The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Peyote Poem is a long serial poem of 242 lines divided into three major parts. The three numbered parts are further divided into stanzas or sections. Part 1 consists of seven sections of various lengths, part 2 is divided into two sections, and part 3 into seven. None of the sections or stanzas are numbered but are separated from each other by long, horizontal lines. The poem is written in the first person. The occasion of the poem is a record of Michael McClure’s first experimentation with the hallucinatory drug peyote, a form of mescaline used by some North American Indian tribes in religious ceremonies. The mystic painter/photographer Wallace Berman, who was an active member of a small cult of peyote eaters in the San Francisco Bay area, was McClure’s guide during his first peyote experience in 1957. McClure considered this experiment to be one of several alchemical tools that he used to explore the boundaries of consciousness. McClure, who is both a Beat poet and a member of the San Francisco Renaissance group, treated the use of such drugs as a serious vehicle for developing and expanding spiritual states. McClure and some other poets made these experiences the content of some of their poetry.

The setting of part 1 is the living room of McClure’s home in San Francisco, and the poem records what he experiences as he looks out of the window. After ingesting the drug, he becomes acutely aware of pain in his stomach, a recurring image that...

(The entire section is 583 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The formal requirements of the serial poem dictate to some degree the structure of this long, complex poem. However, the movement of the poem comes not from intellectual analysis but rather from information that his senses, especially his stomach (that is, his literal “gut” feelings), reveal to him. The persistent metaphor of the stomach as the center of consciousness pervades all three parts of the poem. The peyote’s effect is to clarify the speaker’s perceptions to such a degree that mere sight is transformed into cosmic revelation (that is, visionary experience). The recurring motif of stomach pain signals the next development in the speaker’s expanding awareness of the emptiness of existence, which is embodied in the repetition of the word “space.”

A result of the speaker’s knowledge of the world’s emptiness (another recurring image throughout the poem) is his deeply disturbing discovery that he is separate and distinct from it. Another revelation in part 1 is that time is an illusion created by the imagination, and without time the cosmos literally has no point or reason. Empty space is transformed into a dragon surrounded by clouds, mists, and vapors out of which emerges the principal image of part 2, the dragonlike figure of “an osprey frozen skyhigh/ to challenge me,” a metaphor more than a little reminiscent of Satan in Dante’s Inferno and French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s recurring “frozen swan”...

(The entire section is 469 words.)