanted to tell of my feelings of hunger, of emptiness, and of epiphany. I hoped to state the sharpness of a demonic joy that I found in a place of incredible beauty on the coast of Northern California. I wanted to say how I was overwhelmed by the sense of animism -- and how everything (breath, spot, rock, ripple in the tidepool, cloud, and stone) was alive and spirited. It was a frightening and joyous awareness of my undersoul. I say undersoul because I did not want to join Nature by my mind but by my viscera -- my belly. The German language has two words, Geist for the soul of man and Odem for the spirit of beasts. Odem is the undersoul. I was becoming sharply aware of it. (26) [6]

Although couched in the philosophical terminology of animism, the ancient notion which holds that all natural phenomena and objects -- whether animate or inanimate -- possess an innate soul, McClure's early intuitive attempts to "join Nature" seem to draw more from science than from philosophy. McClure has written of "the important, yet little known reaching out from science to poetry and from poetry to science that was part of the Beat movement" (Surface 11). [7] Clearly, such a "reaching out" to science has manifested itself in both the sources and subjects of McClure's own work. Although the majority of his associates during the 1950s in San Francisco were mainly other poets and painters, his closest friend during the period was Sterling Bunnell, a scientist whom McClure terms "a visionary naturalist" (Surface 11). Bunnell shared McClure's interest in both nature and consciousness (he would later work in conjunction with Dr. Timothy Leary), and the poet credits him as being the person responsible for his first close look into the biological wealth which Northern California offered: "With him," McClure recalls, "I was able to watch coyotes and foxes and weasels and deer, and walk through savannah country, hike through foothills, go over the mountains, and to the seashore and look into tidepools" (Lighting 3).

McClure's first collection of poems, Hymns for St. Geryon, published by his friend Dave Haselwood's Auerhahn Press in 1959, and which contains both "For the Death of 100 Whales," and "Point Lobos: Animism," exemplifies the writer's early application of biology to poetry. As William R. King has noted, "Geryon was Dante's beast of falsehood, a fair face atop a dragon's body. For McClure, St. Geryon was the apotheosized conflict between the social facade and instinctual desires" (387). Hymns for St. Geryon attempts to bridge this gap between the social facade (i.e. the cerebral trappings of all human culture) and instinctual desires (the body, and what McClure would later refer to as aspects of the "biological self"), and in doing so, the poems make readers aware of the possibility of unifying both aspects of their beings. As McClure notes in the title poem, "Even Geryon (as Geryon) is beautiful but not if you look only at the head or body" (Selected Poems 7). Often, this task is accomplished by means of a microbiological perspective which forces us to view ourselves in close relation to "lower" forms of life, as in the poem entitled "Canticle":

We who do not make way for creatures
Warm blooded we move in a cold sea denying-

-our guts cousins filling the cracks of the earth,
sleeping at the bottom.
Amphioxus, rotifers, arrow-worms hunting their prey,
predators in bodies
of translucence and color, formed
by the element they move about them

I put off my feelings today let the language
move me tomorrow. A lie

I say! The thing comes out moved
by the man inside me who is a creature sprung
from the chain. Let me regain it. (24-25)

The"thing" to be regained is the poet's own biological identity—an acknowledgment of his role as fellow "creature" and "cousin" to the microscopic organisms the poem describes. Like many of the poems in Hymns to St. Geryon, "Canticle" yearns for a biological wholeness, or what McClure has called "the monism of nature," exemplified by both the ancient Taoist view of the universe as a single uncarved block, and by modern scientific theories of ecology. Under such a view, the "amphioxus, rotifers" and "arrow-worms" are not "lower" forms of life, but are, instead, valuable and even "divine" expressions of a common life force. McClure explains:

Ernst Haekel and Alfred North Whitehead 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 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 a rose blossom. One cannot say that a star or cluster of galaxies is more important -- has more proportion -- than a chipmunk or a floorboard. This recognition is always with us. (Surface 27).

