Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Peyote Poem is about discovering that the cosmos is essentially empty and meaningless without the structuring capacity of the human imagination. However, McClure came to that knowledge only with insight gained from his peyote experience. As one of the principal Beat and San Francisco Renaissance poets, he recognized that there were very few avenues for transcendence available to artists and poets in the spiritually empty and excessively materialistic United States of the 1950’s. He also realized that he could not attain a clear vision of reality that was not distorted and conditioned by cultural and societal preconceptions. By taking part in the rituals of a small peyote cult in the San Francisco Bay area, he hoped that the hallucinatory visions of peyote might somehow expand his consciousness beyond the mundane world of mere time and space. Linguistic philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and Ferdinand de Saussure, as well as phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, had been addressing similar problems earlier in the century. They all found it virtually impossible to get beyond the conditioning nets of perception and language. McClure and his fellow peyote eaters utilized the pre-Columbian religious practices of some American Indians, who attained spiritual transcendence through drug-induced visions, but only within the regulating contexts of ritual.

What McClure discovers in his peyote vision is not a unified, harmonic vision of the cosmos but...

(The entire section is 584 words.)