About Michael McClure
At the core of McClure's poetry is direct, personal experience, especially the animal experience of nature. As a child in Kansas in the 1930s, and growing up in 1940s Seattle, he intended to be a naturalist or biologist. The habit of observation and inquiry comes through in For Luis Baptista, about the local "accents" in the territorial songs of birds, and in one of McClure's first published works, Peyote Poem (1958), which Francis Crick, elucidator of DNA, quoted in his book Of Molecules and Men.
Moving to San Francisco in 1955 was a shock:Having spent most of my childhood in the evergreen rainforests of Seattle, I expected Nature to be green trees and wide rivers... My closest friend -- a visionary naturalist... showed me the subtleties of the California hills and savannas -- and introduced me to falcons and pack rats and owls and coyotes.
But it was also finding kindred, "the literary wing of the environmental movement":Much of what the Beat Generation is about is nature -- the landscape of nature in the case of Gary Snyder, the mind as nature in the case of Allen Ginsberg... The Beats shared an interest in Nature, Mind, and Biology -- areas that they expanded and held together with their radical political or antipolitical stance.
In Scratching the Beat Surface, he declares "WHEN A MAN DOES NOT ADMIT THAT HE IS AN ANIMAL, he is less than an animal. Not more but less."
McClure's first year in San Francisco was marked by a reading at the Six Gallery at which Allan Ginsberg first presented "Howl" --the event seen in retrospect as the beginning of Beat. As one of five poets reading (Jack Kerouac, in the audience, scatted "go go go"), McClure read For the Death of 100 Whales, a protest against the destruction of a pod of orcas by "seventy-nine bored G.I.s... at a lonely NATO airbase." (At the UN Environmental Conference of 1972, Gary Snyder, who also read that night, was to join McClure as a lobbyist for the rights of whales.)
McClure's essay on this groundbreaking reading at The Six Gallery forms the opening chapter of Scratching the Beat Surface. One reporter considers this reading the beginning of the poetry-with-music Beat tradition -- but McClure would tell you it goes back to the early Greek bards, or before. Jazz was the standard. Rock music was something else -- but "in 1965, everyone was after me to listen to [Bob] Dylan carefully -- to sit down and listen to the words and the music." It was a revelation. He became interested "in writing lyrics, and a new way to use rhyme... Rock had a mutual attraction for us all: a common tribal dancing ground whether we were poets, or printers, or sculptors..." And when, the next year, the two met and Dylan presented McClure with an autoharp, the gift "committed me to music."
In 1968, absorbed by McClure's play, The Beard, Jim Morrison asked a mutual friend to arrange a meeting. The first reaction was instant dislike. "We sat and glared at one another, sort of cold-fished each other out of existence. [The mutual friend] remembers getting stomach cramps watching us stare at each other." But within minutes they had begun talking about poetry and found common ground -- so much so that McClure advised Morrison on publishing his poems (The Lords/The New Creatures) and they worked together on a never-produced film of McClure's novel The Adept, in which Morrison would have starred.
Ray Manzarek entered the picture when Morrison invited McClure to the Doors' third recording session. The biologist in McClure saw the Doors, catalyzed by Manzarek's music and Morrison's poetry, as "a symbiosis like the lichen. In the beginning there is an algae and another organism, but when they join together there is a streaming, growing plant... creatures melded together to make something greater. That's what the Doors were like."
McClure considers Manzarek "a musician and artist with prescient powers." Their friendship ignited into collaboration in 1988, when both were on the bill at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, McClure headlining and Manzarek playing piano with poet Michael C. Ford. In the ten years since, McClure and Manzarek have performed in coffeehouses, in working-class bars, on college campuses, and on national television.
Michael McClure is a poet, novelist, essayist, playwright. He published his first book, Passage, in 1956, a year after the reading at Six Gallery. He has produced 16 books of poetry, six collections of essays, two novels, and ten plays, including the Obie-winning Josephine the Mouse Singer and the notorious The Beard, shut down by police fourteen consecutive nights in Los Angeles. He is also co-writer, with Janis Joplin, of "Mercedes Benz," and professor at California College of Arts and Crafts.
In all these capacities he is a riveting performer. Poetry Flash noted in one review, "McClure -- dressed in black -- stood and uttered his words with a sort of sultry precision. His gestures punctuated his word (a poetry of the body), enthralling, enlisting a dynamic tension between audience and performer that didn't let up until the words stopped."
Michael McClure lives in the San Francisco Bay Area hills with his wife, the sculptor Amy Evans McClure (whose work can be seen at BigBridge Webzine), and "the most spoiled cat on the planet."
Michael McClure's homepage at Light & Dust features a large selection of his poems, and an array of critical essays. A must for anyone who wishes to learn more about Michael McClure's life & work.
Francis Crick's essay on Michael McClure's poetry
An excerpt from Scratching the Beat Surface