I WORK WITH THE SHAPE
moving the matter
in my hands:
the inner matrix
– MM, 1979
Michael McClure, a seminal figure in Beat culture and the San Francisco Renaissance, passed away in Oakland, California on the 4th of May 2020 as a result of complications arising from a stroke. He was 87. It is difficult to accept that the protean, indefatigable McClure, a man of immense energy, talent, intelligence and warmth has died. He was one of the greatest American poets of his time, as well as an inspirational essayist whose work defies categorisation, bridging aesthetics, linguistics, anthropology, philosophy, science and ecology. He also traversed every milieu, hanging with the Hells Angels and becoming friends with a Nobel Science Laureate, equally at home with athletes and body builders at Vic Tanny’s and with biologists, virologists and ecological activists, not forgetting those who elected, or were forced, to live on the margins of society. Combining the key Beat qualities of passion and cool, fierce conviction and princely style, McClure was a charismatic personality who seemed to know everyone of significance from every scene – Bob Dylan, Dennis Hopper, Harold Pinter, Jim Morrison, William Burroughs, Wallace Berman, Dean Stockwell, Diane de Prima, Jay DeFeo, Charles Olson, Willem de Kooning, Janis Joplin, Bruce Conner, Freewheelin’ Frank, Terry Riley, Francesco Clemente and many, many more. McClure’s friendships would often lead naturally towards collaboration, seriously realised or happily ephemeral, and there are photos of McClure with Allen Ginsberg and Bruce Conner immersed in their Haight Ashbury tambourine-autoharp-harmonica improvisations, two poets and an artist making music together for the sheer pleasure of inspired connectivity, giving an idea of Beat creativity and community across all art forms.
McClure will always be identified with the legendary reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in December 1955. Allen Ginsberg read Howl with Jack Kerouac shouting “GO!” and McClure would write that there was no going back after that, no return to “the gray, chill, militaristic silence, to the intellective void” of the Eisenhower era. McClure also read that night, along with Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, and Philip Whalen, and so participated in the foundational, liberational, breakthrough Beat event. There were around 150 people present, but its effects on the world in the decade ahead would be incalculable.
McClure was the author of over 60 books, including Passages (1956, his first book), Ghost Tantras, Star, September Blackberries, Jaguar Skies, Meat Science Essays, Rebel Lions, The Adept, Lighting The Corners, Rare Angel, Scratching The Beat Surface, Dark Brown, Josephine the Mouse Singer. . . poetry, essays, novels and play scripts. A contributor to many small press magazines and underground publications, he was also a noted performer and the Beat writer who left an incredible, indelible mark on modern theatre. Robert Creeley said that McClure earned more from the royalties of the Janis Joplin song ‘Mercedes Benz’ than from his books, though he also made money from international productions of his play The Beard, but money was never a primary concern. The Joplin-Neuwirth song was inspired by McClure’s own song ‘Come On, God, And Buy Me A Mercedes Benz’ which gives a pretty good idea of his attitude towards unholy material acquisitiveness, as does his refusal to release the tape he made of his encounter with a snow leopard, he had “no desire to add it to the universe of media and plastic artifacts.” Likewise, McClure could have financially capitalised upon the eventual international critical and commercial success of his play The Beard, by writing a work in similar vein or style, and maybe upping the ante, but he refused to do so. Despite the work’s artistic lineage (Ford, Webster, Marlowe, Genet, the Theatre of the Absurd), struggles with censorship, including police arrests, lawsuits and trials, made The Beard as controversial as The Naked Lunch and Howl. The play was finally produced thanks to McClure’s meeting with Harold Pinter in a San Francisco hotel for drinks. Pinter subsequently persuaded The Actor’s Workshop to look at McClure’s work and give it a reading, and later he supported the play’s première at the Royal Court Theatre in London, attended by the cultural elite – Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Richardson and The Beatles among them. Although poetry was McClure’s overriding passion, it is this poetic, incantatory and incandescent play, both praised and vilified, in which Billy the Kid meets Jean Harlow in a “blue velvet eternity,” which remains his most famous work, and it is still performed today. The play had its origins in McClure’s vision of a boxing poster advertising a contest between Billy and Jean, and he designed the poster and had it printed, putting it up on streets and shop fronts – only then did he begin writing the play. It was propitious that Michael McClure shared his Birthday with Rimbaud: McClure, too, was a provocateur, a word wizard, a rebel spirit, and a systematic deranger of the senses. I’m sure that fellow members of the EBSN will feel as I do: that we have just lost one of the truly great ones.
