The Poetry Project

In Memoriam: Michael McClure (1932-2020)

Garrett Caples

The death of Michael McClure, on May 4, 2020, caught me off-guard. I was his friend and editor at City Lights, and I knew he wasn’t doing well, battling complications from a stroke the previous year. Yet he retained such vigor at 87, and briefly seemed like he might recover, so I’d convinced myself he would. But I confirmed the news with his wife, sculptor Amy Evans McClure, and then, because Michael is famous on a pop-cultural level unavailable to most poets, I had to act: alert City Lights, factcheck a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, draft copy for the bookstore window and social media. I had to punch up the laundry list of why he was famous, and in his case, over a 60-year career as a poet, playwright, novelist, essayist, and performer, the scroll is long: he participated in the 1955 Six Gallery reading at which Allen Ginsberg debuted “Howl”; appears in two Kerouac novels as “Pat McLear”; collaborated with seminal artists Wallace Berman and Bruce Conner; roared at lions in an episode of poet/filmmaker Richard O. Moore’s public TV documentary series USA: Poetry (1965); wrote and staged the controversial play The Beard (1965); read to tens of thousands of people at the Human Be-In (1967); became tight with Jim Morrison; co-wrote Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” (1970); appeared in films like Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand (1971) and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz (1978); won two Obie awards for his Off-Broadway plays; performed and recorded with musicians like Ray Manzarek and Terry Riley; and published dozens of books, poetry and otherwise.

By the next day, Michael was standing next to Bob Dylan and competing with him in dandiacal splendor in a Larry Keenan photograph in the New York Times obituary section. By the end of the week, I’d been asked to write something on him, so I visited Amy at the home they’d shared, to borrow some books and take a hit from the bottle of Johnnie Walker Black he’d long promised himself on his deathbed. (He’d quit drinking decades ago.) Amy arranged for me to call Michael’s fellow Six Gallery reader Gary Snyder, himself just turned 90. I returned home and began to write.

Getting to know Michael was unlike getting to know other poets of comparable stature, Philip Lamantia, say, or David Meltzer. Gentle David and even the bipolar Philip were easy, that is, the time between meeting them and becoming old pals felt infinitesimal. Michael, granted, was 80 by the time we started hanging out, older than either of them had been, though I’d become fast friends with Richard O. Moore when he was 90, so I’m not sure age was the determining factor. But when I began visiting Michael at home, I had a sense that he was still “on” even in private. Not that he was trying to be impressive, he was well beyond that, but that there was a certain amount of performance involved, that even casual socializing cost him effort. Obviously the more I knew him the less pronounced this sense became, but it didn’t by any means disappear. I could tell that he genuinely liked me, that he even felt affection for me, but at the same time there were vast Midwestern reserves within him. I loved the old guy and knew him as well as I was able, but I don’t know that I knew him well. Or else, knowing him was simply unlike knowing other poets I’d known.

I figured Michael was one of those famous people for whom fame is a burden, even as he made shrewd use of it to advance his artistic endeavors. His natural reserve was exacerbated by fame, insofar as it had made him cautious, for fear of being misquoted or quoted out of context. His words could easily be magnified in print, and he was much interviewed. I interviewed him twice, once for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, once for the Poetry Foundation, and both times his approach was the same. I would give him questions in advance and he would consider them and even write out responses. But the actual interview would be a combination of him talking and reading prewritten passages that formulated what he wanted to say with some precision. I’ve interviewed many artists over the years and here again Michael is singular.

The day Michael was cremated, I read his copy of his autobiographical novel The Mad Cub (1970), on the second page of which he writes, “I can hardly walk or hold a coffee cup I am so eaten by self-consciousness.” I was struck by this sentence because it accorded so thoroughly with my sense of him. As the novel amply documents, self-consciousness is much more tortured than reserve. If we take the book at its word—and he speaks of it in his “Author’s Note” as an attempt “to show that [his] memory” was still “intact”—the overwhelming impression it leaves is of self-consciousness as a major motivating force in his life. Even his notorious good looks, the novel suggests, were an invention of self-consciousness, a determined transformation from an out of shape, cross-eyed adolescent to the handsome, athletic artist who leaves Wichita to emerge as a key figure in San Francisco’s burgeoning beat counterculture. A modern-day romantic in the mode of Shelley, McClure had to look the part, and he did.

