SAN FRANCISCO — Poetry is one of the edges of consciousness. And consciousness is a real thing like the hoof of a deer or the smell of a bush of blackberries at the roadside in the sun.
--From the Author's Notes to Michael McClure's "Rebel Lions."
Poet Michael McClure's first public reading came at an event that marked a turning point in the art of verse. The scene was a converted auto repair shop in San Francisco dubbed the Six Gallery. It was December, 1955, a time, as McClure relates in his 1982 collection of essays, "Scratching the Beat Surface," when "the art of poetry was essentially dead--killed by war, by academies, by neglect, by lack of love and by disinterest."
A crowd of 150 had assembled that night to hear such soon-to-be-well-known figures as Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth and McClure. But the evening's high point was Allen Ginsberg premiering his landmark social manifesto, "Howl." As McClure relates, "in all of our memories, no one had been so outspoken in poetry before--we had gone beyond a point of no return."
That event, McClure recently said in a phone conversation from his home in San Francisco, marked a turning point for poetry.
"We revived it," he asserts. "And it was revived for 15 or 20 years."
Now, says the poet-playwright who reads Sunday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano backed by former Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, "I think a lot of poets will want to express themselves in the way that Ray and I've been working."
McClure has been on the cutting edge since that reading more than 35 years ago. His books of poetry include "The Jaguar," "Selected Poems" and the recent "Rebel Lions," a sensuous collection that blurs the conscious boundaries of man and his environment with works that, in McClure's words, show poetry as "a muscular principle . . . that comes from the body."
He's also known as a stirring reader--you might have seen him breathing new life into the work of 14th-Century poet Geoffrey Chaucer in the movie "The Last Waltz," the 1978 musical documentary that chronicled the final performance of the rock group the Band.
McClure also has written a number of songs, including "Mercedes Benz," a bit of economic and religious satire that was popularized by Janis Joplin. His sometimes-controversial plays ("The Beard," "Josephine," "The Mouse Singer," "General Gorgeous") have earned him a pair of Obie awards, as well as an arrest record. McClure was charged with using obscenities and disturbing the peace after initial performances of "The Beard," which included a simulated sex act.
The poet says that working with the former Doors member doesn't affect his style much.
"I read as I've always read, which is pretty straightforward, and pretty rhythmically and relatively dramatically--at least that's what I'm told," McClure said.
"When Ray and I perform together, it becomes another art form. It isn't poetry, and it isn't music: It's words and music. The audience is able to hear differently. I actually think they can hear much more when we work together because they hear the music and that opens up one pathway, and they hear the poetry simultaneously and that opens another. It makes for a very broad pathway of consciousness."
Manzarek, who has backed a number of poets, including jazz chronicler Michael C. Ford, says he especially enjoys the collaboration with McClure.
"Michael is a nature poet, a mammal poet," Manzarek said. "When I'm working with Ford, I'm playing more jazz. But with (McClure), I range from jazz to classical with some rock and boogie-woogie and New Age."
"The experience is very similar to what I did with (Doors vocalist Jim) Morrison. That was the first time I worked with a poet. That's what the Doors are: beat poetry and jazz seen through the eyes of two psychedelic guys."
Though both men play down the connection between the Doors and their current work ("We don't want people expecting something other than what we do," McClure said), it was Morrison who brought the two together. The singer-poet sought out McClure on the strength of "The Beard." The two soon struck up a relationship that resulted in McClure's introduction to the group's keyboardist.
"I met Michael in 1968, when he came to one of our recording sessions with Jim," Manzarek recalled. "We'd see each other here and there after that, but after Jim died, we didn't run into each other for probably 10 years." That changed when the poet attended a reading by writer Ford at McCabe's guitar shop in Santa Monica. "I approached (McClure) afterwards," said Manzarek, "and told him I loved his poetry. And he said, 'I love your music. So why don't we put them together?' "