from The Birth of the Beat Generation:
Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters
by Steven Watson
When he was a child, Michael McClure wanted to be a naturalist; he later studied anthropology and headed for San Francisco at the age of twenty-one to study the philosophy of postwar art. In his varied vocational interests, and in the disparate groups with which he consorted - writers, rock musicians, painters, later Hell's Angels - he embodied the "myriad-mindedness" of the San Francisco Renaissance. More than any single figure, McClure provided a bridge between the worlds of art, theater, and poetry that so enlivened the San Francisco Renaissance years.
McClure was born on Rimbaud's birthday (October 20, 1832) on the plains of Marysville, Kansas. Due to divorces and remarriages, he was shuttled between Marysville, Seattle, and Wichita. Two abiding loves, poetry and nature, were born during these early years. In his adolescence, he discovered old copies of Transition and he began reading the modernists - not just the classics (Eliot, Joyce, Pound) but also a younger generation that included Antonine Artaud, Kenneth Patchen, and Kurt Schwitters. In his early teens, McClure began writing free verse, and after his immersion in modernism he grew more interested in perfecting such traditional poetic forms as villanelles, sonnets, and sestinas. When his highschool friend Bruce Conner exposed him to abstract expressionist art, McClure began painting in hopes that their gestural style would inspire his poetry. One of San Francisco's lures was the distinguished faculty at the California School of Fine Arts (later the San Francisco Art Institute). McClure moved to San Francisco in 1954, and finding that two hoped-for teachers, Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko, no longer taught there, he discovered instead another generation of artists. "I had a sudden feeling that, regarding visual art, I was happy to be in San Francisco and not Paris," Recalled McClure. He enrolled in Robert Duncan's poetry workshop at San Francisco State College and found in the class a "divine milieu."
The dynamic between the adventurous, wild-eyed McClure and the erudite Duncan was perhaps unexpected - the student writing "Petrarchan sonnets in the style of Milton," and the older professor encouraging freer experimentation. McClure met San Francisco's literary community through Duncan and at Kenneth Rexroth's evenings, where he encountered poet Philip Lamantia and was so drawn to his mysticism and surrealism that Lamantia often stayed with McClure. Following a W. H. Auden reading, McClure met Allen Ginsberg, and before the evening was out, they had shared the visions that they had each had of William Blake - he had come to Ginsberg in a Harlem apartment speaking in a voice of stone, and he had appeared to McClure in his adolescence in a dream in which "Blake seemed as real a presence as an automobile." McClure was struck by the difference in their respective visions of Blake. "Allen has a Blake who is a Blake of prophecy, a Blake who speaks out against the dark Satanic Mills," observed McClure. "My Blake is a Blake of body and of vision."
It was after this meeting that Michael McClure invited Ginsberg to organize the Six Gallery reading. (McClure couldn't manage it at that moment, for he was about to become a father.) He readied one of his own poems for the reading, the first performance of a work that integrated McClure's interest in tradition, experiment, and biology. "For the Death of 100 Whales" had been written in 1954 as a ballad with a 4-3-4-3 meter and A-B-A-B rhymes, and then, McClure recalled, "I broke it apart so it was a Cubist poem." When he performed it at the Six Gallery, it reflected his early and continuing interest in forging a poetry of environment and biology.