Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
James Rother

The Sage 
of Rhythmopoeia

Mexico City Blues (242 Choruses) by Jack Kerouac (1959): A Retrospective Essay

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Jack Kerouac and the Beats are enjoying a revival--a big revival, from the look of it. Virtually all of the Great Literary Hobo's books are either in print for the first time or back in print, not to mention the proliferation of books about the Beats, anthologizing the Beats, or Beating the dead horse of anti-Beatnikism once so popular in the elite press and tidy journals of academe. Witness the publication of Kerouac's long and winding roadmap to the Buddhist writer's soul, Some of the Dharma (1997), originally composed in 1955-56 and lovingly edited by the author's brother-in-law and literary executor, John Sampas. Or the doorstop-sized compilation of everything interesting and uninteresting ever said by or about the Beats, Beat Down to Your Soul (2001), edited by the doyenne-in-chief of Beat studies, Ann Charters (her co-custodian of the Eternal Flame being Ann Waldman, about whom more later). For those whose memory is faulty, or are too young to recall Vituperation City scouring its outskirts for bearded invaders, their minds on sex and their sex on everyone's mind, here's a typical "all clear" bulletin, sounded when wishful thinking presumed the entire disgraceful episode over at last. As commentary it's simply too fulsome not to quote without ellipsis and at length:

Finally the "beats" have made no difference. The old order is basically unchanged, the colleges brim full and overflow; the curriculum is expanded to include [William S.] Burroughs and Kerouac, what was shuddered at only yesterday is today anthologized and assigned. Certain quite old poets imitate the anti-iambics of [Allen] Ginsberg, while certain very new ones rediscover iambic pentameter with a thrill; and our basic consciousness remains unaltered, though new kicks have been added to old, marijuana to martinis, mescalin to bourbon on the rocks. In a few decades, the "pot" party will have replaced the cocktail party as a social obligation and a bore, beards will have become required or passé, and homosexuality will no longer seem an intolerable offense to even the most backward provincial. Only cleanliness will not have been replaced by dirtiness as next in rank to godliness; there is too much money invested in soap.

In any case, we have begun to realize that it is not Armageddon which confronts us (not as imagined by the "beats" or the Marxists or the ban-the-bombers), only a long slow decadence in which the arts will continue to thrive, to the confusion of everyone. . . .

Leslie A. Fiedler, contentious author of An End to Innocence and No! in Thunder, tossed this off in Waiting for the End (subtitled The Crisis in American Culture & A Portrait of 20th Century American Literature), published in 1964. 1964! One hardly knows whether to be more stunned by Fiedler's blindness or by his unbelievable prescience as to just where the leviathan-in-crisis of American culture would next be heaving its tail in the years ahead. 
     But as assaults on the Beats go, his was, comparatively speaking, mild-mannered and relatively good-humored. Much more virulent in her attacks was Barbara Probst Solomon, who in a piece on the hipster cult titled "The American Mood: Kerouac and Mailer," appearing in the English journal Socialist Commentary in 1959, found the heart of darkness alive and well in the Célineries of a resurgent fascist demimonde presided over by a media-savvy thug prince:

Many writers have shown evil, but Kerouac's special twist is that he must justify it, turn it around, bury it in confusion, chaos, speed, sentimentality, and religion, until ultimate evil becomes ultimate good. Many critics have observed that Kerouac might be a good writer if he straightened out his wandering style a little. This is impossible. His confusion, lulling rhythm, and lack of clarity is essential--as a cover-up. His world is the world of the "gang." His people travel in packs, but are friendless. A guy must have a "pal," but then he becomes suspicious, turns on him, and rushes off in search of a new friend, preferring someone thousands of miles away. Nothing is felt, but the yawning mouth of sensation must be filled, so newer and different kinds of violence must constantly be discovered.

If Solomon's rhetoric here seems a tad inflammatory, the rest of the piece indicates she was just getting warmed up. Kerouac, she thunders, "is in love with a world of 'leaders' and 'supermen'"--clearly not a good sign:

There are ordinary people whose duty it is to follow (or be killed or robbed--the victims) and the exceptional men whose duty it is to lead us all. Old Bull Lee [Burroughs] is a typical leader. He is a "great knower of life," having learned a great deal in Europe during the thirties. . . . [He] wallows in the myth of the America of long ago when men were men, life was free, and there was a rip-roaring lack of law and order. He preaches a violent hatred for his enemies--liberals, intellectuals, unions, and government--while the young gather at his feet and listen in awe.

The bit firmly between her teeth, Solomon goes on to allege that critics must have been asleep on the job when they beheld "in Kerouac only a shy little word-clown, and [were] indifferent to his appealing apologia of fascism new-style--a grinning, friendly, romantic fascist of the spirit." 
     While buzz-words dear to the left abound in her tirade--fascism, hatred of unions and eggheads, etc.--Solomon leaves little doubt that she considers the bringing of such an indictment serious business indeed. This is no routine hatchet job aimed at a poseur with delusions of grandeur. She really and truly feared the backdraft of moral relativism that was almost sure to follow from the tolerance of criminal behavior her essay described. For who then could have denied that a blaze with the Beats at its center had sprung up in America and, in the wake of boffo films like The Wild Ones and Rebel Without A Cause, been fanned by a media hungry for profits? As the '60s got under way its sinister glow was, to some observers, already mesmerizing the youth of several continents. The often calculated dishevelment of the face it presented--especially with Kerouac on stage--intensified that impression. Across a broad continuum of taste stretching from Thomas Mann to Norman Mailer in fiction, and from W. H. Auden to Gregory Corso in verse, the sense was that Beatnikism was historically recapitulating Dadaism, only this time as farce. 
     As cult figure and linchpin most handy to the demonizers of anything "beat," Kerouac was often pilloried both for his personal behavior and for his influence on younger writers. With reviews of Beat writing and interviews with movement poets and novelists typically ranging in tone from condescending to downright hostile, the establishment was making it plain that though the Beats were media darlings, a Get Out of Jail Free pass from the Luceite consortium (read Time, Life and Fortune) was not in the cards. As one movement insider was wont to opine in 1968 about l'affaire Jean-Louis, the greatest Beat of them all was "the kind of writer only America could produce, and that only America could so willfully misunderstand."
     Which, to put it mildly, is why mention of Jack Kerouac's literary achievements has not always met with surfeits of high-five and apple pan dowdy. Everything about him tended to be controversial; even his haircuts garnered rage or gushing approval. To hate him successfully proved as difficult, even to specialists, as loving him, which perhaps explains why after a while it became nearly impossible to distinguish the inflated rhetoric of the one from the apologetic damage control of the other. One fact, however, remained beyond the alchemy of publicists, and that was the way he chose to close out his final years, mostly in St. Petersburg, Florida, in the company of an all-tending mother, whom he called Mamère
     His death in 1969 capped a life of highs and lows that, in those last years especially, contracted to a goofball of contraindications. He did not die, like F. Scott Fitzgerald (another failure at retrieving the jumped claim of American innocence), a martyr to energies overtaxed and undernourished, but pathetically, in a way not unlike Elvis Presley a decade later, an out-sized casualty of booze, junkfood and downers. Even before splitting the scene for good, Kerouac was a favorite target of attacks from critics as diverse as Malcolm Cowley and Norman Podhoretz. To the first he seemed an irrelevant spectre in the motley of Thomas Wolfe (though the charge of irrelevance was withdrawn after reading On the Road (1956) a little more carefully); while to the second he was a trafficker in babble "attracted to criminality" and a faux-Villon holding a switch-blade to the throat of American culture.
     Perhaps the present renascence of things Beat will do more than mindlessly revisit a fashion and help resolve a long-standing critical impasse regarding their true cultural value. If so, its first order of business will need to be the revaluation of the multiparous, multiplicitous, multifarious role played by Kerouac as key impresario--as inspirational mover, shaker, and chief propagandist for the movement--not to mention the most important American visionary poet, and heir to Whitman, to emerge in the second half of the 20th Century. Movements toward such a reappraisal were made some 30 years ago with the appearance of Nothing More to Declare (1967), a collection of recollections of the incredible roller coaster ride that was the movement's day in the sun, by the author of Go (1952) and one of the original Beats, John Clellon Holmes. Then, four years later it was again taken up, rather more journalistically, by Bruce Cook, in The Beat Generation: The Tumultuous '50s Movement and Its Impact on Today (1971). The two books between them broke almost a decade of silence about the significance of the Beats as a social, as well as an artistic, counterculture that had directly inspired the psychedelic and anti-war movements that dominated the era of the Vietnam conflict. 
     Cook's memoir's primary value is that it explodes a number of stubborn myths that grew up around "Beat" writers, the most unkillable being those congealing about the figure of Allen Ginsberg, gonzo-prophet of Howl, and William S. Burroughs, ex-junkie and sci-fi discombobulist of Naked Lunch, a book that owed much of its fame to the obscenity trial that raged all about it. First off, we learn that it was Kerouac who convinced Burroughs that his scruffier demons could be talked down through writing, and not the other way around. Second, a persuasive argument is made that what attracted Ginsberg to Whitman was much more that poet's negative chic with the New York literary crowd (then very much an arm of the academically conservative vision of Lionel Trilling, who scorned Whitman as "at worst a charlatan and at best an embarrassment") than a fondness for either his homosensualist braggadocio or democratic rant. And finally--though the list could go on and on--it was, Cook claimed, an egregious error to discount Kerouac's prolific output as but the drainage ditch of a runaway ego. Kerouac was, like Gertrude Stein, a scriptomane and therefore cared as little about whether his works were read as did the occupant of Paris's 23 Rue de Fleurus when she represented the avant-garde. (Doubters inclined to scoff at Stein's--or Kerouac's--exceptional productivity being attributed to a disorder are referred to Wayne Koestenbaum's revelatory essay "Stein Is Nice," which appeared first in the journal Parnassus: Poetry in Review and then was brought back for another bow in his miscellany, Cleavage: Essays on Sex, Stars, and Aesthetics [2000]). 
     Cook is not very interested in Kerouac the poet, but the least predictable of the Beats was never less understood than in 1959 when he appeared to swerve, without signaling, into a combination of jazz and what the Germans call Sprechtstimme, to come up with Mexico City Blues (242 Choruses), a bop-drenched sequence of "hornings-in" that seemed to some critics mere "Bird-droppings" having as much relationship to real poetry as lawn flamingos to the Platonic forms of ornithology. To them, the claim that the several posthumous collections of Kerouac's poetry--Scattered Poems [1971], Heaven & Other Poems [1977], Pomes All Sizes [1992], and Book of Blues [1995]--provided a deliberate runway for the takeoff into serious verse so spectacularly negotiated in the 1959 volume is spurious on its face. And to make matters even worse, they see Kerouac's sudden shift into poetry to have coincided with a sharp turn to the (Poundian) right in politics. But such charges are absurd since Mexico City Blues was mostly composed in 1955, at a time when Kerouac's politics were as unwaveringly "liberal" as any Roosevelt era Wobbly's in Walter Reuther's AFL-CIO. Even if Kerouac had become apprehensive about the direction America had taken during the 1960's, he certainly was not alone in feeling that. By 1969, the year of his death, a sizeable contingent from within the poetry wing of the movement--Robert Creeley, Philip Lamantia, Brother Antoninus (William Everson), Robert Duncan, Gary Snyder, and others--had grown leery of the lock-step "tune in--turn on--drop out" mentality of the Woodstock generation and its pied pipers. That this leeriness was for the most part not publicly acknowledged is no reason to disavow the broad hints that were dropped on occasions when the major media were not there to record them. 
     But even if the euphemistic chatter filling introductions to some of those collections (the one Robert Creeley supplied for Book of Blues, for example, shows him more intent on gilding the Kerouac legend than repairing potholes in his subject's literary record) is put aside, certain objections raised about his poetry by critics not associated with the Beat movement cannot be dismissed out of hand. Some of these were, admittedly, reduced to little more than screaming matches between ivy-league poet Donald Hall's "sandals" and "tweeds"; but it would be disingenuous to argue that Barbara Probst Solomon's allegations are wholly soluble in the public relations bath drawn by Creeley and others in corporation documents such as the one cited earlier. Like any good publicist, Creeley goes right for the jugular--of the disparaging myth:

These poems provide an intensely vivid witness of both writer and time. Much is painful, even at times contemptible--the often violent disposition toward women, the sodden celebration of drink--but it is nonetheless fact of a world very much our own. Kerouac speaks its painful content, which is not to exempt him from a responsibility therefore. But a world is never simply a choice but a given, and it was not his intent to be brutal if that seems the point. Provincial, yet capable of effecting a common bond, of feeling a joy he could instantly make real for others, he lived in his world as particularly as anyone ever could. What holds it finally all together are words, one after another, as he plays, moves, and with their sound, follows their lead, shifting from English to Franco-American joual, nonsense to sense, reflection to immediate sight and intimate record. . . .

It's instructive to observe how many times in the course of staking out their diametrically opposed positions Solomon and Creeley fall back on the word world to entice the slippery Kerouac into their net. Solomon's bête noire stalks a world imbued with the sort of "fascinating fascism" Susan Sontag points her finger at in the famous 1979 essay she wrote on the subject of Syberberg's Hitler, a Film. As psychosocial toxin it sanctions random acts of violence and not only sanctifies thug culture behind the protective shield of "hipsterism," but consecrates it as a crusade against the "draggy because non-druggy" morality of hated "squares" everywhere. The world of Creeley's witnessing poet on the other hand involves him in trying to keep from drowning by enmeshing hard won percept and concept as best he can within a web of words that resounds with truth, joy and commonality. Obviously these images of Kerouac are not mutually entertainable. How do you cultivate an acre's worth of credibility out of a half-acre's scanting umbrage or tea-room ferns? 
     Yet, not all the acid poured on Kerouac's plastered iconicity originates on the predictably ideological left. A good deal of it to this day drips and gathers from the "neo-con" end of the spectrum, also. Journals like Hilton Kramer's The New Criterion and books such as Bruce Bawer's Prophets and Professors (1995), whose "pox on both your houses" ban extends equally to poets infected with the Beat virus and those who have gone over lock, stock, and integrity to the academy, are virtually saturated with it. A regular contributor to The New Criterion himself, Bawer's bill of particulars drawn up against Kerouac is not of the sort that is built upon one cheap shot after another. His conclusions are arrived at through scrupulously weighing Kerouac's strengths and weaknesses and by carefully examining the strategies that mark him as serial memoirist and poet. (Bawer does suggest that it's a misnomer to call Kerouac a novelist because his books are virtually all hymns to a him who, though more than just himself, became Him by virtue of powers wielded by the him--the actual him--that created Him. This, suggests Bawer, adds up to Berlioz's Memoirs, not to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.) 
     At any rate, in the course of reviewing Ann Charters's edition of The Portable Beat Reader (1992), he reports having submitted to what anyone would consider the litmus test for those speaking for the record about Kerouac: "To reread On the Road is to be reminded why its romanticism and energy appeal to many high-school and college students . . . [The] book's first chapter does stand up very well on its own; and from the perspective of 1992, the whole thing feels terribly dated--it's a fading relic, not an enduring artwork." Implying that subjecting Kerouac's literary virtues to scrutiny is a task whose foreground objective loses dimension as its investigatory reach widens in scope, Bawer lays out just what is base and amateurish about Kerouac's 1955 magic-busman's holiday as a verse writer, sweeping aside the poet's frequently voiced insistence that poetry and prose cannot be separated, they being identical emanations of the spirit that for all intents and purposes remain indistinguishable. "Of the other Kerouac excerpts [selected by Ann Charters]," he writes, "the five choruses culled from 'Mexico City Blues' read like old TV-sitcom parodies of beatnik verse (sample: 'All the endless conception of living beings / Gnashing everywhere in Consciousness / Throughout the ten directions of space') . . ."
     As might be predicted, it's strictly downhill from there, with Bawer training his Play Station annihilator on the wiles of Allen Ginsberg (toward whom he shows distinct animus), Kenneth Rexroth, indeed the whole Beat galère, letting only William Burroughs's early novel-memoir Junky off with less than a good tongue-lashing. True, one need swallow more than this to summer heedlessly, if not fecklessly, in Bawerland. But then, many critics settle for a fool's Sal Paradise whenever questions regarding Kerouac's writerly skills come up, not least of which those displayed in his poetry. Though Ginsberg's charge that one will search in vain through anthology after anthology published since 1969 for an excerpt from Mexico City Blues or any other book of Kerouac's verse is mostly valid, it is no less true that among poets associated, however tenuously, with "the Pound era" in American verse--Olson, O'Hara, Creeley, Duncan, Levertov, and others--Kerouac is not only praised as an innovator, but as having also exerted a counterforce not unlike Whitman's, the yanking of whose chain has always proved effective in combating the influence of, to use Ginsberg's term, "re-formalist pigmies."
     For, yes, a cultural war did indeed rage between Hall's "tweeds" and "sandals" in the late '50s and early '60s--or at least that was how he chose to characterize the new American Battle of the Books in his introduction to a Penguin Books showcase of contemporary poets almost 40 years ago. The Citadel Press had made quite a splash with its 1960 anthology of "alternative poetry," The Beat Scene, whose often substandard inclusions, edited by Elias Wilentz, were further airbrushed into Life Magazine frameability by Fred McDarrah's black and white photographs. Wilentz's "Introduction" (datelined Greenwich Village) eulogized a phenomenon that already was in the hands of the embalmers. Ignoring the all too obvious resemblance of the homage of his book to an open--casket ceremony, Wilentz effected a proprietary seizure of the '50s period as though it were a barque to be commandeered; while his need to drop all the "right" names in laying out aesthetic genealogies only points to how desperate the business of keeping the Beats on the media's front burner had become. Though Wilentz seemed oblivious to the fact, the country had moved on, and the engine of publicity that might have restored the Beatery to its apogee of celebrity reached in 1957-59 was not just low on fuel, it was--like the "unstoppable" trains of Sartrean existentialism, the theatre of the absurd, and novels by Hermann Hesse--running on empty. 
     More recent delvings into the early history of the Beat efflorescence such as Charters's Beat Down to Your Soul, indicate that though Ginsberg did not name the phenomenon, as its Godfather he understood the power hidden in its word-magic better than most. Building upon Herbert Huncke's definition of "beat" as "without money, without a place to stay, without drugs for withdrawal symptoms"--Huncke was one of the foundational "gang of four" that helped get things under way in 1944 (the other three were Kerouac, Burroughs, and, of course, Ginsberg)--he said it meant "exhausted, at the bottom of the world looking up or out, sleepless, wide-eyed, perceptive, rejected by society." Charters, in the course of introducing her recent casebook, appends this additional gloss:

Ginsberg emphasized a different interpretation of "beat" in an effort to deflect its negative connotations, insisting that the word had spiritual implications beyond its use as a slang term by junkies, pimps, and jazz musicians. To Ginsberg, being "beat" implied being "wide-eyed" and "open" in a sense explored by earlier poets William Blake and Walt Whitman, that is, "receptive to a vision." In "The Origins of the Beat Generation," Kerouac said that he discovered the religious implications of "beat" in 1954, when he took a trip back to his hometown. . . Visiting Ste. Jeanne d'Arc, one of the Catholic churches of his childhood, Kerouac heard "the holy silence in the church" and made a connection between the words "beat" and "beatific. . . . "

In March 1958, four years after this defining moment, Kerouac followed up his Esquire article, "The Philosophy of the Beat Generation," which had appeared in the February issue of the magazine, with a more precise mapping of the term's contents as he and his friends understood them:

THE BEAT GENERATION, that was a vision that we had, John Clellon Holmes and I, and Allen Ginsberg, in an even wilder way, in the late Forties, of a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, curious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way--a vision gleaned from the way we had heard the word "beat" spoken on streetcorners on Times Square and in the Village, in other cities in the downtown city night of postwar America--beat meaning down and out but full of intense conviction. . . . 

There are things left unstated here, with regard to which "ugly" might more readily spring to mind than either "graceful" or "new," though of course no one in their right mind would contest the cobweb-clearing novelty of much that the Beat mystique attached itself to. Perhaps the antipersonnel weapons with which the Beats were pelted in the '50s by such as Podhoretz (his was the sobriquet "know-nothing Bohemians") and Harold Rosenberg (the "herd of independent minds" of his coinage cut deep) were more exaggerated than deserved, but this gaggle of non-conformists had a few bombs of their own to lob at middle-class complacency, even if most of them would only go off years later, when the nation was barely coping with an unpopular overseas war and a youth culture out of control on every front. 
     Quite different anxieties rocked Eisenhower's America during the late '50s, anxieties Beat notoriety fed but didn't cause, which meant that the effect of their antics on the national temper was more one of bemusement than of hostility. America, it should not be forgotten, was at that moment straitlaced, putty-faced, and about to experience the '60s, a free fall and conniption that would threaten the very fabric of its social cohesion for a decade and a half. But that contretemps was still, given the slowness of timelines to coagulate, very much around the bend, and the country was enjoying its first booming economy since the '20s and a new-found international prestige that was the envy of the world. After all, had it not gotten through a nuclear-encrusted decade of cold war with no more unpleasantness than to have its cool blown for a time by a cultural glitch that seemed the morning after no more significant than an artificially created tempest in a fashionably grubby teapot? 
     For by 1960 the Beat movement (if, beyond the fantasizing hype of Time and Newsweek--or, in the argot of Hip, Slime and Newspeak--it was correct to speak of it as a "movement" at all) had already suffered a sea-change into something less rich and strange than trendily poor and more than a little odd. Wilentz's Bleeker Street and environs, once a holding tank for stick-figure Underground Men out of Dostoevsky that cartoonists like Jules Pfeiffer held satirically in fief, was now a haven, not for tourists in from Salt Lake City to catch the latest tenor sensation at the Five Spot or the Village Vanguard, but for pot-seeking runaways from places like Hibbing, Minnesota there to hear hip (and clawingly ambitious) replicas of themselves imitate Joan Baez. Not case-hardened folk singers raising the Marxist dead like Pete Seeger, but kids with baby faces who, being bats for Woody Guthrie, performed "original" folk songs and "genuwine-in-new-bottles music" hatched in the deepest, blackest South, which Alan Lomax and Folkways Records had taught them harbored not only white racist demagogues like Strom Thurmond and Orville Faubus, but jailbirds and roustabouts with mindblowing names like Leadbelly, Big Mama Thornton, and Blind Lemon Jefferson--and voices to match.
     But we're not quite done with the Elias Wilentzes and their "Beat scene." For hucksters eager to unload goods whose shelf life was clearly headed south, urgency lay in making Greenwich Village appear still in possession of its glitter as a Mont-Saint-Michel of anarchism and avant-gardism acquired in the heyday of Eugene O'Neill and Alfred Kreymborg and not what in fact it had become: a down-at-heels repository of potheads, heroin addicts, and renegade drunks of every conceivable description. As always, the most promising tack for such a spiel was to reclaim the Village for the "insulted and injured" in black turtlenecks and sandals, minimalist saints, like those haunting Pierre and "Bartleby the Scrivener," who kept everything at arm's length they could affirm (other than saying No to progress) and retained their hold on self-respect only through narrow decisions, gained here and there on points, over their hard-punching opponents, venality and guile:

This Bohemia of social and political and artistic outcasts is deeply rooted in America. Over a hundred years ago, Herman Melville in Pierre saluted its presence and perfectly described its qualities: "They are mostly artists of various sorts; painters or sculptors, or intelligent students, or teachers of languages, or poets, or fugitive French politicians or German philosophers.... 

Wilentz is similarly adept at pulling out stops on the mighty and tendentious organ borrowed for the purpose from two whopping bestsellers of the period, both appearing in 1956, in which the problems of the age were symptomatized as owing more to literature than to life: Colin Wilson's The Outsider and Lawrence Lipton's The Holy Barbarians:

The aesthetic problem assumes interest in this current Bohemia in direct relation to the individual writer's view of the role of art. . . . The battles of form vs. content are again waged round the clock and it is questionable if the Ivory Tower of Art is a crushed rubble lying buried off Cape Cod with the radioactive wastes of atomic plants. Aesthetic influences range far and wide--Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound--Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Valery--Lorca, Brecht, Mayakovski--Holderlin, Smart, Blake--and not only the Western writers but also those of the Far East. There are neo-dadaists, neo-surrealists, and neo-romantics. . . . Contemporary European writers such as Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, and Artaud exert enormous influence. . .

And so on, eventuating ultimately in a "joint statement by [Peter] Orlovsky and [Gregory] Corso" that ". . . The Beat Generation is because truth rests on the contradictory rattans of the soul [sic] . . . All is endless, limitless, infinity is a dog sitting at its own feet . . . Nothing means nothing. Cows, radiator soup, mother's death, war documents, Alcman's Maiden Song, Greeks wearing shorts, Smith College, only the wonders of sunset mean anything . . . ." Which of course overlooks the tendency of insiders in the marketing division of Beat Inc. to view the media frenzy then under way as a cash cow begging to be milked. Ginsberg, a money maven with a gift for conning promoters with promises of huge returns on investments in his schemes and projects, was seldom above reminding hipster-headed angels in the publishing trade that fortunes could be made selling the Beats, even in such one-notch-above-samizdat formats as those favored by the original San Francisco publisher of Howl, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Books. In a 1957 letter to Ferlinghetti (himself a poet, and the author of the enormously popular A Coney Island of the Mind [1958]), Ginsberg confessed that while he was utterly qualmless about sharing notoriety with friends, he was, shameful to admit, as given to fantasizing about diving into oceans of money as Walt Disney's comic book miser, Scrooge McDuck, was to actually doing it. "If you follow Corso with Kerouac & Burroughs," he wrote, "you'll have the most sensational little Co. in US. I wish you dig that, anyway--we could all together crash over America in a great wave of beauty. And cash." The intoner of Kaddish, who labored to transform himself via poetry (and public appearances before stadiums full of chanting students) from a second-rate Communist poet's trophy son into a cosmic Om-budsman, was able to think beyond the storefront church to a global ecumenism grounded in the mosh pits of acid rock, the peacenik frenzies of the "Ban the Bomb" movement, and the Buddhist obliquities that Mexico City Blues had haltingly adumbrated but not really made clear. Ginsberg's Buddhist Fortran could reduce to a mere four lines, such as the following, written in 1973--

     From Great Consciousness vision Harlem 1948 buildings
                                                      standing in Eternity
     I realized entire Universe was manifestation of One Mind--
     My teacher was William Blake--my life work poesy,
     Transmitting that spontaneous awareness to Mankind.

--what it took Kerouac over 400 pages to spell out, hazily rather than clearly, in Some of the Dharma. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't concision that Kerouac's language lacked, it was quotability. From the beginning Ginsberg showed a knack in his verse for secreting extractable phrases within sausage-casings of lines whose breathiness exceeds even that of a Christopher Smart or a Walt Whitman. Kerouac had as much, or as little, to say as Ginsberg, he just couldn't resist sounding like this:

          My mistake has been in assuming that
     I can dwell inside mind essence as in
     sitting inside a bright room; but all I
     can do is look at it, perceive it; but
     this is a mistaken statement. Mind
     Essence is what you see written on the
     Remainder of this page:-- . . .

All of this needs to be kept in mind if the creative moment of Mexico City Blues is to be recaptured at all. Bruce Bawer is no doubt right in viewing a sizeable portion of the Kerouac canon as "dated," but not in the usual, pejorative sense of the term. Proust's A la Recherche du Temps perdu is also "dated," if by that we mean caught in a time-loop replete with databanks endlessly informing us about how things were--which is to say, almanacs, archives, journalistic graveyards, museums of natural (and unnatural) history. It's hardly accidental (if somewhat presumptuous) that Kerouac liked to analogize his own uninterruptedly typed, shelf-paper novels to Proust's ballooning aide-mémoire, a work its author would no doubt have continued to revise, so long as he remained alive to scribble revisions on galley proofs. Is it as some think heresy to speak of Proust and Kerouac in the same breath? Unarguably, there are many within the confraternity--and sorority--of poets who wince at the very name of Kerouac, who tune out anyone who tries to defend his sometimes slovenly experiments in "bop prosody" (his term); and who find loathsome and inartistic his attempts to meld Far Eastern spirituality, performance art, and improvisatory outbursts, the spontaneity of which exceeds psychoanalytical candor and embraces self-expression "digitalized" for the post-Romantic age. Poetry not just spoken to jazz, but poetry modeled on jazz, with chorus spilling over into chorus--a crescendoing rhythm spiraling deeper and deeper into the soul as it effects its transits from spiritual universe to spiritual universe and from reincarnated life to reincarnated life--would seem not to be everyone's thing.
     Which raises the question of how and why Mexico City Blues came to be written in the first place. Kerouac had shown no great interest in poetry before a time-out for rest and recuperation below the border provided the impetus for getting down on paper the 150 or so "choruses" that formed the backbone of the book's first draft. Or so many critics thought before Kerouac's Selected Letters revealed evidence that he had been thinking about, and reading, a considerable amount of poetry while pounding out drafts of the prose works that would make him famous. Elbert Lenrow received elated word in June 1949, of the copy of the complete poems of Spenser that Kerouac snatched up in Denver for only 50 cents. The poetics of The Faerie Queene taught him (in tandem with the note-books of Gerard Manley Hopkins) the enormous philological resonances latent in words like "horn," "bone," "door," "rose" and "gold." "Also, as a result of reading Spenser," he confided, "I have been kicked off into poetry-writing of my own; mainly, though, from reading mad Blake occasionally. Recently, also, I read Matthew Arnold's Study of Celtic Literature [sic]." 
     Kerouac actually began the writing of his poem cycle in 1955, after having taken a room in the same Mexico City apartment building where Bill Garver, a morphine addict friend of William Burroughs, was staying. The primary purpose of his heading south was to obtain cheap penicillin to treat the phlebitis ravaging his legs; the notion to enlist Garver--a man with extensive experience handling bad veins--was a quick fix hit upon by Burroughs as a way of getting around having to pay for a real doctor. But other benefits accrued to the trip as well. In addition to composing at white heat the book of blues named for the city whose visions inspired it, the poet also made the acquaintance--in the same building--of an Indian junkie and prostitute named Saragossa, who provided him with the germ for the novella Tristessa [1960]. Though Mexico City Blues is in verse and Tristessa in prose, the adventitious, even ad hoc, nature of the two works testifies to the seamless approach Kerouac brought to literary creation, irrespective of the medium he was writing in. Spontaneity wasn't just the germ of the composition, it was its plasm and essence.
     It is known that Kerouac had been trying for some time to work up a verbal equivalent of the freely improvised jazz solos that had begun to capture attention in those cities where the breakup of large, mostly black, dance bands that had flourished before and during World War II had left scores of talented musicians without work. Bebop had emerged as the riff-dominated anthem of the strung out and "beat," driven by artistic restlessness, heroin addiction, and war production flourishing on both coasts. But it had taken root most promisingly on New York's 52nd Street, with offshoots appearing first uptown in Harlem, and then later, directed mostly at white audiences, in Greenwich Village. The earliest Beats had monitored the progress of this new music virtually from its inception and worked its rhythms into their writing with an acuity that baffled even the bopsters themselves. Kerouac was experimenting with choruses in 1954 that ended up being dry runs for the infinitely more complex ones that evolved into the Mexico City poems. Gathered together in a volume titled San Francisco Blues, they underwent final revision during that enormously prolific period when his Book of Dreams was also being typed for publication. 
     In May 1954 he sent Ginsberg a sample of what he had been tinkering with. "This is from my new book of poems SAN FRANCISCO BLUES that I wrote when I left Neal's in March and went to live in the Cameo Hotel on Third Street Frisco Skidrow," he told him. "Wrote it in a rockingchair at the window, looking down on winos and bebop winos and whores and Cop cars." "2nd Chorus" reveals how remote Kerouac was from solving the language-music problem; but on the positive side it shows how the orthopedics of the new verse form were lining up.

