The Flame Is Ours: The Letters of Stan Brakhage and Michael McClure, 1961 - 1978
Edited by Christopher Luna
Big Bridge, 2012 (PDF)
I live in a weird panta rhei between Hades and Eternity. I guess that condition is the babyness in my poems that allows them to be sweet and pure. It is a very sweet and pure and evil and loving and warring world.
- Michael McClure, Letter to Stan Brakhage, June 19, 1978
Letter writing is a dying art. Fewer and fewer people take the time to craft a sincere and spontaneous expression of their state of mind. Email is a feeble substitute. Electronic messages (for that is what they are, they rarely assume the character of a fully developed letter) are minted in a medium of pixel, pandemic isolation, and fiendish impatience. They are brusque, concise, blasé. Transmitted electronically, they reflect the various milieus by which they’re exchanged: the stifling cubicle of the corporate machine, the dystopic absurdities of Dilbert, the numbing inanities of a malignant and rampant narcissism.
At its best, an email can be a conversation of tremendous freshness and spontaneity. Its transmission is instantaneous. It has that advantage over the letter. Yet it never assumes the tangible warmth of a letter, the way it comes in the mail, is slipped out of a carefully opened envelope and held in the hands like a puzzling and rectangular flower.
The grandness of the letter as exchanged among writers and artists, dancers and choreographers, friends and travelers and lovers, has left a rich body of literature in its wake. I have come to understand the mind of John Keats much more closely and intimately through his letters, which are magnificent testaments of a nimble spirit given much more breadth for development in the relative informality of the letter. Imagine the joy of receiving a letter from Joyce, or Woolf, or Kerouac. If essays are swans, letters are sparrows. They lack the grace of a slow and languorous glide on smooth, quiet water, but have the quick clownish urgency of little hungry birds hopping and begging in the bustle of a street. They bear the happy charm of misspellings, droll and broken phrases imbued with the strange elegance of accident, the boil of impulse.
Michael McClure and Stan Brakhage became connected with one another in 1953. Brakhage was nineteen and living with Robert Duncan and Jess, working - as he put it - as their “houseboy,” helping with domestic chores and spending evenings in discussions about poetry and the work of other poets such as Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, Robin Blaser, Jack Spicer and Kenneth Rexroth. Painfully, Duncan made it clear to Brakhage that he was not a poet. “This was extremely painful to me,” Brakhage revealed in an interview in June, 1998, “but an important recognition. I could have wasted, God, half my life, all my life, trying to be a poet, and Robert Duncan made it clear to me how I’m not a poet. So my impulses which had begun with being apoet who made film went all the way over to film. Now I want to be clear about that, that a filmmaker is not a poet. He might be poetic, but I’ve always despised that word, with its “ticking”… I don’t want that appellation, because I respect poetry too much. I care more about poetry than I do any other art, always have, since I was a small child. But I am not a poet.”
McClure, who was a poet, evinced many of the qualities of Brakhage’s films in his work. McClure is a poet of tremendous physicality, of bodily movement and proprioception, the movement of the mind on the page. “The use of writing,” McClure observes in Scratching The Beat Surface, “is not to lead out but to enact and create appendages of the body, of personal physiology. Making a radiance or darkness into an actual morphological part, an extension even. But more a physiological part. An action and an action to be known by… I was convinced that poetry was about, by, and from, the meat, that poetry was the product of flesh brushing itself against experience.”
Cinema is implicit in the nature of poetry. It is all about movement, the actual process of thought, as distinct from a writer telling you his mind. Poetry is consciousness made vital and real as bone, as blood in its circulating rhythms, as muscle in its exertions and strains, as the nervous system illumining the brain with the halations and rushes of the external world. Language is to poetry what signage is to travel. One is static as a road sign, the other is a Benzedrine freak doing ninety in a Buick and grinning like a full moon over a beatific Colorado.
Brakhage moved to New York after his several years with Robert Duncan and Jess where he met John Cage and Edgar Varese and worked briefly with Hans Richter. It was during this time that his correspondence with McClure began. Their letters reflect a searching and an evolution mutually shared, each feeding the kind of nourishment artists desperately require in their early years, struggles on the material plane, struggles on the spiritual and psychological plane, details of daily life mixed with aesthetic breakthroughs and setbacks. “We live in the visions of highest genius,” McClure writes in an undated letter early in their correspondence, “each day we see through the eyes, brains, and physical spirits of Plato, Darwin, and Dante.” McClure includes a poem titled “Surge” in this letter, with the lines “Inert matters pour in and out of the Surge / and make sound and sight. But neither / they nor the Surge will wait. It is another matter / Space, Space, Space, is a black lilly holding the rosy / full, flowing, and everspreading and con- / trasting, spilling flash.”
“Spilling flash,” indeed. These lines are a verbal analogue to Brakhage’s films, imbued as they are with surge and light and immediacy and fast, eager, spasmodic movement.
Surge is a McClure word. Surge is a romantic and dramatic and King Lear word. One thinks of a storm surge. Words hurled at the sleet and lightning of heaven. Sperm in ejaculation. Volcanic eruption. Tidal wave. Ocean swell. A surge of dopamine. Opioid release. DNA hydrogen bonds splitting and binding in a surge of polymerase embrace. Solar flares. Plumes of solar expulsion whirling into space. Jackson Pollock’s storm of spontaneous color and movement and form in quest of form. Dog Star Man and its prelude of flashing flickering light. Particle collisions. Shelley Schiller Howl. Phosphates and sugar molecules in a dance of hydrogen jukebox pairings.