It was in 1958 in San Francisco that Michael McClure took five buttons of peyote which his friend Wallace Berman had scored for him. McClure had wanted to take the drug for some time, stimulated by his interest in American Indian shamanic rituals and by his reading of Antonin Artaud’s 1947 work ‘The Peyote Dance’ (‘Les Tarahumaras’). McClure was reading Artaud in the early 1950s and one of the poems he read at the Six Gallery in 1955, ‘POINT LOBOS: ANIMISM,’ was written in direct response to Artaud’s work. Consuming the sun-dried cactus flesh was an experience which McClure would describe as “an adventure of consciousness. . . like the ascent of a Himalayan mountain,” and he related it to John Keats’ concept of “Soul-making”: “[Keats] believed that we do not necessarily have a soul, but we have the propensity to create one.”
Taking the drug would prove to be a crucial transformative experience in McClure’s life, triggering a study of perceptual processes through which he would seek to realise Geist, the soul of man, but also Odem, the creation of an “undersoul,” a Dionysian “beast spirit”: :I say undersoul because I did not want to join Nature by my mind but by my viscera – my belly.” McClure evoked this visionary rebirth in his ‘PEYOTE POEM,’ written the day after his trip, mapping synaesthesia and hallucinatory vividness, though it’s important to note that he was not transported to some ‘other world,’ but rather experienced a profound, purifying perception of the world he was in. Crucially, although McClure records that he felt “free from Time,” he was also restored to an appreciation of his own body, and to a recognition of “primordial substance,” which accords with Ginsberg’s line in Howl, “Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns. . .” This is in direct contrast to the experience of McClure’s close friend Bruce Conner: during his own, later peyote trip, Conner felt bodily disintegration and frightening depersonalization, as if he’d been severed from his own ego, and he believed he was about to fall apart, “just held together by this thin skin and strings of flesh.” In 1958, McClure wrote a long letter to poet Charles Olson about his experience with peyote which shows just how important this peyote trip would be in his subsequent approach to poetry. In the letter, he tells Olson that peyote is a medicine, it opens the individual to the ‘Human Universe’ (referencing Olson’s famous essay) and places the individual “in a primeval relationship to reality.” From this point on, McClure’s poetry would aim to break through the web of projected illusions between the “down state and the high state.”
This insistence upon the physicality of Being is of crucial importance in McClure’s work and his poetics of ‘being there’ in the world, implanted in material existence, is close to Heidegger’s philosophy of Dassein. McClure worked against the abstract screening and symbolic distancing of over-intellectualised, analytic thinking, and his writing would be characterised by its sensuality, vitality and multi-sensory relish – he is poet as Animist, for whom everything in the world is alive. At the same time, McClure’s insistence upon physicality was intertwined with his readings of the phylogenetic theories of Ernst Haekel and Alfred North Whitehead’s thesis that ‘reality’ is the creation of processes rather than constituted by material objects – it is the continual clash and resolution of the seeming contradictions between materiality and process which makes McClure’s writing so powerful and unique, and it explains his love of Chinese poetry in which, he said, we become “seekers brushing ourselves against the universe of real, solid illusions,” the poems “shaking the planking of our very real existence.” His poetry of continual rebirth combines a pantheistic immersion in the world with the risk of ego dissolution, the poem reaching for transcendence even as it descends into darkness and fragmentation. His ‘Beast Language,’ incorporated into sections of his poems, moves into expressive non-verbal soundings, from tender sonorities to violent and exhortatory declamations, inspired, in part, by Artaud. It was the attempted visceral restoration of the undersoul through the pre-linguistic animal body, as well as a social-political act – the creation of a poetry “far from the outer social world of speech.” Terry Riley and others have said that only McClure himself could reproduce and re-enact this special, intense kind of sound poetry, but any reader open to the experience can vocalise and feel and know what is expressed – without signified referents, without supposed interpretable meaning, it does mean, it does signify, and deeply so.
