Michael McClure, Animal Poet

The poet Michael McClure, who died on May 4, 2020 in his home in Oakland, California, was one of five readers at the seminal Six Gallery poetry reading in San Francisco in 1955 that kicked off the Beat Generation. I always loved his simple and organic poetic style, at once both cosmic and down-to-earth, and I also loved his attention to nature and animals. In an era when visionary causes abounded, he invented his own: an insistence on recognizing all animals as spiritual beings who can teach us more than we can teach them. He once described himself as a “mammal patriot”. He helped to make ecological awareness a pillar of Beat Generation consciousness as early as the Six Gallery reading in 1955, because the poem he chose to read was the powerful “Point Lobos: Animism”.

It is possible my friend
If I have had a fat belly
That the wolf lives on fat
Gnawing slowly
Through a visceral night of rancor.
It is possible that the absence of pain
May be so great
That the possibility of care
May be impossible.
Perhaps to know pain.
Anxiety, rather than the fear
Of the fear of anxiety.
This talk of miracles!

Of Animism:
I have been in a spot so full of spirits
That even the most joyful animist
When all in sight was less to be cared about
Than death
And there was no noise in the ears
That mattered.
(I knelt in the shade
By a cold salt pool
And felt the entrance of hate
On many legs,
The soul like a clambering
Water vascular system.

No scuttling could matter
Yet I formed in my mind
The most beautiful
Of maxims.
How could I care
For your illness or mine?)
This talk of bodies!

It is impossible to speak
Of lupine or tulips
When one may read
His name
Spelled by the mold on the stumps
When the forest moves about one.
Heel. Nostril.
Light. Light! Light!
This is the bird’s song
You may tell it
to your children.

I like to think about Michael McClure reading poems to caged lions, ultimately culminating in an attempt to roar. Possibly McClure was thinking of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s statement that “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him” — the poet wants to speak their language instead of his own, and it’s a likely bet that this was one captive audience he eagerly wanted to please.

Michael McClure was one of the eight Beat poets I featured with imaginary postage stamps in the very earliest version of Literary Kicks, and appears as a character in Jack Kerouac’s late masterpiece Big Sur. He was based in California but I heard him read at New York City poetry events often, got a chance once to see his live show with Ray Manzarek of the Doors at the Bottom Line in New York, and spoke to Michael and his wife Amy Evans McClure around these events several times. Michael allowed me to share some of his visually thrilling then-unpublished poetry, titled “Mysteriosos” during a 24-hour Litkicks poetry party marathon celebrating the 10th anniversary of this site. I remember speaking to him on the phone in advance about this, and while this phone call made me anxious (because I hate telephones, and because he is and was a great Beat poet) I remember how kind and considerate he was.

Michael McClure was an integral figure during the hippie era of the 1960s. He sits onstage here between Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg at the Human Be-In in San Francisco in 1967, cherubically holding up a harp.

He came up with the original ironic sentence that Janis Joplin transformed into the song “Mercedes Benz”, along with Bob Neuwirth. He wrote the play “The Beard” which was famously censored for “lewd” behavior onstage. This controversy turned the play into a major cultural signifier for the Haight-Ashbury scene.

Many decades later in New York City I saw a new production of this play: a man and a woman representing Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow are talking about their different perceptions of sex and debating whether or not they should have it. It’s hard to imagine this play ever being controversial enough to cause a furor — apparently the play’s title refers to pubic hair, and there were onstage suggestions of oral sex. It’s probably hard to capture the original cultural context, as is certainly true for many aspects of the Vietnam War/Civil Rights Struggle era, the Haight-Ashbury scene and the Summer of Love. This is apparently one of the posters for “The Beard” which once again features lions though it doesn’t seem to include the title of the play or the address of the theatre. I’d love to know more about the original “Beard”.

The last time I saw Michael McClure in person was at a recreation of the Six Gallery poetry reading at Howl! Happening in downtown New York City. Michael didn’t seem to relish the idea of being excessively lauded at this historical ceremony, and played a low-key role. Bob Holman passed a big jug of wine through the crowd, as Jack Kerouac legendarily did during the original Six Gallery event, and many in the audience took a sip. It’s poignant to think about the fact that Michael McClure died during a mass global pandemic, and that it will be a long time before any of us pass a jug of wine between strangers again.

Michael McClure died from complications following a stroke last year, so it does not appear that his death was caused by coronavirus, but I do wish to know what he thought about the current pandemic, since his entire poetic career was suffused with awareness of the power of the wide natural world. By the year 2020, his quiet hipster voice was no longer echoing around the planet. But his wisdom, gentle positivity and awareness of the human place in the world offer us ideas and themes we badly need right now to discover again.

* * * * *

Speaking of ideas and themes, the latest episode of the World BEYOND War podcast is out. We talked to antiwar activists in Milan, Italy and Caracas, Venezuela about how their respective countries and communities are coping with the pandemic.

The latest episode of my Lost Music: Exploring Literary Opera is out too – this one is about Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro”.

I’m very proud of both of these podcasts and I hope you’ll listen to both sides of my current brain!

8 Responses

  1. Thank you so much for your
    Thank you so much for your work on behalf of poetry. Since we live in Berkeley, we saw and heard Michael many times and were saddened to hear of his death. We also love Point Lobos, so thank you for reprinting this particular poem. You are helping us to remain sane in these disturbing times as we transition to some as yet unknown new equilibrium – coronavirus is just one symptom, it seems to me, of the deep fault-lines shifting under our entire ecosystem. May we all open our heart-minds to the big picture. We really are all in this together! Thanks again!!

  2. Thank you too, S, Lydia! It
    Thank you too, S, Lydia! It is nice to hear from others who feel the same way today.

  3. Thanks so much for still
    Thanks so much for still being here to document such passings. I first discovered Litkicks in the mid 1990s and my moniker @dizzykicks was inspired by you. I’ve not visited for so long but in these slower times I’ve found you again…

  4. Thanks for this write up! It
    Thanks for this write up! It’s been a long time since I’ve heard the name Michael McClure and it got me scrambling down Internet worm holes trying to find other ‘original’ beats who are still alive. I remember stumbling across Gary Snyder’s email ages ago and kicking off a brief correspondence with him. He’s 90 now! Gary was a strong Buddhist influence in my early years that still resonates with me today. I might have to revisit these guys again.

  5. i knew Michael back in the
    i knew Michael back in the late 70’s and 80’s. we spent time together at his haight street apt. went to several events together and he taught a brief but deeply meaningful class at The New College of California i attended. Michael was a “rare angel”. For me it started as a 14 year old reading “Freewheelin Frank” in middle school. When as a college kid i moved to San Francisco i sought out this beat poet. i found him one day i was at the duck pond in Golden Gate park by chance that’s where he jogged most days with John Lion and his Irish wolf hound. Nervously i went up to him introduced myself and he invited me to jog along with them. That started a long friendship i will forever regret not getting back to California to see him one last time. rest well Michael you lived a great life and meant the world to me.

  6. Good write up, I check in
    Good write up, I check in here every once in a while and good to see you still at it.

    Of course too there was McClure’s “For the Death of 100 Whales”, for the early ecological consciousness.

    I never saw him speak but always liked the recordings I heard, and the interviews I read were always very insightful.

    Gary Gillman, Toronto

  7. Thanks for the appreciation of Michael McClure and his work. I got to know him a bit during the autumn of 1966. I had read the poetry and “Meat Science Essays” and Kerouac’s “Big Sur” in which (as you note) Michael was depicted in the form of a character (named, I think, “Ike O’Shay”). That autumn I was taking a course at San Francisco State called “Craft of Poetry” taught by Jack Gilbert. Jack wanted us all to find a poet to hang out with for a few weeks. A friend introduced me to Michael, and he agreed to arrangement. Most of the time at his apartment on Del Mar (or Downey?) Street he was practicing music with George Montana and Freewheelin’ Frank. George seemed an accomplished musician and was helping Michael master the autoharp. Frank played harmonica. Michael was working on the Mercedes Benz tune and some songs for the Wildflower, a good band with, as I recall, some students Michael had known from teaching at the College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. It was a good experience all around, and Michael more than fulfilled his end of the bargain. I saw him a few times after that over the years, mostly from a distance, the last a few years ago at SF State where he appeared for a tribute to David Meltzer.

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