Line faced mustached 
Black men with turned back
Army weathered brownhats
Stomp on by with bags
Of burlap & rue
Talking to secret
Companions with long hair
In the sidewalk
On 3rd Street
San Francisco
With the rain of exhaust
   Plicking in the mist
   You see in black
   Store doors--
   Petting trunks farting
   Vastly city.

Not quite in evidence here is a strategy for shifting the focus from the minutiae of observation to the aural arc of the soloist sculpting them within a living stream of sound and time. Kerouac was not yet at the point where he could make the ballast of his language balance the ballooning afflatus of his poem. Facilitating the weightless wafting of its contents up into the blue was its "talk" ever waxing, like the moon rising, into an air-sac filled with breath and the rhapsodic fantails of his all-consuming Figures of Light--

Charley Parker Looked like Buddha
Charley Parker, who recently died
Laughing at a juggler on TV
after weeks of strain and sickness
was called the Perfect Musician.
And his expression on his face 
Was as calm, beautiful, and profound
As the image of the Buddha
Represented in the East, the lidded eyes,
The expression that says "All is well:
--This was what Charley Parker
Said when he played, All is Well.

--there being no limits to the shoots of melody climbing, as ivy climbs, on trellises of sound through the interconnectedness of note, chord and interval. Words could be made to "play" also, to render up what the smudge of commerce and the grace of mortal hands had left upon their signing. 
     The problem that Kerouac kept running into was the irreducibly non-verbal character of the sounds Charlie Parker, Ben Webster or Lester Young made with their horns. Without resorting to gibberish through rawly imitating the honks and squeaks of breath and reed--or in the case of a trumpet like Fats Navarro's, Dizzy Gillespie's or Miles Davis's, an undrained spit valve's bleats and blats--there seemed to be no way of breaking the sound barrier and letting words be words as well as a musician's primal scream. 
     As he explained to Donald Allen (his editor at Grove Press) in 1961, San Francisco Blues "hint[ed] at the approach of the final blues poetry form I developed for the Mexico City Blues."

In my system, the form of blues choruses is limited by the small page of my breastpocket notebook in which they are written, like the form of a set number of bars in a jazz blues chorus, and so sometimes the word-meaning can carry from one chorus into another, or not, just like the phrase-meaning can carry harmonically from one chorus to the other, or not, in jazz, so that, in these blues as in jazz, the form is determined by time, and by the musician's spontaneous phrasing & harmonizing with the beat of the time as it waves & waves on in measured choruses.

Kerouac's explanation concludes with the proviso, "It's all gotta be non stop ad libbing within each chorus, or the gig is shot." But he inserted a further qualification in the final edited version of the poem inflating the jazz mystique lovingly described in his letter to Allen and insisting that his koans in jazztime be seen as daylight creations imbued with an aura of sabbatical reverence. "I want to be considered a jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jam session on Sunday" (italics mine), his prefatory "Note" reads. "I take 242 choruses; my ideas vary and sometimes roll from chorus to chorus or from halfway through a chorus to halfway into the next."
     By 1960 the insistent identification of writing with improvisatory forms like those of jazz (aided and abetted by ubiquitous poetry readings to jazz accompaniment) contributed to the now no longer merely "countercultural" view that the Kerouac name was synonymous not only with a distinctive literary style but also with a lifestyle whose youthful mystique was sweeping the country. That the writer whose vision of America was a great run-on sentence (pace the illiterati who couldn't see past the comma splices and floating pronomials); and that the printed simulacrum of that sentence could be found on virtually every book rack of every Walgreen's, airport lounge and cigar store in America, was proving not only a balm for a country caught up in menopausal blues, and made it no longer possible to deny his exceptional artistry. But most important of all, even skeptics had to admit that at the heart of Kerouac's appeal to the young was a call to return to reading, that to go "on the road" with his "subterraneans" and "dharma bums" meant following a trail of books that led to other books, which required pursuing the thread of allusion to still more books. (True, some of the things Kerouac turned them on to proved unsettling to some and even subversive to others, the cautionary tale of Flaubert's Emma Bovary and where too much reading landed her remaining an unspoken but timely reminder of how even the best planned lays can go terribly awry. And it went without saying that certain sleeping dogs, such as Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov, were best left to lie where they reposed, unprovoked and unaddressed.) But the substantial boost in youth literacy directly attributable to books like On the Road did put a crimp in the academic campaign to discredit Kerouac as one who corrupted the young by turning them away from the "classics" toward a popular culture rife with pornography and disreputable "thrills." 
     Still, the fact remained that Kerouac had almost singlehandedly resurrected the image of the poet as Romantic visionary after fifty years of bashing by the modernists. He was, his many fans insisted, a beacon of light thrust in a darkness awash with apocalyptic scenarios, as well as madmen out of Dr. Strangelove and 1984 committed to realizing them in fact. It is this image of the visionary plugged into an electric wasteland ruled by the nuked-out American psyche that makes his Mexico City Blues a pivotal poetic work of a period that grows more iridescent in retrospect with every passing year, the '50s. First, though, an obligatory digression on a watershed incident in the media life of Jack Kerouac, as well as a few thoughts on what helped put the kibosh on the Beat Generation before its articles of faith could stiffen into orthodoxy.


     It's not difficult to see why the cult of Kerouac took off among elements of a subculture that had been turning away from the childish inscrutabilties of Mickey Spillane and the Top 40 and embracing more substantial diversions that emerged following the Korean War. The groups eventually to seize custody of his eternal flame were two: the young (many of whom had not only read On the Road but had Lewis & Clarked on their own a good deal of the two-laner spillway lined with Burma Shave signs that President Eisenhower would soon rethink into a network of superhighways linking the nation from coast to coast), and, rather less conscriptively, those entrusted with the higher education of the young. (That what qualified as "higher" not infrequently erased the line between what was controlled and what was substantial is something that needn't be gone into at this juncture.) 
     For the '60s were already well into the process of being born, and the fallout from that birth would extend itself far into the scandal ridden years of Watergate and Iran-Contra, greased by an unbelievably gullible public and a virtually limitless torrent of cash. A great complacency was descending upon the land, and a great surliness. Both came in the wake of the double-barreled tsunami that was the Great Depression and Second World War and had been exacerbated by the nervous anxieties kicked up by America's introduction to cold war politics and the escalatory ladders of nuclear stalemate. Though everything was fantastic, nothing was good. Most Americans liked Ike but what Ike liked was not what set young minds and hormones racing. Walt Disney could rhapsodize on television about Fantasyland, Adventureland and Frontierland, but a raunchy surrealism was never more than a stone's throw from the black-and-white rumpus room where Our Miss Brooks and Ozzie and Harriet hung out. 
     From the Ponderosa's nerdy back-40, where colorless green ideas slept furiously, all the way to Media Central, where spin-offs of the spread's main cash crop, low- and midcult drivel, pullulated noisomely, it was business as usual. Pretty much in fact as it is today. In our new millennial part of the forest, media follies are every bit as brainless as any the earliest TV sitcoms and variety shows figured in. With pusillanimous consumption everywhere masquerading as rebellion; with meth- and coke-drenched make-overs of angst and anomie super-trendy among the Rogaine and Viagra crowd; and with 24-7 digitalized updating by Geraldo Rivera and his posse of experts of the status of JonBenet, Monica, or Chandra for the soccer moms and their Evian-chug-a-lugging consorts, 2001 lacks nothing but Hal to foreclose any possibility of a future without brainwashing and all 31 flavors of denial. (In the day of the Beats, fixations congealed about love-and-hate pop-ups like Joseph McCarthy and the Rosenbergs. Today, we can't metabolize dread without a regular fix of Condit-baiting and Dubya evasion, which, when you think about it, are like the rabbit-duck silhouette that the eye can only parse into separate images, no matter how hard it tries to view them as one.) 
     Orange-Juliused to the very nectar state of the synthetic, these diversions set in motion a sewage-intoxicated stream of consciousness, a noisome effluent of forged ransom notes, semen-stained dresses, and duckings of scared-rabbit congressmen hiding frantically from the press all the media-uncovered nothing they can hide. Whether seen as fortunate or unfortunate, Kerouac bequeathed to posterity a shelf of books whose recording of unnatural history represents the second cresting of an American River Jordan made holy a century ago by Walt Whitman, who, as a Baptist able to keep his head, proclaimed in a sacred book called Leaves of Grass the glory of a nation reborn in the blood of a slain president and the thousands who gave their lives in the War between the States. Or so the brief is frequently presented; for how else could such mountains of trivia as are relentlessly thrown up by history be recycled into durable molehills by recorders like Kerouac, be put up against the blague spun into purest gold by Dante, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, when like daredevils they rode bareback the horses of the Apocalypse--and all for nothing so much as the love of being astride mounts which, if not breakable to an exalted design, could at least through force of art be gorgeously reined in.
     Kerouac taught his following (out of an overplus of unsolicited generosity, not, as with others in his situation, a "creative writing" sinecure) how to see themselves "mastering the possibilities." And he made sure that of the conveyance it would be said that the cut of its jib was uniquely and flamboyantly American--like a Harley-Davidson throbbing between their thighs and promising a demon high no low could ever exorcise. Rather than worry an itch that only the realization of the American dream could scratch (an enjambment of futilities owned and operated by F. Scott Fitzgerald), Kerouac's life and works--which were in fact the very opposite of what was advertised: a seamless discontinuity--clove to the exigencies of a bottom line unlike any drawn on Wall Street: a vastly more dangerous one, with bipolar lifts and skids; of elation giving way to deflation; of being "on the road" and having to crash where all is Dasein and suiting up for the Unbecoming. The bliss of Arthurian election--reduced to campy burlesque in the musical Camelot, whose offstage production (held over for decades) featured the Kennedy brothers, John, Robert and Edward, in roles the show's two Merlins, Lerner and Loewe, never once wrote into their plot--was the brass ring that had to dislodge itself so that it could in turn be grabbed by the Parsifal who was himself pulled from the hat of despair by an Amfortas whose mortal wound is America. 
     As a sidelight to this motif, it should be pointed out that there are at least two modern versions of this myth first credited to Wolfram von Eschenbach during the Middle Ages: the Wagnerian one, in which the loose cannon of innocence makes everything right through inadvertence; and another (which must lie buried somewhere in the works of Samuel Beckett, though just where evades recall, like the number and identity of Estragon's persecutors in his Waiting for Godot), in which the guilelessness of Parsifal cannot penetrate the walls of Amfortas's citadel of personal suffering. It is the second version that bears upon Kerouac's image as an author not of substance per se--there are many who will never grant him that--but of representativeness, whose personal flaws, flimflams and flights from reality not just coincide with America's notable and blemishes but somehow, uncannily, personalize them, like cordillera peaks on a relief map of the national psyche. And to a much greater extent than can be laid at the door of other "representative" American writers, such as Whitman, Dickinson, Fitzgerald or Hemingway. Writing in Nothing More to Declare, John Clellon Holmes, who could be said to have been Kerouac's conscience until a major disagreement undermined their relationship, recalled how he first responded to his friend's early novel Town and City. In that eerily revelatory book, he said, 

I caught my first glimpse of the Kerouac to come, a Kerouac for whom I was oddly unprepared: a lonely, self-communing, mind-stormed man--still devout, though in a ruin of faiths; persistently celebrating whatever flower had managed to survive our bitter, urban weeds; indefatigable of eye, and fumy of mind; haunted by a reflex of love in the very pit of rude sensation; and, above all, hankering--hankering for an end: for truth to finally end the relativism. For harmony to somehow end the violence, so that peace would come to the young of this era, who were the heirs of both--and, failing that, for death. Something murmured behind the reckless onrush of the prose. It wasn't quite audible, but it accounted for the role of distant, fleeting sibilance that reverberated within the book's headlong syncopations. And for the first time I suspected that underneath his youthful energy and jubilant thirst for life this man was immeasurably old in his soul.

Holmes's sobriquet for Kerouac was "the great rememberer," and comparisons with Proust, though naïve and unflattering to the American writer, are almost everywhere made in commentaries sympathetic to his achievements as a recapturer of the "visionary gleam" Wordsworth bemoaned the loss of in his "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood." Kerouac sought Jay Gatsby's "green light at the end of the dock" not in memories locked away in an involuntaristic safety deposit box, but in a presentness of mind through which the past is not so much recaptured--for time, A la Recherche du Temps perdu to the contrary notwithstanding, is not recapturable--as reclaimed: from disuse, superannuation, abandonment. True, he saw his life's work in prosepoetry, his Legend of Duluoz, which "will cover all the years of my life, like Proust, but done on the run, a Running Proust"; but with equal consanguinity, he envisaged the coinciding of his life with memory trails of an endless work-in-progress as essentially a Wordsworthian project rerouted through the ulterior paths of consciousness laid out by Yoga and the Diamond (among other) Sutras.

[. . .] I know that the secret lies in the old Yoga secrets of India, let alone Dhyana, and that any man who does not . . . practice Dhyana, is simply wandering in the dark. The mind has its own intrinsic brightness but it's only revealable when you stop thinking and let the body melt away. The longer you can hold this position of Cessation in Light, the greater everything (which is Nothing) gets, the diamond sound of rich shh gets louder, almost frightening-the transcendental sensation of being able to see though the world like glass, clearer; etc. All yr. Senses become purified and yr. mind returns to its primal, unborn, original state of Perfection. . .

Despite the surges of greater or lesser hoopla over this preoccupation of Kerouac's or that, at the backs of those able to warm to his work could always be heard--demurring, admonishing, j'accus-ing--the claque of doubters he could never seem to shake: a phalanx of lamb's wool blazers that seemed to exist for no other purpose than to resent, from the soles of their imported English oxfords to the tops of their fastidiously tousled haircuts, the attention squandered on an unspeakably talentless Canuck poseur, not just in the national media, but, inexplicably, in a variety of uptight "little magazines" as well. Lining the road to the Emerald City and rousing all roustable Kants from their dogmatic slumbers, this legion of the disgruntled were determined to disrupt all literary commerce with the ridiculous hack who wrote under the pseudonym "Jean Louis" and was capable of inscribing--with neither spray can nor wall, and only a little help from his friends (Lew Welch and Albert Saijo)--this:

     On a disappearing road
     Among crenelated mountains
     Thinking about whores:
              That girl in Chicago in a tub of oysters. 

Yet, perhaps the most indelible of all Kerouac's professional mauvaises quart-d'heures occurred on a summer night in 1957 when he himself was in absentia. It was administered on television by Walter Susskind, the host of a compulsively watched talk show, Open End. Having gathered for the occasion three big cats from the savannas of the literary veldt (then in its first stages of dissolution into the postmodern shantytown it would soon become), Susskind proceeded to set them at each other's throats. There, savaged, and eager to savage, were Dorothy Parker, an aging lioness; Truman Capote, an aging cub; and Norman Mailer, an ageless cub and would-be King of the Beasts. The result was, even for an age of live TV, as unpredictable as the George Foreman-Muhammad Ali fight in Zaïre; and if there was no rope in plain view, there certainly was no shortage of dopes on that sound stage that evening. What had in previews given promise of being an effortless triumph for the lean and hungry Mailer--a proleptic anticipation of the scene in The Lion King many years hence in which the fully grown Simba thrashes the evil jackals allied with his usurping uncle Scar, leaving dustclouds of indignation in his wake--produced rather (at least to hear Mailer tell it) a compound catastrophe. Not only did it administer a psychic wound to the much lionized wunderkind--television would remain an unappeasable bugaboo and Groundhog Day nightmare for Mailer right up through the sanforized '80s and his own buttoned down sixties--but it did something much worse to the author of The Town and the City. Capote's quip forever vaporized any hope Kerouac might have had of someday winning the Nobel Prize for literature by forcing the whole of The Vanity of Duluoz into the world of the postmodern reductio 20 or 30 years before its time. The backdraft it sent billowing into the world made a civil conflagration of the charge (made quite offhandedly by a novelist--Truman Capote--more concerned that evening with having to be compared, on national television, to a rival no less enthralling than the real hipster-heartthrob of the day sharing the sound stage with him, Norman Mailer, than with making points against some seven-day wonder he felt markedly superior to) that Kerouac's stuff wasn't really writing, but rather something that "typing" could never--regardless of its pretentions--be more than: i.e., mere text. Never mind that the "reverse alchemy" Parisian thoroughfare on which structuralists like Roland Barthes were about to begin directing international traffic would soon make this distinction seem, at the very least, academic. 
    Still, the mischief was done, and neither Kerouac nor his supporters could ever talk the damage away, the uncontrollable damage, of that single half-drawled, half-lisped bon mot. But what really did happen that night? In Mailer's own account (published much much later), "Of a Small and Modest Malignancy, Wicked and Bristling with Dots," it, and what led up to it, grew out of the "sensation of being physically superior to everyone in the room." 

In such a state, feeling handsome, vital, and more interesting than anyone had a right to be, [Mailer] got into a discussion with Truman about the merits of Jack Kerouac. Since Mailer was not without his jealousy of the large attention paid Kerouac that year, he gave a defense of On the Road that was built on the basis of calling Kerouac, Jack--that is, he was two-thirds for Jack's virtues and one-third against Jack's vices.
Capote detested Kerouac. As Mailer grew benign, Capote grew precise. He rose at last to his own peroration and invoked the difficulties of the literary craft in contrast to Mr. Kerouac's undisciplined methods of work. Finally, in a tone of fearless and absolute severity, Capote said: "It is not writing. It is only typing."

Since detritus loosed by such temblors tends to fall back in time into talus slopes of slander and innuendo, it wasn't long before Capote's crack hardened into the more handily repeatable slur, "Kerouac doesn't write, he types." But it also remade Kerouac in the second blush of the very same romantic candor and unbridled spontaneity that had earlier made On the Road seem an accidental classic and turned its author into an upside-down hero worshiped by the guerrilla misfits slouching toward Woodstock (and, beyond that, toward Reaganized West Chester) to be born. If their rumblings indicated all too ominously where the counterculture would soon be at, this cadre of rebels, to whom cookie-cutter liberals and blue-dog southern Democrats were equal opportunity racists, would rehabilitate Kerouac by turning him into a literary version--albeit a housebroken one--of Ernesto Che Guévara. In fact, throughout the early part of the '60s the Kerouac magic would trump even the Howl-encrusted cachet of Ginsberg, the starving hysterical naked rebel-in-chief, himself. Because the obiter dicta of a Bob Dylan tend to be thicker on the ground than those of mere Fugs like Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg, here, from the introduction by Ginsberg to the City Lights edition of Pomes All Sizes, is a take on Kerouac's enormous appeal to youth in changing times, from the perspective of the youth who appealingly composed The Times They Are a-Changin':

[Kerouac's] influence is worldwide, not only in spirit, with beat planetary Youth Culture, but poetic, technical. It woke Bob Dylan to world minstrelsy: "How do you know Kerouac's poetry?" I asked Mr. Dylan after we improvised songs and read some Mexico City Blues choruses over Kerouac's gravestone 1976 Lowell's Edison Cemetery [sic] . . . Dylan's answer: Someone handed me Mexico City Blues in St. Paul in 1959 and it blew my mind. He said it was the first poetry that spoke his own language.

To conclude this digression that has by now no doubt overrun its margins, there it lay--the vampiric canard that would not die, as much seen as heard in a million or more living rooms housing the many millions more couch potatoes hopelessly addicted to the hot-seat frissons Susskind could be counted on to dispense, snidely and by the carload, whenever a guest could be coaxed into having an artery drained before live network television cameras. But so there should be no misunderstandings about the nature of Susskind's audience, let it be clear that the viewers we are talking about were not PBS couch potatoes. They were salt-of-the-earth working stiffs who, barring a Time or Life magazine cover glimpsed at a newsstand or in the subway, had likely never heard of Kerouac; would, if handed something he had written, probably not be able to get through more than a page or two of it; and could, most certainly, never be made to finish a whole book of his under any circumstance short of having a gun held to their heads which they knew to a metaphysical certainty was loaded. Whatever Truman Capote--whoever he was--said or didn't say about that guy Kerouac (what kind of a name was Kerouac, anyway?), it all added up to less than a row of beans to most of the occupants of those living rooms on that summer night in 1957. They were the little people, and the little people existed to consume whatever the Susskinds (and the corporate sharks underwriting their great white programs) deign to offer up as major kill. And though kill on this order of magnitude was to the typical barely observant couch potato a scarcely perceptible blip on the national radar screen--in other words, roadkill--it could nonetheless be depended upon to resonate through the shambles of the national media with the force of a toupée falling off a newsworthy head, or the revelation that America's most revered civil rights activist had lifted almost verbatim a speech, second in fame only to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, from a graduate student's dissertation in theology. 


     Back now to the center ring, to Mexico City Blues, and to Kerouac's attempts to further jazz up his act by freebasing poetry from the bare ruined choirs of hard-tack, street-crack prose. For starters, this was not where the following that had grown up around On the Road was either desiring or expecting the Great Rememberer to go. Hence readers geared up for more and better wanderlust heightened by fondlings of the sublime must have been startled when they opened to "1st Chorus" and found this staring back at them: 

Butte Magic of Ignorance
Butte Magic
Is the same as no-Butte
                      All one light
                      Old Rough Roads
                      One High Iron

          Denver is the same

"The guy I was with his uncle was
the governor of Wyoming"
   "Course he paid me back"
   Ten Days
           Two weeks
                Stock and Joint

"Was an old crook anyway"

The same voice on the same ship
The Supreme Vehicle
           S. S. Excalibur
              Mersion of Missy

This poem (and the book) sets a tone that, like the high saxophone note oscillating between wail and shriek heard over and over in On the Road, is mostly sustained through all 242 choruses. Kerouac's aim seems not to drench excruciations in attar of roses or to mash butterflies under a wheel of nuance, but to catch the eyelid flutters of the mind's eye as it pans over nuggets loosed into consciousness by the sluice of immediate experience. Such gleanings from the gold fields Kerouac spent a career strip- mining are subtle and therefore hard to catch. Their glinting is fitful and erratic, like the spasms of eternity sympathetically felt by mystics like Meister Eckhart and Jakob Boehme; and what makes it even more difficult to distinguish from the darkness surrounding them is the fact that their aureate gleamings use the circumambient gloom of the poet's blue funk to gather the light of their victory in heaven against them, like the gold coins mentioned in the Cantos that Pound recalled having seen in the Philadelphia Mint when taken there as a boy by his father. But the spiritual capital of these choruses is as much tied up in sounds and the syllabics of incantation as it is in religious intimations or incarnational discernments. True, Kerouac can whipcrack a Zen koan with the snap of a jock bringing butts to attention with a wet towel, and arm an arrière pensée for flight--sometimes with a word or two (as in "Exploding snow"), sometimes with a line or two (as in "A Poem") with the best of them. Drop the "I could" from "A Poem"'s opening--

I could become a great grinning host
                      like a skeleton
Hung Up In Heaven

--and we see being invented a strain of banality so lacking in conscious deportment, so transcendentally off the wall that it would make even a surrealist cringe. 
     The cachet of a Kerouac poem, being resolutely resistant to subtlety of any familiar Western kind, is notoriously difficult to nail on the fly. Even so wry a shaper of word-finaglings as Robert Creeley seems at a loss when having to account for the chorus-by-chorus sandbagging of distinctions that is Mexico City Blues's hallmark effect. Confronted with such dogface slouching in the ranks as "Wanta bring everyone / Straight to the dream" (196th Chorus) in "Ways of Looking," a poetry chronicle that appeared in Poetry (June 1961), Creeley could manage little more than a deferent shrug. "Perhaps the 'big words' will be missed, or more, the manner which contains them--and the forms of wiseness and security which that investment of manner secures," he lays out preliminarily, glad, like a tournament poker player is glad, to have jacks or better to open with. But from there on, things get decidedly dicier. "It is not that simple," he writes,

to find a language whose emphases will be common perhaps. I mean that Kerouac may well distract and irritate more than he will teach. But the attempt is useful, with its clutch of old songs and childwise wordplay, jogging the mind to a simplicity, making the old wiseness foolish, the old foolishness wise.

     Clearly relieved to have so weightlessly unburdened himself on the 250-page medicine dance of the Great White Father of all the Beats, Creeley proceeds to secrete another encomium, this time for Irving Layton's A Red Carpet for the Sun (1959), some not unskillful middle-aged Juvenalia by a Canadian poet every bit as tenured in the Unbridled Ego department as Kerouac himself. Creeley characterizes Layton's writing as "about this singular business of human evil . . . The disorder and glory of passion. The modern tragedy of the depersonalization of men and women. About a hideously commercial civilization spawning hideously deformed monstrosities." In other words, it's all about fulminating a strategy for combating Moloch the powerful, Moloch the ambitious, Moloch the inhuman. Dr. Sax and The Subterraneans are there, but are not nearly so potent against "deformed monstrosities" as Howl or Wichita Vortex Sutra by that Savanarola of the Buddhist left, Allen Ginsberg. Or is handing out honors and awards in Babylon really all that cut and dried? Note, in the Sutra by Ginsberg just named, how such issues are drowned in attar of Whitman:

I'm an old man now, and a lonesome man in Kansas
          but not afraid
                     to speak my lonesomeness in a car,
                     because not only my lonesomeness
                              it's Ours, all over America,
                                                 O tender fellows--
                              & spoken lonesomeness is Prophecy
                              in the moon 100 years ago or in
                                       the middle of Kansas now. . . . 

Which came first, we might well ask, the chicken of Kerouac's Annutara Samyak Sambodhi (Sanskrit for "Highest Perfect Wisdom"), or the Cosmic Egg, served up as hashhouse Dharma omelet, in the manner (tilting increasingly to the right) above? And beyond the precincts of the M. L. A., does it really make any difference? Kerouac can intone in Mexico City Blues's "65th Chorus," with Ginsberg no doubt in mind:

To understand what I'm sayin
You gotta read the Sutras,
The Sutras of the Ancients, India
Long ago, when campfires at night
Across the Rahuan River
Showed lines of assembled bo's
With bare feet bare the naked
Right shoulders of passing houris,
Sravasti late at night, tinkle
Goes the Indian Dancinggerl--

To understand me, he seems here to be saying, you have to go beyond the circuit of my shuddering Bear to the furthest reaches of my Dog-star, where hangups of the gods are flambeau-ed and hung for all to see--heavenly connect-the-dots diagrams, like Times Square in constellar repose. Bo's, houris, Sravasti: who could quantify the lure of such gists and piths? We have likely not the purity of heart to know such things as they once were known, in the India of long ago. Their opacity is unforgiving to Western minds, but who can say this quality of quantity beguiled is not the essence of prayer? In perhaps the strangest of Kerouac's interior monologues on the wisdom of the East, Some of the Dharma (1956; 1997) he quotes a Negro overheard in an 8th Avenue bar: "Poor people aint got no place to go but church--rich people pray for five minutes and they finished." This in essence is what Mexico City Blues had just taken 242 choruses to distill into packets of the ex post facto. Tying something to pray for to the extremities of a soul-dead carcass is precisely what transforms the living body of dharma into a cadaver, a morphine addict dead on his feet but too lazy to drop. Kerouac seems to have counted on his readers knowing even less about what Eastern religious notions didn't mean than book club popularizers like Alan Watts and oriental cabin-fever depressurizers like Christopher Isherwood (about whose spiritual rebirth in 1950's Los Angeles the less said the better). What matters poetically is the evocative power the foreignness of Kerouac's Svravasti and houris wield. Composing Mexico City Blues taught Kerouac how silence is what flows between the flotsam and jetsam of endless talk, and how to compact the clichés of the Tao till they revert to a diamond hardness of iteration that nothing can pulverize. This, from Some of the Dharma, illustrates the new marriage in Kerouac's writing of the dog-eared and the imperishable. And appropriately, its presentation owes much to the "rag-bag to stuff . . . thought in" of Pound's later Cantos:

Nothing to do but put up with it and finish quietly and tranquilement--
This too is Tao,
                     Staying low, still,
                                            s a d,
                                                    like a well
Don't wear out your self drinkin and one thing and another (no sleep,
                                                                 Traveling, etc.)
           Duluoz Legend--every bit of it was real--and who cares? 

     It pleased Kerouac from time to time to dabble in "honeyheads," a term Ishmael of Melville's Moby-Dick thought applicable to Plato because "you can get lost in them"; but we would be selling Mexico City Blues short if we concentrated on but the one honeyhead of its religious dimension. His sequence is laid out in rather informally drawn concentric circles (or terraces, if the Purgatorio of Dante is taken as a structural model rather than his Inferno), and to each he has assigned source analogues and "mysteries" ranging in origin from the Aztec and Mayan (a Black Mountain preserve, because of Charles Olson), all the way over to the Zen master's one hand clapping. There are subtle--as well as not so subtle--allusions to other authors and poems sprinkled throughout the Mexico City cycle of poems. Kerouac might have felt that more in the way of nuance was expected of him because he lacked scholarly acumen--something he both envied and reviled in others, which no doubt goes a long way toward explaining his relationships (ambivalent, to say the least) with mentor figures William S. Burroughs and Kenneth Rexroth. Though he did indeed attend a prestigious private school in Massachusetts and eventually earn an undergraduate degree from Columbia University, he never felt comfortable in the company of those whose grasp of foreign languages and literature significantly outshone his own. Yet for all that, he never missed a chance to sneak allusions to other writers into his work. In "4th Chorus," for example, he could boot up a pastiche of "Pound/Eliot" off his literary hard drive--mostly to show it wasn't beyond his powers to "do it over," just as Ole Possum had in The Waste Land--and not without a modicum of humor: 

                         . . .
The pool of clear rocks
Covered with vegetable scum
Covered the rocks
Clear the pool
Covered the warm surface
Covered the lotus
     Dusted the watermelon flower
Aerial the Pad
    Clean queer the clear
           blue water


Not only are the machinations of Eliot neatly caught in this exchange of "fours" on the Quartets, but so are those of the alternately visionary and paranoiac author of the Pisan Cantos, as in that oft-quoted passage juxtaposing the murder of Mussolini and his mistress by Italian partisans to a timeless moment of a rather more ensolacing mien, 

when the cat walked the top bar of the railing 
and the water was still on the West side
flowing toward the Villa Catullo
where with sound ever moving
                                 in diminutive poluphloisboios
in the stillness outlasting all wars.

