Michael McClure (1932-2020): The Exemplary Mammal Patriot

“I MAKE A SCULPTURE OF THE VOICE”: In Memory of Michael McCLure

“The mind, Ferrini,
is as much a labor
as to lift an arm
flawlessly.”
— Charles Olson, THE MAXIMUS POEMS

Of all the Beat poets, I felt most personally comfortable in the presence of Michael McClure, with whom I had the good fortune to study in the 1970s both as a poet (at Squaw Valley) and as a playwright (at the Padua Hills Theater Festival). Although very different from Brecht, McClure is as rare as Brecht in being both a masterful poet and playwright. As a playwright, I remember in particular the productions staged by the Company Theater in Los Angeles, both when it was based in its first space on Robertson Blvd. as well as other venues. At the former, McClure’s “Spider Rabbit” still caroms in my memory for the intensity required of the actor. As an antiwar play, it possesses a macabre gaiety of insolent logic that if administered universally might serve as a vaccine to the madness of state-mandated murder. I hope that McClure’s plays are someday gathered in a massive volume so that The Beard, which gets an inordinate amount of attention due to its legal travails, can be read within the larger context of his theatrical work.

As a poet, McClure remains one of the few original members of the Beat insurgency in San Francisco not to have been welcomed into the Academic canon. It’s possible that Rita Dove wrote McClure and asked him what poems he would like to represent his work in the Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry, but I doubt it. The story I heard was that Ginsberg’s estate asked for too much money to reprint his poems, and therefore (along with Plath) was not included in that anthology. Dove’s anthology is an above average endeavor in representing the variety of American poetry, but it is very weak in the area of Beat poetry and replacing Ginsberg with McClure would have given the book a respite from the flush left versification that confines that volume’s poems to a warehouse of the predictably familiar.

As Jed Rasula’s survey of American poetry anthologies demonstrated, anthologies are the reputation-making sifting agent of literary stature within the Academy. A quick consultation of the appendices provided by Rasula in The American Poetry Wax Museum confirms my recollection of McClure’s absence from mainstream anthologies in the 1980s. The pivot towards a safe, commodity-based poetry with a professional aura was epitomized in that decade by the Morrow Anthology of Younger Poets, very few of whom — if any — would be inclined to encourage their students to read McClure’s poetry. It was not just his practice of centering lines of poetry on the page that would probably put them off; rather, I suspect that they wouldn’t willing to acknowledge his adamant themes of anti-patriarchal hierarchies. “I AM A MAMMAL PATRIOT,” demanded implicitly that we take sides, and it was easier to ignore the ecological choices that McClure proposed than to accept the necessity of listening closely to his poems. McClure was one of the first poets to write in an ecological mode (“Poisoned Wheat”) as well as to speak openly about drug experiences in his poems. It is not just a coincidence that McClure disappears from the rosters of anthologies in the 1980s, the era in which the President’s spouse insisted that young people should “just say no” to drugs.

In addition, because anthologies are disinclined to print long poems, but prefer to emphasize the short, anecdotal lyric poem, some of McClure’s very best work has gone unrecognized. “The Antechamber of the Night” is a great poem, one of the best of the past century. When was the last time you saw it in an anthology? Or for that matter, listed in an anthology as “recommended further reading”?

Perhaps no other poet I have ever read has had an imagination so alert to the recuperative powers of proprioceptive empathy. At the same time, McClure had an “ear” for the language that made mellifluousness seem a natural component of consciousness while also having a luscious eye for visual detail; McClure painted images that were as buoyant as the best of William Blake’s verse.

My comments might make it seem as if McClure had only a “minor” standing in American poetry, and I certainly don’t want that inference to be made. Among those whose imaginations are embedded in discourses outside of the often provincial concerns of university presses, McClure was a major poet of the 20th century, and he had not one but two “selected poems” that attempted to account for the respect his work engendered. In the second of these pair of volumes, Leslie Scalapino’s quirky choice of McClure’s poems in Of Indigo and Saffron made a crucial intervention in emphasizing the gestural embodiments that make McClure’s poems an event in the cosmos of becoming. Of the poems I wished she had included is one I first encountered as a broadside produced in 1966 by Dave Hasselwood (1931-2014). It begins:

I KNOW NOW WHAT I DID NOT KNOW BEFORE
that to stand with the instrument with the arms
thrown outward…

In a body of work that stands apart from the avant-garde and yet remains utterly committed to in its reiterations of visions worthy of the Romantic tradition that fuels the so-called “experimental,” McClure remains an exemplary inspiration for anyone in need of a transformative encounter. “I MAKE A SCULPTURE OF THE VOICE,” he says in the penultimate line of Hasselwood’s broadside. The sculptures of his poems await our extended arms, too, and a grip that extends from fingertips to ears.