The lines and phrases of McClure’s signature poems are uniquely centred on the page and that invisible vertical line with the text ‘winged’ on either side, emphasising right and left, is held to through all verbal disjunction and ellipsis. This mode and compositional process was already in place when McClure read at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955. More than a typographic, stylistic indulgence, this centering is the manifest embodiment of McClure’s actual practice. His poems have an axis of symmetry which runs down through alternating long and short lines, so that the reader may move from the extreme left to the far right of a long line and then immediately drop down to a phrase of perhaps three or four words or even a single word. At the same time some words are capitalised, others not – sometimes it is the long lines which are capitalised, sometimes the very shortest. This has a radical, unique effect on the experience of reading, visually, semantically and rhythmically disrupting the time and pace of the act of reading and frustrating conventional expectations of horizontal and sequential textual flow.
McClure was able to reconcile contemporary debates about the value of long and short lines by combining both in a form which looks harmonious and balanced because of its bilateral symmetry, but within this form the variations and possible combinations of lines of different length, as well as the disjunctions and switches from one line to the next, create a unique complexity and dynamism. I believe that there was an important progenitor for the structure of McClure’s poems – Dylan Thomas’s ‘Vision and Prayer’ of 1946, which McClure almost certainly read in The Collected Poems in 1953/54. The poem is a series of linked run-on shapes, diamonds and inverted half-diamonds, a textual Brancusi’s Column, and this version of bilateral symmetry in writing includes single words and letters at the point of each diamond. Thomas was his own greatest orator and McClure was a vocalist and performer whose poems explore the expressive potential of both words and the non-verbal sounds of the human voice – in his recorded readings we can hear this to sonorous dramatic effect. McClure read Old English fluently and his renditions of Chaucer, from memory, are captivating. Capitalisation, exclamation marks, and ellipsis are performative guides to both the reading and sounding of his poems – as well as visually striking, they are also scores for the human voice. There is a significant connection between McClure’s command of Old English and his recitations of Chaucer and his performances of his own sound poetry. For McClure, writing was inscription, and it was also, and always, a potential speech act, including vocalisation without fixed linguistic referent.
It was McClure’s lifelong love of the natural world as well as his discovery of Alfred North Whitehead’s view of the world as a web of interrelated processes, in which each of our actions may play a crucial or deadly part, which lead McClure to ecological and environmental ethics. He would describe nature itself, significantly, as “that stream of consciousness” which was a vital source for his life and work. Even as a young child he had wanted to be a naturalist or biologist, and in his twenties a scientist friend, “a visionary naturalist,” revealed to him “the subtleties of the California hills and savannas” and introduced him “to falcons and pack rats and owls and coyotes.” McClure would write that the poetry of the Beats was “the first literary wing of the environmental movement,” and in 1972 he attended the U.N. Environmental Conference in Stockholm with Gary Snyder, the two poet-lobbyists representing “whales, Indians, and the freedom of the diversity of the environment.” McClure had read his poem ‘FOR THE DEATH OF 100 WHALES’ at the legendary Six Gallery reading in December 1955, and in Stockholm Snyder distributed his own poem ‘Mother Earth: Her Whales.’ Both of these works anticipate Heathcote Williams’ magisterial poem and anthology Whale Nation, published in 1988.
McClure’s famous ‘roar reading’ to lions at San Francisco Zoo has been criticized as a form of cruelty to animals, but those lions were galvanized and fascinated by McClure, responding to his own ‘Beast Language’ – it was animal confrontation, and mutual animal recognition. McClure’s wife, the poet Joanna McClure, recalled how they would play the tape recordings of the encounter at floor-shaking volume and how the roars of lions and poet merged in a unique polyphony. McClure commented on his later encounter with a snow leopard that the animal’s tragic imposed task was to “fight the physical psychosis of encagement and madness,” her “life spent pacing the constricted outlines of her cage,” indifferent to gawping humans, decent folk all, who just happened to find wild animals in cages entertaining and fun. So McClure stepped over the guard rail and pressed himself against the cage until his face and the snow leopard’s were an inch apart through cyclone wire mesh: “I hope that the drops of leopard saliva will never dry on my face.”
