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
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!
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
And there was no noise in the ears
(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
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
Spelled by the mold on the stumps
When the forest moves about one.
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!