Michael McClure’s first published poems were two villanelles dedicated to Theodore Roethke published in the January, 1956, issue of Poetry. The works reveal McClure grounded in the requirements of the villanelle, but in “Premonition,” he expresses his need to soar and fly. “Beginning in the heart,” writes McClure, “I work towards light.” He insists, “My eyes are spiralled up”; he adds, “Feet burn to walk the mackerel sky at night,” and “Ears are aching for the Great Bird’s bite.” Nevertheless, the poem concludes with the idea that McClure’s earthly “skin and wingless skull . . . grow tight.” He longs for ascent, but his longing is not yet fulfilled.
The second villanelle reinforces and intensifies the sense of confinement and limitation. McClure is mindful of “Elysium” but finds that it “is dwindled.” His body is likened to a “corpse,” his hands are his “defeat,” and his eyes are “dumb.” The “ouzel” (a thrush) and the“undine” (a water spirit) represent the loftiness that McClure longs for, but the poem declares that they are “past and future sense, not circumstance.” In these poems, McClure reveals the heavy thought and meticulous craftsmanship of Roethke, but McClure outlines the aim at transcendence that marks all his subsequent writings.
The historic second issue of Evergreen Review includes poems also found in Passage and Hymns to St. Geryon, and Other Poems. “Night Words: The Ravishing” expresses calm and satisfaction as McClure declares, “How beautiful things are in a beautiful room.” He enjoys “ambrosial insomnia,” finds that the “room is softened,” and repeatedly states pleasure about the fact that the features of the room are “without proportion.”
In “The Rug,” McClure draws a contrast between experience and the poem as a record of the experience. Describing intimacy, McClure writes, “I put my hands// to you—like cool jazz coming.” Yet even in the act of describing the intimacy, words are insufficient, and McClure insists, “THIS IS NOT IT.” The poem may be colorful and elegant but ultimately “is failure, no trick, no end/ but speech for those who’ll listen.” Nevertheless, the insufficiency of language does not prevent experience from rising to special excitement.
In “The Robe,” McClure returns to the subject of intimacy, telling his lover that they “float about each other—// bare feet not touching the floor.” McClure writes, “Aloof as miracles. Hearing/ jazz in the air. We are passing—//our shapes like nasturtiums.” Although “HEROIC ACTS/ won’t free” the lovers, they do find blissful sleep. The poems in this issue of Evergreen Review present McClure alongside Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and other major writers of the so-called San Francisco scene, marking McClure as a major contributor to the San Francisco poetry renaissance.
“Hymn to St. Geryon, I”
Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, 1945-1960 (1960) presents poems from Hymns to St. Geryon, and Other Poems and For Artaud and places McClure in the context of a broad national awakening in poetry marked by multiple and interacting schools of poetry. The poems in the anthology fully demonstrate McClure’s attempt to liberate himself and the form of poetry...
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