Meat Science

McClure's poetry can often be difficult, and the poet has at times adopted the abstract expressionist painter Clyfford Still's dictum that "Demands for communication [in art] are presumptuous and irrelevant" (Surface 26). [8] Although always present (yet not always easily decipherable) in his early poetry, McClure's biological and ecological notions are first clearly described in his 1961 collection, Meat Science Essays. The eight essays contained in this slim volume cover a diverse range of subjects -- from detailed and vivid descriptions of the author's early experiments with mind-altering drugs, to essays in response to the French surrealist writer Antonin Artaud and the existentialist philosopher Albert Camus. But a common thread which finds its way into each of the essays, as the book's title indicates, is the notion of a shared biological connection among all creatures, human and non-human: "that all," as McClure notes, "are finally creatures of Meat and Spirit" (44).

The Meat Science Essays mark for McClure a turning point, as he begins to move from the vision of universal interconnectedness (i.e. the "uncarved block" of Tao) first posited in the St. Geryon poems, to a refined and somewhat more narrow view of his role as "mammal." While he in no way abandons his earlier monistic view of nature (and would, in fact, occasionally return to it throughout his career), as McClure notes in his essay "Reflections After a Poem," the complex differences between humans and creatures vastly different from ourselves prevent humans from fully knowing or understanding them. After first pointing out "our kinship with all creatures," he reserves his true feelings of empathy for species more closely related to humans:

We feel close to all living creatures here . . . but we feel the most close and the most joined with the warm blooded. We cannot know the universal and philosophical consciousness of deep seas animals. We fill the universe in our sympathy for all being, but moments of extreme vision and beauty swell us out so that we feel immediately more related to a larger group than Man. We become Mammals as we once were Men. . . . Ornette Coleman [10] is a mammal, the snow leopard is a mammal, Schubert is a mammal. (Meat Science 79 - 80)

Asking enthusiastically "What greater thing is there than to fill out the fullness of being a mammal?" (82), McClure admonishes his readers to reconsider their place in the world, and their relationship to the rest of nature. "LET US THROW OUT THE WORD MAN!," he urges, and seek in place of this limited role the"mammalian possibility" of "a larger place" (79 -- 80) -- a taxonomic broadening from the single species Homo sapiens to full membership among the more than 15,000 species of the class Mammalia.

Experimentation with hallucinogenic substances was an important source for McClure's evolving view of nature, as it was for other Beat era writers and artists. [11] The Meat Science Essays contain several pieces detailing McClure's use of peyote, heroin, cocaine, and the hallucinogenic psilocybin mushroom. Although the author has in recent times cited drugs as being merely one source among many other influences on his thought and writing, McClure's essay, Drug Notes, provides an insight into the central importance which his drug experimentation played in shaping his view of nature. McClure himself seems to acknowledge the centrality of his drug experimentation by describing making his first use of peyote the topic of the opening sentence of Scratching the Beat Surface, the book in which he explores the connection between his work and nature: "In 1958 I ate the American Indian drug peyote for the first time" (5). [12]

The "adventure of consciousness" (6) which McClure entered into with his first taste of peyote, may well be at the root of the poet's mammalian vision. In the section on peyote in "Drug Notes," after noting that "We have learned to see by a code first invented by Michelangelo and Da Vinci," McClure writes that to experience the world through the drug's effects "is to know that you've lived denying and dimly sensing reality through a haze" (26). When the aesthetic "code" imposed by human culture drops away, the author finds in its place a universe in which all are"animals":

All things beam inner light and color like a pearl or shell. All men are strange beast-animals with their mysterious histories upon their faces and they stare outward from the walls of their skin -- their hair is fur -- secretly far beneath all they are animals and know it. Far underneath the actions they make, their animal actions are still being performed as they walk and smile. . . (26)

McClure's essay,"The Mushroom," from the same volume, describes another drug experiment into what the author calls the"Olympian universe" into which hallucinogenic substances can offer a window (15). Although he notes that when using psilocybin mushrooms, one feels"utterly human and humane," McClure finds here too, a bridge to the non-human world, and an acknowledgment of the "beastliness of mankind" (15). The essay describes a long, mundane afternoon's simple activities -- lunch, a drive, a trip to an art museum -- turned into a dazzling psychedelic adventure through the use of the mushroom. As he did under the influence of peyote, the poet experiences a vision of the human body apart from the aesthetics of "Michelangelo and Da Vinci," but rather than viewing them as "animals," as he did in the earlier peyote vision, he now views humans as far simpler creatures:

All of our notions of the human body's shape are wrong. We think it is a head joined on a torso and sprouting arms and legs and genitals and breasts, but we're wrong. It is more unified than that. It's all one total unity of protoplasm and our ideas of its appearance are too much a matter of habit. (19)

