One by one, our heroes fall. The death of Lawrence Ferlinghetti in late February, at the age of 101, proved that even he was not immortal. The outpouring of love and tributes outside his beloved City Lights Bookstore testified to the impact he had, not just as a widely popular poet, but also as an ardent supporter of free speech. It’s also a tribute to the deep nostalgia felt in the Bay Area — and internationally — for the vision of bohemian rhapsodies that he embodied, however much things may have changed.
It’s fitting that last month, which was National Poetry Month, City Lights published Mule Kick Blues and Last Poems, by Michael McClure, Ferlinghetti’s near-contemporary. McClure, who died in 2020 at the age of 87, was a seminal member of the San Francisco Renaissance. He read at the fabled Six Gallery poetry event in 1955 (where Allen Ginsberg famously premiered Howl), hung out with Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison and co-wrote the song Mercedes Benz with Janis Joplin. He was even once filmed reading his poetry to the lions at the San Francisco Zoo.
The new volume includes elegies for Jack Kerouac, Diane di Prima, Amiri Baraka, Philip Whalen and Jack Micheline and Mule Kicks, a section channeling blues greats like Willie Dixon and Lead Belly. But the theme of facing death peacefully — even joyfully — permeates the collection. “Mortality is beautiful,” he writes, comparing death to a dark chocolate cake.
McClure’s work isn’t for everyone — he’s less accessible than Ginsberg and not as inviting as Ferlinghetti. But he combined a lifelong Buddhist practice with an ecstatic embrace of life — sex, muscle, sinew — that can’t be forgotten. In Garrett Caples’ words, “Posterity must contend with this lion.’’