Analysis of Michael McClure’s Poems

Michael McClure’s (October 20, 1932 – May 4, 2020) first published poems were two villanelles dedicated to Theodore Roethke published in the January, 1956, issue of Poetry. The works reveal McClure grounded in the requirements of the villanelle, but in “Premonition,” he expresses his need to soar and fly. “Beginning in the heart,” writes McClure, “I work towards light.” He insists, “My eyes are spiralled up”; he adds, “Feet burn to walk the mackerel sky at night,” and “Ears are aching for the Great Bird’s bite.” Nevertheless, the poem concludes with the idea that McClure’s earthly “skin and wingless skull . . . grow tight.” He longs for ascent, but his longing is not yet fulfilled.

The second villanelle reinforces and intensifies the sense of confinement and limitation. McClure is mindful of “Elysium” but finds that it “is dwindled.” His body is likened to a “corpse,” his hands are his “defeat,” and his eyes are “dumb.” The “ouzel” (a thrush) and the “undine” (a water spirit) represent the loftiness that McClure longs for, but the poem declares that they are “past and future sense, not circumstance.” In these poems, McClure reveals the heavy thought and meticulous craftsmanship of Roethke, but McClure outlines the aim at transcendence that marks all his subsequent writings.

The historic second issue of Evergreen Review includes poems also found in Passage and Hymns to St. Geryon, and Other Poems. “Night Words: The Ravishing” expresses calm and satisfaction as McClure declares, “How beautiful things are in a beautiful room.” He enjoys “ambrosial insomnia,” finds that the “room is softened,” and repeatedly states pleasure about the fact that the features of the room are “without proportion.”


An Introduction to the Beat Poets

The Rug

In “The Rug,” McClure draws a contrast between experience and the poem as a record of the experience. Describing intimacy, McClure writes, “I put my hands// to you—like cool jazz coming.” Yet even in the act of describing the intimacy, words are insufficient, and McClure insists, “THIS IS NOT IT.” The poem may be colorful and elegant but ultimately “is failure, no trick, no end/ but speech for those who’ll listen.” Nevertheless, the insufficiency of language does not prevent experience from rising to special excitement.

The Robe

In “The Robe,” McClure returns to the subject of intimacy, telling his lover that they “float about each other—// bare feet not touching the floor.” McClure writes, “Aloof as miracles. Hearing/ jazz in the air. We are passing—//our shapes like nasturtiums.” Although “HEROIC ACTS/ won’t free” the lovers, they do find blissful sleep. The poems in this issue of Evergreen Review present McClure alongside Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and other major writers of the so-called San Francisco scene, marking McClure as a major contributor to the San Francisco poetry renaissance.

Hymn to St. Geryon, I

Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, 1945-1960 (1960) presents poems from Hymns to St. Geryon, and Other Poems and For Artaud and places McClure in the context of a broad national awakening in poetry marked by multiple and interacting schools of poetry. The poems in the anthology fully demonstrate McClure’s attempt to liberate himself and the form of poetry through experimentation in language and sensory experience. The lines are not aligned but are freely distributed on the page. Rhyme and metrics have no place in the record of the action of the mind and body.

“Hymn to St. Geryon, I” is a statement of poetic philosophy and method. At the outset, McClure cites abstract expressionist Clyfford Still, who commits himself to “an unqualified act” and states, “Demands for communication are presumptuous and irrelevant.” McClure insists, “But the thing I say!! Is to see.” He wants to turn “THE GESTURE” into “fists” so that he can “hit with the thing” and “make a robe of it/ TO WEAR” and thereby “clothe” him and his readers “in the action.” McClure asserts, “I am the body, the animal, the poem/ is a gesture of mine.”

Peyote Poem, Part I

In “Peyote Poem, Part I,” McClure explores hallucinogenic experience, aware that he and his belly “are two individuals/ joined together/ in life.” His mind rides high “on a mesa of time and space,” yet his body exerts its authority with “STOMACHE.” The effect of the peyote is intense, but McClure is calm in his intensity, saying, “I smile to myself. I know/ all that there is to know. I see all there/ is to feel.” In sum, peyote provides a transcendent experience.

For Artaud

Like “Peyote Poem,” “For Artaud” describes the effects of hallucinogens, including heroin and peyote. McClure writes, “I am free and open from the blackness.” He asks, “Let me feel great pain and strength of suffering.” In the spirit of French writer Antonin Artaud, McClure seeks heightened awareness through derangement of his ordinary sensory impressions.

Selected Poems

In 1986, McClure published Selected Poems, which gathered material from nine of his previous books. From The New Book/A Book of Torture, McClure selects “Ode to Jackson Pollock,” a tribute to the abstract expressionist who rendered “the lovely shape of chaos,” found “the secret/ spread in clouds of color,” and pressed experience through himself “onto the canvas.” From “Little Odes” and “The Raptors” appears “Hummingbird Ode,” in which McClure addresses a dead hummingbird. McClure speaks to this “spike of desire” that met its end by smashing into a plate-glass window. McClure asks the hummingbird, “WHAT’S/ ON YOUR SIDE OF THE VEIL??/ DO YOU DIP YOUR BEAK/ in the vast black lily/ of space?”