As McClure and his companion enter a vacant church, the essay ends with one of the poet's first experiments with what he calls "Beast Language," a guttural, growling form of poetic "speech" divorced from human meaning and designed to further bridge the gap between species. Standing at the church lectern, still high from the effects of the mushrooms, McClure recalls,"I began to speak in the language of beasts" (21). The essay ends with a poem describing the event, and exemplifying the poet's use of "Beast Language":

By the stained glass windows
of dream hills and landscapes -- I raised back my head
into the Olympian world, growling with the worshipping
and directing voice of Man-Beasts!
The white flecks of my spittle
floated like clumps of alyssum in the dimness
of the here, now, eternal, beauteous peace and reality.

(21-22) [13]

No doubt because of his life-long preoccupation with the natural world, nature seems at the center of all of McClure's early drug experiments -- even his experiments with drugs which have not been traditionally seen as hallucinogenic or mystical. His recollections concerning his first use of cocaine, for example, contained in his essay "Drug Notes," begin with a description of a late night ritual which would seem to preclude any topic except nature from entering into the author's altered consciousness:

I had come from Walden Pond to New York City. In my hand was a new book pressing an oak leaf from Thoreau's hearth. In the dim apartment a friend poured water out of a bronze vial onto my head. The water was from the Ganges. . . . I was very joyful, it was 3:00 in the morning, hot July, in New York City. Perhaps the river water and Thoreau alone could have made me divinely high. (39)

The changes in perception which follow McClure's first cocaine experiment in some ways parallel those which he had undergone while using peyote and psilocybin mushrooms. What the poet now perceives as a facade of social construct falls away, leaving in its absence a new vision, which in this case involves a view of wild nature hidden beneath Manhattan:

All, all was reality. In the dark of morning by the East River I saw nature made anew -- as in any redwood forest of the West. The city becomes nature. The streets of the lower East Side are pastoral and simple fields of summer haze. . . . I saw through the rat's eyes. Grimy barges and ancient factories leaned into eternity. If it shall be our nature to live this way we must know that Nature is here in a strange garment. (40)

While much of McClure's early writing concerning nature seems to stem from an intuitive, often Romantic, sense of empathy towards the natural world (an empathy which was forcefully heightened by a series of intense drug experiences), his interest in biology provided his imagination, and apparently his hallucinations, with a solid mooring. McClure's essay,"Revolt," first published in Journal for the Protection of All Beings (a journal which he co-edited along with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and David Meltzer) and later collected in Meat Science Essays, exemplifies the writer's use of biological imagery to discuss philosophical, and even political issues facing humans. In the essay, McClure uses the planarian worm [14] as a biological "example of revolt" (57) living in"a smaller universe of clearer beauty and simpler Good and Bad" (61). The author finds, in these small worms, a"basic relevant meaning of revolt to us as many-celled meat-creatures," since the planaria has the ability to "revolt" through asexual reproduction by dividing its head from its body and forming two new beings. Humans, unable to simply split in half when the head (or mind) and body are in discord, must choose other methods of revolt to maintain the equilibrium between the high powered forces of the human intellect and the often ignored and under-developed"subspirits" of the body (61). Too often in humans, McClure notes,"The Head is Chief and the Body follows" (59). But, like Geryon in McClure's earlier poem, the human form can only be seen as complete when viewed as a whole composed of both head and body, and the"revolt" of the physical side of one's nature (the biological self) in opposition to the powerful forces of the mind (the social self) is an on-going part of this quest for this equilibrium:

At all times revolt is the search for health and naturality. Revolt is a desire to experience normal physiological processes that give pleasure of fullness and expansion (59).

"Politics is Dead and Biology is Here!"

The middle years of the 1960's marked a period of McClure's career in which he placed more emphasis on drama than poetry. His most famous and most controversial play, The Beard, was penned and first performed in 1965. The obscenity trials which resulted from the production would occupy much of the writer's time and energy for the next three years.

During this same period, McClure released a small but fascinating poetry chapbook entitled Poisoned Wheat. Written as a protest against American involvement in the war in Vietnam, the book's title refers to the wartime practice of poisoning grain fields in Cambodia. The poet mailed over 500 of the pamphlets to journalists and politicians whom he felt might have some influence on American policy in Southeast Asia (King 394). While in retrospect this seems a relatively futile act, McClure's small book was not without its impact; the real importance, however, of Poisoned Wheat was not its small stab at the American war machine, but in its radical merging of biology and politics.

In a poetic manifesto which would foreshadow much of the poet's writing for the next three decades, McClure's Poisoned Wheat attempts to look for solutions to the world's catastrophic problems outside the normal channels of politics and ideology. Although the long poem deals ostensibly with the war in Southeast Asia, the war quickly becomes just one symbolic symptom of a much larger malaise resulting from a corrupt society which clings to political dogma rather than biological realities. McClure's response is to divorce himself from the war and the misguided and cruel society which wages it:

I despise Society that creates
bundles of cruelties
and presses them en masse
against the helpless. (4)

McClure's staunch anti-war stance was a radical one in 1965, a time when opposition to the Vietnam War was still largely smothered beneath Cold War rhetoric of the Iron Curtain, the Domino Theory, and the rapidly accelerating arms race. But far more radical is his insistence that we look beyond political rhetoric to the realization that the Vietnam War was not about a political struggle between Communism and Democracy, but was instead symptomatic of a much larger problem to which neither side possesses a solution. McClure's poem attacks each of the world's prevailing political systems -- capitalism, communism and fascism -- for their failure to effectively address the problems of life on the planet.

Communism will not create food in quantities
necessary for man's survival.
It creates overpopulation, slavery,
and starvation. (4-5)

Stating that "I have escaped politics," and that the "meanings of Marxism and Laissez faire are extinct" (6), the poet rejects the political and social systems which have been artificially imposed upon the biological realities of life. Just as he suggested in his earlier essay "Revolt," as well as in the St. Geryon poems, the social and intellectual forces of the mind (in this case, the abstract notions of "politics" and" government") have repressed the biological aspects of human life, often resulting in disastrous consequences.

In place of political issues, McClure points to the stark biological realities facing the Earth -- realities which have gone unaddressed by both Capitalism and Communism:

The population of the United States will double
by the year 2000. Certain South American
nations double each eighteen and twenty years.
There is no answer
but a multiplicity of answers created by men.
A large proportion of men are on the verge
When density of creature to creature reaches
a certain degree
the ultra-crowded condition is a
biological sink. (6)

The results of the"biological sink" which McClure describes are starvation, exploitation of world resources, and an increasingly repressive and war-like society which has already fallen victim to its own suicide. The poem continues:

The culture is extinct! The last sentry
at the gate has pressed the muzzle to his
forehead and pulled the trigger!
The new civilization will not be communism!
they supported! (8)

In place of a culture governed by political theory, McClure offers what Allen Van Newkirk has called a"bioculture" (22). In his brief 1975 analysis of McClure's work as it relates to new frontiers of ecological thought,"The Protein Grail," Newkirk describes the tenets of the bioculturist worldview:

. . . [B]iocultural thought . . . is distinguished by its emphasis on the wild realities of the landscape as a field for discourse and action. Bioculturists assert a biological interpretation of history; that the human situation is mammalian, that the human mammal has over-domesticated itself and the landscape it utilizes, and that wild nature contains economic and sensate possibilities overlooked by the inherited civilization construct. (22)

With the poet's emphatic line, near the end of Poison Wheat, declaring that "NEW SOCIETY WILL BE BIOLOGICAL!" (9), and further, that "POLITICS IS DEAD AND BIOLOGY IS HERE!," McClure demands nothing short of a total reorganization of society along these biocultural lines. Tellingly, the long poem ends, as it began, with an utterance of McClure's trademark beast language, a "Grahhr" symbolizing humanity's mammalian past -- and its mammalian future.

The Early Seventies:"The Shape of Energy"

In the late 1960s and early 70s, McClure spent a good deal of his time and effort on prose works as well as drama. During this period, the content of McClure's writing became much more thoroughly anchored in biology, as his psychedelic experiences and his early intuitive feelings of an interconnectedness with nature were bolstered by his reading of several biological and ecological thinkers. "In the early seventies," he recalls in his essay "The Shape of Energy," "the thinking of H.T. Odum, of Harold Morowitz in biophysics, and of [Ramon] Margalef in ecological systems did much to clarify my unorganized perceptions of the fifties and sixties" (Surface 95). Feeling more certain than ever "that it was no longer appropriate to continue the Descartian division of mind and physiology" (Surface 88), McClure turned to science for support for his intuitions.

