McClure, Michael

McClure, Michael
(1932– )
   Since his literary debut at the Six Gallery reading, Michael McClure has been one of the most enduring and influential writers of the Beat movement. As one of five poets who began his career on that night in 1955, he shares a long and rich history with allen ginsberg, philip whalen, lawrence ferlinghetti, gary snyder, philip lamantia, and many other writers of San Francisco’s Beat period. As one of the youngest members of the Beat circle, McClure played an important role as a bridge between writers and artists of the Beat movement and the region’s youth counterculture of the 1960s and has been a close friend and collaborator with figures such as jim morrison, richard brautigan, bob dylan, and Janis Joplin. The author of more than 20 volumes of poetry, more than 20 plays, two novels, and three collections of essays, McClure’s most powerful and persistent message is that humans must strive to regain their biological identity as mammals. Writing in what his friend Snyder calls a “biological / wild / unconscious / fairytale / new / scientific / imagination form,” McClure pushes his readers to reconsider their place in the world, to question and revolt against humanmade political structures, and to reexamine their relationship to the rest of nature. “LET US THROW OUT THE WORD MAN!,” he urges, and seek in place of this limited role the “mammalian possibility” of “a larger place” in the world.
   McClure was born October 20, 1932, in Marysville, Kansas, to parents Thomas and Marian Dixie Johnston McClure. He began his university education in 1951 at the University of Wichita and later transferred to the University of Arizona before moving to San Francisco, where he enrolled in a writing workshop with poet Robert Duncan at San Francisco State University. Through his friendship with Duncan and later with poet kenneth rexroth, he began to find his place in the city’s literary community in the early 1950s. In fall 1955 McClure took part in the now famous Six Gallery Reading—the foundation of what would soon be called the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. Here, in his first public reading, McClure, along with Lamantia, Snyder, Whalen, and Ginsberg, helped to launch the Beat movement, and his presence at the event helped to instill in the fledgling movement his lifelong fascination with the natural world.
   In the months following the Six Gallery reading, McClure began in earnest to publish his work. In 1956 his first small collection of poems, Passage, was published by Jonathan Williams’s Jargon Books series. Other collections soon followed, including McClure’s first major collection, Hymns to Saint Geryon (1958), The New Book / A Book of Torture (1961), his powerfully erotic long poem dark Brown (1961), the wildly experimental “beast language” poems contained in GHost tantras (1964), and his vitriolic condemnation of the Vietnam War, poisoned wHeat (1965). During these early years, McClure also took an active role in seeing that the words and ideas of other writers of the Beat movement and the Black Mountain School made it into print; he coedited two influential literary journals of the period: Arc II / Moby I and Journal for the Protection of All Beings. Although early in his apprenticeship as a poet McClure experimented with formal verse, his published work from the 1950s to the present has often been written in a bold projective-verse style that features abundant use of capital letters and of lines centered on the page, a form that quickly became a recognizable trademark of his poetry. By moving away from the blocky stanza, anchored to the left margin, and moving his lines to the center of the page, McClure’s poems became representations of symmetrical forms found in the natural world. Visually, they came to resemble strands of DNA, whirlpools, blossoms, and—according to the poet—“the lengthwise symmetry found in higher animals.”
   While McClure is perhaps best known for his talents as a poet, his work as a playwright has earned him a reputation as one of America’s most innovative dramatists. Heavily influenced by the writings of French playwright Antonin Artaud, McClure’s plays often reject traditional dramatic staging and dialog and rely instead on what Artaud termed “a language of signs” that is designed to cut through the audience’s social conditioning, thus replacing the standard more linear and rational theater experience with imagery akin to that of a powerful dream. His first major play The Blossom; Or, Billy the Kid was staged in 1964, to be followed a year later by his erotically charged masterpiece The Beard, a play that resulted in no fewer than 19 Michael McClure with autoharp, San Francisco, 1965. Photographer Larry Keenan: “I photographed McClure for his poster to announce a reading he was giving. The classic photograph turned out so well that McClure did not want to use it. It took a week to convince him to go with it censorship trials as a result of its graphic sexuality. The whimsical Gargoyle Cartoons followed in 1969, a set of 11 short plays that included the comic but powerful antiwar play Spider Rabbit. McClure’s most successful theatrical endeavor came in 1978 with his play josepHine: tHe mouse sinGer, an adaptation of a short story by Kafka. McClure’s impact as a writer extends far beyond the Beat era. During the later 1960s, he served as an important mentor to the emergent youth counterculture of San Francisco, as well as a friend and adviser to rock music luminaries such as Dylan, Joplin, and Morrison. From the 1970s onward, his concerns have often turned toward global environmental issues, and his poetry has served as a key source for those who struggle for environmental justice. In recent years, he has often collaborated with musicians such as The Doors’ keyboardist Ray Manzarek and composer Terry Riley, blending his poetry with music to reach new audiences, a half-century after he first read his poems at the Six Gallery.
■ Bartlett, Lee. “Meat Science to Wolf Net: Michael McClure’s Poetics of Revolt.” The Sun Is But a Morning Star: Studies in West Coast Poetry and Poetics. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989: 107–123.
■ Phillips, Rod. Michael McClure. Western Writers Series Vol. 159. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 2003.
Rebel Roar: The Sound of Michael McClure. Film written by Kurt Hemmer, produced by Tom Knoff. Palatine, Ill.: Harper College, 2004.
■ Stephenson, Gregory. “From the Substrate: Notes on Michael McClure.” The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990: 105–130.
   Rod Phillips

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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