If there is a quality common to most of the letters of Brakhage and McClure, it is enthusiasm. Not in the trivialized sense of enthusiasm, but the literal meaning of enthusiasm: to be inspired by God. Greek entheos, possessed, or divinely inspired. Their shared aesthetic is astonishing considering that they were working in different mediums, language and film. There are correspondences in these mediums, of course; but one senses a profound distrust of language in both artists. Brakhage turned away from verbal expression while McClure evinces an obvious sensuality in the fragrance of the verbal flower. But as McClure’s Ghost Tantras testify, there is something else going on, an urge to tear through the inherent didacticism of language and get down to its primordial essence. Language interferes with the immediacy of experience, just as a camera is an obstacle as much as it is a tool. These guys had to fight with their medium as much as expand and dilate and delight in it. Yet always, throughout, is an enduring enthusiasm for what they’re doing, what they’re accomplishing, what they’re exploring and discovering and clarifying.
The enjoyment of letters is not simply whatever expository burden they might carry, but the more intimate details of a figure’s life. The gossip, the confessions, the inside dope.
I am not above enjoying gossip, and there is a plenty of that in these letters as well. At age 18, in 1966, McClure fascinated me for reasons that had as much to do with rock and roll as with the literary arts. This was a time when to be a poet was tantamount to being a rock star. This became dramatically and clearly apparent in Larry Keenan’s photo of Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Michael McClure and Robbie Robertson standing in front of City Lights bookstore, an image originally intended for the cover of Blonde On Blonde, easily my favorite Dylan album. These guys fascinated the hell out of me. What did they do when they hung out? What drugs did they take? Or not take? What were their politics? Phiosophies? Proclivities? How could I possible get that cool? Thanks to these guys, poets weren’t nerdy T.S. Eliot types or grouchy Ezra Pounds or schoolmarmish Marianne Moores, but flamboyant, swash and buckle rock stars. Jim Morrison wanted to be a poet, for crying out loud. McClure, in fact, helped him get his book of poetry published.
I was especially surprised to hear of McClure’s contretemps with Andy Warhol. Warhol has always kind of bugged me because he became such a symbol for the snooty hipster, the emotionally inaccessible wizard of all things sushi, swishy, and la-di-da. I will be forever grateful that he provided a milieu for the incubation of the Velvet Underground, and that wonderful banana, but it’s a secret delight to see McClure go after him in a towering rage. Go, Michael!
Here’s what happened: Gerard Melanga wrote to McClure asking permission, on behalf of Warhol, to use McClure’s play The Beard for making a 70 minute movie. There was some correspondence in which McClure entertained the idea, but in the end he decided against it. He told Warhol no. Warhol went ahead and made of movie of it anyway. “I jumped on a plane and flew to LA and picked up four beautiful girls and nailed Andy at the TRIP CLUB where he was doing his Velvet Underground shot,” McClure wrote Brakhage in a letter dated June 6, 1966. “He showed us the film in a castle in the Hollywood Hills and the girls and I walked out afterwards without saying a word. It was bad! Next day I phoned and told him never to show the film.” McClure would eventually get San Francisco attorney Melvin Beli to bring an injunction against Warhol. It was a close shave for the Warhol Beard.
Brakhage was always highly praising of McClure’s poetry and remarks on how inspired he was by it. In a letter dated April 7, 1974, Brkahage writes: “Dear Michael,” (Brakhage preferred addressing McClure as Michael rather than Mike), “Reports of you visiting Schol of Art Inst. Chicago (wishing it had been when I was there), then ‘Hail Thee Who Play’ sent me by Jack, and finally the news of the big new NEW Directions book out (not yet reached Colo., but surely in my hands by next week); and you’re more-than-usually in min, tho’ always there within each week’s life, as I read you abt. Once in five/six days as always, several hours with Michael…”
“Hail Thee Who Play,” Brakhage continues, “is a body of the orders I love best in your work - those which signify light, catch its/your reflection in language wheresomEVER… i.e. that you refer to the significance of chrome in our time, and all other particularizations of the antique dance of lumen as it finds you/us.”
That phrase, “antique dance of lumen,” is stunning. It reveals the poet in Brakhage, who found his channel in film rather than words, what he termed the “mind’s eye, thought’s light, on film.” Streamings of unnamable shapes, colors, forms and rhythms, the feedback of the whole system in response to what’s being spanked in on it with light. The world experienced as a scintillating interplay of space, time, motion, and cosmic scrolls of the everpresent ineffable.
The Flame Is Ours exists only as a PDF at this time. This is great as a matter of convenience, provided one has access to a computer, but I have great difficulty reading text online. I don’t become truly intimate with a text unless it is in my hand. Tangibility plays an important role I don’t fully understand. It occurred to me that I could have a printer print it out and bind it, and was on the verge of doing that, when I simply began to read it, and decided to bypass that route. I found that reading it online was a little easier than I had imagined. It would be terrific to see this work published in book form one day, but for now, the PDF is fine. 333 pages seemed overwhelming when I first saw it, but I figured it was, after all, not that much different form a lot of the blogs I look forward to reading each week. I could approach it the same way, scrolling down as much as I felt comfortable for a particular session, then go off and fiddle around on YouTube, or make dinner, or get on with life.