Michael McClure’s classic Ghost Tantras (long out of print but soon to be re-released by City Lights) was self-published in 1964 and in 2013 it continues to be just as strange, earnest, ridiculous, and fascinating a work. Somehow, Ghost Tantras reads today both as fresh and faded. There’s something about McClure’s “beast language,” intended to put readers in touch with their primordial, animal selves, that sounds simultaneously urgent and dated. McClure’s poetic passion and undeniable force is immediate and magnetic. Thematically, however, McClure’s “beast language” appears unaware of its own contradictions. Whether or not you agree with McClure’s linguistic philosophy, you simply cannot ignore a poem like “Tantra 32:”
dorr kann bee blayke leet eer noo tow thownie
dann brekk thay mah torr blurt noh breshk bakk
mag me toww noh oww thoonie meeee blest !
KHRAHRR ! SHELF ! TEEMOWW !
eem now oodorr sen bless I thee ooh-nohh
carnal air of wax portrayed in smoke.
THEE OWW OHH MY
sung & sad fabled sleeping self
grahoored to waking gowwr.
These poems are intense, serious, hilarious, beautiful. The “beast language” is intended to appeal to the animal inside every human (animals can’t read, unfortunately, even in beast language, which is perhaps why McClure famously read his poems aloud to lions at the San Francisco Zoo. For McClure, language is something entirely different than simple words and syntax. He pushes language to many limits, most of them definitive. Words here become sounds, writing becomes speech; what is so foundationally cultural—language—is imagined and acted upon as natural. If nothing else, this makes for some bravely original and compelling poetry, and McClure is widely recognized today as a revolutionary poet because of his atypical attitudes toward language.
There is a beautiful energy around Ghost Tantras, and around McClure’s mystique, but looking at the 1960s from our vantage point, it’s hard to believe McClure actually thought these poems would “change the shape of the universe.” It is perhaps a testament to the importance of poetry (and cultural life in general) in America in the 1960s that anyone would believe such a thing. Maybe we need some of that confidence today. Hesitancy, academization, and critical thinking have certainly brought poetry, and the universe, nowhere fast. McClure and his generation are undoubtedly courageous writers, even if they appear to us as naïve. Naïvete may be a necessary foundational element for work as bold as this. McClure’s attempts to construct a natural language fail because he uses the English alphabet to construct that language (not to mention that beast language sounds conspicuously like Old English). The natural, or a direct biological reality, cannot be divorced from our intellectual understanding of that reality. McClure is attempting to construct something pure and natural from the cultural debris he happens to pick up. Unfortunately, he doesn’t interrogate his choices of debris. Nevertheless, the philosophical shortcomings of Ghost Tantras are central to its success. In her book Stupidity, Avital Ronell writes,
The severest of poets ventured, as if prompted by some transcendental obligation, into a consecrated domain where language meets its unmasking in stupidity, idiocy, imbecility, and other cognates of nonknowing. [. . .] Poetic language remains sheer promise and, in the way shown by Hölderlin, capable of hearing the alien unsaid.
McClure is the severest of poets, an American Hölderlin, and Ghost Tantras shows us the unexpectedly beautiful things that poetry can do when it is pressed against and beyond its rational limits. Beast language is a cognate of nonknowing, though it remains sheer promise. Ultimately, Ghost Tantras stands as a historical marker of the radical courage and passion of McClure and his generation, and it is perhaps time for that message to be heard, without understanding, once again.
Housten Donham is a poet and critic. He lives in the SF Bay Area. He sometimes updates his tumblr (elkrunningfromwolves.tumblr.com).
September 16th, 2013 / 11:00 am
by Andrew Choate
Insert Blanc Press, 2012
56 pages / $12 (Limited Editions $18 – $36) Buy from Insert Blanc Press
Andrew Choate’s new book Stingray Clapping, in a small and beautiful volume from Insert Blanc Press, is full of enigmatic, minimal pieces like the above. “Necktie popcorn” is actually a pretty typical example of the stuff in this book: it’s sharp, fascinating, and oddly pleasurable. In a sense, many of these pieces stay true to the old (post)modernist ethos of foregrounding the words themselves; they often appear divorced of any real-world referential quality. Then again, envisioning actual necktie popcorn is also a weirdly enjoyable thought. In fact, nailing down Choate’s poetics with this book is almost impossible given the multitude of readings many of these “poems” allow or refute.
horse by watching
What does someone do with a piece like “horse by watching?” Many works here deny any kind of limited reading because they just don’t make any “sense.” “Horse by watching” could be read as a kind of minimalist, concrete poem; it may even be a sort of pun on something like “hoarse from talking”—or it’s just some random shit thrown together. Much of Stingray Clapping echoes and updates Robert Grenier’s almost-forgotten Sentences, another enigmatic and seemingly nonchalant work of pure pleasure-granting experimental poetry. One of the more intriguing elements of both books is that they don’t make excuses. Choate isn’t rationalizing his “project” here; instead he seems to be celebrating a kind of lazy, half-assed aloofness throughout the work.
October 15th, 2012 / 12:00 pm