McClure’s poetry, like that of his friend Philip Lamantia, would sound an increasingly urgent warning of the destruction of species and habitats, the ravaging of the earth and the poisoning of the air. “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 of it is beauteous (or possibly hideous) and of enormous value.” McClure much admired Robert Creeley’s late ’70s poem ‘Desultory Days,’ which he felt reflected his own ecological concerns – the poem was an exemplary “maturation of the Beat/Black Mountain impulse. It joins awareness of living environment, deepening of consciousness, and myriad-mindedness.”
McClure’s environmental poetics and his belief in group activism were in place in 1961 when, along with David Meltzer and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, he produced the first issue of Journal for the Protection of All Beings: A Visionary and Revolutionary Review, a publication which would run until 1978. McClure’s commitment was central to his life and work and discussing his collaboration with Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, which began in 1987, McClure said that their performances were “political and environmental” and that he considered himself to be “an activist. . . a public messenger,” citing two of their concert works, ‘Antechamber’ and ‘Stanzas In Turmoil’ as examples of consciousness raising, performed in order to create a communal social and ecological awareness. In this, McClure combined his belief in the personal, genetic, body springs of poetry with the transmission of poetry to inform and to inspire cultural change. Julian Cowley wrote in 2005 of the beautiful album I Like Your Eyes Liberty, by Terry Riley and Michael McClure: “McClure has always written to sustain fidelity of language to our given physical realities. This recording will of course have no traceable impact on political decisions but it gives form to what is currently under immense threat from an official discourse of cynical deception and overt violence.”
“I MAY EVEN ENVISION THE WHIRLING GYRE OF MILLIONIC STARS THAT VAGUELY RESEMBLES THE HELIX DIRECTING MY CELLS.” – Michael McClure, ‘BLAKE AND THE YOGIN,’ 1982.
Wallace Berman published ‘PEYOTE POEM’ as a special broadside issue of his magazine Semina in 1958. Semina 3 is a fold-out sheet in an edition of 200 copies (McClure would recall 150 copies), with photographs by Berman of a peyote button. One visitor to City Lights Bookshop who bought a copy, in 1959, was the molecular biologist and co-discoverer (with James Watson) of the double-helix structure of DNA, Francis Crick. Crick was working in Berkeley and would drive over the Bay Bridge to North Beach and “poke about the basement of City Lights.” Crick had no idea what peyote was at the time (though he would subsequently take LSD) but he was powerfully drawn to McClure’s words. He pinned the poem to a wall where it remained for several years, and Crick would stop as he passed it and read passages which puzzled, tantalised and intrigued him – he was fascinated by “the hypnotic style” of the work, and its “little explosions” of magical linguistic phrases, and he felt it opened his mind and created new neural connections and pathways of thought. Crick would become good friends with McClure and write and publish a short essay, ‘The Poetry of Michael McClure: A Scientist’s View’ in 1975 as a contribution to a symposium on McClure’s work and it is a revealing personal view. Crick writes that the ideas in the poetry of the mystic Yeats and the Anglican Eliot “are ridiculous to someone who lives every day of his life among atoms and molecules,” a scientist working on the evolution of the Universe and the origin of life, whereas in McClure’s poetry he found the biological world, atoms and stars, molecules and galaxies, and “man, the howling mammal, contrived out of ‘meat’ by chance and necessity. If I were a poet I would write like Michael if only I had his talent.” (Note, however, that in the above quote from McClure, “the whirling gyre” irresistibly recalls “the widening gyre” in Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming,’ a poem which became talismanic in the counter culture of the 1960s).
Crick was particularly drawn to these two lines by McClure, which he quoted in his 1966 book Of Molecules and Men:
THIS IS THE POWERFUL KNOWLEDGE
we smile with it
I think these lines can be interpreted in a way consistent with Crick’s approach to McClure’s poetry: ‘POWERFUL KNOWLEDGE’ connotes scientific knowledge (‘science’ comes from the Latin word scienta, meaning ‘knowledge’) and this would include Crick’s own contribution, the double-helix of DNA, while beneath this banner proclaiming scientific achievement, and in significant lower case, the humble human animal smiles. . . Our desire to understand the laws and meaning of creation both elevates our species and reveals our infinitesimal place in the universe. It is a tender smile recognising the beauty and truth of scientific endeavour, but McClure would add that this power has the potential to destroy us – knowledge without wisdom will not save us.
‘DARK BROWN’ / VISUAL ART
McClure and Conner both suffered the gray cold buttoned-down conformity of America in the ’50s and feared a nuclear catastrophe. When Conner left San Francisco for Mexico with his family in 1961, he was fleeing the coming holocaust, escaping the Devil Cloud. He wrote to McClure: “I was running from death. It was called B-O-M-B and war and hate surrounding and I finally realized there is no talk left and the end inevitable.” Conner’s assemblage sculpture BOMB was inspired in part by Gregory Corso’s poem ‘Bomb,’ and his 1959 painting-assemblage DARK BROWN (tellingly, Conner capitalized the titles of his art works) was made for McClure and inspired by McClure’s poem-book of that name (first published in 1961), a soul quest and a work of erotic rapture which was described by Kerouac as “the most fantastic poem in America” and hailed by Ginsberg as “a landmark.” While writing the poem, McClure felt he was psychically “stepping into a cave behind a waterfall, and in the space a liberating sexual ode appeared.” Conner’s painting-assemblage is made of oil, shellac, wood, fabric, jewelry, and aluminium paint on canvas with fur, and it has been read by Peter Boswell as an analogue of McClure’s poem-book, corresponding to the traumatic body-spirit split charted in the poem, a journey into the psyche which is redeemed through mystical sexual union. Kevin Hatch, in his book Looking For Bruce Conner (2012) disagrees and finds no such resolution in Conner’s work, instead a “violent implosion” of body and spirit, which he also suggests is the case with McClure’s poem, which he believes is ambiguous, disjointed, and fundamentally lacking in any resolution. Neither critic can be shown to be right or wrong, but it is when taken together that their differing views of Conner and McClure’s works are revealing, because the attempted singular, definitive interpretation of either artist surely misses the essential openness which is characteristic of both their works.
As well as his ‘Ode To Jackson Pollock,’ celebrating Pollock’s art but also exploring how art and creativity can help deal with painful experiences and feelings of anguish, McClure wrote a great deal about visual art and it was important to him throughout his life. He wrote about the work of Francesco Clemente, Isamu Noguchi, Franz Kline, Wallace Berman and the California Assemblage artists, among others, and he loved the paintings of Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. The visual and linguistic were separate forms and disciplines, but perceptually and emotionally entwined and McClure would write of the poem as artifact, as material object, and as a surface of effects, a space with depths. Many at the time saw assemblage art as crude, inchoate and just plain ugly, but McClure reacted enthusiastically. In an important sense, it fitted with his approach to his own poetry, the rawness, risk, the sensual relish of disparate pieces fitting together and sparking off each other – he wanted his own texts to have texture. It is incredibly revealing that in all the accounts (and later rehashes) of the Six Gallery reading, it is McClure who seizes upon something visual which many others entirely missed or forgot or ignored about that event: “Someone had knocked together a little dais and was exhibiting sculpture by Fred Martin at the back of it – pieces of orange crates that had been swathed in muslin and dipped in plaster of paris to make splintered, sweeping shapes like pieces of surrealist furniture.”
TEACHERS AND FRIENDS
In his essays and interviews McClure paid homage to his teachers and colleagues, to the poets and artists whose work had inspired and thrilled him, and whose work had stayed with him through his lifetime quest to realise his own poetic vision. He had read Ovid, Keats, Shelley, Pound, and Dylan Thomas, and intensively studied Blake and Rimbaud, as well as working with sonnet, ballad and villanelle forms, before studying with Robert Duncan in the mid 1950s. It was the poet and publisher Jonathan Williams, ex Black Mountain College, who introduced him to the poetry of Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, and through Williams he met Kenneth Patchen. It was Duncan’s seminal book Letters which revealed to McClure “the effort to produce a line that was consciousness itself,” and crucially this project involved variable long and short lines. At the same time McClure was struck by William Carlos Williams’ recognition of poetry in things, it was that wheelbarrow glazed by the rain, no other. Olson’s example was paramount for McClure but unlike critics and scholars like Sherman Paul and Hugh Davenport, with their brilliant work on Olson’s long poem ‘The Kingfishers,’ McClure was not interested in analysing the poem and uncovering its hermetic references and allusions. This was not anti-intellectual, “nonintellective,” but anti-intellectualism, McClure insisting upon “consciousness as part of the physiological body.” The same was true of McClure’s response to visual art: “I am more impressed with the huge black and white calligraphic paintings of Franz Kline and what they create in my physiomental skyfield, with their transmission of energy, than I am with what Kline specifically meant.” One of the most important poetic experiences of McClure’s life was reading the 242 ‘choruses’ of Jack Kerouac’s book of poems, Mexico City Blues, published in 1959. It is a work of spiritual conflict, aspiration and transformation and McClure was overcome by the brilliance and beauty of this poetry of “karma and liberation,” calling it “the surpassing religious visionary poetic statement of the twentieth century.” Another key work was Ginsberg’s Howl, which McClure would link to Shelley’s long poem Queen Mab. McClure and Ginsberg would be lifelong friends and close readers and admirers of each other’s work.