From Star, McClure selected “The Surge,” an exclamatory poem that McClure, in a prefatory note, describes as “the failure of an attempt to write a beautiful poem.” McClure insists that there is “a more total view!” asserting, “The Surge of Life may not be seen by male or female/ for both are halves.” He asks, “Is all life a vast chromosome stretched in Time?” From September Blackberries, McClure includes “Gray Fox at Solstice,” a poem in honor of the fox that savors “the beat of starlight/ on his brow, and ocean/ on his eardrums.” At home in his “garden,” the fox “dance-runs through/ the Indian paintbrush.” A similar appreciation of wildlife occurs in “To a Golden Lion Marmoset,” which is selected from Jaguar Skies. The animal is an endangered species, and McClure declares, “Your life is all I find/ to prove ours are worthwhile.”

A selection from the long poem “Rare Angel” (1974) concludes Selected Poems. This poem “tracks vertically on the page” and seeks “luck—swinging out in every direction.” Testing the limits of perception, consciousness, and reality, McClure writes, “We swirl out what we are and watch for its return.”

McClure notes that he does not include any sampling of Ghost Tantras in Selected Poems because “beast language” does not coordinate with his other verse. Ghost Tantras is dominated by phrases such as“GOOOOOOR! GOOOOOOOOOO!” mixed with a few intelligible phrases, creating poetry based on sound rather than meaning, aiming at “the Human Spirit & all Mammals.”

Later Poems

McClure’s later poetry looks to both the past and present. Huge Dreams regathers the work of the early Beat period, and Three Poems presents anew Rare Angel and “Dark Brown,”McClure’s long and boldly erotic “ROMANTIC CRY.” New in Three Poems is “Dolphin Skull,” a long poem revealing subconscious and conscious artistic production. McClure writes, “Never say: Hold, let this moment never cease,” then reverses himself, declaring, “HOLD, LET THIS MOMENT never cease. Drag it out/ of context look at the roots of it in quarks/ and primal hydrogen. It’s the sound/ of Shelley’s laugh in my ears.” Both Rain Mirror and Touching the Edge are intended as vertical poems that scroll down. In Rain Mirror, the first series of poems is titled “Haiku Edge,” and McClure writes, “HEY, IT’S ALL CON/ SCIOUSNESS—thumps/of assault/ rifles/ and/ the/ stars,” pitting “con” against “consciousness” and violence against nature’s serenity. The haiku often focus on such dualities. The second series of poems is “Crisis Blossoms,” a sequence of “graftings.” The poet explores memories and contemplates death: “BYE/ BYE/ SWEET/ OLD/ STORY/ HELLO/ FUTURE/ MAYBE/ UH/ WITH/ GHOST SMILE.” Touching the Edge is a set of dharma devotions divided into three sequences: “RICE ROARING,” “OVAL MUDRA,” and “WET PLANK.” McClure asks to be “cheerful/ and modest” as he reflects on the diversity around him, noticing not only fruit, flowers, and wildlife, but also chain saws, airplanes, and asphalt. He is calmly aware of both destruction and creation, and ultimately concludes that these forces are one and the same.

Major Works
Long fiction: The Mad Cub, 1970.
Plays: The Beard, pr., pb. 1965; The Growl, pr. 1971; Minnie Mouse and the Tap-Dancing Buddha, pr. 1978; Josephine, the Mouse Singer, pr. 1978.
Nonfiction: Meat Science Essays, 1963; Scratching the Beat Surface, 1982; Lighting the Corners, 1993; A Fierce God and a Fierce War: An Interview with Michael McClure, 2007 (with Rod Phillips).
Edited texts: Ark II, Moby I, 1957 (with James Harmon); Journal for the Protection of All Beings, 1961.

Jacob, John, ed. “Symposium on Michael McClure.” Margins 18 (1975).
Pekar, Harvey, et al. The Beats: A Graphic History. Art by Ed Piskor et al. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009.
Phillips, Rod. “Let Us Throw Out the Word Man: Michael McClure’s Mammalian Poetics.” In “Forest Beatniks” and “Urban Thoreaus”: Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, LewWelch, and MichaelMcClure. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.
_______. Michael McClure. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 2003.
Stephenson, Gregory. “From the Substrate: Notes on the Work of Michael McClure.” In The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.
Thurley, Geoffrey. “The Development of the New Language: Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, and Gregory Corso.” In The Beats: Essays in Criticism, edited by Lee Bartlett. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1981.
Watson, Steven. “Michael McClure.” In The Birth of the Beat Generation. New York: Pantheon, 1995.

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