In the 60 years since the famed Six Gallery reading that introduced the Beat poets, Michael McClure has read his words in any number of forms and settings.
But he’d never done anything close to what he was doing Saturday, Nov. 7, which was to walk around a room reading his words as they hung on a wall. McClure, 83, had put poetry to 24 abstract horse monoprints by his wife, Amy Evans McClure, 60. The words and the image merge on the same print. But McClure’s words on paper don’t have the impact of McClure’s words on paper as read aloud by McClure.
“Ripple. Grullo. Thicket,” he reads from one painting in a voice that is as commanding as Richard Burton reading Shakespeare. “Houyhnhnm,” he neighs, as proof that he is now also fluent in the horse dialect.
“You have to understand that Michael is the most amazing trickster of a man,” says Jack Foley, who came from Oakland down to Palo Alto for the event. “He’s so connected to words and to language that he can pull off something like this and make it quite beautiful.”
The show, titled “Sculpture & Monotypes by Amy Evans McClure, Words by Michael McClure,” is at Smith Andersen Editions through Nov. 25, but McClure was only there to open the show on Saturday. He has no other Bay Area readings scheduled, and if this turns out to be his last, it will have been the right setting. Smith Andersen is in a converted auto garage, and so was his first public reading.
That was on Oct. 7, 1955. McClure was 22 and fresh out of San Francisco State, living at Scott and Haight streets and coming over the hill to Six Gallery, which had sculptures hanging from the rafters and a plank stage on the floor, on Fillmore at Greenwich.
McClure had met Allen Ginsberg at a party, where they bonded over mutual admiration for William Blake. McClure and Ginsberg used to meet for coffee in North Beach. “He’d read me Jack Kerouac’s letters, which were fascinating to me.”
During one of these meetings, McClure told Ginsberg he’d been asked to organize a poetry reading at Six Gallery but he didn’t have the time, because his then-wife was expecting.
“Allen said, ‘Do you want me to put together the reading?’ and I said, ‘Absolutely, man, that would be good.’”
And so began an event that was neither recorded nor filmed but is generally considered to be the moment that sparked the Beat Generation. On the bill that Friday night were Ginsberg, McClure, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and Philip Lamantia, with Kenneth Rexroth as emcee. A historic plaque marking the spot notes that Kerouac was also on the bill, but he did not read. What Kerouac did was drink from a jug of garage wine and free-form his own poetry by yelling out words like “Dig it” and “Go, go,” during the readings.
McClure read “For the Death of 100 Whales,” which presaged the Greenpeace Save the Whales movement by about 20 years, but that was all but forgotten in the wake of “Howl,” which Ginsberg introduced that night.
“As we spoke, we realized from the results that we were speaking for the people,” McClure says. “We were saying what they needed and wanted to hear, and that encouraged us. We drew a line in the sand and decided not to back off that line.”
Now they are all dead and gone except for Snyder, who is a practicing Buddhist in the Sierra foothills, and McClure, who is a practicing Buddhist in the Oakland hills. He likes to start his day with meditation and a hike in the forest behind his house, which is what he was doing under the redwoods last March when he took a step on slick footing and his legs went out from under him.
“I was temporarily suspended in the air like Wile E. Coyote and then dropped.”
Hip surgery , rehab
He cracked a bone and had to have hip surgery. He spent three days in the hospital and 10 in a rehab facility, and nine months later, the early morning hours he once devoted to meditation are devoted to working out in a gym to get his leg back under him.
He has been walking with a cane, and the surgery left him with a tremor that makes it impossible for him to read his own handwriting.
But he’s not complaining. “Until I was 27, I thought I was going to die before I was 28,” he says. But he’s now been married for 29 years and decided the time was right for his first-ever collaboration with Evans McClure, an accomplished artist in her own right.
For 15 years, Evans McClure has been making sculptures of horses, which she can hear from her studio window, facing Butters Canyon. Her horses can be seen outside the Orinda Public Library and inside the McClure home. One such horse, an Appaloosa, sits in the living room, and the three of them — McClure, McClure Evans and the horse head — were sitting together when McClure had a revelation.
“I said I love the spots that are painted on there because they remind me of gestural art, like Pollock or Clyfford Still,” he recalls while sitting outside before his reading. “Maybe we could do a series of paintings of spots like you paint on the horses.”
Paula Kirkeby, who owns Smith Andersen and represented the late Bruce Conner, invited the McClures to do a joint print project, and suddenly they had their theme.
“We were totally serious about it,” he says, “and devoted to the idea.”
Evans McClure put the spots and patterns of an Appaloosa onto paper, in ink and water color. To fix them with the right words, McClure got a series of note cards and on each card wrote two words.
“I wanted to put the consciousness and the perceptions of a wild horse, not a domesticated horse, into a deck of cards that I could flip through,” he says.
The words and images were combined in the print shop at Smith Andersen. As each of 24 unique images rolled off the press, McClure went through the cards to find the words to go with it. It was performance art with no one there to witness it.
Once the prints had their words, the McClures decided to do it again in reverse order, this time applying a print to each of the cards. This forms a series called “Appaloosa Deck.” There are four decks of 32 cards.
The prints and the cards moved from the shop to the gallery on the other side of a wall. Also in the show are Evans McClure’s horse sculptures, greeting people as they walk in the door.
As the crowd built on Saturday, McClure rested in a side room. Then he came out, without the aid of his cane, and leaned against a display case.
“Am I clear?” he asked at the start, warming up his voice. He introduced the artwork, then left the safety of the display case and walked around the room, looking at each of the 24 prints and reading the words behind glass.
It was all over too soon. Nobody wanted to stop hearing his voice applied to his verse. The audience stood there awaiting a poetry encore. McClure thought he had left his anthology, “Of Indigo and Saffron,” at home, but a copy magically turned up.
He read several haikus, and a poem that fit the theme of the “Appaloosa Deck.” “Horse heads swirling in rainbows,” it began.
The audience still wanted more, so he reached for a second book, “Ghost Tantras,” just reprinted by City Lights in a 50th-anniversary edition. His hands were so shaky they could barely turn the page, but they found their way to Page 39.
“This poem comes from 1962,” he announced:
“MARILYN MONROE, TODAY THOU HAS PASSED
THE DARK BARRIER
— diving in a swirl of golden hair.
I hope you have entered a sacred paradise for full
warm bodies, full lips, full hips, and laughing eyes!”
That was just the first stanza, and the audience was entranced.
Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.comTwitter:@samwhitingsf
Sculpture & Monotypes by Amy Evans McClure, Words by Michael McClure: Through Nov. 25. Smith Andersen Editions, 440 Pepper Ave, Palo Alto. www.smithandersen.com
Video: Michael McClure reads his “Appaloosa Deck” at www.sfchron.cl/1HDYs2a.
San Francisco Chronicle