Wednesday, February 05, 2003

Reading Eleni Sikelianos’ poem, an excerpt from a longer text entitled “California,” in the new issue of Radical Society, I had a strange experience. I felt the presence of Michael McClure. Not the McClure of the Ghost Tantras, the plays or the ecstatic howls of the should-have-been ineffable, but rather the cosmological McClure, the PBS pop science McClure, casting into centered texts meditations based on things he’s seen or read about the natural world in the popular media. For example, this piece, entitled “For the Death of 100 Whales”:

Hung midsea
Like a boat mid-air
The liners boiled their pastures:
The liners of flesh,
The Arctic steamers
Brains the size of a teacup
Mouths the size of a door
The sleek wolves
Mowers and reapers of sea kine.

(Meat their algae)
Like sheep or children.

Shot from the sea's bore.
Turned and twisted
Flung blood and sperm.
Gnashed at their tails and brothers
Cursed Christ of mammals,
Snapped at the sun,
Ran for the Sea's floor.
Goya! Goya!
Oh Lawrence
No angels dance those bridges.
There are no churches in the waves,
No holiness,
No passages or crossings
From the beasts' wet shore.

This poem, which McClure read at the Six Gallery reading in 1955 that helped to spark the so-called Beat Revolution – & not co-incidentally first pointed out to the world at large that San Francisco was as vital a center for American letters as New York – is predicated on an April 1954 story in Time magazine about, in McClure’s own words,

seventy-nine bored American G.I.s stationed at a NATO base in Iceland murdering a pod of one hundred killer whales. In a single morning the soldiers, armed with rifles, machine guns, and boats, rounded up and then shot the whales to death.

Although this is not the kind of poem that McClure is typically represented by in the anthologies, it is a type of poem that he has written his entire life. Its value lies not in McClure’s research – none is involved – but rather in the way he imbues the topic with emotion & narrative figuration. In a sense, this is the opposite of the “research poem,” whether of the Pound-Olson variation with their unintentional parodies of the scholar fumbling around in the archives or of the more journalistic “investigative poetry” approach advocated in recent decades by Ed Sanders. Another poet who literally made use of PBS and other mainstream media not only for ideas, but for layers of content thus displayed, was Larry Eigner.

When I was growing up as a poet in the 1970s, I used to hear other writers comment negatively – sometimes emphatically so – about this side of McClure’s poetry, as though it were a kind of debased product & that, in working from sources in everyday media, McClure was essentially revealing a kind of laziness that was at the heart of his project, not unlike the equally scandalous process of allowing other people type up his holographic manuscripts & perform what in the age of the typewriter was not an inconsequential function: the centering of his lines.

Somewhere along the line I decided that this was a bad rap. In an age where Andy Warhol & others – this was still pre-Jeff Koons – were utilizing assistants to help construct the work of art*, any insistence on doing your own research struck me as a kind defensive measure on the part of writers who felt that, if such aid & delegation were possible, then perhaps readers might not appropriately appreciate their own devotion to all the ancillary tasks that might envelop the act of writing. The work that struck me as the decisive argument for the permissibility of appropriated materials as a source for literature was Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony.

The primary differences between Reznikoff’s approach & McClure’s are (1) Reznikoff’s focus was the social while McClure has been more drawn to the natural world & (2) Reznikoff’s approach to these materials has been one of minimal overt commentary, almost a deadpan transparency, while McClure’s has been one of a drum-beating & hollering display of empathy. Empathy, of course, has ever been “uncool” & “unhip” & I suspect McClure had to deal with that prejudice back in the 1950s every bit as much as in the 1970s & ‘80s.**

Sikelianos’ poem skips the drum-beating & ALL CAPS HOLLERING, but in fact is an act of empathic inhabitation of a milieu inhabitable today only in the imagination:

There was still the problem
of the mystery of regenerative forces here on Earth.

My early Californians
might have been prowlers & plunderers, lover of the lower orders of intelligence
They might have had a fortunate notes or eyes or horns
of surprising size.      They were
4-handed animals or omnivorous quadrupeds or
My early Californians might have been 8-feet tall stomping around in the glacial ice

Ages-extinct fires nearly tiny dragon-headed lakes
Chasing the American camel, chewing the fat fireside & touching up a wooly mammoth,
mini-horses, imitation
bison four times the weight
of buffaloes, ground sloths the size of tanks,
giant shining armadillo roll over, silver
wheels crushing tender grasses,
Edentata belonging to the (inhabited) Earth,
edacious at the tooth
of Time, nibbling some sweet thing, fiery
Hymenoptera edulcorated by their history with men

Shades of Forrest Gander! This text itself has been edulcorated – that c can be pronounced either hard or soft according to the OED – by polysyllables a-babble. What we have here –the quotation above constitutes maybe one-fifth of the Radical Society excerpt – is poem as nature museum diorama.

Writing of Earliest Worlds last September, I noted how Sikelianos’ work there included lines that were “among the most thoroughly conceived and written, most thoroughly heard (&, not coincidentally, felt) since Charles Olson was a young man.” Almost by its nature & certainly by its genre, “California” is a more relaxed piece of writing. It’s probably accessible to a broader range of readers, albeit at the cost being less exhilarating to that core who’ve seen what Sikelianos at her most intense can do.

Which brings my back to Michael McClure & the question of choices in writing. The very qualities – empathy & narrative figuration – that I suspect enabled the Radical Society editorial board to include this work in the first issue of the journal’s new life are those which are most apt to divide poetry’s primary group of readers, who may well find it all too “inauthentic.” Since this is an excerpt, it will be interesting to see how “California” develops & also how it’s received.

* If Sol Lewitt actually drew all those lines on art museum walls himself, he’d end up in the American Visionary Art Museum.

** Thus, for example, I don’t recall ever having seen an article that fully explored what I take to be McClure’s greatest contribution to poetry – his exquisite sense of the pacing of detail. It’s a side of his writing that shows up most sharply delineated in the cosmology poems.