Ghost Tantras

by Michael McClure
   Michael McClure’s collection Ghost Tantras may represent the poet’s most innovative and bizarre experimentation with language. The book includes 99 poems written using McClure’s trademark “beast language,” an invented idiom based on the sounds of animals and divorced from normal human discourse, and yet still communicative on some deeper biological level. The lexicon of McClure’s beast language is varied and expressive in ways which at times surpass more traditional forms of poetic discourse. Ranging from anguished howls, to roars of sensual delight, to affectionate purring, the invented vocabulary of Ghost Tantras is at its most effective when read aloud. McClure had long been intrigued by the utterances of other animals—and the way that human discourse could often be seen in light of the way that other creatures communicate. Beast language is, at its core, yet another of the poet’s devices for weaning readers from their human assumptions and societal conventions, a way to bridge the gap between human and animal, between mind and the physical body. As critic Gregory Stephenson notes, McClure’s beast language poems are “shamanistic invocations, incantations, evocations of the beast spirit, of mammal consciousness.”
   The collection features a striking cover photograph by Wallace Berman of McClure, almost unrecognizable, in half-human, half-beast makeup, a clue to the melding of human and nonhuman language contained in the poems. In some of the pieces, such as the first poem in the collection, beast language makes up almost the entirety of the stanza, allowing the poet to immerse the reader in a new language in which the tone and textures of the spoken word become more important than vocabulary and meaning of the written text:
   Grah gooooor! Ghahh! Graaarr! Greeeeer!
   looking for sugar!
   In most cases in Ghost Tantras, beast language is interspersed with traditional human speech. The results are a fascinating, if at times unsuccessful, experiment in broadening the boundaries of poetic discourse, as in this passage from chorus 39, dedicated to Marilyn Monroe on the occasion of her death: I hope you have entered a sacred paradise for full warm bodies, full lips, full hips, and laughing eyes!
   OOOH . . .
   Farewell perfect mammal
   Fare thee well from thy silken couch and dark day!
   As Lee Bartlett notes, concerning McClure’s beast language collection: “The poet uses language to transcend language, probably a losing proposition.” Still, Ghost Tantras represents one of the boldest experiments in 20th-century literature, ranking with William S. Burroughs’s cut-up texts, Jack Kerouac’s visions of cody, and ed dorn’s GunslinGer as a work of visionary innovation.
■ Bartlett, Lee. “Meat Science to Wolf Net: Michael McClure’s Poetics of Revolt.” The Sun Is But a Morning Star: Studies in West Coast Poetry and Poetics. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989, 107–123.
■ Phillips, Rod. Michael McClure. Western Writers Ser. 159. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 2003.
■ Stephenson, Gregory. “From the Substrate: Notes on Michael McClure.” The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990, 105–130.
   Rod Phillips

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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