Not that it's easy to glean what Kerouac thought about this seminal but controversial modernist. In his letters he appears very much of two minds about Pound. On the one hand he identifies with his mad isolationism, his image as a great lunatic able to inspire a whole age to iconoclasm and a routing of complacency--

[. . .] for my position in this generation is a whole lot like Ezra Pound in his--It was Pound influenced Gertrude Stein and she influences Hemingway; it was Pound influenced T. S. Eliot, but where is Pound? In the madhouse. Where are his works? The foundation of 20th Century American letters . . . 

But on the other he is not above excoriating this poet's influence with a vehemence he normally reserved for "scumbags" like Rexroth and the New York homosexual literary establishment. "Get away from Pound," he advised Ginsberg in 1955,

. . . I dug him and he is deliberately Greek & fancy with his Oniothose greek expressions [sic] . . . . balls . . . He and [Gerard Manley] Hopkins suffer both from trying to show how fancy they are, and Yeats too . . . for Poets I like Dickinson and Blake . . . . But even they are Ignorant because they simply don't know that everything is empty IN AND OUT IN TEN THOUSAND INFINITE DIRECTIONS OF THE UNDISTURBED LIGHT. . . 

In the more satirical vein of the "63rd Chorus" Kerouac fastens upon the all-dismissing self-regard of a Rexroth--"that rude, piddling, envious fish-wife . . . that bookworm . . . that veritable Ginsberg of sissies"--and it is given its appropriate resting place in the amber tomb he has prepared for it:

Rather gemmy,
           Said the King of Literature
Sitting on a davenport
           at afternoon butler's tea.

Rather gemmy, hm,
Always thought these sonnets
Of mine, were rather gemmy,
As you say, 
                      pureperfect gems
                      of lucid poetry

Poetry being what it is today

Rather gemmy, I concluded,
           thinking you were right--
it isn't my fault that Buddha
           gave me helmet
Of Right Thought, and indices
           of long Saints
To Cope my Lope along
Seeing I never had harm
           from anything
But a Heavenly Farm.

In a still different context, "151st Chorus" retrieves enough suddenness frozen into a simple tableau vivant to make a "'Matisse Story' / Of a simple arrangement" seem a Fantasia of unsorceried apprenticeship to a Zen master (Gary Snyder?) for whom enlightenment is as distinguishable as "bits of dry dust, / black ashes."

A candle dripped all its
To the bottom of a strawberry
Mexican Beer tray--
           A single edge razorblade,
          Partially underneath
          The blade of a butter knife
          Abstracted from old

And a tin cup.

This is the Matisse Story
Of a simple arrangement
Of natural objects
In a room on a Sunday
                       bits of dry dust,
                       black ashes

     Other exigencies obtrude as well upon the devotional overhang of this "satori in Mexico City" book of illuminations, giving it the feel of a medieval Book of Hours--though the alignment of its visions with its trim-and-pack sequentiality as a breviary of sorts seems at times something of a stretch. From out of nowhere, he inserts from the podium of the "143rd Chorus," a cautionary note (after a duly indicated "pause") on the care and feeding of junkies:

Should be practical nurses
And be given permits
To get 3 to 5 grains a day
Every day,
The older addicts need more.
         Drug Addicts
         Are human beings
         Less dangerous
         Than alcoholics

         And alcoholics arent so bad
Look at the speed drivers
Look at the sex fiends

This may sound as "poetic" as an eye chart or a public service announcement, but its programmatic concern over how certain of the fallen should rank on the all-time shit-list of reprobates is right at the center of Kerouac's ethical preoccupations. For beneath the overlay of world religiosity beats a pretty steady, and predictable, Christian pulse: one more Catholic than Protestant, more Franciscan than Dominican or Jesuitical, more Jesus-sermonizing-on-the-Mount than Paul-laying-down-the-Law-to-the-Corinthians. There's nothing dogmatic or doctrinaire about his expressions of faith, which though often sticking out like the sorest thumbs the world has ever seen, do so not because they seem overly heterodox, but because they cannot quite dissemble their overplus of self-consciousness and narcissistic self-concern. It may sound more like an allegation than a statement of fact, but Kerouac's Christianity was of a pretentiously literarized sort, and laced to an often embarrassing extent with mentions of fashionable religious philosophers and snake oil salesmen, like Edgar Cayce. For every Kierkegaard or Berdaeyev, there looms somewhat larger and more formidably a Guerdaieff, an Ouspensky, or, if only for the time it takes to drop his name in a poem, a Swami Shivananda (for a glancing reference to whom, see "Today" [1964] by Allen Ginsberg). Why object to this name or that, It--Georg Groddeck's supercharged Id--was all a glorious mélange of God and bop and ecstasy and plasm and the Unconscious, brimming over with the froth of creation, like the supra-entropic universe Itself. What bona fides it had lay within, not without! Get with it man, learn to blow like Satchmo-Gabriel the horn of plenty, the corny cornucopious solo that is life shot out of a gun, out beyond where skepticism and cynicism fester. In the Lonesome Traveler's very own words (articulated in Tangier), the spiel--reticulated at some length--comes out sounding like this:

. . . Like Lee Konitz in 1951 I want to blow as deep as I want, for nothing is muddy that runs in time and to laws of time, Shakespearean stress of dramatic need, to speak now in own unalterable way or forever hold tongue, and never to afterthink to "improve" or defray impressions because the best statement is always the most painful personal wrung-out tossed from cradle warm protective mind TAP FROM ONESELF--blow!--now!--your way is your only way, it cannot be "good" or "bad" but only always honest ("ludicrous"), spontaneous, confessional, interesting, because not 'crafted.' Craft is craft. We must allow the subconscious to admit its own uninhibited interesting necessary and so 'modern' language what conscious art would censor. Right now, language in literature is dead. This is more important to me than a few bucks, than success. . . . I see it leading to a tremendously interesting literature everywhere with all kinds of confessions never made by man before, leading to a cool future. . .the strange future when it will be realized that everyone is an artist, naturally. And each good or bad according to his openness! (Letter to Donald M. Allen, March 19, 1957)

What this mostly boils down to is Carpe diem, or Live now!: an injunction which in fact differs in not too many particulars from what the aging Lambert Strether urges upon a much younger protégé, Little Bilham, in an earlier travel book about Ultimate Things, Henry James's novel The Ambassadors (1903). (Though James would likely have been put off by the capitals--even for so capital a thing as cramming the most of life into each Pateresque moment.) Here, we might note (with either astonishment or gratefulness for an insight we ought somehow to have tumbled to ourselves, the choice is ours) the same-sentence occurrence of Henry James, "voice" and "cool" in a Kerouac observation made in a letter to Neal Cassady in 1950: ". . . Henry James is a cool voice; Hawthorne is cool. Melville in Confidence Man is the strangest voice ever heard in America. . ." 
     As everyone knows, "cool" in hipsterese is not just a synonym for "damn good," it's an epithet whose conferrability is beyond question because its use automatically overrides, supplants, supersedes all qualities, whether primary or secondary, inherent in any object. But observe the implication that the absence of "voice" imparts to the distinction Kerouac draws between James who "is a cool voice," and his novelistic predecessor Hawthorne, who is "cool" tout court. To be possessed of a cool voice (or a "strange" one, like Melville's in The Confidence-Man) is to be more than cool. It is, as he confides to Cassady in this same letter, to ride the crest of the ineffable in writing, no matter what wave length or frequency it is beamed out on.

. . . My important recent discovery and revelation is that the voice is all. Can you tell me Shakespeare's voice per se?--who speaks when Hamlet speaks? HAMLET, not Will Shakespeare, whose voice we've never really heard, except in the sonnets, and that is veiled in poesie. You, man, must write exactly as everything rushes into your head, and AT ONCE. The pain of writing is just that . . . physical cramps in the hand, nothing else, of course. (Incidentally, this voice I now speak in, is the voice I use when writing to YOU.) How can I reconcile myself to printing this? I never would . . . What I'm going to do is let the voices speak for themselves. . . .

And in Mexico City Blues that is precisely what Kerouac does, even if all the voices speaking for themselves sound, at some ulterior level of substance and soulfulness, uncannily like him. Like him, but put in the mouth of a persona that though throbbing through the stations of a cross to which life affixes us all sooner or later, can nonetheless "blow" solo after solo consonant with the gamut of moods the prolonged crucifixion of a writer's life ranges over. The voice audible in the junky's confession of "59th Chorus"--

Then I always manage to get
     my weekly check on Monday,
Pay my rent, get my laundry
     out, always have enough
Junk to last a coupla days

Have to buy a couple needles
      Tomorrow, feels like
Shovin a nail in me

      Just like shovin a nail in me

--differs markedly from that of, say, "159th Chorus," in which the wake-up call to a more observant life is likelier to resurrect Finnegan from his Joycean tomb than your average drug addict from his Jack Gelber-esque Inferno:

Blook bleak
Bleak was blook
           an Onionchaser Hen
           necked Glutinous
           Huge Food monster
           that you ate
           with FLAN & Syrup
           in a sticky universe

Blook on the Mountaintop,
Blake by the Mountainside
           Baah! --
Boom went the Crasher
           Mountain Heidi
           Kerplunk Archangelan
           Swiss Funnel
           Top of Funny Ships
           Singing & sinking
           In a Glutinous Sea
           (of Lese Majesty.)

