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‘even more alive than we understand’—Michael McClure in Conversation
Rebecca Foresman sat down with Michael McClure to discuss his poem “Mephisto 20,” which as published in the latest issue of the New Yorker. Their conversation circles around the diverse sources of knowledge and inspiration that make up the poem. They start with the question of meditation:
In a certain light, “Mephisto 20” seems to narrate the experience of sitting on the floor and delving into deep meditation. Does meditative practice figure into the poem? Has it shaped your life as a writer?
Yes. Though transcendentalism is one of the deep breaths of a young, still-healthy America, my poetry, especially my late poems, are born, in part, from sitting on the floor in meditation. I practiced tantric yoga in my early life, and now practice Zen to Hua-Yen, or Flower Garden Buddhism. This has provided an aerial platform for my writing for several decades, and there is much in my poems from Hua-Yen Buddhism, a practice intended to elucidate the actual moment of Buddha’s enlightenment. It deals with—it endlessly unwinds in greater and greater shapes—the sizelessness and uncountable myriadnesses of imagination and sense made one.
Then they delve into Goethe’s influence:
In another light, the poem reads as a reflection on banishment from Eden, perhaps from the perspective of a postlapsarian man, or even the devil. I’m thinking of the line “The garden does not sleep at night,” and the title, which seems to refer to Mephistopheles, the tempter and corrupter. Would you talk about the title?
In Goethe’s play, Mephistopheles (he who hates matter and the light that clings to it) has many more aspects than are easily noted by the quick reader. He is not only the tempter, but he is the “inspire-er” who brings back sleepy, discouraged Faust into worlds of imagination, inspiration, and swirls of consciousness. When seen in that character, the daemon is much wiser, more Puck-like and fascinating, than in the usual interpretation. Mephisto carries these aspects for me. The names Mephisto and Mephistopheles both have complex etymologies and faux-etymologies. Another Mephisto is an angel who helps God in the construction of the universe, and in the creation of orcas (killer whales) and giant sea mammals, creatures dear to me since my Puget Sound childhood.
To read the poem you’ll have to put up a little cash to buy the issue, but you can check out the rest of the interview here.