Wednesday, February 2, 2011

We Might Be Lions: Michael McClure's new Selected Poems

Michael McClure [1932- ] is, along with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder, the last of the surviving members of the original Beat crew which read (or was present) at the Six Gallery in 1955. His literary credentials have always been immaculate. Coming from Kansas in early youth to the San Francisco Bay Area, he has remained a towering figure of creative energy. Though primarily a poet, he's also made huge contributions towards avant garde theater, and has been involved in art, popular music and film.

Like Snyder and Whalen and Ginsberg and Kerouac, his work has always had affinities with Eastern religion and mysticism, but he brings an emphatic and declarative style to his transcendent, arching, naturalistic vision. Like Larry Eigner's, his work is immediately recognizable--aside from a handful of very minor exceptions, with its vertically line-centered form--and like Eigner, too, it's easily apprehensible, making few demands upon the reader, aside from a healthy tolerance for wide-eyed enthusiasm and an unashamedly romantic point of view.

I often think of McClure as the counterpoint--in terms of movements and groups--of Kenneth Koch--of writers who, in each case, seem somewhat the exceptional member, each rendering his respective primitivist agenda in a simplified format that belies its underlying complexity and sophisticated sensibility. In terms of a poetics, McClure has never been interested either in larger, extended forms, or in a complex, tortured syntax, or in a highly wrought intellectual surface. For a writer of his longevity and reach, he's been amazingly consistent, having come by his approach--a kind of totemistic, hieratic, dionysian lyric, at once ekstatic and deeply chthonic--and stuck with it through fifty plus years of work.

When I first read McClure in the mid-1960's, I must admit that I found him simplistic; indeed, I imagined that were I to attempt to imitate any of its effects, I would appear hopelessly naive and ridiculous, rather as if I were trying to do a belly-dance in public. Reading Hymns to St. Geryon [1959] and Dark Brown [1961], I had the impression of an adolescent mind over-impressed with its own inebriation--indeed, its "drugged-up" mood suggested the same kind of trope that Ginsberg and Kerouac and others of the Beat stream had proposed as the proper psychological condition of the artist: high, happy and oblivious to contradiction. This apprehension gradually gave way, over time and further exposure, to a realization that McClure was by no means merely a Blakean lyricist with flower-power giddiness, but a serious explorer of the senses of wildness, and an hypnotic concentration upon the dynamism of the natural world. He was like a naturalistic physicist (or philosopher), exploring sensation(s) with an empiricist's determination.

The University of California Press has just published McClure's
Of Indigo and Saffron: New and Selected Poems, edited by the late Leslie Scalapino [1944-2010], the occasion of my appraisal of McClure's work. There are many ways to approach his poetry. I sometimes think of his poems as small dervish-like trances in which a possessed medium transmits vital observations (or koans) of wise insight, or as performances to incite or generate higher states of being. But McClure's sense of the sacred appears to have little to do with fixed organum of any particular sect; rather, it seems to consist of a religion based upon nature, a sort of pantheistic hierarchy of species of consciousness, with the higher animals (mammals) sharing privileged position with man, whose insights are granted as a gift inherited from outer space. Such alchemical/astrophysical notions play a preeminent part in McClure's poetic universe.

The Air

for Robert [Duncan] and Jess [Collins]

Clumsy, astonished. Puzzled
as the gazelle cracked
in my forepaws/

The light body twitches/

A slight breeze moves among whiskers.

The air curves itself to song
A trace, a scent lost among whiskers.
A form carved in the air
and lost by eye or ear.
The herd's thunder or the whack
of a tail on earth
evident only in dim vibration
less than a whirr of brush (and bushes).
Not a sound in a flat stone.
(Less than a fly
about the ears.)
An object, a voice, an odor.
A grain moving before the eyes.
A rising of gases/
An object/
An instant/Tiny, brighter
than sunlight.

The sound of a herd. The sound of a rock/
A passing.

