Michael McClure McClure, Michael (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

McClure, Michael 1932–

McClure is an American poet, playwright, and novelist. His poetry is noted for its combination of words and phonetic phrases which are intended to be read or even growled aloud in order to provide a sensory experience. McClure is concerned with communication in his works: he believes that only by direct and personal communication can art be effective in providing personal revelations. David Kherdian says, "Michael McClure is that rarity, a writer who invites the reader to seek pleasure as the antidote to depression and ennui." (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

Richard Gilman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The basic dramatic proposition [of The Beard] is arresting enough: to bring Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid together in eternity, face to face in the sort of other-worldly middle-class room which Sartre employed for very different purposes in No Exit, and have them go at one another…. [The first line spoken by the Harlow character:] "Before you can pry any secrets from me, you must first find the real me. Which one will you pursue?"

This ritual phrase runs throughout the play, often to good effect, and is the verbal mode and talisman of one plane of its operations. The other verbal procedure may be conveyed, in what is literally its minor key, by Harlow's snarling remark a little later on: "You're a sack of shit!" This vocabulary is undeniably as "dirty" as anything the American stage has ever known … yet it is in no real sense shocking, which is to say morally disconcerting…. For it is there to release and embody most of the action between the pair, to be their central encounter in all but a few respects (crucial ones however), and as such it has to be judged for its dramatic value and effectiveness.

The ferocious lewdness is, in other words, never prurient but structural, one constituent of the play's attempted life as drama. For these two American legends, the cinema queen and the outlaw, are engaging in a duel to a certain kind of death and possible resurrection, a knock-down ballet of sexual thrust and parry, of desire and defense, come-on and come-down, with Billy's hard rapist's momentum running up against Harlow's satiny, wised-up, hands-off, daydream sensuality, her fixed and legendary position as shiny unavailable temptress. Or rather … such mythic-sexual-sociological dimensions are what McClure is...

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Michael Lynch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Charles Olson's parenthetical admonition in his "Human Universe" seems—as if he wanted to avoid the charge laid against, I think, Camus, that he was a "human racist"—at least self-directed: "It behooves man now not to separate himself too jauntily from any of nature's creatures."

Michael McClure has taken Olson's parenthesis to heart. He wrote an essay once about Gerard de Nerval's "The Black Spot," and praised Nerval for "showing us our kinship with all creatures." He made this poem a rallying cry for a new consciousness: "LET US THROW OUT THE WORD MAN! Such poems as this translation of Nerval remind me that I am MAMMAL!… The poem makes me see the surge of life…. We become Mammals as we were once Men." Others of McClure's Meat Science Essays develop this mammalism (which can slide, in that famous treatise on Jayne Mansfield, into mammaryism). As Mammals we "bring the universe to life." Intellect as we know it subsides and mammalian intelligence—acknowledgement of the senses as organs of knowing—returns. Restrictive, constrictive rationality is replaced by true "REASON!"—a part of the body by which we are "connected to the universe." Mammalian Reason is the "revolt of all the senses against regulations that dull them." "All that is experienced, without being twisted into the shape of preconceptions, is REASON." It accepts time, chance, luck, and leads to freedom, to "the fullness of being a mammal."

The exponent of this hip zoological primitivism saw his poems first published nationally in the January, 1956 issue of Poetry…. These poems were, with the exception of several quirks, settled. Two villanelles in iambic pentameter, dedicated to Theodore Roethke, echoing in tone "The Waking" and in imagery Roethke's mystical biology…. Even the quirks … seemed recognizably Rimbaud and sang along in key. Nestled between poems by John Hollander and Ricahrd Howard—it was Howard's first Poetry appearance as well—"2 for theodore roethke" were not out of place.

Now, nearly two decades later, "Mike" [as he signed earlier] is "Michael" and his style rests more than a continent away not only from Howard and Hollander but also from his mentors Roethke and Olson…. He reigns widely as a culture prince with a considerable coffer of prose (besides the Essays, several novels and Freewheeling Frank), plays (besides The Beard, about a dozen), and poems (at least nine volumes and many broadsides) in print. It is inviting to read his poems as dayglow excrescences of a distinct subculture and let them go at that, but this prince wants to be read as a poet. He evokes, variously, Anacreon, Blake, Shelley, Keats, Rimbaud, Roethke, and others as if to insist: read me in their line.

[Despite his poetry's] rather skilled play of syntax … it remains talk about sensation, not sensation evoked. McClure's language operates much as his fellow Californian Professor Hayakawa sees language operating: it is a map which but points to something beyond itself. This gives the lie to his, McClure's claim that "poetry is not a system but is real events spoken of, or happening, in sounds." They are spoken of, yes, but only rarely happen.

His poems seldom give us mammals but do give us Mammal. Have you ever seen or felt "Mammal?" Of course not, and that is what ties McClure's poems to his prose: both are meat science, "bioalchemical investigations," proclamations and not presentations. Mammal reason seldom appears in them because thought seldom disappears…. McClure's poems give the banner, the editorial comment or the lab hack's technicolor diagram, not the "real events" themselves.


(The entire section is 1529 words.)