On February 11, 2011, the evening after the unveiling of his revealing new documentary, Abstract Alchemist of Flesh, Michael McClure read to a packed auditorium at SFU’s Vancouver Harbour Center. The crowd packed into the auditorium despite the stuffy temperature and close proximity of seats. A rock star amongst poets, listeners were all too happy to brave the conditions and crowds for a chance to hear McClure read. The eager listeners included Vancouver notables such as Jamie Reid and Judith Copithorne among others.
George Stanley, himself the recipient of the 2006 Shelley Memorial Award and poet associated with the San Francisco Renaissance, introduced McClure to the eager audience highlighting some of his achievements and questioning his Beat allegiance, to which the poet agreed. Claimed by many schools, McClure has been known to fall under the influence of Black Mountain poets like Charles Olson and Robert Duncan, San Francisco Renaissance poets like Stanley. However, despite his professions of just “being there,” McClure has undeniable connections to the Beat practitioners, being one of the readers at the now-famous “Six Gallery Reading,” which was attended by (a drunken) Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Neal Cassady, who passed around the wine and collection plate. It was MCed by Kenneth Rexroth and featured five talented young poets – Philip Lamantia, McClure, Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder reading “A Berry Feast,” and Allen Ginsberg publically reading “Howl” for the first time.
Along with his appearance at that famous reading, McClure’s work has unmistakable touches of the Beat generation throughout, no doubt as a result of his connections and friendships with other Beats. Yet as unique as each are, so is McClure, as he showed throughout the night when his readings scanned everything from guttural roars to haiku.
McClure read entirely from his new collection, Of Indigo and Saffron. The book, which is a selection of old and new material, gave both hardened veterans and newcomers to McClure’s work something to chew on.
McClure had a palpable stage presence, holding the crowd in a spellbound state with his intense persona as readily as he made them laugh over an incident involving some spilt water and its possible electronic ramifications. His delivery was impeccable, whether in his growls and roars when reading from one of his Ghost Tantras poems, the pauses left for the “a-ha!’ moment after a haiku, or the general musicality of his reading – there is no surprise that he has worked with the likes of Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Ray Manzarek, and Terry Riley.
The reading was clearly a piece of poetic heaven, and McClure did not seem to lose sight of who was in his audience. This came across in many ways, perhaps most memorably when he reread a poem after being dissatisfied with his voice on the first run – to great applause – channelling the ghost of Charles Olson all the while. A true showman and artist, McClure let the Olson bit seep back into his performance through the remainder of the night.
Although the audience seemed rapt throughout the reading, the poems “Hummingbird Ode” and “I Polished the Stars” seemed to get extra love, and McClure’s haikus were another obvious crowd favourite.
Although there is some loss from the written form of his work, such as his intentionally center-justified poems, McClure’s reading gave his work, old and new, a different light, a fresh spin. As he iterated in his de facto motto “The limits of the knowable are unknowable,” and his reading showed attendees that his work has limitless angles and the ways it can be seen are only limited by the number of times it is challenged. An unforgettable and unmissable event, McClure’s February 11 reading is already undoubtedly a piece of Vancouver literary history.
List of Poems Read:
Page numbers refer to Of Indigo and Saffron
The Mystery of the Hunt pg. 33
OH GIDDY BLANK WHITE PAGE pg. 52
Hummingbird Ode pg. 75
Captives pg. 132
OH ACCIDENT pg. 167
ITS ALL CON/SCIOUSNESS pg. 167
PINK BANDAID STUCK pg. 168
MOLDY/ BOARD pg. 168
BRASS/and/turquoise pg. 169
OH//HUMM/MING/BIRD pg. 169
Hey/DRIVER pg. 170
THE DRY/fir needle pg. 170
THE FOX TURD/is a cliff pg. 171
THE HERON pg. 171
‘motto’ pg. 199
I POLISHED THE STARS pg. 203
HOW BADLY pg. 205
IN THE PAINTED CHAMBER pg. 215
THE SUNSET MOMENT pg.244
WE SWIM IN THE ILLUMINATION pg. 247
WE HAVE ALWAYS WANTED TO DO THIS pg. 255
FROM THE NON-BEGINNGING OF THE WAVE pg. 274
OLD AGE IN A NAZI NATION pg. 298