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Heart Is the Hornbook: In Memory of Michael McClure

Essay by John Olson

My favorite moment in Scorsese’s The Last Waltz occurs when Michael McClure, dressed to the nines in a blazer, shirt and scarf in color-coordinated dark charcoal grey and looking every bit a romantic poet of the latter half of the 20th century, strides on stage, approaches the mike, and begins reciting the Prologue to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales: “Whan that April with his showres soote / The drought of March hath perced to the roote…” His recitation is flawless. The words flow smoothly, with no hesitation, all pronounced in their Middle English accentuation. I love this. It’s so wonderful that he chose to bring Chaucer and a celebration of spring to a rock concert celebrating the pilgrimage of a band at the end of its journey – in this case, The Band – and the end of an era, a decade of protest, consciousness-expansion, quixotic elation and bacchanalian conviviality. McClure wasn’t the only poet to read during this concert – there were also readings by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Diane di Prima – but McClure’s presence and choice of Chaucer symbolized more than a tribute to the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance of the 50s and early 60s and the flowering of a newly awakened consciousness that was linked synergistically with the vibrant emergence of psychedelic rock, it was a salutation to the richness of the English language and its enduring vitality. McClure was sharing an essential feature of language and poetry; he was drawing attention to its aliveness, its dynamic combinatory alchemies, chimeric delicacies and appetite for change, for innovation.

Language is a living organism and no one appreciated that more than McClure. He discovered its essential biology in its patterns and structures, its movements and tactility, its intellective élan and propagative éclat, its paradoxical synergism of organization and disorganization, what McClure liked to refer to as a “systemless system”:

To create poetry one must have a system – or an antisystem, or a systemless system. A systemless system is one that alters itself in the waves with a living anarchism – like the evolution through scores of millions of years of the Portuguese man-of-war and other colonial coelenterates, or the migration systems worked out by the bison or the wildebeest. Each individual’s actions and patterns are a recapitulation of the old deep patterns in the meat.

Fun fact about the Portuguese man-of-war: it’s not a jellyfish. It’s a siphonophore, a colony of organisms called polyps or zooids, merged together in a tentacled mass. It looks like a poem. McClure’s poems, translucent organisms whose center-justified lines looked like tentacular limbs spreading from a central spine as if eager to take wing in the mind or float – drift – are embodiments, enactments of intellective inquiry and exploration.

It’s pertinent that Specks – a collection of McClure’s work from 1985 and reprinted in 2012 by Talonbooks – carries a blurb from Nobel Laureate Francis Crick, the British molecular biologist who co-authored the academic paper proposing the double helix structure of the DNA molecule and who – with colleagues James Watson and Maurice Wilkins – was jointly awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.” “What appeals to me most about [McClure’s] poems,” wrote Crick,

…is the fury and the imagery of them. I love the vividness of his reactions and the very personal turns and swirls of the lines. 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.

McClure inscribed a copy of Specks to me with a poem, carefully written in black ink:

Anarchy is the High.
The systemless system.

I don’t know whether this poem was written especially for me (what an honor that would be!) or if it’s from another collection. But what a great poem! It consolidates all the significant features of McClure’s poetry, and ends in a burst of light. “SOLID LIGHT.” The poem is a luminous bulb of photonic rhetoric, a delicate skull on the palm of my imagination. The pelican is notable for its pouch, which it uses to scoop up water full of fish and press against its chest to let the water out and let the fish slide down its throat. The pelican skull, along with its absurdly long beak, is a peculiar looking object. Ornithologist Elliott Coues wrote that a bird skull is a poem in bone and its architecture is frozen music. Bird skulls are extremely light and thin but also very strong. Their strength is in their density, a lightweight airframe with pneumatized spaces, materials that have high strength-to-weight ratios. Which is precisely how I see poetry: lightweight airframes maximized for flight.

I can’t remember precisely when I first became aware of Michael McClure and his poetry. He’d been one of the readers at the legendary Six Gallery reading in 1955 along with Allen Ginsberg, Philip Lamantia, Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder, but I didn’t learn about that until much later. I do remember quite vividly spending an entire afternoon and night wandering around the Haight-Asbury district in late July, 1966, an odyssey of psychedelic splendor, a crazy mélange of head shops, greasy spoons and buskers. It was carnivalesque and utopian and outrageously eccentric. The ambiance was one of jubilation. It was easy staying up all night walking, talking, taking in the sights. People offered me food and shelter. Everyone exuded charm and amiability. Early in the morning, I found myself in the Fillmore District. It was a lovely Bay Area morning with caressing breezes from the Pacific, the sfumato of mists softening the buildings and streets and conferring a dreamlike haze on the commerciality of the district, and there in the big red letters on the marquee of the Fillmore Auditorium was written The Beard, A Play by Michael McClure. And I remember then knowing who McClure was, and that he was one of the guiding lights of this phenomenal energy I’d spent the night wandering around in. He was a firebrand and a shaman, a prince of poetry with a gentle voice that sometimes roared and spoke to lions.

