McClure was born on October 20, 1932 in Marysville, Kansas and grew up in Seattle, where he was fascinated by nature and wildlife and expected to grow up to be a natural scientist. He went to San Francisco as a young man, participated in a poetry workshop with Robert Duncan, and got drawn into the emerging Beat vortex of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance.
He was one of the five poets who read at the famous Six Gallery reading in 1955. I’ve typed in of the poems he read there, a poem I like a lot called ‘Point Lobos: Animism’. McClure’s first book, ‘Passage,’ was published in 1956. Like Gary Snyder he writes poetry infused with the awareness of nature, but McClure’s special interest is in the animal consciousness that too often lies dormant in mankind. He has a consistent message: “When a man does not admit that he is an animal, he is less than an animal. Not more but less.”
There is no cuteness in McClure’s animal kingdom, populated with Buddhist panda bears, Beat tomcats and doomed whales. I have only recently begun to read his work, but he’s quickly becoming one of my favorites. A short passage from his 1970 book ‘The Mad Cub’ (I found it in ‘The Beat Reader’) is here.
McClure hung around Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love, playing poetic melodies on his autoharp and participating with Ginsberg and Snyder at the January 1967 Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park. During this period, he wrote the original words upon which Janis Joplin’s song “Oh Lord, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz” was based.
He remains active as a poet, essayist and playwright. His controversial plays, including ‘The Beard’ and ‘Josephine: The Mouse Singer’, were among the major theatre events of the 60’s and 70’s. In the early 90’s he began collaborating on live poetry set to music by Ray Manzarek, the distinctive keyboardist from the Doors.