McClure's work often seems like a summoning of the archetypical spirits of animal deities, an attempt to get inside the feeling of beasts. The poet-figure of the lion is often evoked as the persona of the speaker, humorously in Ghost Tantras [1964], where McClure summons the spirit of the lion (or of the animal kingdom generally) with repeated exclamations of "GRAHR!"--the epithet becoming for some years the signature of his reputation.

from Dolphin Skull

and eagles pour out of my mouth. Big white
square teeth and a red-purple tongue. These are
magenta clouds around my head and this is my throne room. Actors perform
the drama of my being inside of you,
am writhing and clawing.
Blackberry bramble catching
my pants leg. A tearing sound.
Deep inside in the padded car.
Garbage truck full of petroleum fantasies.
Dogs barking under the dark
tall pine trees. Hollyhocks
and a few pink roses. You are
I am nobody.
Nobody is very large
Memory is naked bodies
in a battle. The war is sensuous
as a little boy's penis.
Fighter planes are guns.
I am the river god
in love with my dreams.
Not dreams but ongoing presences
spewed from the bang
through a nervous system.
At the edge of things but reaching
way back inside.

This fragment of a larger work sets out many of the parameters of McClure's preoccupations. The assumption of the power and humility of symbols or presences as deities. The interpenetration of body and the universal flux (not unlike Dylan Thomas--another poet who explored vertical centering in his work). The attempt to penetrate bodies "way back" into the subterranean fastnesses of primitive memory. The noticing of ecological despair ("petroleum fantasies"). The acknowledgment of predation and violence, and the beauty of untamed wildness.

The zoo metaphor in McClure's work is always present, that is, the harnassing and domestication of wild being. Each of us contains the functional templates of our ancient descent, which inhabit us like ghosts, deeply buried under the presumptions of culture, and the civilizing influence of our higher brains. The interposition of a present reality is nothing more than an illusion:

roses, warm
autumn breeze
of the BIG FIRE.
We burn
pass and change.
Adagio is too fast
for this "paramecium pace,"
zinging into senses
and reborn.
Perfumes decorate
warm flesh.
Words and sensoria
are the body
of the moment.
Remembering New York
and the artists hotel
where a Russian
poet is
mugged in
the hall.
for Hermes
and rainbows.
He steps through
the wall.
No one denies us.

The SHELL is like a totem object used to generate a meditation about the tranformative fire dance of change. The underlying order of change, the nodes of light and energy expressed as revealed signs, the unlikely coincidence of quotidian event and awestruck surprise.

into mind-waves
of incense
and candle flame
suspended in beeping
yellow truck sounds.
I would like to sleep
in the shadowed grace
of the profile
of your nose
To the deepest
a hummingbird
is a giant.
abandoned it
for a misunderstanding

Many of McClure's poems are frankly sexual in meaning and subject, and are to my mind among the least inhibited and purely romantic ever written. The sense of transportation via a heightened sensory stimulation is expressed through both a coherence and a confusion of comprehension. The body becomes the shore upon which the untethered soul finds solace ("THE GRAIL"), and yet this is "a misunderstanding of Chivalry." McClure's admonition to the self for the vanity (or futility) of striving through the onanism of a single writing/act is repeatedly used as a quasi-religious dialectic.

Mortality becomes a window through which the animate flicker and momentum of fate is fitfully glimpsed--

of the pine
into an ancient sonata
of blue sky.
The city ceaselessly roars
in the mid-distance
and we might be lions
looking for the meaning
of things in themselves.
Secretly knowing this moment
is tentative
we put our feet
down on it
and it is as solid
as everything
We are dressed
in casual elegance
and our minds
together are elegant.
The instant rushes
so rapidly in the citron silver car
that there is almost
as it gives way to mutual
care and support.
to go on living for.
is for itself
and only my chest
longing for you can suppress it.
You are beyond all, in your laughter
and quietness,
and the way you imitate
the expressions of animals.

McClure with Richard Brautigan: The Two Counterculture Heroes of the Era

During the late 1960's and 1970's, McClure became identified with the counterculture brewing and boiling over in San Francisco's Haight Ashbery district. In his NET poet portrait done in the late Sixties, he tours the area, pointing out places and explaining the movement. In those days, McClure was probably better known as a playwright, for his The Beard [1965] and The Sermons of Jean Harlow and the Curses of Billy the Kid [1968]. He had a sense of the public use of attention which was defining and pragmatic. Despite the distractions of those years, he kept on writing poems, and his collected would probably run to well over 750 pages at this point. This selected volume runs to just over 300 pages, but it's a broad and deep portrait of a serious poet and explorer of the unknown.

Here's a contemporary picture of the old lion with his mane of white.


J said...

Sir F-ville, with some nostalgia for 60s pantheism ?? Wouldn't have expected it. John Le Carre to...the beat kitties, the Doors....sandalwood incense.

McClureSpeak doesn't really move this Consumer...A few images leap out, perhaps, as with Brautigan's old jive--but some of us have seen too much damage from dope, pop-dharma and drop outs, perhaps. While I chuckled at a few Brautigan lines in "Trout fishing..." he was on a bad trip, IMHE (as in....realizing the counterculture was 90, or is it 95% bullsh*t, even for those opposed to Napalm-Co).

Thate one New Journalist broad Didion got it right, mostly. Her cynical though eloquent writings on 60s hype were eye openers like sometime in the 90s, even if one feels something like...violence welling up within when reading her...Like watching Mick Jagger prance around on youtubes now. F*ck that phreak.

The real 60s? The aged Bertrand Russell with his bullhorn shouting at US generals (at least symbolically) ...and at maoists, for that matter.

Curtis Faville said...


I think you probably never read McClure for content. His stylistic choices may seem trivial and meretricious, but they do allow him to make certain kinds of poly-contextual similes. Who else is he like?

Vachel Lindsay? Does he owe anything to Spicer?

J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J said...

Actually maybe it's great. At least, superior to what biblethumpers do (then, most WASPs never made it to Emersonian-level contemplation).

I don't pretend to understand much modern poesy, after like WC Williams--then, don't care to. Same for much modern musick/Ahht. People insist like Bartok's a great. I can't listen to more than 5 minutes or so. Im mo' of a prose guy. Maybe like Rev. Kirby can offer an opinion , or condemnation.

Kirby Olson said...

McClure is the only major Beat I haven't read much of -- I've read all of Corso many times, most of Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Brautigan, to name a few, but I find humor missing in McClure. I'd say that the Beats have an element of playfulness but McClure is dead serious about his issues, and I can't understand that spirit exactly. He took Brautigan to task in the obit he wrote for him for being too conservative but wouldn't say exactly how he was conservative. I wrote to him to request clarification, but he said he didn't want to rat out Brautigan.

Is being conservative some kind of a crime over there in SF? Don't you guys have political choices in California Dreamin?

I didn't know if it was a trivial thing like reading Playboy or did it mean he wanted to shoot deer from a helicopter gunship in order to prevent the spread of Lyme disease or what was it?

McClure traveled with the Doors, and is still friends with Mazarek. You'd think the Beats would tour instead with comedians like Steve Martin, or others doing stand up. I don't understand heavy rock and roll stars I confess.

I see it as invoking the wrong thing.

but it's wonderful he's lived so long. I met him once at Naropa (he didn't pay attention to me as a person as I was only maybe 18) but he was very focused and serious. Ginsberg introduced him as doing research for his poems, which I thought was absurd at the time having never read Marianne Moore or knowing what that might mean.

I do think poets should do research for their poems. I've tried to read his book Scratching the Beat Surface, but he doesn't write very much about Corso in it.

I guess I saw the Beats as a humor phenomenon or at least as having a self-mocking quality, but I never saw McClure as sharing in that sensibility.

