Just as day is done
we exhale our perfumes
into the night
Every December I devote some time to seeking out the names of people who died during that year that I want to particularly remember and honor at year’s end. I go through the lists of the most prominent compiled by major media, plus a few specialized lists. And then I even scroll through Wikipedia’s day by day lists, which tend to be heavy with the names of European soccer stars. This year my eye stopped on at least 20 names that turned out to not be the person I remember, but someone else with that name. The person I remember usually had died years before.
But I also come across names I am dismayed to see: people I admire who didn’t make the big media lists, but who I regard as especially important.
Most of the time, those names turn out to belong to writers. Not to surprise anyone, but writers aren’t valued much in this society, though what may surprise many is that this is very unusual in human history. Their storytelling counterparts in Indigenous societies were vital, and writers and artists were central to most cultures since. Their status even in America has been higher, including in my lifetime.
These days writers are central to a largely self-selected segment of the population, but to these individual readers and listeners (for readings and audio books have revived the aural tradition), individual writers are very important. And though they may no longer be recognized for doing so, they may influence the culture and even the course of history.
One writer who died this year and didn’t make most national media cuts but who clearly was a big time player in how American culture changed in the past sixty-five years was Michael McClure.
McClure was one of the poets featuring in the San Francisco poetry reading in 1955 that exploded into the culture as the Beat movement. The event is famous for Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” but Gary Snyder also read for the first time that night, and Jack Kerouac was prowling the audience, passing jugs of wine and cheerleading. (McClure became a character in several Kerouac novels.)
Steeped in the literature of the past, McClure was a fearless innovator. His first public writing was poetry, but he achieved more fame as a playwright, particularly for The Beard, which got its lead actor and actress arrested—twice-- for indecency, and went on to win awards in New York.
Mating poetry and theatre was only one of his many cross-fertilizing adventures. He became friends with Jim Morrison and Robbie Robertson, and wrote a song with Janis Joplin—her “Mercedes Benz” hit. In more recent years he performed his poetry many times accompanied by former Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek.
He was friends as well with avante garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage and actor/director Peter Fonda, and contributed to and appeared (sometimes as an actor) in several Fonda films. (He’s also in Scorcese’s The Last Waltz, a film of the last concert by the Band.)
He was passionately interested in painting in the 50s, and considered himself a naturalist, and so became a point of connection between literary artists and scientists like his friend, DNA-decoder Francis Krick. McClure consciously connected the vertical—the older literary gurus like Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer, and connected horizontally with literary contemporaries, like Ginsberg, Kerouac, Snyder and poet Diane DiPrima (who also died in 2020) but also Robert Creeley and his mentor, Charles Olson.
He was an early and close friend to Richard Brautigan, who became the most famous of the San Francisco writers in the late 1960s. In the 60s McClure was an active facilitator, not only introducing Creeley to Jim Morrison, but literally introducing Marshall McLuhan to Bob Dylan.
|I recall having this |
early 60s book, so
probably my first
dip into McClure's
He also wrote essays and newspaper journalism, eventually becoming a kind of elder statesman, an embodiment of recent history, as well as a teacher to later generations.
Earlier this century I interviewed Michael McClure on the phone for a piece I did for the San Francisco Chronicle on Buddhism in the Bay Area. He explained how Asian a city San Francisco was in the 1950s, and so how naturally it became the first center for Buddhism in America. He mentioned his own meditation practice as part of his “Hummingbird Sangha,” a group that meditated together facing a garden where hummingbirds hummed. He was generous and personable, making sure I had good quotes for the piece. After it was published, he emailed me his delight, saying that the article had advanced or contributed to “the Dharma,” probably the greatest compliment I’ve ever received.
In recent years, McClure emphasized how different the 1950s were when the Beats emerged: how repressed and conformist and reactionary, with little tolerance for anything different. When asked by a young man where the Beat Generation spirit, the 60s spirit had gone, he answered: look at yourself. You’re wearing jeans and an organic cotton t-shirt, a hemp cap. You care about the environment, you’re aware of racism and you’re against war. Where has it gone? It’s you.
