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.
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 dark vision does produce feelings that authenticate his existence: “I KNOW ALL THAT THERE IS TO KNOW/ feel all that there is to feel.”
The final revelation of Peyote Poem produces a mixture of despair and hope because the poet has found within the painful recognition of the world’s emptiness and meaninglessness that he must rely on the only evidence available: “My feelings real to me. Solid/ as walls.—I see the meaning/ of walls—divisions of space,/ backgrounds of color./ HEAVEN AND HELL THIS IS REACHABLE.” He had earlier discovered that “The answer to love” is his voice. What the speaker understands after his nightmarish vision is that “The room is empty of all but visible things./ THERE ARE NO CATEGORIES! OR JUSTIFICATIONS!” The cosmos is, then, the product of his imagination and, as a poet and painter, McClure has redeemed the emptiness of the cosmos with the power of his imagination to define himself with utter precision: “I am sure of my movements I am a bulk/ in the air.” The recognition that the cosmos does not possess any inherent categories, justifications, and, therefore, meaning, releases him to celebrate the fact that the world is inexorably his own solipsistic world. However, that evidence is authenticated solely by his deepest feelings.