Friday, October 29, 2010

Jack Foley reviews

     by Michael McClure

“Michael stands on my back / growing wrinkles”
     — Michael McClure, Plum Stones: Cartoons of No Heaven

“I’m an old man made of wheels of spinning flesh”
     — Michael McClure, Mysteriosos

To read a Michael McClure poem is to bring ourselves back to something; it isn’t so much a specific recollection as it is a reminder of something we may have forgotten.  “I AM AWED / by her demon face,” he writes of someone he calls “the secretary of deceit.”  The tone here is political, ironic and momentarily judgmental.  (He will later insist that he himself may be as bad: his own “trembling spirit is capable of everything”: “I will kill, torture, and maim Palestine / and tease it with fire.”)  But the word “awed” is important, and it is to be distinguished from the context of “shock and awe”: “awe” — astonishment — is at the heart of this amazing septuagenarian’s work:

shrieking in rage,
and our aged guide,
the Anglo-Indian colonel,
shakes one finger
out the car window.
he shouts to his “old friend”
and she does
and she stares
from wrinkled eye bags
from us,
then swings back
and bellows
her jaw-shaking trumpet blast,
and shuffles
away sideways
into the swinging branches.

McClure’s world is a constantly astonishing place — a place full of, to use the title of this book, “mysteriosos.”  “Myserioso” = “having a mysterious nature or quality; enigmatic; inexplicable.”  It is usually used as an adjective or adverb but may also be used as a noun.  McClure is thinking of the term specifically in connection with Thelonious Monk, the great, constantly questioning jazz pianist who released an LP, Misterioso, in 1958; the cover of Monk’s LP is a painting by the Italian Surrealist Giorgio De Chirico: The Seer, or The Prophet.  McClure makes no such specific claim for himself — “I still long to be Shelley,” he sighs at one point — but he insists that his poetry “demands the tearing down of what we are and letting our energies and bodies of meat and nothingness rebuild themselves.”  This biospiritual process happens over and over again but never in a straightforward, “logical” way: “NO MATTER — ANTI-MATTER — DARK ENERGY”; it too is “mysterioso.”

At 78 McClure is neither resting on his laurels nor kvetching about the loss of his powers.  Mysteriosos is as challenging and demanding a book as he has ever produced.  But differences can be noted. I wrote this about his extraordinary 1970 book, Star, which McClure himself described as “a blast of my poor brain splattered over Hell and Earth & Heaven”:

Star enunciates a moving consciousness which is constantly thrust towards both intellect and the flesh and which dizzyingly but illogically perceives intellect and the flesh to be simultaneously identical and painfully split apart.  McClure frequently quotes with approval Mallarmé’s statement that poetry is the language of a state of crisis.  The crisis of Star is that the very conditions of thought and utterance are constantly at war with each other, constantly generating the most painful of oppositions — and yet silence is not even a remote possibility: speech is the poet’s only salvation . . . Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid are less “characters” than they are huge metaphors, almost Blakean figures, by which McClure can express his constantly shifting ambivalence.

Here, in this book of “the truth of shifting / complexities,” McClure says, “Old age or childhood, it is all renewable, / reversible, delivered with a warranty / that nothing is there in the nothingness”; “I am a flowering.”  Sounding a little like John Donne, he writes, “My mouth / with your nipple in it / is the rising of thought.”  McClure’s vision is essentially the same as the one he had forty years ago — “Knowing in all possible directions”! — but it is considerably calmer these days.  It is as if the Harlow figure who haunted his young manhood with its “SEXUAL ADDICTION” has “morphed” — the word is an important one in this book — into the apparition he calls “Dear Being”:

                    is this love, invented for you.

The phrase refers specifically to the poet’s wife, Amy Evans McClure, but it extends beyond that to a feeling of acceptance and love for the whole of the universe:

By simply being here, drinking from footsteps.
No pleasure, no shame, no guilt, just as life is . . .


