A Pair of Poets

Current Obsession No. 4


Two wild-child members of their distinct generations. Two very different writers for whom language was a passionate operation. Michael McClure is the elder, born in Kansas fifteen years before Frank Stanford arrived in Mississippi, and he has now outlived his younger colleague by more than four decades. (Stanford committed suicide in 1978, just shy of 30 years old.) I’m currently reading and rereading McClure’s Ghost Tantras, as goo-ga a book as 1964 might have seen, a kind of roaring, sputtering ur-text of hum/animal utterance. Standard English mutates into all-caps nonsense, sound-joy meant to be savored aloud, simple horny exuberance oozed into writing. In 99 playful, sensuous proclamations one hears McClure as he morphs from being a central figure of the Beats through star-status as a hippie-whisperer, then mogrified into another entity altogether, something like the adrift character in Rudolph Wurlitzer’s Nog – continuously moving between categories (male/female, human/beast/plant/mineral/gas), notating these constant transformations with an aim, as he puts it, to create “a poetry of pure beauty and energy that does not mimic but joins and exhorts reality and states the daily higher vision.” It can be goofy, kid-like, dated, or idiotic, but I love it for its unbridled positivity. Here’s what “Ghost Tantra 85” looks like:

stooon grahh drahhr toomowr thown yeee bleesh nathoor coop stile peehn blash n’rooor
gahhr grahh gahoooor roooh grahhr
the brown silver grass-leaves in trillions – rustle
and move as fur of a vast breerth.
– The green spruce are hugging
ascending to a laughing leap.
Time & space whistle together where we
are non-mammalian
and our gahroon molecular voices yearn.
Brah theee ah hoool y’rahh thahr! Thoo!

On YouTube, there’s a beautiful little excerpt from a film called Abstract Alchemists of the Flesh, in which McClure reads some of the Tantras to animals at the San Francisco Zoo. My copy of Ghost Tantras, by the way, once belonged to Julian Beck, director of the Living Theatre; its title page bears his inscription. Cover by Wallace Berman.

Stanford is just about the diametric opposite of McClure. Where McClure is spontaneous and appears not to edit his spiraling love screed (see the pristine manuscript page reprinted as a frontispiece), Stanford is taut, making every word count, whittling everything down to lethal sharpness. In the unpublished The Last Panther in the Ozarks, excerpted in the compendium What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford, one finds the poem “To Find Directions,” with its single directive line: Go to the graveyard. (Is it too much to say that they’ve lived their lives like they wrote, McClure continuing unabated, Stanford cutting his short, the ultimate edit?) In these poems, beauty lies in wait in bleak, terse lines about death and memory, sex and death, death and minnows, lots of death, ghosts, but not ghost tantras, couched in realistic observation, backlit aura, told with the swagger of a rocker. They’re prose poems, stories or scenarios, sometimes mediations based in his homeland in the American south, often working people poems, poems of poverty and sadness with glints of reverie that do not last.

The Arkansas Prison System

Is like a lyric poem
with seven basic themes
first the cottonpicker
dragging behind it a wagon of testicles
a pair of pliers which can fill in
for a cross in a pinch
then there is the warm pond
between the maiden’s thighs
next we have some friends
of yours and mine
who shall be with us always
Pablo the artist
the pubis of the moon
Pablo the cellist
panther of silence
Pablo the poet
the point of no return
and in case of emergency
the seventh and final theme
of this systematic poem
is the systematic way
death undresses in front of you

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