Did Eigner have a self-mocking sensibility? He's another poet I can't quite register. Somehow I think poets should be funny and serious at the same time. There are lots of people like Duncan who strike me as overly serious, and so I can't take them quite seriously, but who knows what I'm missing out on. This guy seems like a good egg.

Maybe it's only the more Christian ones in the group that I really enjoy: Brautigan with his Reader's Digest sympathies and his reading of the Bible, and Corso's Catholicism, grounds those people in a certain way for me. Kerouac's Republican Catholicism struck me as just plain great. I think that must be the true secret of his enormous popularity.

J said...

I guess I saw the Beats as a humor phenomenon.

(can you really believe that sort of quatsch, Sir F?? nearly klansman like, regardless of the silly Jerry Lewis schtick)

Kirby Olson said...

The last poem you give here fails because of the generic term "animals," and because of the usage of cliched symbols like lions. Corso and Ginsberg and even Snyder would never have gone down that route. The poet he does remind me of is Brautigan, but Brautigan throws the dice better than this, I think, even in his often lousy poetry.

Curtis Faville said...

McClure is technically a Beat, but that was fifty years ago. People move on. And McClure certainly has.

If anyone were formulaic and cheap, it would be Brautigan--all tricks and jokes and no substance. Brautigan's effect is cumulative--a kind of consistent "attitude" about life which is pretty grim, when you get right down to it. And his suicide summed that up to a T. I'm not sure he got "close" to anyone--he wasn't the big indulgent sensual lover and liver the way the true Beats were. But then, Brautigan was never a Beat anyway.

McClure's early work seems quite "innocent" to me. So his consistency can look like a static insufficiency. Maybe it's a lack, but he does do fascinating things with his gift. There are lots of odd little surreal bits in the mix, though I'll admit the point is often simplistic and not rounded into thought.

Still, I'd prefer him to almost any of the traditional sonneteers of the 1950's-60's or '70's. When you think about his style, it's almost a classically structured approach--he uses the same techniques over and over again. The interposition of ALL CAPS, rather the way Grenier uses them, as SIGNS of things in the world, against which ideas and feelings ricochet--it's a dialectic.

McClure doesn't have Eigner's sophistication, but he's a different cup of tea. He's not trying to do what Larry did--or what Kerouac or Ginsberg or Corso or Whalen did, for that matter. He's his own man.

Kirby Olson said...

I should read more of him. I loved some poems of his that were in Exquisite Corpse about twenty years ago that were set in Africa.

Beautiful evocations of African landscapes with curious animals.

I grant that Brautigan's poems REALLY sucked, with the exception of the Baudelaire sequence, which almost didn't suck.

His prose poems in Revenge of the Lawn were terrific, though. I also like some of Tokyo Montana Express. The Hawkline Monster was fun, too, but only merely fun.

I read all his books at one point or another and all the extant biographies and memoirs. Very good memoir by his daughter, whose name is Ianthe, I think. Her book is just about as good as any of his, at first, but weirdly, Brautigan has some kind of staying power that a lot of others who seem good on the surface don't have. Don't know what it is.

I grant his poems are just terrible.

J said...

The usual ex-Cathedra from KO. Brautigan, j'accuse!

Really, I can't believe you (and many others) encourage this p***e of s***, CF. His criticism is as shallow as his joke routines, or his attempts at philosophy. Then after saying "poets must be conservative christians" he goes on to mention beats, none of whom were.....conservative christians (can't imagine what..the Ginzo. group would think of this ____). Even Kerouac, who voted for JFK, was not completely down with Nixon (see Last thoughts. He may not have cared for New Left, but...he was not unequivocally supportive of the Nixon hawks.)

I wager McClure or any remaining beat kitties, assuming they have any spirit left, consider this little xtian clown a ridiculous POS, a mockery of whatever good the counterculture ever produced.

Maybe stick to like TS Eliot for the mentally ill, Kirby-clown

Curtis Faville said...