PERFECT.  Perfect.  Perfect blotches
Hanging together in undreamed causeless systems.
No time anywhere — like smears on fingers.
Inspiration changes tiny strings to thick
Frequencies of matter.  Hear the clatter
Of a megatherium family by the water hole.

         These lines are taken from a remarkable long poem, “Double Moire for Francis Crick” — the discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule and a longtime friend of McClure’s who lay dying as the poem was being written.  The poem, which Crick never saw, begins with a moving reference to the endurance of “the MiddleWay” of Buddhism and to the possibility of the new — of liberation — even at such a moment:

it sings of the Middle Way.
Put out the fires in the eye
there is another style besides hatred and heat.
Let the soul go, build a pliant strong heart . . .

nowhere to go but
halfway to freedom. . . .

The most remarkable stylistic device of Mysteriosos is probably rooted in what McClure refers to as his explorations into “buddhist hua yen thought.”  (Garma C.C. Chang’s The Buddhist Teaching of Totality: The Philosophy of Hwa Yen Buddhism is one of the poet’s favorite books.)  According to hua yen Buddhism, an individual entity is not limited to an individual point of view.  Every thing includes the whole — includes Everything.  Hua yen asserts the mutual containment and “interpenetration” of all phenomena: one thing contains all things that exist. 

McClure tells us explicitly that the poems of the “Dear Being” sequence are “born from earlier books, repeating opening lines of poems to begin new poems” and that in “Double Moire for Francis Crick” he “worked with an earlier poem . . . titled ‘Moire’ and used each line to begin a stanza in the new enlarged poem”: “Like an organism, ‘Double Moire’ began to be free in time and place, and to exist in the oneness of everything.”  What he doesn’t tell us is the extent to which these poems constantly repeat lines, phrases, words as they “morph” from one poem into another — as aspects of separate poems interpenetrate one another.





on page 35, for example, shows up as

It is all

in a quite different poem on page 65. Similarly, “Mist and a star in his antlers” on page 40 shows up as “MIST AND A STAR IN MY ANTLERS” on page 60.  Indeed, the word “antlers” may be a morphing of the word “anthers” on page 44.  If everything is everything, if all things interpenetrate, then the poems themselves cease to be self-contained, individual entities: words and phrases from one poem might just as easily be a part of another poem.  Life repeats itself in various configurations — all simultaneously moving together and apart, all “QUICK.”  This, in a way, is McClure’s version of what Jack Spicer named “the serial poem” and which Jack Kerouac practiced in Mexico City Blues a primary text for McClure.

A poet born in 1932 might well dwell upon his memories and his — to use a word that shows up prominently in this book — “gone” friends.  There are some wonderfully elegiac passages in Mysteriosos as McClure recalls some of the famous poets who have been his companions:

    introduced, “Michael, this is Robinson Jeffers . . . ”
         And I mumble something.
                                  In his salon among
   walls of books in wooden apple crates, and pastels
          of Morris Graves, Kenneth Rexroth reads
             a new poem in a nasal, grating voice.
                                With crossed eyes, and hair alight
with genius, Robert Duncan sings songs from his Faust Foutou [sic].
        It is exactly like the play of the dark, pouncing weasel
          in the abandoned corral under the buckeye trees,
             or Kenneth Patchen’s bulging eyes looking down at the waves of the Bay
          where seals haul up on the mud to sleep beside traffic.

McClure does not deny his age or his aging (Mysteriosos has beautiful elegies to Philip Whalen, Robert Creeley, Philip Lamantia), yet the central message of the book is not elegy but the sheer aliveness, the wonderful, dizzying, endlessly interesting, “myriad” complexity of life itself:

on ripples, and among the moons of Saturn.
Everything burns for the eyes that will
come into being.  The twisting shapes
are hunting their forms, the big ones
grow and shrink and in themselves are the answers.


Surprisingly to some perhaps, love and marriage are primary themes of this book — though, speaking of marriage, McClure remarked on my radio show that people are afraid to say I love you, “and they’re probably right: if people aren’t inventing love, they shouldn’t talk about it.  Love has to be invented.  It’s not a ghost that floats around in the air that you snap up when you get married or something.  It’s part of soul making.”  As always in McClure, you make your life: it isn’t something that’s simply given.

One of the most beautiful small poems in Mysteriosos is an “Epithalamium” the poet wrote for my son Sean and Sean’s bride Kerry Hoke.  I’ll end this piece with that sweet, short, active poem, in which — as with all the poems in this wonderful book — the universe makes itself known in no uncertain terms:

to hour;
carve lives from week
to year.
Plume the spines with touches
and smiles;
your hearts
in whirlpool of foment.
It’s time to be growing
crowns on your heads.
Erase lines from nightly beds.
It all happens
with sun and with stars.
at the start of your life.

     by Michael McClure

New Directions, 2010
ISBN 978-0-8112-1842-9

Saturday, October 16, 2010

My poem, Crossing Legs, is now featured online at the smashing website, Poetry 365. Crossing Legs is featured in print in the Uphook Press anthology, hell strung and crooked.  And in celebration of hell strung and crooked I’ll be reading Crossing Legs tomorrow evening, Sunday evening, October 17, at Abigail at 807 Classon Ave (at St. Johns Place in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn) at 8pm, along with fellow poets Samantha Barrow, Christian Georgescu, Aimee Herman, John Marcus Powell, Elliott D. Smith, Geoffrey Kagan Trenchard, Jacob Victorine and Ocean Vuong.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A review of Strange Is Normal The Amazing Life of Colin Wilson.

This feature-length documentary interview is nothing less than a super-up-close-and-personal visit with the legendary author and philosopher, Colin Wilson. Superbly conducted by the scholar Dennis Price we are given what seems total access to the Wilson domain, and total access to the phenomenal range of Wilson’s intellectual activities.

Colin Wilson is the author of over one-hundred-and-fifty books on what seems to be just as many topics — topics as various as the bicameral mind, psychological studies of authors such as August Strindberg, science-fiction novels, studies of the criminal mind, and then of course his brilliant analyses of poetry and of world literature and of the human condition — and Mr. Price is in his element as he leads us on a tour of all of these. (As any one of these topics can produce, if it does not indeed warrant, a feature-length documentary interview in itself, Mr. Price’s task is to present as comprehensive a survey as possible, and this he does admirably.)

The treats are many and they begin immediately as Wilson welcomes us into his library, which is annexed in various “sheds” on his grounds, and which holds over one-hundred-and fifty-thousand books. (Near the end of the program we are literally inside Wilson’s kitchen making tea. And there occurs here a moment that stands out among the many frank and candid moments on hand: Wilson turns from his sink and beholds Mr. Price and crew, there in his kitchen, and for a moment he seems uncertain about all this, but then slowly he smiles and his entire face beams — and I think darn if he don’t look like Raymond Briggs’ snowman!) As we walk with Wilson on his grounds it has to be striking to many watching that we are even actually seeing Wilson in this setting — it’s as though we crashed the Wilson house and he’s just deciding that maybe he’s enjoying having us — but then I suppose this is the missing link in Wilson’s body of work — and that’s what makes this essential viewing.

For those of us who grew up with Colin Wilson, who came of age intellectually with his books and with his ideas and with his imagination, Wilson was and still is a gateway to the world of philosophical and psychological concepts, a gateway to the authors of the world and to other ways of being. (Literally, other ways of being — made accessible, in the first place, if I understand the Wilson program, by mental discipline and by intentional living and governed only by the limits of your imagination. I imagine it can be this way with Rowling’s books, which can be a gateway to Tolkien and to C.S. Lewis and, if you’re lucky, if you’re über-cool, to Colin Wilson.)