Today in America there are occasionally groups of writers in the same place and a community that knows them. It doesn’t seem to happen a lot anymore but when it does, it owes something to the San Francisco that McClure saw over decades, and in large measure nurtured and helped to live. Michael McClure died in May at the age of 87.
William Kittredge died in December. He lived and taught in Montana for many years and wrote about that part of the country (and he was a co-producer of the movie A River Runs Through It), but the books of his I have and know are about the country in Oregon where he grew up: a book on the Klamath River to which he contributed text, and the books that evoke his youth.
A Hole in the Sky is pretty much devoted to his experiences growing up on the ranch his father owned. I had never read anything quite like it: at once a braided memoir of exaltations and mistakes in dealing with the land, and a evocation of the landscape as eternally sacred, written in cadenced prose like crystal.
The Nature of Generosity is more various and ambitious but the prose is just as mesmerizing. The introduction alone makes it an American classic. Language and story are themselves themes. “Narratives may well be our fundamental survival strategy, from which all the complex rest of our schemes follow.” His ecological vision is broad, deep and original. William Kittredge deserves to be read and remembered.
I first encountered the work of Eric Bentley in the 1970s in connection with the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee—probably his 1972 play based on transcripts of hearings. But it was his writing on theatre that captivated me in the 1990s. I believe the first book of his essays or reviews I read was The Life of the Drama (1983.) If it wasn’t, it should have been because that’s what his writing did for me—it brought life to drama and dramatic criticism that motivated me to go deeper into the subject. All of which came in handy when I started writing regularly on theatre.
Bentley was a playwright and a singer, but most of that work was in New York when I wasn’t. But I could read his essays in a half dozen other collections, plus some specialized works, particularly on Brecht. Just as Michael McClure embodied ideals, accomplishments and change in American culture since the 1950s, Bentley embodied the ideals advanced in western theatre since the 1940s. He died in August at the age of 102.
Other writers who died in 2020 include playwrights Terence McNally (of Covid), Israel Horovitz and Murray Schisgal, poets Ernesto Cardenal and Ann Stevenson, and another poet (besides McClure and DiPrima) associated with the San Francisco Beat era, Ruth Weiss.
The premier novelist John Le Carre died in 2020, as did fictionists Alison Lurie, Tim O’Brien and the last of the science fiction magazine generation, Ben Bova. Two novelists whose stories achieved almost mythic status when transformed into films were Charles Webb (The Graduate) and Winston Groom (Forrest Gump.)
Barry Lopez wrote about the natural environment, often as reports of his travels, as in his most famous book, Arctic Dreams. Michael Soule co-edited The Re-Invention of Nature to counter the devaluations of deconstructionists.
Freeman Dyson was an esteemed physicist (with some blind spots on the environment) who also wrote well—I enjoyed several of his books. Stanley Crouch wrote about jazz and black culture; he was a poet and novelist and raconteur. On television he radiated charm and intelligence and originality—every time I saw him I wished I knew him so I could listen to him for hours more.
I first knew of Jan Morris when she was James, an acclaimed writer about people and places whose gender reassignment surgery was pioneering and therefore prominent news. While she remained a symbol for some, eventually her transformation was all but forgotten by many—I’ll bet some of her readers over these many decades didn’t even know.
Pete Hamill was an exemplary New York journalist who bridged old school and new. Richard Reeves was a columnist I read and listened to, and subsequently the author of books on political history.
Gail Sheehy was a magazine journalist associated with the New Journalism of the 60s who became famous for her book Passages. Robert Sam Anson was a hot commodity as a magazine writer when I was prowling editors’ offices in New York in the 70s and 80s.
Bruce Jay Friedman is another name associated with humor in the 60s, especially for his screenplays. George Steiner wrote fiction and literary criticism of breadth with an individual and moral point of view. A.E. Hotchner was a novelist and biographer best known for his books on Hemingway.
And finally—because I am most familiar with her name after the end credits of PBS programs I loved—Rosalind P. Walter, known as a philanthropist especially in humanities and great PBS funder, who in her youth was the model for that World War II icon, Rosie the Riveter.
May they all rest in peace. Their work lives on.