Since then, he’s become something of an icon, famously reading his poems to the lions at the San Francisco Zoo, triumphing over censors who tried to ban his Obie award-winning play The Beard, and reciting Chaucer in Scorcese’s The Band’s Last Waltz. Greil Marcus told me that “If James Dean had lived, it's not hard to imagine that Michael McClure is what he might have become.” It’s a lovely thought experiment: Dean’s rebellious and charismatic angst matures into a poetry with direction and careful attention to the world it’s a part of. Pauline Kael called James Dean—who said as much with his gestures as with his lines—a “beautiful, disturbed animal.” And McClure’s poetry, restless and gestural, reminds us that we’re all animals.
The opening of his poem “Oh Hail to Thee Who Play,” for example, turns the epic into the biological:
SING THAT I BE ME, BE THOU,
be me, be I, no ruse
—A MAMALLED MAN
In the 1960s, McClure began blending human language with “beast language” to discover what he calls “the energies a-roar,” the inner workings of the body—both spiritual and scientific. It’s part of a larger, ecological project designed to show us that all living things are connected—and for McClure, poetry’s part of that connective tissue.
McClure has described his poems as complex organisms. He usually centers his lines, creating a kind of spine that gives the poems organic solidity; but the structure also suggests that the words are always reaching out, moving away from themselves and toward the rest of the universe. They’re explosions of energy.
I think you’ll find that explosiveness in his reading tonight, too. McClure’s books often include instructions on how to experience the poems—“READ ALOUD AND SING THEM,” says the back cover of Ghost Tantras. We’re lucky to hear them as intended, relentlessly physical, traveling from mouth to air to ear.
McClure describes his own poems as ears—and shoulders—in the forward to September Blackberries, where he gives a beautiful summary of the kind of work poetry can do: “Poetry is the way that we extend our inner life. The real inner life is cut off from us—but we can put it out there and call it a poem. We stand on poetry—like a steppingstone in a torrent—and are more free.”