It’s not as though we were not exposed to intriguing and even “radical” ideas from our teachers, rather, and more precisely, it was the adventure of discovering them on our own and in a book that was not on our reading list. There was something transgressive about it, like meeting up with the neighborhood pusher only he wasn’t pushing drugs, he was pushing a kind of salvation, an intellectual and, even, moral salvation. This is the effect Schopenhauer and Nietzsche had on readers. And if you understand that, then you get the impact Colin Wilson has had and continues to have. You can’t manufacture that effect. One can say (and with confidence you’re not being trite): you don’t just read Colin Wilson’s books, you have a relationship with them.

There are extended segments that deal with the impact of The Outsider and with the literary personages Wilson came into contact with — T.S. Eliot (and an episode involving Ezra Pound), Anthony Burgess (the author of A Clockwork Orange), Robert Graves, Roald Dahl and many others — and that deal with Wilson’s own coming of age and his struggling to make it. In response to the question, why so many books, Wilson candidly relpies, I’ve written a lot of books simply because the publisher commissioned them and I needed the money.

Coming of age intellectually, everybody desires and indeed requires validation; for the young “outsider” this can mean a time of loneliness, of dissociation, of quiet desperation and of deep depression. The temptation to join the go-along, get-along collective is great and is everywhere and promises the bliss of self-delusion (and the tinge of self-betrayal, the opposite of self-affirmation). But then enter Colin Wilson. Wilson teaches, or, let us say, we find in Wilson the notion that that validation — so necessary psychologically and so understandable — that that validation — and in its most reliable and authentic form — is best come from books and from ideas. The effect is intellectual independence and self-reliance, which are the beginnings, which are the basis, of personal liberty and self-determination. Colin Wilson is the last of the greats.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Colin Wilson back in 2006. Read the interview: Colin Wilson on poetry and the peak experience.

Watch the trailer.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Of all my Edward Gorey collection, one of my favorites. Edward Gorey's cover for The Duke of Palermo and Other Plays by Edmund Wilson. Skeletons and skulls and other such have appeared in other Edward Gorey covers, for instance there's a skeleton in Thomas Szasz's The Age of Madness, and there's a skull in An Anthology of German Poetry from Hölderlin to Rilke.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

We come to JoAnne Growney’s new book of poems, Red Has No Reason, by way of our interest in mathematical poetry and by way of Ms. Growney’s background in mathematics and in poetry and in promoting the mathematical poem. However, theorists in search of demonstrations of the analogy between the mathematical structure of the/of a mathematical operation and the grammatical structure of the poem will be disappointed, as Ms. Growney’s mathematicals are strictly by way of point of reference. This is not to state a minus, it’s to state a fact. On the plus side, we are delighted to discover in Ms. Growney’s verse a frankness and a confidence that immediately make themselves apparent:

from A Woman Is a Gallery She Can’t Stop to View


Everyone’s met someone from out of town
who says, My friend X in Baltimore
is just like you. Same hair, voice, and posture.
Even your gestures are the same.

I want to meet my double, to ask her,
Does your body hum beneath your thoughts?
Am I an easy imitation?
What’s the cost of being me?

Ms. Growney divides her book into four sections, subtitled, and with the parentheses, “(attention),” “(memory),” “(resistance),” and “(complexity).” “Complexity” is prefigured early on, in “(memory),” with the poem, “Horizon”:


All was heaven, once, and seamless —
no dark to change shine into glare,
no clouds to fear.

None were wise or ignorant, no secrets
whispered in the breeze — there were
no better days.

Apples were mere apples, mix of tart and sweet.
Silent snakes ate insects, kept their earthbound place.
Opposites had not

declared themselves: delight and sadness,
fear and comfort blended, waiting for the seeker
to awake — to attend

the dying of the brightest star,
halving of the mind by the horizon
drawn near.

into complexity,
Eden disappears.

As the subtitles suggest, there is present here a reciprocity and coordination, and the holding off of inertia. Ms. Growney’s strengths are her interiority, and she’s got that voice down pat.

again from A Woman Is a Gallery She Can’t Stop to View


At family reunions, my uncle shows old films.
Restless me before the camera, darting, stopping.
Young, natural — more lovely than she knew —
but what’s the use to know her since she’s gone.

