The late poet Michael McClure (1932-2020) was always associated with the original Beat circle of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Snyder, Ferlinghetti but he was so much more than that to Tosh Berman, who saw him as the rightful heir to Jim Morrison. Tosh’s father, Wallace, was a major postwar cultural figure, known as the “father of assemblage art” and the center of a vibrant circle of artists, writers, musicians, dancers, filmmakers of the 1960s. Tosh shares his boyhood memories of Michael McClure, who was among the regular visitors to the Berman house.
Even as a child, I realized that Michael McClure was extremely handsome, in the same manner as the French film star Alain Delon. Michael, who died last Monday May 4th at age 87, was and will always be my prototype for the romantic poet.
There are all sorts of poets, but Michael came from the tradition of Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, and Stéphane Mallarmé. I never thought of him as a contemporary poet, but more of a figure from the 19th-century. Michael was not a Surrealist poet, though he certainly shared the sensibility of a pre-Surrealist poet like Comte de Lautréamont—this is why I think of him as a romantic poet. It’s odd for me to think of him as a “Beat” poet because he was much more than that. I, of course, understand why he is put into that context—after all, he was one of the poets who read at the Six Gallery that night in San Francisco in 1955, the event that was said to launch the Beat Generation poets. In the same manner, you could say that Marlon Brando was an excellent “Beat” actor. Of course, both Michael and Marlon went beyond that category; they both transformed their art/craft into another dimension.
Michael has been in my life since I was a little child. I’m pretty sure my father, Wallace Berman, met him in San Francisco, sometime in the mid-1950s. At the time, Wallace was very tight with the San Francisco poetry scene. He read the poems being written at the time and went to many of the readings. Michael and my father had a natural appreciation for each other. Both had strong egos and a strong focus when it came to their art and poetry. Michael did not experiment; he knew what he was doing in his craft and creativity. That spilled over into his physical appearance, as well. Was it ever possible for Michael to ever take a bad photograph? Never!
Even Jim Morrison looked up to him, and they became great friends.
Michael not only wrote poetry, but he lived his life as a poet. If you see pictures of him during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, you might think he was the lead singer of some decadent Doors-like band. The truth is, even Jim Morrison looked up to him, and they became great friends. Michael brought word from Jim Morrison that he wanted Wallace to create the cover art for the second Doors album, Strange Days. My Dad turned down the job when he learned that he would not have complete control of the cover. Wallace could not compromise with the thought that the album would be covered in shrink-wrap, and would have a price sticker on the upper right corner. Or even that the name of the band would also be on the cover, for God’s sake! And, since he had no control over that, he turned it down.
Michael exerted the same control over his writing as well. His poetry had to be read in a specific manner. The words had to be placed on the page correctly. In that sense, Michael resembled Stephen Mallarmé, who was one of the first poets to put importance on how the poems looked on paper. Like Mallarme, Michael was particular about how his words were placed and spaced on a page.
This same meticulous sense extended to his clothing, which gave him a durable romantic feel from another time or era. My earliest memory of Michael is as a Monty Clift combined with just a touch of Brando in The Wild One. Of all of Wallace’s male friends, Michael was the most obsessed with an identity through clothing. He would wear a chunky scarf as if it were naturally appended to his neck. In my mind, I don’t recall him ever, not wearing a scarf. Winter or summer, he had the same appearance, which I gathered was a selective ‘dandy’ aesthetic. Michael always had that star-like charisma. He had a flair no one else had, down to the scarf around his neck. To this day, when I look at a scarf or put one on, I immediately think of Michael. In the early ‘60s, he resembled a very well-dressed Hells Angel member (he even co-wrote Freewheelin’ Frank, a memoir by Hells Angel Frank Reynolds).
The essence of ‘sound’ was fundamental in Michael’s poetry. Of all the poets we knew at the time, he was the one most interested in sound. When he read his works, he had a way of pronouncing his words like they were sculptures. Each word seemed as if he were making an object positioned in front of his eyes or view. I suspected that, somewhere in his past, Michael must have taken a diction class, because of the care with which he pronounced words. Ghost Tantras (1964) is, I think, his masterpiece, which is him roaring like a lion. Years later, he worked with musicians, but I was always of the view that the outside music got in the way of his poetry. He alone and his voice were enough.
Michael McClure, reciting the prologue to The Canterbury Tales in The Last Waltz:
When I was the director at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice, California, I invited Michael to do a reading. What struck me, and others on the staff there, was how serious Michael was about his sound-check, which lasted for an hour. He wanted to get used to the room’s sound, as well as making sure that the microphone was positioned and volume was correct. Of all the writers and poets I presented at Beyond Baroque, he was the first one to insist on having a sound-check.
I remember how he would visit our home in Topanga Canyon excited to show Wallace his new poetry, which he claimed was something new for him. He had Wallace read the poetry, but Michael also performed (read) his new poem to him as well. He read the original work as though there was a full audience in front of him. He even gestured with his fingers in an elegant, almost Noel Coward fashion. I can’t remember the exact words, but Wallace told him that this was clearly his work, but that there was nothing radically new in his approach. Michael was shocked. The truth is Michael could not help but write McClure poetry. He had such a unique voice that it would be impossible for him to be otherwise than Michael McClure, which is what makes him great. You read one McClure poem, and you’ve read them all. This may sound like a negative critique, but I do not intend it that way. His poetry will always belong to Michael’s voice, which was awesome. Readers and fans wanted that voice, and only McClure could deliver the goods. In that sense, it would be have been altogether fitting and proper if Michael had replaced Jim Morrison, his younger soul brother, in the Doors after his death. He was indeed the Lizard King, more than Morrison.
The Doors’ Ray Manzarek performed with Michael McClure. Here they perform “Riders on the Storm”:
Michael had knowledge of natural science, and that was very much part of his work and vision as well. Ghost Tantras was McClure’s most direct book of poetry and, for him, it was a natural acceptance of the beast world. Wallace took the photograph of Michael in lion makeup for the cover of the book.
Michael was not natural; there was something artificial in him. When one was in front of him, you saw him perform. I have a strong memory of dining with him and my parents at a traditional French restaurant, where he ordered the food for the entire table, including yours truly. What I wanted was a hamburger, but I wasn’t going to get it at that restaurant. Everything he ordered was very much “grown-up” food, clearly unsuitable for an American kid like me. All I wanted was a piece of meat between two slices of bread, and I was angry at him for not ordering such a plate for me. Instead, he ordered Cuisses de grenouille (frog legs) and Escargots (snails). Fifty-four years later, I’m still pissed off at him for that dinner. If Michael enters your world, you are in the world of Michael. No hamburgers allowed.
He was one of those poets who knew stagecraft. The majority of my Dad’s poet friends didn’t have a commanding style when they faced an audience. However, Michael put a lot of thought into this. Even off-stage, he had a dominant personality. I don’t recall frivolous chit-chat with him. He saw the world at the time with intense awareness. Some poets didn’t care how they were packaged, but Michael had a strong point of view regarding book covers, being in journals, and, of course, how his poetry was laid out on the page. I remember one time my Dad and Michael had a very intense discussion about a poster Wallace made for Michael’s play The Beard. Michael didn’t like the poster at first, or maybe not at all, but at the end of the day, my father won the argument. What their argument is about is that Wallace had a realistic view of Jean Harlow and Billy The Kid, while Michael saw his ‘fictional’ characters more in the ‘Hollywood’ sense of glamor. Even though their discussion was heated, there was lots of respect between the two men, which made them good partners on a project together.
As a grown-up—I dare not say an adult—I saw less of Michael. About ten years ago, I ran into him at a John Zorn performance at a jazz club in San Francisco. As I was talking to him, I was surprised to learn that he didn’t work with Zorn on a project. The two, to me, seem like a natural creative couple. The last time I saw him was in Los Angeles, looking ancient but still handsome. For many, handsome is just on the surface, but for Michael, it was a high aesthetic.
A significant figure in the literary arts just died.
Short but startling film about Michael McClure, taken from the USA Poetry series by Richard O. Moore (1966):