A Tribute to Michael McClure

Michael McClure Bio

Articles about McClure
Books by McClure
McClure in Victoria

Pacific Rim Review
Ekstasis Editions
Persian Pony

Intergalactic 80th Birthday Greetings for a Star

Essay by James Edward Reid

Michael McClure turns 80 this year. When I heard this, I pulled out my copy of Star, a book of his poems. It was the 1978 third printing of the collection of his poems published from 1964 to 1970. It was a time of great change and hope. His book and many others reflected what was happening. I took some of them down off my shelves. My recollections here reference books that I have. I have not referenced the music, art and film of the time.

The literati were getting all shook up in the 60s. Allen Ginsberg delivered The Fall of America: poems of these states 1965-1971. His pen pal William S. Burroughs brought out The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead in 1969, about halfway through a career that culminated in his powerful trilogy: Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads, and The Western Lands. Thomas Pynchon nailed a piece of the zeitgeist with The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), Hunter S. Thompson opened the can of worms in his paranoid consciousness: “We were somewhere outside of Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” More paranoia struck deep in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a book I read while working at a psychiatric hospital in South Porcupine. And just in case you weren’t paranoid enough, Richard Farina offered far too true and deep paranoia in Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me (1967). Keeping it all from getting too heavy, Fat Freddy’s Cat arrived in 1969, and most memorably shit in Fat Freddy’s headphones.

Reverse colonization began to sweep north from Latin America into North America. In the space of two years, 1969 and 1970, two major translations of Pablo Neruda’s poetry appeared. Everyone seemed to be reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1971). In 1969, the troubled giant, Ezra Pound published Drafts and Fragments of Cantos, with that haunting line, the farewell line in his collected Cantos, “To be men not destroyers.”

The spiritual world opened up beyond church on Sunday morning. In 1968 I heard Chögyam Trungpa speak at a church on Bloor Street just east of Yonge in Toronto. His appearances and books made him one of most effective teachers of Tibetan Buddhism in North America. The 1968 edition of the Tibetan Book of the Dead poked out of knapsacks, occasionally accompanied by the 1967 Wilhelm Baynes edition of the I Ching. The immensely readable New English Bible: With the Apocrypha appeared in the hands of Burning Bush Button wearers in 1970. Outside the box, John C. Lilly published The Human Biocomputer (1967) and The Center of the Cyclone (1972). And Castenada’s Don Juan (1968) turned out to be a hoax.

What was going on in the publishing world of Sexual Politics? The lights suddenly came on in the bedrooms with the publication of Masters’ and Johnson’s Human Sexual Response (1966). Scientific American described their research as a “very important field of investigation,” as if a previously unknown small creature had just been discovered, and brought to light. With 8,000 nerve endings, shouldn’t the clitoris have spread its wings and stepped into the spotlight before this? Germaine Greer launched The Female Eunuch (1970), the first of her many bull’s eye salvos. Feminist books flourished.

The fabric of the great Vietnam lie was unraveling. Daniel Ellsberg and the New York Times took a great risk with the publication of classified documents in The Pentagon Papers in 1971. Ellsberg is still speaking out today about the cruel and unjust treatment in prison of the US Army Private Bradley Manning, who is suspected of being the source of the hundreds of thousands of classified Army documents released to WikiLeaks. Alfred W. McCoy took another risk in pointing to American government involvement in the drug trade, with The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (1972). More of the bright shining lie was shredded with Philip Agee’s revelations in Inside the Company: CIA Diary, 1956-1974. Newspaper reporting from Vietnam that often tried to get it right during 1959-69 and 1969-75 was republished by the Library of America in Reporting Vietnam. Why were the streets at home in America burning? Martin Luther King and Malcolm X had been murdered. And more black books arrived: The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964), H. Rap Brown’s, Die Nigger Die! (1969), and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice (1968).

Alexander Solzhenitsyn survived hell, and shook up the USSR with The First Circle (1968) and Cancer Ward (1969). In retrospect, his early books seem like bomb tests for his horrific three volume Gulag Archipelago (1973, 1974 and 1976), that eventually helped to shatter the Soviet monolith. Buckminster Fuller pointed the way to a holistic approach in Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1969), and eventually published his two volume summa in the 1,469 pages of Synergetics (1975 and 1979). Still arguing for a deeper look at widespread environmental toxins, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) remained in print throughout this period, and laid the foundation for today’s environmental activism. The Ministry of the Environment (Environment Canada) was finally established in 1971.

Athletes moved toward independence. Since books about athletes often come later, we may recall that Sandy Koufax refused to pitch in Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. His team’s management was furious. In the late 1960s, the young Cassius Clay (Muhammed Ali) was still so fast in the boxing ring that his opponents rarely laid a glove on him, before they found themselves lying on the mat.

Susannah Moodie retreated to the bush as a sea change came to Canada. House of Anansi (founded 1967), New Press (1969), Coach House Books (1965), Douglas and McKintyre (1971), and Press Porcépic (1972) were part of a new wave of authors and Canadian publishing houses. Dave Godfrey’s The New Ancestors (1970) from New Press, won the Governor General’s Award over Robertson Davies' Fifth Business. The first chapter epigraph in Godfrey’s unprecedented book announced that a change was gonna come: “Dullness, after all, is the garment of nightmare.” Goddam Gypsy (1972), by the Montreal gypsy Ronald Lee, opened yet another door. White Niggers of America (1971) and The Assassination of Pierre Laporte: Behind the ’70 Scenario (1975) by Pierre Vallières shoved the soi disant Quiet Revolution right out the door and into the St Lawrence River. And if you were heading back to the land to get away from it all, you could take the Canadian Whole Earth Almanac (1970-71). And if you were really trying to figure out what was going on, you could read Marshall McCluhan’s The Medum is the Massage (1967), War and Peace in the Global Village (1968), and Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). Or you could attend his packed lectures at St. Michael’s College. For free.

For books, it was truly the best of times. The memoirs of two highly regarded editors and publishers, André Schiffrin in The Business of Books, and Jason Epstein in Book Business: Publishing Past Present and Future have both made it clear that we will never see another time as rich, varied, and profound in book publishing. “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom. It was the age of foolishness.” And Michael McClure’s young multicoloured motorcyclist on the cover of Star roared into it all. Happy 80th Birthday Michael!

James Edward Reid is a regular contributor to PRRB. He also publishes in The Sarmatian Review and Vallum: new international poetics, and most recently published “Inside the Glacier” in the Alaska journal Cirque.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #19