A Tribute to Michael McClure

Michael McClure Bio

Articles about McClure
Books by McClure
McClure in Victoria

Pacific Rim Review
Ekstasis Editions
Persian Pony

Michael McClure in Seattle

Essay by Carol Ann Sokoloff

“Michael McClure is giving a poetry workshop in Seattle,” Richard mentioned casually one spring day. We both agreed we’d like to go. In a way it was Michael McClure that had brought us together. R. had been carrying some McClure poetry the day we first connected and I had just met the poet a few weeks before. A former housemate, Sheri-D. Wilson, had been in a production of his play, Josephine the Mouse Singer. Newly reading Kerouac and the Beats, I had begged an invitation to an event the poet/playwright was attending. For me it was a memorable meeting. I remember a brief conversation on writing we shared, and somehow feeling that my life had been changed. When I mentioned it to R. that first day, he told me about his own experiences with McClure. They too had shared a conversation he would never forget.
Twenty-four years and two grown kids later, we planned a romantic weekend away to re-connect with this figure who had inspired us both so deeply. Taking the scenic route down the Olympic Peninsula to downtown Seattle, we arrived at the Mayflower Park – my favourite kind of small hotel. There we settled in for a wonderful weekend of words (and music too, as Seattle has one of the best jazz scenes on the planet.) Seattle poet Paul Nelson had organized a well-thought out workshop schedule, with all events taking place at the Rainier Valley Cultural Centre in a very hip South Seattle neighbourhood a tourist might never discover. The weekend started with a lecture Friday night.

Michael McClure had grown a little older, as we all had, in the quarter-century since the last meeting, but the voice hadn’t changed nor the magical gleam in his eyes – the almost leprechaun-like sense of wonder he exudes. That Friday evening he spoke of some sources of inspiration for his own writing: Blake, Lorca, Shelley, Lawrence, Dickenson and Keats. I had the feeling many in the audience were surprised when this Beat Generation icon concluded with a Middle English rendition of the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. A former Chaucerian, I was delighted.

Saturday afternoon we re-assembled, ready to work. McClure suggested we start by each reading a short poem he’d asked us to bring – a great way to create instant rapport. He then spoke of a British study years ago in which children were asked to name the twelve loveliest things. He read their responses which were imaginative and fresh, evoking clear sensory experience (“water running into a bath” and “the smell of cut grass.”) McClure suggested we imitate those children and exercise the imagination to find concrete images which transfer a solid and physical experience of the sense of taste, touch, sound, smell and vision. We also penned our ‘twelve favourite things.’

“This is a workshop on imagination and inspiration,” McClure explained. “We will not write a poem or come away with a trophy poem. We are not going there. Our goal is not to make a poem, but to visit an experiential process and visit insights in the language, art and poetry.” Instead of writing a poem McClure invited us to engage in the process of creating a ‘word sculpture’ – a sculpture of sights, sounds and senses. This ‘word sculpture,’ McClure insisted, would not be a poem but, “an instrument to gain insight into the art of poetry.”

The poet asked us to suspend our own habitual judgements and also our judgements of others. Then he began to demonstrate the process of creating this word sculpture – one he called “Tyger.” Starting with the first two lines of Blake’s Tyger (“Tyger, tyger burning bright, in the forests of the night”) McClure began the process of assembling other random lines which similarly evoked “complex or simple images that are complete in themselves.” I did not take down the ones he came up with, although I remember the first was about rats munching on tin foil or something equally bizarre (much too clear an image for my comfort.) After inventing half a dozen on the spot, McClure paused, mimicking a temporary block. This was an opportunity to share Jack Kerouac’s “alluvial metaphor” as a means of overcoming creative blocks. If I understood correctly, the alluvial metaphor considers text as a kind of sediment collecting on a mountain, carried from the summit by gravity, water and wind. The writer, when stuck, goes back to the top of the mountain (or the start of the poem) and simply reads the lines that have collected, repeating as often as necessary. I enjoyed learning Kerouac’s metaphor for that most natural writing process.

After McClure had completed and written down some dozen succinct images (a kind of a sonnet beginning with the two lines from Blake), it was our turn. There was nothing difficult about the task. We weren’t writing a poem but simply noting random images and sensory observations. There were no judgements or expectations as we read them out to each other. It was refreshing to be in a room full of writers we hadn’t met or heard before, and to hear the variety of images the group was able to conjure.

Next McClure suggested we take a new approach, one he called “Spyder.” Designed to help uncover “unintended structures – partly in language, partly in consciousness,” the Spyder exercise consisted of taking the previous fourteen lines, re-writing them and then continuing by putting them in the reverse order. Now we were on to something interesting! The word sculpture “Spyder” began and ended with the first two lines from Blake’s Tyger. In between the random images began to take on a new life. My own lines became much more meaningful and strangely sequential when read in reverse. It did seem like McClure’s leprechaun magic was at work, but the poet explained how the writing of disjointed thoughts can open the imagination and allow words that “were never meant to be said but need to be said” to emerge. It was a fascinating exercise and affirmed McClure’s assertion that the word sculpture can be “an instrument to gain windows into the art of poetry.”

That evening Michael McClure gave an extraordinary reading, both from his newest volume Mysteriosos and Other Poems, the first copy of which he had seen that very afternoon, as well as from previous works. As someone who has not always fully understood his poems when printed on the page, often in upper case and peppered with stars, I began to catch the inflections of voice those devices were meant to represent.

The weekend with Michael McClure was profound in many ways. I gained new insight into the long roots of Beat poetry, stretching back to the Romantics, Blake and Chaucer, as well as new tools for freeing the imagination, overcoming blocks and creating fresh pathways for unexpected revelations. And I bathed in the words of one of the great artists of language over the past half decade whose sense of wonder vibrates through the body of his work, infusing it with a youthful spirit to balance a mature poet’s mastery of craft.

Carol Ann Sokoloff is a Victoria, BC author, poet, jazz vocalist and songwriter. Her debut jazz CD Let Go! features original songs in the style of jazz standards.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #14