Michael McClure on Projective Verse - Part One

Jack Foley

Charles Olson’s ground-breaking essay, “Projective Verse,” was first published in Poetry New York in 1950 and was reprinted numerous times, perhaps most notably in Donald Allen’s famous anthology, The New American Poetry (Grove Press, 1960). Olson’s biographer, Tom Clark, writes in Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet’s Life,

Over the years no work of [Olson’s] would make more impact. William Carlos Williams wrote him within weeks of its appearance to proclaim it a “keystone”--“the most admirable piece of thinking about the poem I have recently, perhaps ever, encountered”...Williams soon gained [Olson’s] permission to reprint four entire pages of the essay’s text in his Autobiography, and in a prefatory note praised it for contributing a new way of “looking at poems as a field.”

Others fell in behind the essay’s theoretical banner. Cid Corman, assembling the debut issue of Origin, announced plans for an editorial charting the magazine’s future course “along the PROJECTIVE TRAIL”...He invited Olson to participate as contributing editor.


The idea of an open form...was characteristically oppositional in its historical context. “The New Criticism of that period was dominant,” as [Robert] Creeley has said. In theoretical terms--as well as, certainly, in terms of literary politics--the New Critical academic establishment which then controlled the nation’s English departments could appear a uniform repressive force, standing, with its forbidding phalanx of “poems patterned upon exterior and traditionally accepted models,” directly in the path of all modes of poetic experiment. “What confronted us in 1950,” Creeley observed some fifteen years later, “was a closed system [which] would not admit the possibility of verse considered as an ‘open field.’” Olson’s essay...distilled his prescriptions for the writing of verse into three basic elements...First there was “the kinetics of the thing”...A second principal emphasis was borrowed from a casual but catchy observation dropped by Creeley in the course of a...letter: “form is never more than an extension of content”...

Every poem...should have its own shape: the closed system had been exploded; there was no pattern left to adhere to but that of the poet’s own psychological and physical reality in the moment. This moment-to-moment quality was defined in a third and last step in the proposition--once again borrowed from a close ally, [Edward Dahlberg]:...ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION.


Jack Foley: This is Jack Foley, and my guest is Michael McClure. I’ve asked Michael to be on the show for a special reason. At this point Michael is probably the most prominent intentional practitioner of “projective verse” alive. Many of you will not know what projective verse is. It’s the title of an essay by Charles Olson (1910-1970), and a poetic practice. Charles Olson regarded his own poetry as a kind of projective verse, and he published an essay about it fifty years ago, in 1950. It became a famous essay, and it influenced many people in a lot of very different kinds of ways. Among the people who are writing projective verse currently are Diane di Prima, Sharon Doubiago, and in fact a whole bunch of other people. Some practitioners are no longer alive. Michael took a stand about projective verse in one of his books, Simple Eyes (1994):

My poetry is not written in free verse but in a poetics that Charles Olson called projective verse. Those who have not read my poetry before will discover that I write with a breath line and that I listen to the syllable as it appears in my voice or on the tip of my pen or on my screen or on my field of energies.

Rather than being an untutored or naive form of poetry, projective verse is the most difficult to write; not only is it the most new, it is also capable of including, and sometimes does include, the old shapes of iambs and metric counts and rhymes and near rhymes.

Michael, what got you involved with projective verse?

Michael McClure: In 1954, when I was about twenty-two years old, I was fortunate in taking a class from Robert Duncan, his first poetry workshop. In that workshop, one of the extraordinary things Robert did was not so much to introduce us to poetry--although he gave us plenty of books that we were not familiar with to go look at and read; many of these (besides Olson and Zukofsky) were Black Mountain poets. What he did in class most exceptionally was to take poems by the workshop members and show us what in fact was the poetry of them, what we were doing that was poetry, what lines were poetry, what had a poetics, what didn’t have a poetics, what had energy, and what lacked energy. At the time, Robert Duncan himself was writing his book, Letters [written 1953-1956; the first twenty-two of Olson’s Maximus Poems were written slightly earlier: from the winter of 1949-1950 through May, 1953]. My family and I became closely acquainted with Robert Duncan and his lover, Jess Collins, and we spent time with them. I was familiar with a number of the poems in Letters as Duncan wrote them, poems in which he was, I saw in retrospect, trying out the possibilities of projective verse, trying for instance to write the longest line he could write, or trying to write the line that captured the breath in the most melodic way. I retract “trying”: succeeding in doing these things. These were practice in projective verse, which he did not call projective at the time. Robert, as I knew him personally in home sessions with him and dinners with him, ceaselessly proposed to me the stature and energy and integrity of, particularly, Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, and Robert Creeley. Incessantly proposed to me projective verse--which I didn’t clearly understand for the first year or two.

