Inside Dolphin Skull: Michael McClure

Inside Dolphin Skull

In his seminal post-modern essay Projective Verse, Charles Olson suggests that the “stance toward reality that brings such verse into being” is a change “larger than the technical” and may “lead to new poetics and new concepts from which some…epic may …emerge” (Olson 239). Surely the epic Olson had in mind was something along the lines of his own Maximus, or perhaps Robert Duncan’s Ground Work, yet no projective poem has the force of this organismic worldview, with a myriad-mindedness, consistent energy and literary skill, in a manner superior than Michael McClure’s Dolphin Skull. At sixty-six pages, it cannot be seriously considered an epic poem, though it does have the history and culture of post-World War II America all over it. Yet it certainly is the pinnacle of projection as far as 20th century poetry is concerned due to the consistently high level of consciousness it enacts in the reader open enough to take it in.

‘Perhaps it will please someone else and they may appropriate it for their own consciousness’ (McClure 71)

Michael McClure was born in Marysville, Kansas on October 20, 1932, but grew up in Seattle and expected to be a naturalist. It did not work out that way after he attended a poetry workshop given by Robert Duncan in the early 50’s in San Francisco, but how many poets get blurbs from people like Francis Crick:

I love the vividness of his reactions and the very personal turns and swirls of the lines. The worlds in which I myself live, the private world of personal reactions, the biological world (animals and plants and even bacteria chase each other through the poems), the world of the atom and molecule, the stars and the galaxies, are all there; and in between, above and below, stands man, the howling mammal, contrived out of “meat” by chance and necessity. If I were a poet I would write like Michael McClure – if only I had his talent. (See ‘The Poetry of Michael McClure’ by Francis Crick.)

Crick won a Nobel Prize for his investigation into the structure of the DNA molecule, the double helix. McClure understands the intersection of poetry and science perhaps better than anyone ever has, but says if either is not used to “change one’s life they are meaningless” (McClure xvi). McClure states this in the author’s preface to Three Poems the book in which Dolphin Skull was first published. That preface is one of the most succinct, clear and knowledgeable statements on projective verse ever, clearly showing with the enclosed poems, that McClure is the prime projective practitioner.

The best advice for appreciating the projective is McClure’s suggestion that: “What is urgent is not the quantity that is understood as one reads a poem, but how much one uses the richness of one’s being to have the experience of the poem” (McClure xvi). As a projective poet for over half a century, he understands that: “To write spontaneously does not mean to write carelessly or without thought and deep experience. In fact, there must be a vision and a poetics that are alive and conscious…When the poem is finished I listen to it…and see that it has a deeper consciousness and brighter thoughts than I was aware of while writing” (McClure xv).

This fact is what the poet writing in the projective, (open, organic) will, over time, come to understand, trust and develop. There is a consciousness available to the artist creating this way and it is an ecstatic state in which nothing else matters but the take, not unlike the practice of the jazz soloist, the action painter, the calligrapher or the experience of any number of other spontaneous art form practitioners. McClure has so perfected his craft that he has access to myriad deep fields of resonance which inform his poems like few others writing in post World War II North America. It is the long practice of the projective, combined with the poet’s talent and the power of the fields, including the collective unconscious, into which he taps, which accounts for the power behind this poem and that of the best of McClure’s work.

A Personal Universe

In a lecture given at the Naropa Institute on July 17, 1976, McClure gave students the rules for constructing a personal universe deck. This deck was to be the personal universe of willing students signified in one hundred words. The rules included that the words exemplify the past, present and future of the student, that they sound good together, that they show the bad side of the student as well as those words coming from “your angel-food self” (Waldman, Webb 89). All but one of these words were to be concrete and to be evenly divided between the five senses. Of course this process is steeped in the Pound-Williams school of imagism, but the notion of constructing cards to create a personal universe also gets the student practitioner into the realm of personal mythology, a deep level of consciousness. The opening lines of Dolphin Skull are certainly taken from McClure’s personal universe and they show, from the very beginning of this poem, the power and consciousness of his craft:

SO THE OWL HOOTS: Turquoise. Musk. White linen.
Deer in the yard –

a stag with antlers.

There is so much in these first two lines. The first thing one notices is that all but one of the five senses are immediately engaged and the taste of blackberries is not too far away. So, on to the depth of McClure’s personal mythological imagery. The owl is seen in many cultures as a harbinger of death. In American Indian culture it also evokes wisdom and divination (Cooper 124). Of course something must first die so that the energy can be used in something new. Death/Rebirth is one of the seven basic archetypes (Williams 271) and this is where McClure begins his own journey. Turquoise is another image which evokes Native America. It is also associated with a definition of spiritual health and well-being (Rain 619), as well as with the throat, or communication charka (Martin 40). In fact Joseph Martin suggests it increases energy levels, enhances connections to spirit energy, and keeps one open and alert, or as he says: “…keeps your body in a ‘ready to move state’” (Martin 40). Musk evokes the sense of smell, something we get over and over in the poem, from the smell of mackerel baking to the leaves and odors of Vietnamese basil to smell the pot roast and the noodles.

This last image comes after the line I / have / blown up! / Blown up and cooked myself over a fire. So the notion of death/rebirth not only starts the poem, but is a key theme. But we are only on line one, with musk, which: “…connotes a down to earth personality; one close to the earth; possessing primal (basic) spiritual beliefs without superficiality” (Rain 396). The last of the first four senses engaged, white linen, evokes another key theme of Dolphin Skull, sensuality. There are many passages which are quite sexy and McClure’s sensuality is part of the fire that underlies the potency of this poem. One such passage suggests, in McClure’s unique typography:

are glossy, erotic, my
grows underneath them
like a rock rolled up on a beach
by the edge of huge waves.
to you in my mind.

Yet it is bloodfire tempered by the wisdom of experience. Later in the book we get a sense of McClure’s early sensual life in the poem Dark Brown which has a graphic description of analingus decades before anyone put ads in the local alternative weekly seeking rimming. But at only the end of the third stanza of Dolphin Skull, he likens the sexual addiction of his young manhood to a CRUCIFIXION and gives us the capital letters to drive home his point.

So in this poem we will have a DEATH/REBIRTH, done with a spiritual health and well-being that suggests we be ready to move along with some unpretentious spiritual beliefs into something that feels very good. This is what is evoked in line one. In line two there is a deer in the yard. But not just any deer, a stag with antlers. Of course there is the immediate connection with nature, even though this nature is only Oakland, California. Yet, in the Oakland hills, McClure is aware of deer mingling with stellar jays, red tail hawks and other critters, so there is more than one might think when we visualize Oakland. But the stag connotes the solar, renewal, creation, fire, the dawn, virility. The stag trampling the serpent suggests the power of good over evil, of spirit over matter (Cooper 158) but dualism wouldn’t likely be McClure’s intention. In fact, later in the poem a rattlesnake is trampled, by the pony of memory. The stag also represents: “…a personal choice to accomplish something by one’s self” and this is also amplified by one of the most beautiful lines in the poem: Breaking up rainbows of agonies into actions. But on to the last of the five senses, taste. Blackberries are another thematic element in Dolphin Skull but are also one of McClure’s personal mythological symbols. He once released a book of poems entitled September Blackberries. Now we’ve all seem images of old cars in the slow process of becoming dirt through the tendrils of blackberry vines looping through the broken windows, so we can imagine blackberries as a symbol of regeneration, or as Seattle poet Paul Hunter put it: “…infiltrating and turning to sweet fruit/whatever we abandon or neglect” (Hunter 4). But it has ancient magical connotations: “Powerful herb of protection and used in invocations to the goddess Brigit, who presides over healing, poetry, sacred wells, and smithcraft. Also used in wealth attracting spells” (Barlow, Bernice from

We’re only fourteen lines into the poem, we’ve skipped over other powerful attractor fields such as the ocean, aging, the dream realm and love. Yet there are at least three other fields of energy, expressed in the imagery of the first stanza of Dolphin Skull that deserve examination. The first is from the line As I get huger I become streams / stretching into shadows of memories. Yes, certainly memory is a powerful attractor field. The epigraph McClure uses for the poem is a Lapp proverb that says: The memories of one’s youth make for long long thoughts. But I asked him about the meaning of as I get huger and he suggested it was a state of consciousness. Without further elucidation from the author this remains somewhat mysterious and I am sure McClure does not have a problem with that notion. Yet I have had experiences of altered consciousness, even going back to youth, where I felt smaller not huger. I felt as if I were tiny and the park in which I played outfield during my little league years was enormous.

But there is a hugeness in the consciousness of this poem and because of McClure’s depth of experience, writing skill and process, he is able to bring those who are open into that hugeness. The second of the final three images of stanza one is blackness, as in Blackness is just a mask of fat for somebody. This is the second time in the book McClure evokes the image of blackness, the first being the books’ epigraph: Once this was all Black Plasma and Imagination. Black is, of course, not a color, but the absence of reflected light, as we learned in grammar school science. Yet it also is an archetypal strange attractor and a powerful one at that. Think Black Holes. In McClure’s projective practice we can take black for whatever it evokes in us, as his is a process which allows the reader comfortable with negative capability to draw their own conclusions, but in his universe, you can bet that black is the stage before something huge begins to emerge. The final notion in stanza one is: The clouds are alive. This can be seen simply as animism (in itself not such a simple concept, but one ascribed to so-called primitive cultures,) but in truth, it is where McClure lives, in the crossroads where shamanism meets 20th century science. Everything IS alive and it is another of the themes of Dolphin Skull. McClure abstains from the word shaman, feeling it overused but does suggest everything has consciousness.

Yet McClure’s notion of consciousness is sourced in a very old world view not only akin to the holistic stance toward reality Olson referenced in Projective Verse, alluded to at the top of this essay, but one that may be traced through Olson’s source, Alfred North Whitehead, to the cultures that were (and to some degree still are) much more partial to the holistic/interconnected world view McClure references with the above line and others from Dolphin Skull.

Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra

One of McClure’s source texts is the book by Francis Cook entitled: Hua-Yen Buddhism and Hua-Yen is mentioned as a source in the introduction for Three Poems. It refers to a Chinese school of Buddhism known as Hua-Yen or Flower Ornament. Cook sets the context of the holistic/process orientation of this mode of thinking when he points out that the “tendency in the West has been to analyze rather than unify, to discriminate rather than see all as one, to make distinctions rather than see all qualities within each datum of experience” and that “people ordinarily think and experience in terms of distinct separate entities, while Hua-Yen conceives of experience primarily in terms of the relationships between these same entities.” He also points out that Western physicists have drawn the conclusion that “relationship is the more fundamental” (Cook 8). Michael Faraday is credited with the early scientific work in field theory, preceding the scientists to whom Cook refers and Faraday, working in the 19th century, noted that “an electric charge must be considered to exist everywhere.” Cook also points out that Whitehead paraphrased that by saying: “the modification of the electromagnetic field at every point of space at each instant owing to the past history of each electron is another way of stating the same fact” (Cook 17). Here I am reminded of a section of the second part of Dolphin Skull which is entitled: Portrait of the Moment:

Point Lobos as it always is
with a whale skeleton
and molecules
of Robinson Jeffers’
breath and shoe soles
of my eyes
(sensing back and outwards into
a vision)
at the camera.

The history of the electrons that once made up the California poet to whom McClure refers, and the field of energy that represents, along with the sense of honoring the debt McClure owes to Jeffers as a California poet who preceded him. These are elicited in the projective act as Whitehead understood and which McClure has mastered, aligned with a Hua-Yen world view.

Not only are there no hierarchies in the Hua-Yen view, an emperor is as important as a sand-flea, but the alternative name Hua-Yen gave itself was: The Interdependent Origination of the Universe, thus, according to this world-view, everything is essentially empty, (as the Quantum Physicists of the 20th Century began to realize,) because everything depends on everything else for its existence, two themes which McClure suggests in the following manner:

“Mind” means nothing but consciousness –
a rock has it and a toadstool
and a field of subparticles in a complex protein
as it loops, tying a knot. A mouth
with a cock in it. Babies
crying in the next room. Blackberries
glisten with it and the webs covered
with dust and particles from car fumes
and the pollen of eucalyptus.

And also:

You are
I am nobody.
Nobody is very large

More of the Hua-Yen worldview, intentionally or not, is reflected in Dolphin Skull through the amazing imagery which reinforces (or creates) the powerful energy at work in the poem. Cook suggests: “the effort of self-transcendence, by which egotism, pride and delusion are destroyed, is accompanied by a parallel immersion even more deeply than before into the concrete world of things. Rather than banish things as unworthy such a vision reinstates the common and ordinary (as well as the “horrible” and “disgusting”) to a position of ultimate value” (Cook 88). I’m reminded of William Carlos Williams dictum: No ideas but in things as well as his appreciating the old man picking up dog lime in the gutter as much as the Preacher at his pulpit. I am also reminded of McClure’s references in the poem, admitting to being “sneaky and proud” as well as his likening the small “s” self to a parasite as in “the parasite of personality,” as well as unorthodox references to “cracker barrels where the dog pissed” or “eyes of starving families,” or “a friend blown up in a car wreck” (The friend in this case was Emmett Grogan of “The Diggers” fame).

Ultimately, Cook suggests the function of Hua-Yen thought: “is to be a lure which attracts the aspirant to the practice which will presumably culminate in an existential, or experiential validation of what was before only theory. At the same time it guides the aspirant in actual interrelationships, serving as a kind of template by means of which the individual may gauge the extent to which his actions conform to the reality of identity and interdependence” (Cook 109). McClure is successful, largely through his expertise at the projective practice, in translating this kind of experience into verse. Robert Hunter points out in the introduction to Three Poems that McClure: “reports with …fastidious exactness” and that his objects (images) are “clear and present” (McClure ix). In my view, Dolphin Skull is the crowning achievement of a consciousness and practice which enacts one of the most powerful attractor fields, that of compassion, which Cook suggests is “inextricably bound up with perception” (Cook 121). It is for these reasons I feel that Dolphin Skull will still resonate 1,000 years from now and is the primary proof so far, that a projective practice leads to a deepening of consciousness. One need only be interested in transcendence for the poem to begin its magic of transformation, or as McClure said:

pretend this is not blackness.
This is not blackness, this
is a bell ring.

Works Cited

Barlow, Bernice, eds. Llewellyn’s 1999 Magical Almanac (St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1999)

Cook, Francis, Hua Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra (Delhi: Sri Satguru, 1994)

Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1979)

Hunter, Paul Ode to the Blackberry (Seattle: Wood Works, 1996)

McClure, Michael Three Poems (New York: Penguin, 1995)

Olson, Charles Collected Prose (Berkeley: California, 1997)

Rain, Mary Summer In Your Dreams: The Ultimate Dream Directory (Charlottesville: Hampton Roads, 2004)

Waldman, Webb, eds. Talking Poetics from Naropa Institure (Boulder: Shambhala, 1978)

Williams, Strephon Kaplan Jungian-Senoi Dreamwork Manual (Berkeley: Journey, 1980)

Leave a Reply