I didn’t actually meet Michael until many years later, in 1995. We’d both attended The Recovery of the Public World Conference – a tribute to poet Robin Blaser on his 70th birthday – and we’d seen one another there. Consequently, when I saw him again several days later in Seattle at the Elliott Bay Bookstore, we recognized one another and said hello. He was there with poet Ted Joans who – coincidentally – was staying in a house a few blocks away from our apartment in one of Seattle’s prettier neighborhoods. My wife and I would spend a lot of time getting to know Ted and his partner Laura Corsiglia.

It wasn’t until my good friend Paul Nelson hosted a reading for Michael in the Columbia City Theater (Columbia City is a neighborhood in south Seattle) that I really got to know the guy. The next night Michael gave a talk to a group of people in the basement of the Columbia City Theater. It was a hugely inspiring talk and covered a lot of ground. He spoke about what he considered his sources (he didn’t like the word ‘influence’), poets William Blake and Shelley and Keats and Isidore Ducasse, a.k.a. Le Comte de Lautréamont, whose bizarre, incendiary novel of prose poetry – Les Chants de Maldorer – was a primary influence on the liberating work of the French Surrealists. He spoke about ending our war with nature, rediscovering our essential mammalian being, and the notion of poetic praxis as an alchemical laboratory, a place where transmutations and a reshaping of the mind can occur. I remember in particular a story he related about Goethe dropping by to visit Friedrich Schiller, who was out, and waited for him in his study. He sat down at Schiller’s desk to jot down a few notes and noticed a lingering odor – piquant and sweet – stimulating his olfactory in a strangely engaging way. It seemed to be emanating from a drawer in Schiller’s desk. Goethe opened the drawer to find a bunch of rotten apples. The odor was so overpowering it made him light-headed. He asked Charlotte – Schiller’s wife – about the apples and she told him Schiller put the apples there and let them rot intentionally. The aroma inspired him. He was unable to work without its aid.

This story is quintessential McClure. Michael enjoyed the work of the surrealists (poet Philip Lamantia was a mutual friend) but rarely dipped his pen in the surrealist bottle. McClure’s poetry arose from a deep animal bond with the natural world. His imagery was a bouillabaisse of lipids and deer hooves, a constellation of shoe soles and earthworms, emerald genomes, creaking floorboards and the scent of decayed apples in a desk drawer. His poetry evinces the keen intellect and seditious instincts of Shelley with the exquisite sensuality of Keats. He is a master of subtlety. His poetry is a profusion of those parenthetical moments – those interstices in the daily grind – when the pressures of obligation loosen and another awareness takes over, a deeper cognition of the myriad phenomena in our sensorium. I feel a permission to enjoy the fullness of being when I read these works. They become incandescent, I feel the heat and pulse of the words, their syllables mingling in protozoan suspension, pyramidal masses impounding the scuffle of feet in a crowded room and bringing us into a fecund silence where the open field of the poem is “vibrant with the delicate wildness in all life.”

“The senses are hungers,” he wrote in one of his poems. “Liberation is physical. Everything I touch is spread through me and reverberates.” Let go of the mind and its sullen ruminations and let the universe rush into you, he seemed to be saying. Become a patriot of the particular. Intrude on your being. Interrupt your busy dialogues and open to the tartness of the olive, that vegetable eyeball and its shameless transmission of Mediterranean butter.

Michael had an extremely generous nature. The longest conversations I’ve ever had on a telephone I enjoyed a number of times with Michael. We shared a keen interest in French poet Arthur Rimbaud and a fascination with the southwest outlaw Billy the Kid. I’d written a fanciful novel called Souls of Wind in which Rimbaud comes to the United States in the 1880s, travels west to New Mexico where he encounters Billy the Kid and they enjoy a friendly rapport. I sent Michael the book, which he liked tremendously, and told me he’d read parts of it to the composer Terry Riley. That’s a bit of information I’m very happy to take to the grave with me.
It’s hard believing someone is dead when you’re reading their words and taking in their thoughts and perceptions. This is especially true when you can remember the sound of their voice, their inflections and rhythms. Michael had a beautiful speaking voice. But he could also roar: there’s a video available on YouTube in which Michael reads poetry to a group of lions at the San Francisco zoo, and at the point where he repeats the guttural ‘graharrrrr’ the lions become visibly agitated, not necessarily angry, but excited, “hey, there’s a familiar cat-animal-man-being roaring at us. WTF!!??”

I can’t help but wonder what Michael made of the current pandemic before he passed. I wonder if he had some of the thoughts I’ve had about Covid-19, that sinister little particulate with its bristle of protein spikes, causing it to closely resemble the sea mines used in WWII. But is it that sinister? It’s ridiculous to impute intentionality to an inorganic particulate not much larger than an electron, but you have to wonder if this isn’t part of a mechanism the planet uses to clear away an organism that has gone completely insane with its rapacious appetites and destruction and facility for reproduction. I can’t really speak for Michael, but I’m pretty sure he would’ve agreed with me in thinking our capitalist obsession with infinite growth is totally psychotic.

What can one do in the midst of all this madness? “Absorb the beautiful systems. Blueberries in darkness and the light of stars.”

I’ve never eaten food in darkness. I should try it. It might offer a way out. Or a way in.

John Olson is the author of numerous books of prose poetry, including Weave of the Dream King, Dada Budapest, Larynx Galaxy and Backscatter: New and Selected Poetry. Mingled Yarn, his fifth novel, was published by Ekstasis Editions in 2020.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #26