81, might be the most photogenic of all the Beat Generation writers, and maybe the most beautiful of the young male poets who stormed North Beach when City Lights was a bookstore no bigger than the proverbial hole-in-the-wall. Moreover, more than any other Beat poet, he’s been wild about wild beasts, both real and imaginary, as in his illustrated book for children, “The Boobus and the Bunnyduck” and in “For the Death of 100 Whales,” a kind of funeral dirge that he read at the historic Six Gallery poetry jamboree in 1955 that launched the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance.
This month, City Lights is republishing his 1964 classic, “Ghost Tantras” (99 pages; $13.95), a collection of 99 poems in which he pushes language to the outer edge of human expression. Written in conversational English and in a guttural “beast language” that he created, “Ghost Tantras” begins rambunctiously and ends on a note of tranquillity. The new edition includes a spirited introduction by McClure in which he takes readers behind the scenes and describes the process of spontaneous creativity that gave birth to the poems. “I have no idea what I’m doing – just writing,” he explains.
All in all, there’s no other book of poetry like “Ghost Tantras” in the annals of Beat literature. Fifty years after he self-published his experiments with language, the world of publishing has finally caught up with the book and the author, now in the midst of a revival as a spirited performer of the spoken word.
With bass player Rob Wasserman and drummer Jay Lane, McClure plays to audiences on college campuses and at venues such as the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley. Janis Joplin, with whom he co-wrote the hit song “Mercedes Benz,” would not be surprised by the youthful energy that he still exudes as though just arrived fresh from Kansas, an American Shelley ready to shift the shape of reality itself.
When he showed up in San Francisco in 1954, McClure enrolled at San Francisco State and took literature classes. Then he met the bad boys who were remaking American literature: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Ever since the Six Gallery reading, he’s fused the spoken word to live music. In the 1960s, he caroused with Bob Dylan. Years later, McClure and keyboardist Ray Manzarek of the Doors took their rock-Beat act around the country and recorded several CDs.
During a morning conversation in the Oakland hills, where he lives with his wife of 27 years, the sculptor Amy Evans-McClure, he talked about his love for the verses of Percy Bysshe Shelley and recited lines from some of his most beloved poets – William Blake, John Keats, Walt Whitman – and his contemporary, Diane di Prima.
Q: Why is City Lights republishing the book after all these years?
A: Of all my works, it’s the one I most wanted to be republished. It draws together everything in my own personal experience from that time in the early 1960s. It also opened doors to the possibilities that followed: my novel; the years as a resident playwright at the Magic Theatre; the work with musicians such as Ray Manzarek of the Doors, who died in May; and all the way to the present day, performing at the Sweetwater with Rob Wasserman and Jay Lane.
Q: You read from “Ghost Tantras” to animals at the San Francisco Zoo.
A: Bruce Conner and I went there to record roosters. We ran into the lion keeper, who was also a poet, and he invited us to see the lions. I read and they roared. We roared together. You can Google it. I also read Chaucer to kangaroos that waved their heads back and forth and to seals that were barking.
Q: I’ve been staring at the cover of the new edition that shows a very wild-looking caveman. What’s the story?
A: That’s me with a lot of makeup on my face – and a lot of hair – that the artist Robert Lavigne applied.
Q: In the best-known photo of you, you’re elbow to elbow with Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan.
A: Allen, Bob and I hung out together in San Francisco, went to parties and shared ideas. One day, Dylan said, “Let’s take a picture of the three of us.” Larry Kennan shot us behind City Lights; it’s Jack Kerouac Alley now. Lawrence Ferlinghetti has done a great job renaming so many of the alleys. He has also done more than anyone else around to create the audience that we have for poetry. His “Coney Island of the Mind” has sold more copies than any other book of contemporary poetry except Pablo Neruda, plus he’s published nearly everybody at City Lights.
Q: With the exception of Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder, you may be the last major poet standing from that generation of poets who first published in the 1950s.
A: Don’t forget Diane di Prima, who’s still alive and still in San Francisco. She might be the greatest living American poet. I like everything Diane has written.
Q: On the back cover of the new edition, there’s a quote from the actor and director Dennis Hopper – “Without McClure’s roar there would have been no Sixties.” What does that mean to you?
A: That’s praise from a real genius as an actor, director and photographer. We hit it off from the start; we were very close for years; like me, Dennis was from Kansas.
Q: Have you ever thought who you’d be now if you hadn’t left Kansas?
A: That thought has never entered my mind. Everyone I knew wanted to get out of Kansas; most of the people in my circle left. I have hardly ever gone back.
Q: The poems in “Ghost Tantras” seem to me to be love poems.
A: Love is humanity’s greatest invention.
Q: In the new introduction to the book, you write about your “shyness.” Hard to believe.
A: I thought I was the shyest person around until Allen Ginsberg brought Jack Kerouac to my house in San Francisco. Jack had a deep-down shyness – way more than me. I overcame my own shyness when I read at the Six Gallery in 1955 with Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Philip Lamantia – when we all put our toes to the line in the sand. That was a pivotal moment in a life punctuated by pivotal moments.
Q: You’ve always emphasized the political nature of the Beats, especially in your book “Scratching the Beat Surface,” one of the best books about you and your fellow poets.
A: We were definitely not uprooted from politics. We were environmentalists, though there were times when we talked about the environment and audiences booed us.
Q: Why did you write the poems? Do you remember?
A: I wanted to change the shape of the known universe.
Q: Do you remember the city when you arrived on Dec. 31, 1954, and ate with chopsticks for the first time in Chinatown?
A: I remember shacks and goats on Twin Peaks. I remember falling in love with the wildflowers, the beauty of the ocean and Mount Tam, and I remember growing to hate all the wars. Roads were narrower then, traffic was lighter; the natural world seemed so close. Then houses crawled up all the hills, and there were more and more people, more cars, more everything. I belong to a generation that wasn’t trained by the computer. I read a lot of books. I still do.
Jonah Raskin is the author of “American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and the Making of the Beat Generation.” E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org