I don’t mean to overstress Michael’s self-consciousness, but reading The Mad Cub after his death hit me with the force of revelation, by which I mean the light it cast on my experience of him as a person illuminated my sense of his poetry, which despite his success in other fields is the art on which he staked his greatest claim. (He’s an accomplished, historically significant playwright but he’s a legendary poet.) Concurrently with The Mad Cub, I was reading his long poem Dark Brown (1961), in the 1967 Dave Haselwood Books edition, whose offhandedly titled “INTRO FOR DARK BROWN” begins:

I am told that personalities must interact, and yet interaction is a process of the mind. There is no Soul. The Spirit and Body are simultaneous, one tense, the Meat Walls are Spirit. Soul/mind are entanglements invented by the demented and domesticated. Love is body beating upon body, the confrontation of face and face or shoulder and shoulder. I say Love is not a dream or mind-invention.

This seemingly anti-mind, anti-soul statement is curious coming from a poet of such obvious erudition and mysticism as Michael, and I didn’t get what he was driving at while he was still alive. But reading this through the lens of The Mad Cub suddenly brought into focus the highly specific personal symbolism running throughout his body of work—all his talk of meat and lions I’d just taken as given upon first encountering it—as well as the equally idiosyncratic formal qualities of his poems. What Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in his rather begrudging editorial note to the first edition of McClure’s Meat Science Essays (1963), refers to as an “anti-intellectual” perspective is perhaps best understood in the context of Michael’s desire to eliminate self-consciousness. The equating of “Spirit” with “Meat Walls” is an attempt to reintegrate the abstraction of mind with the physical body; as he writes in “Wolf Net” (1968), first published in Scratching the Beat Surface (1982), “Brain cells, nerve cells—like any cells—are meat.” Throughout his work he insists on such formulations to combat the alienation inherent in the more traditional Western humanist model of the duality of mind and body. The rejection of this humanism in favor of what Ferlinghetti terms “mammalism” finds its idealized totemic expression in McClure’s veneration of the lion, seen as a creature with no separation between thought and action, coupled with the sheer muscular power to successfully execute the intent manifest in its actions.

The implications of this philosophical and spiritual monism for his poetry are vast. The negation of self-consciousness inherent to this desired union between thought and action prefigures his increasing preoccupation with Eastern philosophical practices like Zen Buddhism, Taoism, and kundalini yoga, while his conception of brain cells as “meat” expresses itself through his interest in neuro- and molecular biology. His mammalism, moreover, entails a clear rejection of anthrocentrism, as Gary Snyder said during our phone call.

“He doesn’t make that distinction, that there’s the human world and there are the other beings in the world,” Snyder said (and throughout our conversation, we couldn’t help speaking of Michael in present tense). “The majority of people insist on having a line drawn in their mind and in their writing between a human being and a nonhuman being. The truth is we were never in a different category at all. We’re all sentient beings, equally constructed of the same kind of chemistries and the same kinds of dynamics.” (As Michael himself puts it in “Wolf Net,” “WHEN A MAN DOES NOT ADMIT THAT HE IS AN ANIMAL, he is less than an animal.”)

This shared perspective provided an instant bond between Synder and McClure when they met in the mid-1950s. The contemporary American poetic tradition known as ecopoetics arguably springs from their performances at the Six Gallery reading, where Snyder read “A Berry Feast” while McClure read “For the Death of 100 Whales,” which looks, in part, like this:

The sleek wolves
Mowers and reapers of sea kine.
(Meat their algae)
Like sheep or children.
Shot from the sea’s bore.
Flung blood and sperm.
Gnashed at their tails and brothers,
Cursed Christ of mammals,
Snapped at the sun,
Ran for the sea’s floor.

In her introduction to Michael’s selected poems, Of Indigo and Saffron, Leslie Scalapino refers to his “centering each line of a poem on the page without left or right border” as his “signature characteristic,” and he would continue to favor this layout for the rest of his life. He even sometimes prints a single word vertically mid-poem, each “line” a single letter. “I wasn’t sure it was going to work,” Snyder admitted, though he was won over by listening to his friend read aloud. “If you read his own instructions, he says, if you see all capital letters, it doesn’t mean you’re supposed to be louder. He lets you know: read the vertical lines as standard modern American language. But it’s a way of changing your mindset when you come to it.”

Michael’s use of centering is as singular as it is signature; I know of only a few poets who have made use of this form—his near-contemporaries Ronald Johnson and Gustaf Sobin, for example, or more recently Ish Klein—but none who have made it so fundamental a part of their work as McClure. He once told me, around the time City Lights was republishing his 1964 “beast language” classic Ghost Tantras, that his use of centering developed from his attempt to find a poetic analog for abstract expressionism; he had, in fact, come to San Francisco to study painting at the California School of Fine Arts, but immediately decamped for SF State to study poetry with Robert Duncan, who encouraged his interest in Charles Olson and projective verse. For McClure, I think, centering his poems paralleled the competing but not necessarily contradictory paradigms of abstract expressionism: art as an expression of its own objecthood and art as a record of its own creation. On the one hand, Michael’s poems never “disappear” visually, the way a left-justified poem arguably does. On the other hand, the gestural conception of abstract expressionism identified by Harold Rosenberg as action painting mirrors the breath-as-unit conception of projective verse, and Lamantia in his selected prose Preserving Fire (2018) indeed calls McClure an “action painter in words.” Centering allows a freedom of line length unavailable to left-justification, as we see in “100 Whales” when he follows the one-word line “Incense” with the six-word “Gnashed at their tails and brothers.” As a response to the question of open-field composition, centering satisfied an aesthetic need as well as a philosophical one for an artist in pursuit of the unity of existence, both in terms of consciousness and natural world.

As Scalapino writes, though the vast majority of his poems over more than 60 years hew to the vertical centerline of the page, this arrangement “is a sensitive instrument making different inventions in different poems.” Sometimes the lines are all dead center, as in “100 Whales,” but often enough they quiver around the meridian, deliberately imperfect and quite alive, in a way that “centered” fails to convey. As his editor for Mephistos & Other Poems (2016), I can attest to how deliberate his placement of lines could be: a series of tabs and spacebars nightmarish to prepare to import into InDesign. (Like several poets I’ve known who were born in the ’30s, Michael used the computer like a typewriter.) I asked Snyder whether Michael benefitted from his close relationship with a typesetter like Dave Haselwood, his childhood friend from Wichita. “I’m sure he did!” Snyder said, and I would urge any readers who want to experience McClure’s poetry in its ideal form to get their hands on either edition of Dark Brown that Haselwood published with Auerhahn Press (1961) and his later eponymous imprint. But failing that, any edition will do, to experience Michael’s poetry at its transcendent heights.

An erotic serial poem in three major movements, Dark Brown finds McClure reveling in the freedom of expression newly won for poetry by Howl and Other Poems (1956), applying his philosophical monism to the union of self and other in the act of making love. Such a frank expression of male heterosexual desire is justly viewed with suspicion these days, as so much beat-era writing simply replicates mainstream patriarchal values within the counterculture. To be sure, there are shocking bursts of toxic masculinity in, for example, The Mad Cub, but I feel like the frenzied, even abject eroticism of Dark Brown—is it the first major American poem to feature analingus?—successfully undermines such retrograde ideology. The revolutionary nature of Michael’s work, particularly from the mid-’50s through the mid-’70s and including plays like The Beard (1965), much persecuted by Bay Area and L.A. police for its symbolic depiction of cunnilingus, is easy to lose sight of within a culture that is at once more permissive and more puritanical than the one from which McClure emerged.

The majority of readers of poetry these days are its practitioners, and among the poets I know Michael isn’t read as much as he once was; he’s been so famous for so long and poets are taking a crack at his less famous associates, like Joanne Kyger, John Wieners, and Jack Spicer, or his contemporaries of color like Bob Kaufman and Stephen Jonas—huge names to us, but only to us. Michael, perhaps enviably, due to the unique status the beat generation occupies in American letters, has a more civilian audience, amateurs and non-practitioners, fans who appreciate art for its own sake rather as grist for their own practice and he still put up good poetry numbers in terms of sales. (His final book, Mule Kick Blues, will appear in the spring from City Lights.) Obviously, it’s impossible to know how his legacy will be viewed in the fullness of time, but it’s equally obvious the story of 20th Century American poetry cannot be told without him. Posterity must contend with this lion.

#262 — Fall 2020