A Year 2000 Consideration
by John Jacob

Rain Mirror; New Poems. New Directions, 1999. Touching the Edge; Dharma Devotions from the Hummingbird Sangha Shambhala. 1999.

"...the dance of the particles in which stars, cells, and sentences form...."

Michael McClure published two new books in 1999, in addition to having new productions of his plays put up and a number of writings reprinted in various anthologies. Anyone familiar with McClure would, I think, assume the above quotation is his. It isn't. It comes from Robert Duncan's 1967 introduction to his own poetry book Bending the Bow. I want to consider and if necessary reconsider where McClure has been and what he has done both before and as I look at these two widely-reviewed books, especially Rain Mirror. I firmly believe that McClure is one of three major poets of the 20th century to carefully consider and sustain a sense of measure, of breath (though there are others, like Charles Olson, equally involved here), and of the verse line. The other two are Wallace Stevens and Robert Duncan. The latter choice makes sense since McClure cut his poetic teeth with Duncan in San Francisco in the 50's, and Duncan had a lot to say about Stevens, a poet now considered, from criticism I~read,, to have been too conservative and rigid in his poetic undertakings. I think that is wrong, but it is a comment that certainly cannot be applied to either Duncan and his attacks on Lyndon Johnson or McClure with his highly erotic poems.

I do know that I think of McClure when I hear or read "The Idea of Order at Key West" or the equally stunning "My Mother Was A Falconress," two poems that are hard to match. My theory is that a good poet has a handful of poems that can stand up to almost any other poet, and he or she probably has one stunning, unique poem. Great poets, on the other hand, either have at least one great book, in which almost all of the poems stand out in such fashion, or through the texture of their collected work have a number--not a handful--of poems that work the same way. Duncan actually may have both.

What is both impressive and difficult about an assessment of McClure is that some of his best work has been published only in magazines or in small press fugitive editions. For instance, I personally feel that his long Muscled Apple Swift is one of his great poems. But to the best of my knowledge, it appeared in 1968 in a small press mimeo edition of 300 copies. I'm glad that I have one.

McClure has also been around for a long time, starting his interest in poetry in high school, and experimenting in his young twenties. He has been linked with a number of "schools" or groups, some of which make sense, some of which do not. One of the better classifications came from Donald Alien and his New American Poetry books. I never thought of McClure as a Beat, though he may have been the individual to bring Howl to the public. He does fit in the San Francisco Renaissance. He has not been linked closely to the Black Mountain School, but his affinity for Olson, and his friendship back, should have placed him in this group if it is to include poets as disparate as Larry Eigner, Paul Blackburn, Fielding Dawson, and Hilda Morley. That's a broad range.

I mention Black Mountain primarily as a ways to get at Olson and the entire sense of measure I mentioned earlier, 01son--and, later, Duncan-were taken by the sense of freedom afforded by the field of the page, though Olson used it more freely than did Duncan. McClure made a choice early in his career to use a spinal column centering device, and these two books are replete with examples of his technique. Obviously, a different breath line would occur in an Olson poem from one of McClure's, except for the few times Olson used a similar centering device. But my reading of these differences is that while they may affect the syntax and what Duncan says about the sentence, they needn't affect the measure, or how the measure is affected by the image (from Williams' construct) or the idea.

My intuition is that Sir Francis Crick felt this way about McClure's poetry, that it was protein and therefore at the absolute center of things, just as it appears on the page. Given the wide range of interests in McClure's poetry, one need not focus solely on the mammalian, or the environmental. McClure talks about the concept of nature, and in terms of the real and the natural--which Crick would see-his poetry is not only allowed to go in many directions, but it must.

Did McClure know that when he started writing? I doubt it. But he is -k very calm about his work, feeling, I think, that it is now correct. His poetry was always different, but now it's different in important ways that are part of the whole surge toward 19th-20th century poetry.

In 1970, Charles Olson sent me two poems from his death bed, the last poems he sent out. One was dated Dec. 1, 59, "FOR MICHAEL MCCLURE." It should be contained in this web site in its entirety. The last three lines point to McClure's interests more than any others, I feel: "In the Fenced City,/a secret tree/which takes all forms." Olson and McClure had been corresponding regularly, and I'm sure the big man had his influence on McClure, especially as breath and measure are considered.

We live right now in a world of poetry in which the big awards and new publishing contracts go to the "old boys" and some women, and every poet of any fame who is under 70 is a narrative poet. It is the great failing of poetry in this past century. There are poets still writing and publishing with a different notion of form and content, but most magazines reject their material out of hand, as do publishers. Much of this, I think, is about being able to under- stand and even "relate to" the poem. What do all teenagers do with their music? Relate to it. Do they relate to Bob Dylan? Not too many anymore. Why do people like movies and television? Why are they popular when they are? Some sort of relationship. Either I relate to someone killing thousands of people or I relate to three college students lost in the woods with no food, Wallace Stevens was infatuated with imagination; he wanted to penetrate the brain as far as he could, and he created little mysteries for himself, as in "13 Ways of Looking At A Blackbird," really a very difficult poem. BUt then the reader was supposed to "do the work." Robert Duncan spent parts of his life being completely unaccepting of the Vietnam conflict. Robert Bly and Galway Kinnell and even Ed Sanders read against it, but did they Write essays about how part of the poetic enterprise is affected by the war. As far as I am concerned, Duncan, Sanders, and John Sinclair were the only famous poets to consistently condemn the war (not those fighting it) until and after it was over. They did not write narrative poems. They wrote political and even lyric poems about ideas that should be listened to. McClure has a poem that echoes Duncan in this light in these collections.

