Michael McClure was the most innovative of the poets to come out of the 1950s San Francisco renaissance, and while this is to his credit, his aesthetic remains Avant Garde by the standards of the mainstream. This means most readers, raised on a fare of academic criticism, still find him difficult to absorb. In the past, his work stood in stark contrast to the dominant poetry of the 50s, 60s, and 70s: the sedate Midwestern meditative lyric. And today it continues to find little place with the dominant political identity poetry.
The attribute of his poetry that strikes readers first with its obvious uniqueness is his use of center alignment for most of his poems. There are precedents (and influence) for his approach in concrete poetry, Dada, and Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse.” McClure has stated that one motivation was to break the tyranny of the left margin and allow greater freedom for the word on the page. Probably his most important inspiration came from painting rather than poetry. He greatly admired the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollack and the way his drips and streams of paint on canvas documented the literal operation of his muscles, bones, joints, and nerves.
While the layout is visually arresting, it is far less significant than McClure’s approach to the content and syntax of the poem. While his contemporaries like Allen Ginsberg extended the poetic line and the use of candor, and Gary Snyder folded various world and ancient literatures into his poetry, McClure molded the sentence into an oratorical, declamatory form (“ I AM MY ABSTRACT ALCHEMIST OF FLESH made real!”) that could trace his own movements as an organism, not simply as a stream of consciousness but a stream of biology – an animal mingling with his environment.
This evolution of language probably reached its apogee in the “Beast Language” found in his plays and the poetry book Ghost Tantras. Here English mixes with transcriptions of grunts, growls, howls, moans, and groans to create a language that is not nonsense in a Carrollian sense but a bio-lingua which captures the sound of the mammal in action.
This can and often does include observations of the political landscape but in a way that lacks the quick polemical judgments of contemporary writers. He is less focused on current events than on the current that runs through events. McClure’s ethics – always a living, breathing, metamorphosing creature rather than a static dogma – remains critically under-appreciated or explored. “SURE , LET’S CELEBRATE THE BLACK SIDE OF JOY. LET’S DROWN the cup of cheer in the barrel full of wine.” McClure’s search is not for small-minded certainties but for context from the microbiological level to that of the cosmos.
Readers sometimes come to McClure from the French Symbolist stylings of Jim Morrison’s lyrics and poetry or from other Beat Generation poets like Ginsberg, Snyder, Corso, or Ferlinghetti. But his work bears little in common with those writers (and part of the splendid legacy of the Beat Generation is that it was no single thing but rather a plenitude). The poet of that era who is closest to McClure is actually Jack Kerouac with his own reinvention of the sentence and wild semiotic adventures with words. But here again, differences stand out. While Kerouac records the minute particulars of the external world that his senses capture, McClure pulls his focus back into the sensory organs themselves, tracing the operation of an individual organism.
It is a heady mixture, and McClure’s Of Indigo and Saffron is a good place to start. I would also recommend his Fragments of Perseus as another. Although the title poem is a lot to bite off at once, the shorter lyrics are punchy and concise: “The Death of Kin Chuen Louie,” “Song,” “Listen Lawrence,” “Action Philosophy,” and the larger “Stanzas Composed in Turmoil,” a stunning, Shelleyan crisis-poem that swirls like a DNA helix and ends in a shamanistic chant.