It was during this period that the poet began to view poetry as an "extension of physiology" and further, to consider the possibility "that a poem could even become a living bio-alchemical organism" (89):

The mind is inseparable from the body and too much energy has been spent looking at the mind (whether shapely or not) of poetry, and not enough at the body. Similarly, the structure of poetry had often been looked at (though not clearly), but such structure had never been looked at as an extension of physiology. (Surface 89)

If the Cartesian split between mind and body can be unified, McClure argues, then similarly, why couldn't a poem be seen as "an extension" of this unified "Bulk" of the poet's mind and body:"extensions of myself as much as my hand or arm are extensions of me" (Surface 89). Further, McClure began to envision a poem "that like a wolf or salmon . . .could turn its head from side to side to test the elements and seek for breath. I wanted to write a poem that could come to life and be a living Organism" (Surface 89).

As a way of understanding this"bio-alchemical" transfer of energy between poet and poem, McClure began to investigate the writings of Ramon Margalef, particularly his 1968 work Perspectives in Ecological Theory. Margalef's section entitled "The Ecosystem as a Cybernetic System" became especially important as "one of the wellsprings of exuberance" in the poet's thought; Margalef's work became, for McClure, a way"to see energy in action in the bundles and bodies that contain it" (Surface 92-3). Out of his reading of Margalef, McClure began to view his own poems -- and those of his colleagues in the Beat circle -- as biological extensions born of an"organic process" in which one life form (the poet) transfers energy from"a powerful, complex, informed -- ultimately stable substrate" (the poet's life experience) to create yet another life form (the poem) (96). In McClure's view, poets such as "Olson, Snyder, Creeley, Duncan, Kerouac, Ginsberg, [and] Whalen" (as well as, we are to presume, McClure himself) . . . ."develop the containment of complex energy as they mature. They feed from the energy of the substrate around them as it informs their senses. It is an organic process" (96). As McClure puts it in his essay,"The Shape of Energy," in Scratching the Beat Surface, poetry thus becomes "an image of the universe" in which:

Densified areas of greater organization n[the poet] react with nebulous matter in space [i.e. experience, ideas, inspiration] and are informed by it. There is further densification [i.e. the creative process]. It reaches climax. It explodes [the poem is created] -- the material retains certain pieces of information and gains more organization [the poem's content and structure] in the explosion -- and so forth. (94) [15]

Another key scientific influence on McClure's work during the early seventies was Howard T. Odum's study Environment, Power and Society (1971), a work which shares Margalef's interest in the manner which energy functions in nature, and more importantly, one which sparked the poet's interest in the notion of biological diversity. In Odum's scientific text, McClure found ample justification for his earlier feelings of interconnectedness with nature, since Odum's work often focused on the diverse and inscrutable "species networks" which combine to form a healthy and stable eco-system. In his section entitled "Complex and Beautiful Systems," in Environment, Power and Society, Odum writes: "Nature reaches its most appealing manifestations of beauty, intricacy, and mystery in the very complex systems: the tropical coral reef, the tropical rain forest, the benthos- dominated marine systems on the west coasts of continents of temperate zones, the bottom of the sea, and some ancient lakes of Africa" (quoted in Surface 83).

In the mysterious and interwoven fabric of such "complex and beautiful systems" as Odum describes, McClure found the scientific support for the intuitive feelings of species interconnectedness which he had been struggling with for more than twenty years. Here was the"uncarved block" of Tao dressed in the garb of Western science -- a scientific truth as beautiful, all-encompassing, and terrifying as any peyote vision of the undersoul. All is connected, Odum posited, but the message also carried with it a further caution, all must be connected in order to ensure a healthy and stable environment.

