I smile to myself. I know
all that there is to know. I see all there
is to feel. I am friendly with the ache in my belly.
The answer to love is my voice. There is no Time!
No answers. The answer to feeling is my feeling.
— Peyote Poem by Michael McClure
“Without McClure’s roar there would have been no sixties.”
— Dennis Hopper
I heard Michael McClure read Peyote Poem at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center several years ago. In the cool quiet of the room, I drifted into a trance and thought I heard a bird singing. Some poets have the ability to transport us to rare places, and McClure was one of them.
As a member of the Beat Generation, McClure was one of five poets — Allen Ginsberg, Phillip Lamantia, Gary Snyder, and Phillip Whalen — to participate in the legendary Six Gallery reading on Oct. 7, 1955. This was the time and place where Allen Ginsberg first read his poem “Howl,” and the Beat poet movement caught fire on the West Coast.
McClure, as a poet, playwright, journalist, novelist, songwriter, and college instructor, intersected with major cultural events of our time. He read at the 1967 Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park, and encouraged a young writer named Jim Morrison to pursue poetry. McClure made waves with his controversial play The Beard and appears reading Chaucer in the concert film The Last Waltz. He published many books of poetry, several plays, novels, and essays, and his journalism appeared in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and the San Francisco Chronicle. A native of Kansas, his poetry was informed by his interest in Buddhism, nature, and consciousness.
The last time I saw Michael McClure was on March 24, 2019 at City Lights bookstore during the celebration of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 100th birthday. Shoulder to shoulder with the other attendees in the bookstore, I wondered where I should position myself for the poetry reading that was due to begin. I turned around and directly behind me was Michael McClure. He seemed smaller, and was using a walker. He sat down in front of a microphone. Everything else about him seemed the same, the power of his voice and that distinctive cadence while reading matched with the attentive silence of hundreds of people pressed together in that small space. The Beats clearly brought poetry into the mainstream more than any group of writers in the 20th century. On that day — and at that moment during McClure’s reading — I had a conscious sense of appreciation for the fact that poetry and the love of the written word could still draw a crowd, and a reverent one at that. In my treasure trove of priceless memories, that day looms large. The day we stood together listening to the poets. Thank you, Michael McClure.
Michael McClure died May 4, 2020 at his home in the Oakland hills after complications from a stroke last spring. He was 87.
Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She can be reached at mindtheimage.com.