Thursday, 29 July 2010

Michael McClure at Ledbury Poetry Festival July 2

Michael McClure.  Along with Lawrence Ferlinghetti,  a survivor of the San Francisco Beat scene, who read at the Six Gallery reading in 1955, when Ginsberg unleashed "Howl" on the world.  As a teenager I read him in "Evergreen Review" where he logged  his peyote experiences, bewildering transmissions from archeopsychic time that hinted at the possibilities of a poetry beyond the compulsive ironic self-deprecation of the Philip Larkin acolytes.  And now he's in the cosy market town of Ledbury, in a small beige-draped hall next to the swimming pool, in front of a full house. The Brit poetry establishment, epitomised by the literary  journalist James Fenton, hate him. Which is a good reason to start liking him before he's even started.

He's 78,  supposedly losing sight in one eye.  But he's still leonine, an old grey lion in a straw hat and blue shirt, and as he mounts the stage he's in total command of the space, the microphone, the expectant and (slightly puzzled?) audience. He's reading solo tonight, no backing from ex-Doors keyboard man Ray Manzarek, and most of the work is from the new book Mysteriosos, which includes a dive into personal memoire ( a trip to India, intimate time with his wife) and the deep time of the human genome  ( "Double Moire for Francis Crick").  The title alludes, of course to Thelonius Monk, and McClure's syntax, its rhythmic shifts  and  broken lines that suddenly aggregate fresh meaning, recall Monk's jabbing chords and abrupt clusters of notes. But Mc Clure voices it  seductively, with the deep breath and tone control  of a master tenor  saxist.

McClure celebrates  the mysteries of time, memory and  biology. He talks us into the existential moment of encountering  one's self as a life-form among other life-forms - lions, elephants, mice, eagles - linked by shared molecules, proteins, subtle architectures of tissue and meat.  Such an awareness drives his rage with the destruction of the natural world and our alienation from it, as well as his disgust with human self-destruction. "SMALL WARS/ARE/THE ART FORM/OF PRESIDENTS".    Inevitably,  the transformations  of time and the enigma of death are recurrent themes.  The new book features several elegies for poets , including my favourite American surrealist  Philip Lamantia; and a recognition of his own mortality, delivered tonight with a wry smile: "Now at last I am here/loving only you with your lynx eyes/ and displaying myself/as a sensual/ and wrinkled/crisis."

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