McClure's poetry of the period bristles with a renewed intensity. No longer was it simply enough to acknowledge humanity's kinship with nature's other life-forms, as the poems in Hymns to Saint Geryon did. Odum's models of ecological systems made it clear to McClure that not only were species interrelated, but also strongly interdependent; the survival of one species - and indeed the entire eco-system - could very well hinge on maintaining the diversity of other species within the system. Poems such as "Listen Lawrence" from Fragments of Perseus (a piece aimed at converting poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti from a Socialist to a biological world-view), approach the themes of ecological interconnectedness and the need for a biocentric worldview with a reformer's zeal, as he tells his friend:

from the bulks of our
brother and sister beings!
We're alarmed by the simultaneous extinction
and overcrowding of creatures (39)

The poem revisits the idea of a familial relationship between species first posited in "Canticle" twenty years before -- although the "cousins" of other species described in the earlier poem have been brought closer into the family fold, and are now tellingly referred to as "brother and sister beings." Just as"Poisoned Wheat" had done a decade earlier,"Listen Lawrence" places the ultimate blame for the Earth's rapidly dwindling biological diversity squarely on the shoulders of the world's political systems. What is needed to fend off the loss of the planet's species, McClure argues, is not the Socialist reform which Ferlinghetti favors, but a wholesale rejection of all politics: "ANY, ANY, ANY 'POLITICS' is the POLITICS OF EXTINCTION!" (41):

We live near the shadow
((TOO NEAR!!))
of the extermination
of the diversity
of living beings. No need
to list their names
(Mountain Gorilla, Grizzly, Dune Tansy)
for it
is a too terrible
elegy to do so!

will do
to save the surge
of life - the ten thousand
to the ten-thousandth, vast
Da Vincian molecule of which
is a particle! (40)

The Eighties and Nineties:"Rebel Lions"

McClure's demand that his friend Ferlinghetti -- and all humanity -- "come out of the closet -- ' OUT OF THE CLOSET OF POLITICS ' and into the light of their flesh and bodies!" (Fragments 42) remains a constant in his message as the poet enters his sixties. For McClure, the only means of survival is the rejection of political solutions, and the embrace of a new, biologically informed, world-view. In his most recent collection of poems, Rebel Lions (1991), McClure returns to the vision he has held since the Six Gallery reading now nearly forty years ago. In a poem entitled "Mammal Life," the poet again discusses the importance of this reconnection to what he has called the "biological self":

  The real mammal life
                with its clear sensorium
    and the wisdom of the gut
          and the meat in the blackness
          that stretches back in time
                to the stars
    through the bodies of strange
                forefather beasts
    is the powerful NEGATIVITY,
        powerful negativity,
Mammal life is deep and luminous as the belly of a shark
      or the white fungi on cedar trunks
      in the cool rainforest [19]
me (109)    

Acknowledging the"biological self," embracing humankind's mammalian "wisdom of the gut," and envisioning the universal "undersoul" are the means of McClure's revolt against the political forces he sees as leading to ecological catastrophe -- and also his means of reconnecting to the natural world. As he said in a recent interview, his is not a poetry which provides the answers to the problems plaguing the environment; instead, he sees his role as a visionary, aimed at providing "a new path" away from politics and towards biology (Lighting 6). In his poem entitled "Villanelle for Gary Snyder," from his 1975 collection Jaguar Skies, McClure aligns himself (and supposedly, Snyder) with others who he identifies as revolutionary visionaries:

like Che, [20] Darwin, and Francis Crick
creating visions not solution. (68)

Not surprisingly, McClure finds two of his intellectual compatriots among scientific visionaries Charles Darwin and Francis Crick -- the theorist who developed the concept of species evolution, and the Nobel Prize winning scientist who first shed light on the double helix structure of the DNA molecule. For above all, McClure is a poet concerned with science, a poet whose knowledge and interest in biological and ecological issues provide him with a rich scientific "substrate" which allows him to write in what his friend Gary Snyder calls "a specific biological 'wild' unconscious 'fairytale' new 'scientific' imagination form." [21]

McClure's admiration of visionary scientists like Francis Crick is not unrequited. Crick has been an admirer and close reader of McClure's poetry since the mid 1950s, when he first discovered a copy of "Peyote Poem" in a San Francisco book shop, and he has paid tribute to the poet's treatment of scientific issues in his essay "The Poetry of Michael McClure: A Scientist's View." Unlike many other poets writing today who "are rather ignorant of science" and even hostile to it, Crick notes that: "Michael McClure is so at home in the fantastic world that science has conjured out of ourselves and our surroundings . . . that he takes it all in stride" (23). Crick closes his homage to McClure and his scientifically based poetry with a final tribute which can leave little doubt that he is indeed a poet of science:

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. (24)

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Copyright © 1999 by Rod Phillips.

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