Michael McClure on Projective Verse -
Somebody--was it you?--was just talking to me the other day about the
physical difficulty of centering poems. You had to count each letter in
the line and then divide by two and make almost a little graph on the
page. There would be all these mathematical formulas to get it centered
by means of the typewriter. I remember one time Jack Spicer came across
a manuscript of mine which had all the small numbers on it at the ends
of lines and things. He asked Robert Duncan what magic I was performing!
It must have looked to him like the Kabbala or something.
They are energy representations; they have to do with self-experience.
And certainly breath is the first reason.
But Olson never centered--though he certainly talked about the breath.
He never wrote a poem in the shape that Creeley wrote one either. I
don’t think he was ever as devoutly fixated on the vertical
possibilities of the page as Larry Eigner was. And I don’t think
anybody played with the page more gracefully than in the early poems of
Paul Blackburn. If you look through those old Origin magazines
and those old Yugen magazines, or you look through the
publications of Jonathan Williams’ Jargon Press, you’ll see some
extraordinary uses of field. I would say that it’s difficult for
people today to see what projective verse is because they don’t have
examples. Also, they don’t have anyone preaching it to them. I
literally had Robert Duncan preaching it to me. And I was stupid. I was
the dummy. It took me a year or so to get it even when I knew the people
who were doing it and enjoyed their poetry.
We’re all dumb students! You haven’t mentioned Diane di Prima, who
also, I think, is practicing a form of projective verse.
I think she is. I don’t know what Diane would say about that. We can
I think she would agree. I’ve talked to her a little bit about this.
You might think that Gary Snyder is practicing projective verse, but he
is not because he says he’s not, and if you say you are not,
you are certainly not practicing projective verse. I don’t think
Robert Duncan ever came right out and said, “I am practicing
projective verse.” But what he did was to open up the possibilities. I
once did a play called The Grabbing of the Fairy. It’s a masque
comedy. In this fairy play my intention in sitting down to write
it--besides carrying out the image in my mind of the play--was to take
control of the stage at all levels and all depths. I literally set about
to do it. I’d written a play earlier called The Button, and I
said, “Well, that’s good, I’m using the stage vertically, but
I’m not using stage right, stage left, front and back stage.” So I
wanted to write a play in which I was using all the stage. As I said
earlier, I believe that in Letters Robert Duncan was
experimenting with the possibilities and punctualities and perceptions
and freedoms of projective verse, and it’s after that that he utilizes
these things and then what he’s writing begins to look like organized
form: it looks like it’s less being played around with on the page.
He’s already played it around the page in every way that he wanted to
and now he has control over that, he’s presenting it this way. I was
doing something similar with theater.
Two things occur to me as you’re saying that. One is that you were
thinking of the stage itself, of the entire theater, as what Olson would
have called “the field.”
For Olson, you can put a word anywhere on the page, it’s ok. This is
in addition to the breath idea--since breath is sequential and poems
have to be read aloud sequentially. For Olson, there’s also the space
idea, in which words can be scattered around the page in a spatial
way--which of course is something that you do too in addition to
centering. Also, I love Duncan’s Letters
and I think you’re right about it, but the book I would have used
would probably have been The Opening of the Field (1960), which
has the sense of a beginning. And the word “field” in the
title is clearly a reference to Olson, who was interested in “field
theory” and “field techniques.” It’s interesting because the
minute you open Duncan’s book, you come upon “Often I am permitted
to return to a meadow,” in which the word “field” shifts from
Olson’s “field theory” idea--the idea of an electromagnetic
“field”--to the idea of a meadow, grass. Yet the Olson meaning
doesn’t disappear. So you have both. The book is in a way a loving
tribute to Charles Olson by a man who is also doing something different
at the same time.
Oh, I think The Opening of the Field is projective verse.
I’m not saying it’s not.
I think Duncan could not have written The Opening of the Field
without preparing the soil with Letters, by finding out how many
directions he could go. It’s there that he acknowledges it. One thing
that disappoints me about The Opening of the Field is this: the
page is too small. I was one of the early people to get a computer--or a
word processor--and I thought that I would be able to use it like a
field. The problem that I ran across--which I think will solve itself
soon--is that the field on the page of the computer is smaller than the
page that I’m used to on the 8 1/2 x 11 sheet. I thought that probably
we would be able to get more onto it, and probably there’s
equipment out there by which you can and I’m just not using it. I’d
like to get more lines on the page, make a bigger field, and scroll
through it so you have the field moving organismically with a surge
towards a forward position in time and a tentativeness as to where
When Kerouac wrote On
the Road he wrote it on a roll of telegraph paper, which was one
continuous roll: he didn’t have to keep taking the paper out of the
typewriter. That’s very like what you get with the computer.
Yes. But I think we need a bigger page to look at, a bigger piece of the
field to see at one time. Kirby Doyle wrote Happiness Bastard, a
huge comic novel, on a roll of telegraph paper--and Kirby played with
page form a lot to emphasize space and comedy. A clobbered version of Happiness
Bastard was published but there’s still a clean carbon of the
original around. Kirby was equally aware of Olson, Kerouac and Burroughs
as he wrote.
Olson’s essay was published in 1950. He bases what he says in the
typewriter, rather than in the computer. He’s using the tab function
on the typewriter to move the margin and to use other parts of the page.
