Michael McClure: In Memoriam

A black and white photograph of four men against the backdrop of a wall and a door. The photo style is relaxed and candid.
Robbie Robertson, Michael McClure, Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg in the alley behind City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1965.

On May 4th of this year, one of the great geniuses of poetry and the arts passed away, and we wanted to take a moment here to commemorate his passing. Michael McClure helped launch the counterculture Beat generation alongside Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Philip Whalen, and Diane Di Prima, and is also associated with The San Francisco Renaissance school of poetry along with Kenneth Rexroth, Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, Joanne Kyger, David Meltzer, and Robert Duncan, his mentor at San Francisco State. 

A tan book cover with a black spine, with alternating color text on the cover: Touching the Edge (burgundy, very large), Michael McClure (Black, Very large), Dharma Devotions from the Hummingbird Sangha (Burgundy, smaller). Text is under an image that appears to be a hand arising out of some kind of script or inky shape.
Cover for Touching the Edge by Michael McClure

McClure’s groundbreaking work transformed our understanding of the relationship of the poet/artist to nature. He helped pioneer our thinking on ecology and illuminated the connection between human expression and the expression of all living things. While often remembered for his poetry, McClure was also a playwright, essayist, and his performance collaborations defined a new way of bringing the audience to poetry. McClure’s Meat Science Essays was a clarion call to liberation. His play, The Beard, rocked the comfortable sensibilities of the theater-going public, leading to censorship battles and boarded-up theaters. That play would go on to win an Obie for “Best Play” and “Best Director.” His performances with musicians Ray Manzarek from The Doors and the minimalist composer Terry Riley explored the bardic tradition and brought poetry to pop culture with relentless mastery. 

FSU Special Collections and Archives is fortunate to hold materials, both in our rare books and manuscript collections, that chronicle the life of Michael McClure through his close relationship with Michael Rothenberg, FSU Libraries Poet-in-Residence.

Two men seated in a bookstore. One, Michael Rothenberg, has his arm around the other, Michael McClure. Rothenberg looks directly at the camera while McClure is examining a book in his lap.
Michael R. and Michael M. in recent years.

Rothenberg’s personal papers and book collection document the network of artists and thinkers that comprised the Beat Generation and San Francisco Renaissance movements. We are fortunate to have McClure’s official publications in our book collections, but also personal items from McClure from Rothenberg’s association with him through the years.

 

michael bromeliad
A Bromeliad named after Rothenberg from his time working at the nursery in Pacifica.

Michael Rothenberg first encountered a copy of McClure’s Meat Science Essays when he was seventeen in Miami Beach. He recalls, “McClure’s work was a gateway to a greater understanding of the poet in the natural world. He gave me permission to express myself in a language that was indigenous to me. He offered a kind of thinking and concern that became my path. He blew my mind.” Then, something like ten years later, Rothenberg was 

Mammals
Cover of The Mammals by McClure

introduced to McClure at Rothenberg’s orchid and bromeliad nursery in Pacifica, CaliforniaThey went hiking together, shared many lunches, and almost instantly became very close friends. “I felt that we were kindred spirits,” Rothenberg remembers, “Everything that McClure had set out in his work was what I was looking for as a poet and as a mammal.”

 

 

 

 

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Meat Science Essays Inscription

Eventually, Rothenberg and McClure would travel to Florida together to read at the Miami Book Fair. During that trip, Rothenberg took McClure out on a tour of the Everglades, “to show him the nature that I grew up with,” Rothenberg says. It was there that McClure signed the old, tattered copy of Meat Science Essays that Rothenberg read when he was seventeen, the book that opened Rothenberg’s eyes to ecology-based writing. 

 

 

 

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McClure had a distinct writing style, and Rothenberg describes it like this: “McClure’s writing is cosmic. Open, romantic, haiku-ish, abstract, specific, concrete, and light-filled. You can hear the roar of lions, and the throbbing of a living cell in each word and breath he speaks.” 

“I will miss him dearly,” Rothenberg said, “but I know that his work will inform and enlighten generations to come.”

 

 

More reading on Michael McClure’s legacy: 

McClure Bibliography: https://www.emptymirrorbooks.com/mcclure/

“The Flame Is Ours”, Michael McClure correspondence with Stan Brakhage ,edited by Christopher Luna http://www.bigbridge.org/…/Luna_McClu…/THE_FLAME_IS_OURS.pdf ,

“Engraving of Snakes”, a chapbook by Michael McClure with illustrations by Nancy Victoria Davis, http://www.bigbridge.org/issue5/snakes.pdf

 

A special thank you to Michael Rothenberg for participating in writing this blog post, and for sharing his personal memories of Michael McClure. 

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