Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 584

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.

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What McClure discovers in his peyote vision is not a unified, harmonic vision of the cosmos but rather the opposite. He discovers that time is arbitrary and is the product of the imagination, and he is left with only space: “I have entered the essential-barrenness/I face the facts/ of emptiness.” Concurrent with the “facts of emptiness” comes the corollary proposition: “The fact of my division is simple I am a spirit/ of flesh in the cold air . . ./I am separate, distinct.” From his discovery that he is alone and utterly unconnected to anything, he also begins to understand the true nature of the universe: “There is nothing but forms/ in emptiness.” The poet has descended into Hades, his own “dark night of the soul,” similar to those experienced by earlier visionary poets such as Dante, Saint John of the Cross, and Saint Teresa of Avila. Though his response to the essential emptiness of the cosmos gives him little cause for celebratory ecstasy,...

(The entire section contains 584 words.)

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