The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 583

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...

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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 becomes a metaphor for what Buddhists consider the center of consciousness. The stomachache recurs over twenty times during the course of this twelve-page poem. The first revelation of his peyote experience is that there is no time, only space; he also realizes that he is “separate.” Throughout the poem, the speaker defines his fall as a fall into the knowledge that there are only two facts of existence (consciousness and empty space) and that they are connected only by the speaker’s imagination. This traumatic cleavage becomes the cause of his “!STOM-ACHE!” as he views the world from his window. The window becomes a metaphor for the separation of the artist from a world he can only view from the outside; he can never participate in it. At the conclusion of part 1, he has a terrifying vision of a frozen osprey, an echo of a feathered Satan in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno (c. 1320; English translation, 1802).

In part 2 the osprey, which is a bird of prey (a fish hawk), glares at the speaker ominously, an act that brings him into the full realization of the nature of reality: “I have entered the essential-barrenness/I face the facts of emptiness.” The osprey grows more gigantic and fierce and terrifies the speaker into an even deeper awareness that he is utterly alone: “The fact of my division is simple I am a spirit/ of flesh in the cold air . . ./I am separate, distinct.” Part 3 documents the speaker’s increasing sense of isolation but further intensifies the pain in his belly by the growing discovery that “There is nothing but forms/ in emptiness.” That sense of terror overwhelms him from within: “I AM AT THE POINT OF ALL HUGENESS AND MEANING,” a foreboding that spreads from his stomach to the rest of his body. From this knowledge, he realizes in the poem’s climactic section that his peyote trip has reduced him to “a bulk/ in the air” in a world devoid of categories, justifications, and, therefore, meaning.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469

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” motif.

Many of the images running throughout the poem (aching stomach, space, emptiness, timelessness, and separateness) culminate in the controlling metaphor for the whole poem: the fall into consciousness. However, that knowledge creates only weariness, a sense of ennui best expressed in one of Mallarmé’s most brilliant lines: “Alas, the Flesh is sad/ And I’ve read all the books.” Many of the poem’s images attest McClure’s familiarity with the work of the French Symbolist poets of the nineteenth century, such as Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud, and especially Charles Baudelaire, whose influences are evident throughout the poem.

In part 2, the metaphor of the stomach as knowledge and the seat of consciousness nears the bursting point: The speaker says, “MY STOMACH IS SWOLLEN AND NUMB!” as he realizes that “measurement is arbitrary” and that metamorphosis and transmutation are spiritually alchemical processes that are irrelevant in the “essential-barrenness” of the world. In part 3, however, McClure juxtaposes the brutal images of empty meaninglessness with images of memory, warmth, and love that are centered in his voice: “The answer to love/ is my voice” and “I am caught in reveries of love.” Though experience is intractably solipsistic, the speaker finds some consolation in the knowledge that though his experience is private, it does, nonetheless, belong to him. That knowledge momentarily assuages the pain of ennui and isolation: “My stomach is gentle love, gentle love.”

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