I'm not sure how McClure's politics--whatever they are--are relevant to this discussion. I'm equally unsure about how a discussion of Christian values would apply--except tangentially.

My brief essays are designed to criticize or explicate or celebrate or introduce a subject. I'm not making final pronouncements on anything. The best outcome would be if my teasers are sufficiently interesting to inspire one to look further for oneself.

Splabman said...


Thank you for this intelligent review of McClure's latest. I appreciate the depth with which you address the subject and the context in literary history even if I am ambivilent about the use of the term "Romantic" to describe his work. But, he does, in Mysteriosos, end one poem with a line "And I still wish to be Shelley." Still, I see him as quite post-modern, for what that's worth.

I especially appreciate the clarity of language and the lack of academic jargon in your piece. That jargon litters much of what passes for literary criticism in this country. I'd appreciate your thoughts on the new poems, the Swirls in Asphalt series.

A couple of points about the review I would like to comment on are:

1)"a healthy tolerance for wide-eyed enthusiasm and an unashamedly romantic point of view."

2) "I sometimes think of his poems as small dervish-like trances in which a possessed medium transmits vital observations (or koans) of wise insight, or as performances to incite or generate higher states of being."

As for the first comment, this is your point of view and other than the word "Romantic" which I have already mentioned, the implication here is naivete. Perhaps this is similar to the misconception about his early work to which you confess. The one regarding the notion of simplicity, which you now understand to be inaccurate.

May I suggest that there is an ecstasy present in his work which, I think, has an explanation with roots in one of his sources, Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead's notion of prehension as I understand it, is engaging so deeply with something in one's environment that it becomes an extension of one's self. When that state of consciousness is combined with a reverent attention to the moment of composition, honed with over 50 years of writing projectively, this provides part of the power of McClure's poetry.

As for the second point, I only have a one friendly amendment, and that would be that his poems are WRITTEN from that higher state so, if we are open to it, open to a kind of ecstasy, it enables that for us. The ecstatic field is one which we can prehend.

The irritable reaching found in readers who insist upon meaning will provide obstacles for their full experience of the poem, as McClure believes it is not how much you understand of the poem, but how much of your being you bring to the experience of having the poem.

Regarding humor, it's in his work. Forgive the lack of proper lineation, but one line from Dolphin Skull goes:

Fuck you right in your face.
FUCK YOU he pulls out a gun in reply.
Gun the size of a toilet.

and also:


owns you.

I'd also refer you to The Sermons of Jean Harlow and the Curses of Billy the Kid for some very funny moments.

I was fortunate to hear McClure read in Vancouver a couple of weeks ago and record it. I put the recording device on the podium only after George Stanley's intelligent ten minute introduction, so the quality improves dramatically at that point and the link is here:

As for his politics, I believe Robert Hunter referred to them as "anarcho-leftist" which will disappoint at least one person who leaves comments here.

I have written a few essays on his work, available here for anyone interested:

Thanks for taking time to write about this important poet.

Paul Nelson
Seattle, WA

Curtis Faville said...


Thanks for the detailed response.

I think I may be using "romantic" as a fall-back description of a quality I associate with a lack of elaboration, or a degree of "irrationality" (or reliance on mystery). McClure wants to be a poet of "possession" rather than of rational persuasion. He wants to be a "medium"--through which pass...etc. It's a Greek idea. He associates the "powers" with primitive possession, "primitivistically" as with shamans or seers. But the building up of his aesthetics occurs through rational means. This is what makes his poetry "decorative" rather than "plugged in."

Plenty of humor--did I say otherwise?

I like the quote you used--you frequently see people act differently inside cars, than they would on the street. As if the car were some kind of crazy "extension" of their aggressive nature(s). That metaphor has been worked a good deal in the cinema lately--sci-fi devices as extensions of the body--rather than supercharged bodies per se (as with Superman or Spiderman).

Splabman said...


Thanks for the clarification. The humor note was in response to a comment by the world's leading Lutheran Surrealist.