Jack Foley: Had you read Olson’s essay?

Michael McClure: I’m sure, since Robert was reading it, I read it pretty quickly--in less than a year’s time of our meeting. In the meantime, I was reading a lot of Olson, and one should remember that something very different was going on in that day. Today you pick up a book of Olson’s or a book of Robert Creeley’s, and it’s a Selected or a Collected Poems. Their avant garde publisher at that time--both Creeley’s and Olson’s--was Jonathan Williams, who managed Jargon Press. And Jargon Press was publishing Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems--individually called “Letters”--in a large book size, so that you could see the energy of the poem on the page. You could see the graphs of energy as they came out on the page and you could see the sweep of the poem as it continued and extended itself. It was not only a visual meeting but auditory also  because Charles came to town to give a set of lectures: he gave one at my house, one at Robert’s house, and many people were interested. People like Jack Spicer were there, although Jack was not sympathetic. So we heard Olson. We saw Olson on the page as he probably should be seen, since Jonathan Williams was a student of Charles’s and was publishing those oversize letterpress  books in a way that Charles would want them to be done. Creeley at this time was probably still in Majorca or I was still looking at his early books from Majorca from Divers Press. These were one poem to the page, so that you saw a small, lyrical poem laid out on the page as a projective poem. I had no doubt that Creeley’s poems were projective poems and that with Olson and Creeley I was looking at two extremes of projectivity: the epic thrust of Charles’s work and the intensely personal, jazz-like, Miles Davis style of Creeley’s. Creeley’s poetry integrated the sound of blues and the sound of jazz into his sweep of personal lyricism. It was clear to me (before I accepted projectivity as my way of writing) that “Projective Verse”--Olson’s essay--is not a doctrine in any way whatsoever. It is a proposal.

Jack Foley: A “project.”

Michael McClure: No, I mean a proposal. If you look at the writing of it, Charles says, “Look here, I’ve found...” or “Can you see that this is possible?” or “Do you see that this has happened?” And then he shows you how he goes to the inspiration: the inspiration goes to the heart, goes to the breath, and then he writes the poem by syllable--by sound, but willfully by syllable before word. This was clearly there in Creeley too. Olson called Creeley his “outrider,” if I remember correctly. So Creeley was outriding in the lyrical direction what Olson was pushing in--let’s call it the new epic direction. I was looking at two extremes of possibility. And of course I saw Larry Eigner as projective too.

Jack Foley: I think he would have agreed.

Michael McClure: I have no doubt that he was projective--whether he even willed it or not. Larry was unable to (and there was no need to) separate himself from the exigencies and energies and realities of his physical condition and his breathing because he was laboring with an extreme condition of cerebral palsy and was giving us his personal vision of the world.

Jack Foley: Olson actually mentions him in the “Maximus Poems.” He’s a character in them [Volume 3, page 184].

Michael McClure: I was familiar with Olson and familiar with Creeley. As a matter of fact I edited a magazine called Ark II / Moby I in 1956 and included “The Librarian” by Olson and “The Ballad of the Despairing Husband” by Creeley. “The Librarian” is a project in memoir, hymn, energy--long poem. Creeley’s “The Ballad of the Despairing Husband” would be another extreme of projective verse, which would be

My wife and I lived all alone.
Contention was our only bone.

