Tournament of Books 2015

Saturday, July 31st, 2010
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Mysteriosos and Other Poems

by Michael McClure

To the Beat of a Different Poet

A review by Chris Faatz

Michael McClure is a living legend. One of the poets who read at the famous Six Gallery event in San Francisco that launched the Beat Generation (and featured the first public rendition of Allen Ginsberg's epic Howl), McClure subsequently appeared in Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums as the character Ike O'Shay and went on to counter-cultural stardom. McClure leapt the divide between the '50s scene and that of the '60s, quickly becoming a renowned figure in the alternative artistic community. He's published numerous volumes of poetry, plays, works of fiction, and essays, and performs regularly throughout the United States and Europe.

Having said all that -- and I felt compelled to make the case for McClure's fame -- I want to admit that I've not always paid him much attention, often feeling that his work has suffered in comparison with some of his peers, such as Gary Snyder or Diane DiPrima. All that has changed, though, with the publication by New Directions of Mysteriosos and Other Poems.

I can't begin to say how much I love this book. The poems are wild chants of despair, ecstasy, and insight; they look deeply into the nature of people, into nature and our relationship with it, and into our seemingly inescapable penchant for self-destruction through war and environmental devastation.

are hideous
and more poisonous

McClure's writing demands a commitment. All of his poems include lines written wholly in capital letters, and virtually every poem uses a somewhat random spacing on the page (many of the poems are actually centered). The caps presumably indicate that those words are to be emphasized in the heart and mind of the reader; the random spacing and centering remove the demands of formal versifying and leave the author free to explore internal rhyme and image in a way that pays lip service to music -- both jazz and more ancient forms -- and its intersection with daily life.

Critics refer frequently to McClure's "organic" poetics, of writing with the whole body as opposed to with only the mind. But I don't see it. What I see is a writer who's been influenced by European avant-garde poetry and by the poetics of traditional cultures in such a way as to put music to the page and to forge a relationship with his readers. If poetry, at its best, is something that fundamentally alters the reader and leaves him or her living in the world in a different way, then McClure is a true poet. This work is deeply transformative, utterly humane, and inextricably linked with the totality of life on this earth. It's dense, stirring, and magical.

A section of the book is comprised of "Grahhrs," McClure's experiments in the poetic denunciation of permanent war. There's a touching sequence of travel poems from his recent experiences in India, and several love and personal poems. A special bonus includes celebrations of the lives of poets Philip Lamantia and Philip Whalen. Sometimes his poems seem to be nothing more than a cavalcade of arresting images tumbling one after the other into the terrain of the imagination. Take, for example, this poem called "Cameo One":

in the hole where
soul swells
leaving solid space
where profiles
of gods and fairies
are carved
by the clanking of trucks,
and the taste of mangos.

Wild, beautiful, ardent, this is the poetry of Michael McClure as displayed in Mysteriosos -- a book to inform life.

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