Poisoned Wheat

by Michael McClure
   Michael McClure’s lengthy poem Poisoned Wheat is both an attack on America’s growing involvement in the Vietnam War and a harsh indictment of the world political structures that lead humanity toward disaster by ignoring biological realities.
   In early 1964 McClure began to learn of the alarming potential for the use of biological weapons such as defoliants and crop poisons in the Vietnam conflict to destroy North Vietnamese agricultural resources for an entire growing season, thus bringing about the destruction of communist forces through widespread famine. Such frightening information moved McClure to respond. He wrote what he calls “a lengthy blast” on the subject in his journals in 1964, a speech that he later shaped into a long poem titled Poisoned Wheat.
   McClure’s intention in writing the poem seems to have gone far beyond mere artistic expression. From the outset, he envisioned the poem as a means of changing minds on the subject of the Vietnam War. To this end, he and Oyez Press publisher Robert Hawley designed a chapbook that contained McClure’s single long poem which would be distributed directly to readers whom he felt might have some influence on U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. Together, the two men mailed 600 copies of the poem. The document that was received by those 600 influential Americans was striking, both in its appearance and its content. The chapbook’s cover bore the hand-canceled portrait of Billy the Kid—a figure that McClure equated with the American penchant for the glorification of murder and a cultural archetype who loomed large in his plays The Blossom and The Beard. By canceling the young outlaw’s portrait with two broad brushstrokes, McClure symbolized the end of this fascination with violent death, including its incarnation in Vietnam.
   Poisoned Wheat is a poetic manifesto that would foreshadow much of McClure’s writing for the next four decades, as it attempts to look for solutions to the world’s catastrophic problems outside the normal channels of politics and ideology. From its very beginning, the poem blends the crisis in Southeast Asia with the “forgotten / memory that we are creatures.” Although the poem is rooted in the war in Southeast Asia, the Vietnam conflict quickly becomes just one symptom of a much larger malaise that results when humans cling to what the poet calls the “Structural mechanisms of Society” which lead to blind conformity and political allegiance. The poet writes: “Acceptance of guilt for the acts of / entrepreneurs, capitalists and imperialists / smothers, tricks, and stupefies / the free creature.” Refusing to cling to what he sees as outmoded and destructive political dogma that ignores biological realities, McClure’s response is to divorce himself from the war and from the misguided and cruel society that wages it: “I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE / FOR THOSE WHO HAVE CREATED / AND / OR CAPTURED the CONTROL DEVICES / OF THE SOCIETY THAT SURROUNDS ME!” Arguing that “COMMUNISM WILL NOT WORK!” and that “CAPITALISM IS FAILURE!” McClure dismisses the ideology of both sides of the cold war and claims instead his role as an individual, divorced from the governments that wage a war he hates: “I AM INNOCENT AND FREE! / I AM A MAMMAL!”
   By stating that “I have escaped politics” and that the “meanings of Marxism and Laissez faire are extinct,” the poet rejects the political and social systems that have been artificially imposed upon the biological realities of life. The social and intellectual forces of the mind—in this case, the abstract notions of politics and government-have repressed the biological aspects of human life, often resulting in disastrous consequences. McClure points to the stark biological realities facing the Earth—realities that have gone unaddressed by both capitalism and communism:
   overpopulation, mass starvation, genocide, exploitation of resources, and an increasingly repressive and warlike society.
   In place of a culture that is governed by political dogma, McClure offers what Allen Van Newkirk has called a bioculture in which biology, not political power, is the basis for action. With the poet’s emphatic line near the end of Poisoned Wheat that declares that “POLITICS IS DEAD AND BIOLOGY IS HERE!” McClure demands nothing short of a total reorganization of society along these biocultural lines.
■ Phillips, Rod. “Forest BeatniksandUrban Thoreaus”: Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Lew Welch, and Michael McClure. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.
■ Van Newkirk, Allen. “The Protein Grail.” Margins 18 (March 1975): 21–23.
   Rod Phillips

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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