In this and similar poems Creeley is allowing himself to utilize those parts of himself that he’s inherited from his childhood as he is utilizing the parts of himself that he has deeply studied in contemporary jazz and older blues, so that we hear what sounds like traditional song and in fact has roots in traditional song because Robert was immersed in traditional song, whether it was Herrick or Leadbelly or Cecil Taylor. Consequently I did not ever see boundaries on what projective verse should be. You can take Olson as being the formulator of a proposal--poetry may be written like this--and you can take Creeley as his outrider. Robert Duncan persuaded me that Denise Levertov was a projective poet too. Now, I have no idea what Denise would have said about that, but I was reading her that way: her heritage from Williams is absolutely apparent, but I was seeing it as projective verse too. The background to this to a large extent was the quarterly publication of a magazine called Origin and the publication, yearly or half yearly, of Black Mountain Review. These magazines included people of extreme gifts such as Gael Turnbull. That was another extreme of the possibilities of projective verse: the sheer sweetness of sound and of delicacy that Turnbull could draw upon. And also there were the early and middle poems of Paul Blackburn, which I took as projective verse. They were heavily Poundian, but then Pound was a major source for Olson too. You can say that Pound was a source for Olson and Blackburn, yes, but I think projective verse is there. That’s what Blackburn was practicing--as well as many, many other poets. You’d have to go look at Origin and Black Mountain Review to get an idea of who these poets were, but all of those who were connected with Black Mountain College, where Olson was rector, were probably projective. 

Jack Foley: As you were talking, I could see instances in your own work of both the smaller kind of projective modes--in which you’re writing songs and even haiku--and at the same time the epic sweep. Both of these are very important to you. One of the things that interested me is that you centered your verse on the page. We haven’t really talked about the way in which Olson “scatters” the poem, as Allen Ginsberg said of him in an interview with me: a “grand scattering of the mind” [“‘Same Multiple Identity’: An Interview with Allen Ginsberg,” O Powerful Western Star]. Olson scatters the poem on the “field” of the page. You certainly do that too, very often. But one of the ways projective verse seems to go for you is that you center your poems. Even Olson returns to some kind of left-hand margin. Though he moves the margin, often, to the right, he’ll often return to the left, whereas you started centering your poems. Forty years ago, that was a very difficult thing to do! 

Michael McClure: It was rare to center. It was either art printing or one of the 17th-century English Metaphysicals. It was considered a snobbish peculiarity when I did it. Before I talk about centering the poems, though, I want to point out the extremes that projective verse has taken in my own work. I’ve been looking at these lately. One would be the verse pattern of my first play, Blossom. About 1957 I became a convert to projective verse myself rather than an admirer of it. Although I loved Olson’s and Creeley’s poetry, up to 1956, even 1957, I was puzzled by it. Then about 1957--after Olson gave his lectures in San Francisco--I sat down and read “Projective Verse” aloud. And while I read it aloud, another poet--I think Kirby Doyle--came in. Then another poet came in, then another poet came in. It was in beautiful surroundings. I had a wonderful, huge, cheap apartment above Jay DeFeo’s place. It was really studio space. On the walls were Bruce Conner’s and George Herms’s and Jess Collins’s art works--and Jay DeFeo was painting  “The Rose” downstairs. I was sitting there on a mattress on the floor reading “Projective Verse” out loud. Kirby Doyle, who was a near-by neighbor, came walking in. Then other poets came walking in. And I continued reading. When I was done, there was a sense of I got it; I’m projective. I looked back at what we would call today “deconstructions” of poems like “For the Death of 100 Whales,” and I could see that my shifting from the ballad pattern to the projective pattern there was probably my earliest acceptance of projective verse--if not in the writing of “Point Lobos: Animism.” I’m talking about early poems, poems in my first book, Passages, which was, like Olson and Creeley’s books, published by Jonathan Williams. I was being accepted into the projective canon willy-nilly.

Jack Foley: Jonathan Williams recognized the kinship even where you didn’t.

Michael McClure: Yes, he recognized the kinship and published my first book in 1956, a year before I completely accepted projective verse--before I said, Eureka! I got it completely! I want to mention one of my first extreme uses of it--although it is an extreme form and it calls for extremity. (It doesn’t have that extremity now, people can understand my poems today, they claim--and I’m glad, I always wanted them to!) I wrote a violent play called The Blossom about Billy the Kid after his death, swirling in eternity with the other characters in the Lincoln County Range War. They have all come together in eternity as beings and voices no longer knowing who they were, screaming and shouting and simpering and cooing and whimpering and snarling at one another. It’s done in projective verse, extreme projective verse. I was interested in using projective verse as a form of self-dramatization. I believe a number of us were interested in self-dramatization. You could take “Howl” as self-dramatization. You could take “Berry Feast” by Gary Snyder as an illuminated form of self-dramatization. (Now, I’m not calling those projective verse; I’m just talking about self-dramatization.) I realized that projective verse was a tool, an instrument, a proposal.



Jack Foley