Thursday, July 16, 2009

STL #88 Sound Effects

Edward Marshall and Michael McClure

If it weren't for this project, I'm sure I'd never mention Edward Marshall and Michael McClure in the same sentence, or probably in separate sentences. Although my intention is to use the texts alone for my interpretation, I can't help but draw on my prior knowledge of the field. I've never heard of Edward Marshall, and while I know of McClure, I'm surprised by the role he's assigned here. McClure's stature has fallen while Marshall never really gained any. There are six poets in the NAP who are allotted 15 or more pages: Olson, Duncan, Ginsberg, O'Hara, Whalen, Snyder, and Michael McClure. These men (of course) are also all represented by a statement of poetics, so it is reasonable to consider them focal points in the new geography of poetry which Allen is mapping. From out vantage today, Olson, Duncan, Ginsberg, O'Hara, and Snyder clearly still deserve a special designation. Philip Whalen maintains a good reputation, though Snyder's old roommate now seems a less than major figure to SF Renaissance/West Coast Beats. The real odd man out to me is McClure. While not totally forgotten, he is seldom mentioned in discussions of the period. He's remembered for 60's shenanigans like his play The Beard or far out readings accompanied by Ray Manzarek.

This "test of poetry" I'm doing here is on my own sensibilities more than anything. In reading Marshall's one longish poem and the sample of McClure, I came across one passage of Marshall's that I rather admire and one in McClure's that I absolutely abhor. Marshall's "Leave the Word Alone" is a dark family narrative that I don't particularly care for, but one passage stands out. It's right justified, and although that appearance lends to the poems effect, I'm transcribing it in the traditional way for convenience:
Sometimes I hear cries and cries when I go
through the center road to the far
farm where the blueberry
bushes are high
and the upper pasture and
fields--the sheep
nose apples wither and the pears rot--
the ice house turned about and no barn
with cupola
The barn burned down to get fire insurance--
never proven.
In a poem that describes mental turmoil, which intrudes even into this landscape. I've referred before to sonic effects knitting a poem together. That happens here in maybe too pronounced ways--the echoing "far/farms" and the alliterative "blueberry bushes." But check out how that plosive /b/ turns into a /p/ and the /r/ continues through "the upper pasture and/fields--the sheep/nose apples wither and the pears rot..." and then return back to the /b/ of the "barn burned." While overall the poem sprawls, this excerpt shows excellent craft.

That touch is missing from most of McClure. The McClure passage that really rankles me floats in the middle of the page, but again...
I am on a mesa of time and space.
!STOM - ACHE!
Writing the music of life
in words.
Hearing the round sounds of the guitar
as colors.
Feeling the touch of flesh.
Seeing the loose chaos of words
on the page.
(ultimate grace--
(Sweet Yeats and his ball of hashish.)

I won't even address the cliched diction ("space and time" "music of life" "touch of flesh"). I won't touch on the unresolved absurdity that is "!STOM - ACHE!" I won't mention the laziness of writing in sentence fragments either, but instead focus on the sonic qualities. He completely mismanages consonance. The "round sound" rhyme is cloying, and the clunky last line suggests seems to think it's doing something it isn't. The vowel sequence is cacophonous when it seems to strive for melifluity. The two long vowels and the start clash against one another, and the long /e/ is picked up awkwardly by the end of the last word. It's as if he wrote the line and thought "looks good" but didn't sound it.

The curious thing here is that McClure is one of the few poets to disavow the Pound/Williams tradition. In his poetics piece, he says he "despises" those primary influences most of the other five focal points, preferring Lawrence and Melville. Marshall, on the other hand, name checks Williams and Pound's main emissary to this anthology, Charles Olson. It could be that my modernist rearing has defined poetic competence for me. While I do seek to challenge that paradigm, the many offenses of McClure foreclose that particular path for me. Instead, I'm planning another reading test to challenge my reading practices, once I finish and analyze this one.

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