Through and beyond poetics McClure would exemplify Olson’s ‘actively alive’ human being, the man who like Homo maximus would “wrest his life from the underworld,” and like Olson, who dedicated part of the Maximus Poems to him, McClure would become an ‘Archaeologist of Morning,’ someone whose concern for the future of our planet would draw him back to research into humankind’s earliest origins.
McClure will forever be associated with Beat culture, the Bay Area artists, the San Francisco Renaissance, the New York Poets Theatre, and the Hippy counter culture, but he was also connected, both as progenitor and compatriot, with the Deep Image poets – Robert Kelly, Jerome Rothenberg and Clayton Eshleman. In particular, McClure, like Eshleman, was drawn to the Native Australian Dreamtime, a cosmogony linking landscape, animal movement, memory and story, and to Paleolithic art and the Cro-Magnon. The poetics of both men explore the relations between the deep psyche and the earliest cave dwellers, not as metaphor but as a poetic/phylogenetic project to recover the severed link, something vital we have lost. Those prehistoric images of hands and animals were made by the projection of pigment through the human body, through the mouth, created by the breath of the artist spraying ochre onto cave rock, and there was a profound connection between Olson’s stress on breath as vital measure in poetry and the earliest creations of art on the primordial earth.
McClure’s work refutes Gnosticism, there is no Demiurge imprisoning humanity in material corruption and the evil sexual body – quite the reverse. Though there is a ‘Descent into Hell,’ this is a psychic process of soul affirmation, not damnation. There is also in McClure a passage from darkness to light, but this is not Divine Salvation as release from the cursed earth and the suffering self, it is the traversal from our earliest origins to the age of Science. At the end of Lolita, Nabokov writes: “I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art.” This equivalence and time transcendence between aurochs, the extinct wild ox painted on the walls of prehistoric caves, and the winged seraphim of art and poetry is profoundly present in McClure’s poetry and visionary philosophy.
‘A YOUNG MAN’S MANIFESTO’
Olson was a powerful influence on McClure’s development as a poet, but McClure did not always agree with him: “I began to object to his concept of ‘anagogic,’ of poetry leading out. I believed that the spring of poetry must be more physical, more genetic, more based in flesh, and have less relationship to culture. It must, I discovered for myself, be something that occurs before the anagogic, something that happens before the leading out – it must be ‘pre-anagogic.’” McClure’s 1958 Peyote letter to Olson was followed by what McClure would describe as ‘a young man’s manifesto,” as he grappled with Olson’s Projective Verse. This manifesto-letter, ‘The Rose Flush, Straight Speech, Exclamation and the Drift,’ written around 1960, testifies not to McClure’s punk presumption and audacity, as he later saw it, but to his absolute commitment to the serious study and working-through of Olson’s theories, polemics and great poetic achievements. One passage from this important statement of belief gives an idea of McClure’s personal, hard-fought position in regard to the older poet’s theories: “My writing deals with morphology (mine), physiology, and Sight and Senses. Not mimicry, but each writing a morphological existence independent except of myself. I do not duplicate the outside world but match my desires against it from my body. If I image, I do not present a virtual but an actual image. My writing is without scale and as unmeasurable as I am.”
‘CINNAMON TOURQUOISE LEATHER’
There are fascinating connections between the West Coast assemblage artists and conceptual artists of the time, and McClure created his own conceptual work, a word game system which he referred to as a ‘personal universe deck.’ He discussed this with students at Naropa in July, 1976, and the transcript, ‘Cinnamon Tourquoise Leather,’ was published in Talking Poetics From Naropa Institute, 1978. The deck was surely influenced by McClure’s knowledge of Tarot and the I Ching. It also seems generically connected to Wallace Berman’s loose-leaf Semina magazine, and 1960s and early ’70s Hippy compendia like SEED, BE HERE NOW and Toward The One which included images and ideographs to be cut out and shuffled, dealt and laid out and meditated upon. There was also Yoko Ono’s important print Do It Yourself Fluxfest Presents Yoko Ono Dance Co. of 1966, designed to be used as a full-page poster or cut up into individual cards and permutated – most everyone did the latter which is why the print I own is a rarity. McClure was tapping into an existing cultural zeitgeist which reached its apogee with Luke Rhinehart’s 1971 cult classic The Dice Man – life as hazard, guidance through the consultation of oracles, predictive and determinant systems of ‘controlled destiny.’ But McClure’s creation was different, it is both a linguistic, literary tool as well as a psychological trigger mechanism, and it’s an art work – McClure called it a ‘word sculpture.’ I believe that one source and impetus for the development of the deck may have come from McClure’s study of books on Chinese poetry in which certain Chinese characters are given alongside their single word translations next to the completed, translated verses, for example: “night – return – river – drink – listen – body – drift.” It is possible that McClure made a connection between these word lists and his already developed style of word placement and combination. The above list, for example, suggests a number of permutated phrases: “BODY DRINK – LISTEN RIVER NIGHT – DRIFT RETURN. . . NIGHT BODY – DRIFT LISTEN – RIVER RETURN.”
Here’s how you make your own version of McClure’s deck: first list your chosen 100 words, and choose these by ignoring, as far as possible, ‘literary’ or ‘poetic’ or ‘romantic’ words, keep in mind your senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell, and out of the many thousands of words at your disposal wait for a particular word to sound in the mind, see its letters and speak it, don’t analyse it, and you will know when each word arrives that it is for you. Then take fifty cards, three-by-five inches, for example, and write one of your hundred words at the top of one card, in capital letters in felt tip pen, cross the word off your list, then turn the card 180 degrees and write a second word from your list, and so on, until you have fifty cards, each with two words, one hundred in total. Now shuffle the deck and cut it and deal. Lay out the dealt cards and study their combinations. Move the cards into different configurations, turning certain cards by 180 degrees. The deck is both selection and investiture, and chance and contingency placed at the service of democratic creation – poetry to be made by all, with each person having their own words, their ‘own language.’ It came from inside you and now you can see it in operation.
Like the Cut-Up Technique of Gysin and Burroughs, the deck is a process which must be made by the practitioner, by hand, and the operations performed and the results procured are invariably striking and strangely resonant. It’s also pretty addictive. (You can make a new set when you feel the time is right). This word game is a tool for poetry and, like poetry itself, it’s a gamble – with words. In card games, you read the other players – with McClure’s deck you read yourself, and write yourself. You deal your own word hand and track the radiating, proliferating spread of associations – it is happenstance, and it is you. This permutative linguistic system worked for McClure, and he felt it was in accord with biologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson’s belief that important science consists of play disguised as work. McClure studied the value and potential of biological, social and technological systems, and in his essay ‘The Shape of Energy’ he laments the stultifying systems of government bureaucracies which slow down and solidify and run out like programmed entropy. The idea of his own ‘word alive’ deck being used for response profiling in some psychiatric institute as research for the government and the CIA would have appalled him. Instead he vaunts those creative systems which have “loops of energy and feedback and processing and reprocessing,” leading to complexity and diversity. Linking Harold Morowitz’s Energy Flow in Biology (1968) with Olson’s poetics, McClure believed that such systems could “accommodate Negative Capability and agnosia – knowing through not knowing,” and lead to “inspired and heightened expression.” At the same time, he recognised that any system in poetry, including Olson’s, was necessarily only momentary, a tool for its time, before the poet, and the poetry, moved on.
MCCLURE AND JIM MORRISON / FRIENDSHIP, GENEROSITY, “A VIBRANT WAVE”
The time McClure and Morrison spent together in London in October 1968 was crucial – they looked at a lot of art and had long discussions about literature, visiting the site where William Blake’s home had once stood – poet Christopher Logue was their guide on their “moonlit ride.” They went to the Tate (now Tate Britain) where they spent time studying Blake’s ink and watercolour masterpiece, Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car (1824-7), a work celebrating divine reunion, which McClure would subsequently write about. They also made the scene, going to the Bag O’Nails in Soho and Club dell’Aretusa on the Kings Road, Chelsea, meeting British rock stars, film directors, and writers, as well as Christine Keeler, drinking a lot of Courvoisier and drifting through the bars and streets. There were books which they had both read and loved – Aristotle’s Poetics, the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Ovid’s Amores and Metamorphoses, The Canterbury Tales, Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, and there was, above all, their shared passion for William Blake and Rimbaud. It is significant that it was at this time that Morrison wrote a letter to Professor Wallace Fowlie, thanking him for his translations of Rimbaud. Fowlie had absolutely no idea who Morrison was, but years later a student informed him and Fowlie went on to study Morrison’s work and to write and publish Rimbaud And Jim Morrison: The Rebel As Poet (1994). In Morrison’s flat in Belgravia McClure found the manuscript of Morrison’s The New Creatures on a coffee table and immediately recognised its special quality. Although Morrison was reluctant to publish, feeling that as a rock star his work would not be taken seriously, McClure persuaded him to publish a limited edition. Morrison would only later show McClure his deconstructed UCLA Film School thesis, The Lords: Notes On Vision, his remarkable poetic history of the magical origins of cinema and the voyeuristic male gaze. Back in the States, McClure introduced Morrison to the publications of Wallace Berman, including the loose-leaf Semina magazine, as a result of which The Lords was produced as a sheaf of loose pages in an embossed folder. The New Creatures was printed as a bound book with hardboard covers stamped in gold. Each book was printed in an edition of 100 copies – they are now prized collector’s items. McClure gave copies of both works to his agent at Simon and Schuster in New York and asked him to consider them. They were immediately purchased and published in 1970. McClure and Morrison worked on a number of projects together, including a screenplay based upon McClure’s novel The Adept, and an adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s novel about a lifelong spiritual quest, The Razor’s Edge, a book which came back into vogue in the 1960s (it was admired by both Burroughs and Brion Gysin).
The transition of Beat culture from the 1950s to the 1960s is exemplified in crucial ways by McClure’s friendship and collaboration with Morrison. Key Beat figures would increasingly work with rock illumni and enter the music channels of the media, as well as making forays into mainstream cinema – McClure would appear in Scorcese’s The Last Waltz and Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand, among other films. The original Beats would give kudos to younger creative artists who in turn bestowed the glamour effect and the wider audience of extraordinary fame on their admired teachers. But in McClure and Morrison’s case, both the friendship and the collaboration were clearly much deeper, just as the Beat connections, literary and cultural, were many. Just one example of Morrison’s regard for the Beats: the lyrics he wrote for the song ‘The Unknown Soldier,’ about the execution by firing squad of an American soldier who has deserted, was his statement protest song about the war in Vietnam, and it was inspired by photos he’d ripped out of magazines showing Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Terry Southern, and Jean Genet taking part in the anti-war march on the Pentagon.
“Death alone from death can save.” – George MacDonald (a line of poetry from his story ‘The Light Princess,’ 1864, much admired by Michael McClure).
He’s sitting on a Persian rug high in his house on a peak above Haight Ashbury, looking out over the Pacific Ocean at the blue-gold Western sky. He sips a glass of wine, smokes a bit of hash, strikes the Chinese bells – polyphonic ancestral spirit communion. He cuts and flicks through his ‘personal universe deck,’ dowsing for connections. The classic poster he designed for his infamous, incendiary play The Beard, working with Ed Jelinsky at the Telegraph Press, a basement enterprise specialising in boxing posters, hangs on the wall: ‘LOVE LION, LIONESS, GAHHR THY ROOH, GRAHEER.’ Then the rush to the typewriter and the striking of the keys and soon those phylogenetic sounds and jewel letters will emerge, swirl and fragment, to find their place in the staggered flow of the poem, tessellations of the alchemical mosaic of language drawn deep from the animal body and the sacred, self-realised soul.
Ian MacFadyen, London, May 16th 2020
My thanks to Oliver Harris for asking me to write this obituary and appreciation of Michael McClure for members of the EBSN.