You don’t have to go all the way back to the left-hand margin, the way
you do in prose all the time. With the tab function of the typewriter
you can use more parts of the page. The computer of course can do far
more, but we should add one thing: E-mail--at least as presently
constituted--does not reproduce the subtle possibilities of formatting
which the computer allows for: it will often destroy the poem as
“field.” Consequently, the wide dissemination of poetry by e-mail
tends to encourage a return to the left-hand margin.
There’s somebody else I want to ask you about, because he’s
important for you explicitly and implicitly for Olson too. That’s the
great 19th-century French poet, Stéphane Mallarmé
I was surprised that Mallarmé hadn’t yet come into this conversation.
You can’t imagine projective verse without painter Jackson Pollock
(1912-1956) and you can’t imagine it without Stéphane Mallarmé’s A
Throw of the Dice (1897), which opens up not only the page but opens
up the pages facing one another, making an extremely large field
and, in addition, utilizing four sizes of type plus italicizing.
Again, something which can be done fairly easily today with the
computer, but which was in Mallarmé’s day
very hard to do. Mallarmé himself couldn’t actually do it.
He could only propose it to the typesetter, who could then do it.
Of course he did it in big notebooks: le livre. A large part of
the time I was writing in notebooks too, and I write centered. If
anybody sees my manuscripts they’ll discover that it’s as natural
for me to write on the center, as it is apparently natural for, say,
Leonardo da Vinci to write backwards, mirror style. It’s perfectly
normal to me.
You mentioned Pollock and I thought of “swirls.” There are a great
many in his work.
If you read “Projective Verse” aloud, as I did, you will find that
Olson really pushes at the idea that one perception must follow
immediately upon another. That is of course the energy. Not only do you
have to have the energy in the syllables, there has to be the energy in
the perceptions following one another or it goes dead and you can’t
write it. And if people don’t see this on a single page--as in the
Jargon edition of the Maximus poems (1960) or in one of Robert
Creeley’s Divers Press editions of his own poetry or Larry Eigner’s
poetry--then they won’t get it.
The New Directions Selected
Writings by Charles Olson (1966), that was edited by Creeley--though
I don’t know that he had anything to do with format--doesn’t give
you that as clearly as seeing the Maximus poems in the Jargon
edition. In the Selected Writings Olson has to include a special
note: “The lines which hook-over should be read as though they lay out
right and flat to the horizon or Eternity."
I don’t think we can fault publishers for this: this is the way of the
world. The problem here is one of scholarship. Young writers today have
no time to look anything up in the original; they’re looking it up on
the net. And the net is good for some things, of course--as long as they
don’t want content!
The complete Maximus
Poems, edited by the late George F. Butterick, was published by the
University of California Press in 1983. The page size is fine, but the
book is so thick it’s hard to get into. It’s better if they’re
published in separate volumes.
You know, we sound like old fogeys! Let me say this. Projective verse is
certainly the most difficult way to write. We took it as an answer to
free verse. Free verse was “the end of the line” and had become
utterly academic. Williams’ “variable foot” is a sweet idea, but--
It doesn’t really work!
It doesn’t work for anyone else. It doesn’t account for
energy--which he knew about. A young poet confronts that and doesn’t
understand how the ear and energy come out of a lot of rich cultural
W.C. Williams published most of Olson’s “Projective Verse” in his Autobiography
(1951). Williams was impressed with Olson’s essay. It’s
interesting your seeing projective verse as an alternative to free
verse--which I think is quite right. At the point of which you’re
speaking, free verse was beginning to become the major way in which
poetry was taught in the universities.
It was the major way in which poetry was taught in universities, and
young academics who were pretending that they weren’t academics
were cranking it out by the mile. You can crank out miles of free
Yes, it’s bad prose. Broken prose. One of the things that’s been
happening with the New Formalism is that its practitioners tend to talk
about free verse versus formal verse. Sometimes you write in one, they
say, sometimes you write in another, as in the case of Thom Gunn or Dana
Goia. But by free verse they mean something that returns to the
left-hand margin. I think your
version of projective verse is a wonderful response to the either/or
problem postulated by the New Formalists. Projective verse allows for
both within a single form.
I know how to write forms. I’ve written most of them: sonnets, ballads,
sestinas, villainelles, sapphics--and I love those forms. Parts of them
sneak into my projective verse. I truly love them. But I believe that if
you follow forms closely today it would be difficult to make poetry of
significant energy. I can imagine that there are people who might be able
to. But I haven’t seen it. People like Lewis Turco write books about
these forms and write poems in these forms--it’s charming--but it
doesn’t do much more for me other than to be a wonderful museum exhibit.
What you’ve done is arrive at a mode of verse in which formal elements
are possible and free elements are possible in a dance that can include
both. The only person I can think of who is close to that is Louis
Zukofsky--though there’s also some of that in Robert Duncan. Zukofsky
can write pieces which are very formal within a larger context which
isn’t formal at all.
I don’t think there’s much formal in my work. Another vocabulary is
necessary to discuss energy shapes, bio-poetic energies, and swirls. Real
poetry seems alive and shaped but not formed like a floor or wall. Poetry
is moss and muscle and numinousness.
You are per-formal. Performance is an aspect of your work.
Sometimes, yeah. Thank you, Jack.