Mr. McClure was just 22 and relatively new to San Francisco when he was asked to organize a poetry reading at a converted auto garage called the Six Gallery. With his wife pregnant at the time, he told fellow poet Allen Ginsberg that he was too busy to arrange the event on his own.
“Allen said, ‘Do you want me to put together the reading?’ ” Mr. McClure recalled to the San Francisco Chronicle in 2015, “and I said, ‘Absolutely, man, that would be good.’ ”
The reading took place on Oct. 7, 1955, with readings by Ginsberg, Mr. McClure, Philip Lamantia, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen.
Mr. McClure read several works, including “For the Death of 100 Whales” — one of the first poems about environmental awareness. Ginsberg gave the first public reading of “Howl,” the fevered urtext of the Beat movement, beginning with the line, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.”
The master of ceremonies was poet Kenneth Rexroth, and among the 100 or so people in the audience were poet and bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti and novelist Jack Kerouac, drinking from a jug of wine and shouting, “Go, go, go!” Less than two years later, Kerouac published his seminal Beat generation novel, “On the Road.”
Mr. McClure would become known as one of the founders of Beat poetry, a performance-driven form of free expression, inspired by the rhythms of jazz and the mingled insights of eastern religions, erotic experiences and wild peyote visions.
“The world that we tremblingly stepped out into in that decade was a bitter, gray one. But San Francisco was a special place,” he wrote in “Scratching the Beat Surface,” a 1982 essay collection. “. . . We saw that the art of poetry was essentially dead — killed by war, by academies, by neglect, by lack of love, and by disinterest. We knew we could bring it back to life.”
Mr. McClure stayed in the Bay Area for the rest of his life, writing poetry and plays, teaching and serving as a link between the Beat era of the 1950s and the later hippie generation. He wrote, almost as a lark, the lyrics for Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” — “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz” — and sang a version for her while strumming an autoharp given to him by Bob Dylan.
After a rocky introduction, he became something of a mentor to the Doors’ Jim Morrison.
“We disliked each other enormously at first,” Mr. McClure told the Victoria (B.C.) Times Colonist in 2011. “We both had long hair to our shoulders and leather pants on. And then we started drinking Johnnie Walker and talking about poetry. We become very deep friends.”
Mr. McClure appeared in a film directed by novelist Norman Mailer, was friends with actors Dennis Hopper and Peter Coyote and drew praise for his poem “Peyote Poem” from Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA.
Kerouac based a character in his novel “Big Sur” on Mr. McClure — “the handsome young poet who’s just written the most fantastic poem in America, called ‘Dark Brown,’ which is every detail of his and his wife’s body described in ecstatic union and communion . . . and not only that he insists on reading it to us.”
Mr. McClure’s early poetry was often descriptive and drawn from everyday experience. One of the poems he read at the Six Gallery, “The Breech,” was drawn from his job unloading trucks at a produce market:
At work — 3:00 in the morning — In the produce market
Moving crates of lettuce and cauliflower — Predawn
A vision — The rats become chinchillas — I stand
At the base of a cliff — sweating — flaming — in terror and joy . . .
Rotten lettuce — perfume — The damp carroty street
Over time, his poems became more impressionistic, even abstract, as Mr. McClure combined observations of nature and biological forms with mystical ideas, profanity and made-up words and syntax meant to evoke ideas and raw feelings.
“What we write, or what we paint, or what we sing or do,” he told the Portland Review in 1982, “must actually, literally, be an extension of ourselves, or it is meaningless.”
Mr. McClure’s readings became forms of performance art, none more dramatic (or disturbing) than when he went to a zoo and read a poem from his 1964 collection “Ghost Tantras” to a group of caged, roaring lions:
SILENCE THE EYES! BECALM THE SENSES!
Drive drooor from the fresh repugnance, thou whole,
thou feeling creature. Live not for others but affect thyself
from thy enhanced interior — believing what thou carry.
The poem ends with Mr. McClure roaring, as the lions do back at him.
In a 2013 edition of “Ghost Tantras,” he recalled when he read the poem to “the four maned males of the building. They roar back with me and we sing it together. The five of us are deeply pleased.”
When a friend replayed the encounter on audiotape, Mr. McClure said he was “profoundly shaken.”
“A few years later,” he wrote, “a public television group is making documentary films of the new generation of poets and asks me to read again to the lions and again they roar with me.”
Michael Thomas McClure was born Oct. 20, 1932, in Marysville, Kan. After his parents divorced, he grew up mostly in Seattle with his maternal grandfather, a doctor and amateur naturalist.
Mr. McClure attended colleges in Kansas and Arizona before graduating in 1955 from San Francisco State University. His artistic influences included William Blake, an early 19th-century British visionary poet, French Symbolist poets, jazz musician Thelonious Monk and abstract artists such as Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still.
Mr. McClure often designed his poems to appear as symmetrical shapes on the page or else as casually placed words, in the style of Pollock’s “drip paintings.”
In the 1960s, Mr. McClure began writing plays, including “The Beard,” first produced in 1965 and featuring a dream encounter in which actress Jean Harlow meets Western outlaw Billy the Kid. The play ends with a simulated sex act. Early productions were often raided by the police, with the actors getting two rounds of applause: one for the performance, one in solidarity as they were marched out under arrest.
A later play by Mr. McClure, “Josephine: The Mouse Singer,” a parable about artistic freedom in which the characters are portrayed as mice, won an Obie Award in 1980 for best off-Broadway play.
Mr. McClure, who also wrote two novels and several nonfiction works, taught at what is now the California College of the Arts for 43 years, retiring in 2006.
He appeared in Martin Scorsese’s 1978 film “The Last Waltz,” about the final concert of the rock group The Band, coming onstage to recite a portion of Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” in Middle English.
Beginning in 1988, Mr. McClure frequently performed and recorded with Ray Manzarek, the keyboard player for the Doors, reciting lyrics from Doors songs or his own poetry.
His marriage to Joanna Kinnison ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife since 1998, Amy Evans McClure of Oakland; a daughter from his first marriage, K. Jane McClure of Bethel, Alaska; and two grandsons.
Mr. McClure wrote dozens of volumes of poetry and continued to give readings well into his 80s.
“It’s very important to surprise myself,” he told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2001. “I’m one of those artists who say: ‘Well, if I knew what it was before I do it, I wouldn’t sit down to do it.’ ”
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