Enough rant. When the year 2000 began nothing changed. Sharon Olds, whom I sometimes like, will still write narrative poems about her life. Thank god that there are poets who have not abandoned all their learning and their own styles, some of which were basically set in the 60's or 70's.

The first part of Rain Mirror is called "Haiku Edge," a number of classical haiku. The poems present irony. The second poem also says "HEY, IT'S ALL CON/SCIOUSNESS." That sets the tone for what follows. McClure's usual interest in nature is reflected in almost every one of these poems. Some poems are short meditations about life and death. One poem says that protons were once trees or imagination: that is a pretty far jump. He also compares a butterfly in sunlight to a light show at Fillmore West. The second part is "CRISIS BLOSSOM.' These poems are different primarily for their length and complexity. Many of the themes are the same.

In a poem about "mind," McClure brings back his mammalian interest: "My mouth/with your nipple in it/is the rising of thought." The poem is both totally serious and lightly punning, a technique that Duncan admired. Other poems are ironic, as when he refers to Tonto, the only Native American many in our country could identify. McClure includes mythology from Western civilization and other cultures, and they are remarkably similar. A poem that reminds me of Duncan writing about the war starts "RICE PADDIES ARE LOADED WITH SOULS." It sounds like the Duncan poem about a tail gunner on a helicopter who shoots men, women, children, water buffalo, oxen--anything.

The last two pages of the book illustrate to a degree what I mean by measure, not just word choices but syllable choices, and a deference to the reader in the second case. "STERN/TENSILE/BOUQUET." I think that is more complex than two ordinary words plus one. And the book ends "THANKSGIVING/THANKS GIVING/GIVING THANKS." That is the calm and bemused but very sincere McClure who knows what is available to his imagination and what should be presented to a reading public.

I want to focus on poems from Touching the Edge that reflect McClure's attention to measure, in word, line, image, and idea. There is a poetic and critical reason for Dennis Hopper's social comment that "Without McClure's roar there would have been no Sixties." McClure leant his talents to showing that poetry has depth and dimension, much like the visual arts, putting to rest the academic poetry surrounding him in the 50's when he was first learning about poetry. Of course, he would have had to have had good taste, and he once commented to me that of all the modern poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins impressed him the most. Hopkins used the most extreme measure of his own ideas and images. McClure went on to show that one need not be confined to the image, word, sentence, syllable, and line with his Ghost Tantras (recently rerecorded), which are primarily articulations and have lead concrete poets like Canada's The Four Horsemen to deal with similar issues.

The poems in Touching the Edge came about following a near-fatal accident in which McClure was involved. He and his wife turned to the active practice of sitting, or a form of zazen. That is why these poems are described as "Dharma devotions."

I have found many of the comparisons in the poems to be most revelatory of McClure's thinking, as when he compares the activities of "coming and going" to "drips in painting," or the comparison between rain on a tree stump to a worn-out work boot. These similes and metaphors show the "deep-in view" that occurs with the practice of sitting, but zazen does not usually produce interesting poetry, nor is that its purpose. The poet who is sitting is going to develop a deeper sense of where his poetry had been going already. Remember that Michael McClure has been pursuing this art seriously, and has been publishing, since the 1950's and is still going strong. He has found different avenues to explore for different reasons. When McClure describes ideas and images, a strong sense of the interrelationship of his measure emerges, as when he writes as corollaries "PERFECT MOMENTARY [and] ETERNAL." These strike one immediately as contradictory, but the best poetry of Robert Duncan and Wallace Stevens does exactly the same thing. The reader must do the work. There is nothing difficult in the poet's description of the beauty of a dying dragonfly. Why do we accept that as different from an equation between momentary and eternal? Duncan would immediate see that as a Christian concept, and would carry it back to the Greeks, as when he writes of Orpheus and may as well write of Lot. Perhaps it is easier for Western culture to accept the details of an image (Williams) as opposed to the abstraction of a concept.

McClure raises the possibility in another of these poems that nirvana may be "ceaseless change/in muscles and voices." Certainly such a state would produce nirvana for McClure, but one should remember that not all elements of his poetics change. His centered line, for instance, is standard in his work. Of course, if he wants to change that he could, though he probably would not, or he could write in the play or novel genre, or the essay genre, all of which he has done.

Few of these poems discuss zazen. One does say "WHAT/I/PRACTICE/ FOR//IS/HERE and goes on from there. One never expects enlightenment from sitting. One expects more sitting. McClure also received these poems, and, like most of his work, it has to be read on the page or read aloud-or heard by McClure and keyboardist Ray Manzarek on one of their recordings. That will get one closest to original intent. McClure starts long before the syllable, and in that he is unique. His measure of what he presents can be short or long, calm or angry, but he is working a poetry that is elusive because he recognizes all of his choices, just as Bob Dylan recognizes in music and songwriting.

As long as Michael McClure continues to write in the style he has appropriated as his own, poetry will be the better for it. He has many readers, probably more now than at any time. Stevens and Duncan are, sadly but inevitably, dead. Look to McClure to investigate the relationship of measure to thought, image, and, ultimately, the syntax that makes up our poetry.

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Copyright © 1999 by John Jacob

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