Michael McClure on Projective Verse - Conclusion

Jack Foley


Michael McClure: 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!

Jack Foley: It must have looked to him like the Kabbala or something.

Michael McClure: They are energy representations; they have to do with self-experience. And certainly breath is the first reason.

Jack Foley: But Olson never centered--though he certainly talked about the breath.

Michael McClure: 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.

Jack Foley: We’re all dumb students! You haven’t mentioned Diane di Prima, who also, I think, is practicing a form of projective verse.

Michael McClure: I think she is. I don’t know what Diane would say about that. We can ask her.

Jack Foley: I think she would agree. I’ve talked to her a little bit about this.

Michael McClure: 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.

Jack Foley: 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.”

Michael McClure: Yes, exactly.

Jack Foley: 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.

Michael McClure: Oh, I think The Opening of the Field is projective verse.

Jack Foley: I’m not saying it’s not.

Michael McClure:  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 it’s going.

Jack Foley: 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.

Michael McClure: 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.

Jack Foley: 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 (1842-1898).

Michael McClure: 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.

Jack Foley: 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.

Michael McClure: 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.

Jack Foley: You mentioned Pollock and I thought of “swirls.” There are a great many in his work.

Michael McClure: 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.

Jack Foley: 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."

Michael McClure: 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!

Jack Foley: 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.

Michael McClure: 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--

Jack Foley: It doesn’t really work!

Michael McClure: 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 sources.

Jack Foley: 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.

Michael McClure: 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 verse.

Jack Foley: 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.

Michael McClure: 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.

Jack Foley: 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.

Michael McClure: 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.

Jack Foley: You are per-formal. Performance is an aspect of your work.

Michael McClure: Sometimes, yeah. Thank you, Jack.

Jack Foley