My mother made much of helpful little girls.
Praise still persuades me; I work hard
for words withheld. On the road from my house
to hers, a truck covers me with shadow.

Red Has No Reason by JoAnne Growney.

Plain View Press
ISBN: 978-1-935514-52-7

JoAnne Growney’s Blog

JoAnne Growney’s Website

Monday, October 04, 2010

Jack Foley on the movie, Howl.


When James Franco as Allen Ginsberg says, “With mother finally FUCKED,” he clearly relishes the word: what a blast of freedom to be able to say a word like that in public. The only problem is that Allen Ginsberg never said it. Asterisks were substituted for letters in many instances in “Howl,” but by the time, say, of Ginsberg’s Selected Poems 1947-1995, all of the letters had been put back in except for the case of that line, which appears in the poem as “with mother finally ******.” When I asked Allen Ginsberg why the word “fucked” didn’t appear there, he answered, “Because he didn’t fuck his mother.” The line is a sort of joke. The word “fucked” is clearly implied — as the film’s scriptwriters were all too happy to notice — but in this instance the asterisks don’t indicate censorship. Ginsberg would like to say “with mother finally fucked” — Carl Solomon undoubtedly wanted to do that — but he couldn’t say it because it wasn’t true.

James Franco says something else as well: “The Beat Generation? — That was just a bunch of guys trying to get published.” First of all, the quotation is inaccurate. The proper quotation — much stronger than what is said in the film — is “The Beat Generation? — That was just a bunch of guys trying to get laid.” Second, Allen Ginsberg didn’t say it: Jack Kerouac did.

That’s the sort of thing one deals with constantly in this film. The theme of Howl the movie is the right of the “individual” artist to portray the world as it seems to him, even if that means using language that might strike some people as coarse or vulgar. Since Allen Ginsberg is the film’s “individual,” nobody else in the film has much presence — and this despite the fact that we are dealing with highly charismatic people like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, people, especially the last two, whom Ginsberg constantly talked and wrote about. The real Allen Ginsberg was in the midst of a group of powerfully manifesting people, but the filmmakers didn’t want to give the movie Allen Ginsberg any competition — so James Franco is charming and interesting but nobody else is. As is almost always the case with such “biographical” films, the focus is on one person, the paradigm-changing “individual” who makes things happen. There was a wonderful moment during the actual trial — the transcript is available in City Lights’ Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression — when, in his eloquent closing statement, lawyer Jake Ehrlich quoted from Christopher Marlowe: “But I shall tell thee roundly, / Hark in thine ear, zounds I can fuck thee soundly.” But in this film, Allen Ginsberg is the only person allowed to curse. Ehrlich’s statement isn’t there. Nor, interestingly, is Kenneth Rexroth: I was curious as to how the film might represent him; he wasn’t represented at all.

Al Young mentioned to me that he thought Allen Ginsberg read “Howl” far better than James Franco did. Young was right. Worse: there are moments — I kid you not — when Franco actually sounds like Woody Allen! Franco is at his best not when he is reading the poem but when he is Allen Ginsberg being interviewed: he is fresh and young and entirely engaging at those moments. He is effective as a reader of poetry only once: when he reads the concluding section of “Howl” — which of course was not read at the Six Gallery.

Allen Ginsberg mesmerized a room of people when he read his wonderful, innovative, ecstatic, dirty poem to them. But Hollywood folk are fearful of presenting a poet reading a poem all the way through. “Howl” is broken up into interrupted segments — and, heaven help us, animated by the talented artist Eric Drooker, whose Illuminated Poems is a beautiful book but whose work for this film is far less interesting than his collaboration with Allen Ginsberg was. The animation and the interruptions are so we don’t have to listen to the poem — so we can skip the words.

Ginsberg himself appears at the end, singing “Father Death.” It’s a touching moment in a film that hasn’t enough touching moments. Sad to think of the many people who will have their only sense of a remarkable poet through this film. It isn’t a desecration, but it isn’t very good either. In this case, I definitely preferred the book to the movie.