The protean shifts of perspective are of course Joycean, but the poem is also attuned to the tonal modulations of a saxophone and rhythm section blooking, bleaking, and thrashing out a bopster's Jabberwocky for the nonce, never to be nonced precisely again as the nonce of any particular nonce dictated. Improvisation is lava hotly Mountainsided down from the highest reaches of Mountaintop; and for the Kerouac of these choruses the life of the soul, of the spirit of the blower blown by whatever winds land him smack (smack!) in the middle of the "songs that erupt" and in erupting become "gist of the poesy" ("195th Chorus"), is what the process of "getting them down" is all about. It is also why it remains important to the "transcriber of things unknown" to nail down his dreamsounds in what the psychic cartographers of jazz call "charts." The influence of Joyce in some of the word play did not escape his notice, either. In a postscript to a letter written to Alfred Kazin in 1954, Kerouac confessed that his "'Joycean' invented-words are really oral or aural sound-inventions, as in dreamblabbering." 
     Kerouac first met and came under the influence of Neal Cassady in 1947. Always a reluctant correspondent, by the mid- to late-'50s Cassady was no longer bothering to reply to Kerouac's interminably rambling monologues. Drenched in sweat and insecurity these "night thoughts" might have been dispatched in envelopes bearing postage, but there was little in them or about them to suggest letters exchanged between equals. A Kerouac letter to Neal Cassady was part lecture, part harangue, part vituperation--with venom barely hidden--over the single unchanging blight marring their relationship: Neal's refusal, or what looked like a refusal, to respond to one plea after another to write back. Each such dress rehearsal for "divorce" plunged Kerouac into deeper and deeper depressions in which his alcoholism would flare up and he would block on the kind of writing that stimulated his reserves of buried energy. As his laments grew more strained and his complaints to confidants like Ginsberg about Cassady's perfidy more graphic, his dependency on Neal's encouragement and blood-brotherhood would wax and wane with his success in nursing along the master plan--the "Cathedral of Form"--of the Duluoz legend. Even so, Cassady had progressed, despite a near total withdrawal from Kerouac's life and affairs in the years following On the Road, from being the muse underwriting Kerouac's visions to being their spiritual guarantor as well as the ideal reader of their coded references and hortatory outbursts. 
     Cassady (or Dean Moriarty, as Kerouac pseudonymized him in On the Road) impressed almost all who knew him as a natural sage, a source of boundless energy as warm as the solar star but like it, subject to destabilizing sunspots. (To Rexroth--always the zero-sum realist--there was more of rosemary than of sage.) Preternaturally reclusive, he disliked committing any part of himself to anything so flimsy as paper (though eventually, in 1971, he allowed Ferlinghetti's press to publish his autobiography, The First Third). One way of seeing him--as Kerouac almost did, though fitfully, close-mindedly--was as a contradiction in terms terminally addicted to his own contradictions. Those were the times when Cassady's entire being overflowed with undiluted empathic force that some would say cracked and sizzled like roaches popping on a grill. Following Cassady from place to place was as impossible as trailing a photon in pursuit of an electron fleeing a meson shower in a rainforest full of quarks. What made him tick (no one ever bothered to speculate about whether there was enough of a personality there to bother speculating about) was in essence uncapturable: it could only be bounced off the comparatively stable social personas of those whose lives he came in contact with and altered forever by touching. The aura he possessed was undeniably Benjamin-esque: it was mercurial, evanescent--like a brilliant bird glimpsed in half-light. In friendship--if such a wraith could be said to have "friends"--his obligation lay in method-acting whatever roles their needs required him to play: lover, hobo hero, angelic hipster, mainlining dropout.
     The poem in Mexico City Blues that perhaps best limns Kerouac's strange alter-egotistical relationship with Cassady is "231st Chorus." In it the cycle of poems moves into its wrap-up stage of sorting through tag- and tail-ends of things broached earlier on in the sequence--a sort of perorational confessio laid down as an "exchange of fours" with the Great Drummer of the universe. We see the poet leaning tentatively against the molding of his prior selfhood and finding only Maya, slip-sliding fantasy, and the illusion of psychological solidity offering "support." Only the memory of those truly loved saves him from dissolving into the sort of idea that gets bandied about among the already dead whose sole "living idea" is, "Dead, it ain't my fault / I was only an idea."
     Then, however, the poem quite abruptly segues into a radically different modality. No longer is the "soloist" able to draw sustenance from treating people as "ideas." Cassady, the unforced and instinctual Buddhist (as opposed to the idealized image Kerouac had of him as omnifactotum and all-purpose muse--the very model of a modern Bodhisattva) finally begins to emerge; and what Cassady has to teach him by example comes out more clearly in the poem's concluding lines than it ever had or would again:

The good Buddha-material
          is not a sin-cloth --
Cloth of light --
Beings alive indicate death
          by their jaunty work
Just as the dead indicate the living
          by their silence
                     When rock becomes air
          I will be there.

This might appear to be expressed in that Sutra-like code that emerged in Beat circles over the years, ultimately to coalesce into the Buddhist Fortran of Ginsberg's "Sad Dust Glories" (1974) and like ephemera; but the facts that have emerged with the publication of Ann Charters's two-volume edition of Kerouac's Selected Letters (1995; 1999) suggest something rather different. We know now that the vast preponderance of lore relating to spiritual enlightenment and Dharma, from Buddhist, Yoga lore, and the Sutras all the way to expressions of belief in the greatness of Edgar Cayce, flowed in the other direction, from Kerouac to Ginsberg. (Letters going in both directions throughout the '50s confirm this.) Swami Ginsberg dispensing OM's to hippies to the accompaniment of his Tibetan harmonium was very much a fixture of the late '60s and '70s. Earlier on, the two writers began maintaining a more or less bipolar (at least from Kerouac's standpoint) relationship with each other. Fueled by envy and burgeoning paranoia it spilled over into Kerouac's fiction where Ginsberg characters proliferated, having been given names like Carlo Marx and Irwin Garden. The Kerouac of 1956, just returned from Mexico City, could dedicate his book of Buddhist meditations, Some of the Dharma, to his good friend with these words: "I love Allen Ginsberg--Let that be recorded in heaven's unchangeable heart--." Not too many years later, that undying affection was under considerable, if not mortal, stress.
     As with his ambivalent feelings about Pound, Kerouac had difficulty separating the responsibilities of friendship from the rivalries of artistic competition. Nor, too, was the as yet unacknowledged, though increasingly disquieting, factor of Kerouac's anti-Semitism to be discounted. More and more, Kerouac had begun to see Ginsberg looming coldly, analytically, as a Freudian counterweight to his revolutionary manifesto proclaiming intuition, romantic excess and "spontaneous bop prosody" as the new order of American literature. It would be hard to imagine these lines of identification being etched more acerbically than they are in "175th Chorus":

My sister's playin piana in Vienna
The Jews are Genius Gypsies
The moors are poor,
Aristotle isabel,
Ferdinand the Bull.

Ferdinand was no Dumb-Bell --
Oiano high was Vienna
When Freud interviewed
   The oversexed Rothschilds
   And Richjews of Vienna
   And the Gypsies were camped
   In apartments -- with lamps --

All the wealth of Europe
             had poured
Into Vienna -- Freud was there --
So his Psychoanalysis Sex
Chart of Mad talk
Was accepted as Gospel
By undermined golfcourses
             Of the River West --
The multiple too-much of the world 

Being, like Freud himself, Jewish, Ginsberg was (in Kerouac's mind) prone to all the un-St. Sebastian-like barbs sadomasochistic flesh was heir to, not to mention his family history of leftist martyrdom and loony bins. In a letter written to the poet Philip Whalen early in 1956, Kerouac backs and fills on the topic of Ginsberg like a bulldozer operator who doesn't quite know where the excavation is:

I'm not mad at Ginsberg, I can't live with myself hating him and I couldn't have had a long friendship with him already 10, 12 years old if I really hated him, but I can certainly see thru him now, he's a masochist, you gotta treat him rough or he'll beat you and I'm no masochist nor sadist so I gotta stay aloof, in other words, no more close harangues, don't give 'em an inch or they'll stick ya them sadomasochists and pederasts them Hebrew National Golgotha salamis.

     Mining a more charitable--honest?--vein, he had written to Lucien Carr in that same year that though Ginsberg owed his success to "no one since Henry Miller [having] the guts to say cock and cunt in public," there was no denying that "his accomplishment as a poet keeps improving, he has developed natural personal rhythms, Jewish wail-wall rhythms, and frankness, and idealistic styles of frankness." But the hard fact is, that by winter 1963 Kerouac had firmly resolved no longer to be Ginsberg's friend, having written to John Clellon Holmes that he could no longer endure Ginsberg's "pro-Castro bullshit and his long white robe Messiah shot." Though they continued to communicate with one another sporadically until Kerouac's death in 1969, the substance of their letters centers largely on commercial and professional arrangements. 
     A partial explanation for their estrangement may be found in the tectonic shifts that had occurred within the movement itself since the late '50s. For better or worse, the Beat phenomenon--as early as the mid-50's--had begun to look like a corporation on the make: pecking orders had sprung up which if not curbed threatened to implode the sodality so carefully nurtured a few years earlier. Squabbling over who should be titular head of the Beats, Kerouac or Ginsberg, was a bone of contention if not quite out in the open, then simmering in its cauldron, just offstage. The voluminous subcontracting going on involving books on Indian and Chinese Buddhism owed their provenance not to the Ginsberg wing of the movement, but to the wholly aloof Godfather, Neal Cassady, who had inspired Kerouac to undertake the original self-educative process that spawned a burgeoning national interest in such arcana. Cassady, whose mind Kerouac kept trying to read over remote distances, was increasingly in his thoughts. "Where are you, man?--" Kerouac wrote plaintively in late 1948. "Why is it you don't write to me when you know there's so many things that have got to be said . . . . I'm really bugged because you stop writing sometimes. . . . Do you think I expect you to 'hero-worship' me?--to expect anything? I only expect you to believe in everybody, including me, and to believe in everything, like a child, a bird: like I do. . . ." 
     Read enough of these letters and you begin to see how much Neal Cassady was a projective invention designed specifically to keep Kerouac's multiplying insecurities at bay. This is not at all unusual in a relationship in which one creative personality latches on to another and refashions him or her to fit a compensatory image. In Cassady Kerouac found a Rorschach blot sufficiently plastic and chameleon-like to coincide with any number of literary, not to mention religious, templates.

. . . [Do] you realize . . . that a new literary age is beginning in America? . . . [with] the advent of Dostoevsky the Russian Christ, we young Americans are turning to a new evaluation of the individual: his "position" itself, personal and psychic. Great new age, truly, much further advanced than Sovietism. The Prophets were right! Nature Boy is only an American beginning of the last human preoccupation--the position of the soul among all the other souls in the Forest Arden of the world, the crux of life.

     Another letter from the same period has Kerouac ready to bargain away the better part of his soul to keep Cassady in his corner, an ego-salve always at the ready when a bruise or wound incurred in going rounds with the world demanded attention. In exchange for Cassady teaching him "indefatigable ways of fighting," Kerouac was to instruct him in "sadness." "I think I'm almost ready to say I no longer 'care' what you think about me," he writes. "[Now] all that concerns me is what I think about you--it's you that counts." The way of turning "it's you that counts" completely around until it becomes subject emotionally to the gravitational pull of an unstated (but unignorable), "but this is really all about me," is purest Kerouac. When it came to succoring other people, the "197th Chorus" tells the whole story:

Inside, Inside Me,
I'se free
Free as the bee
Inside he.
           Lord have a mercy
           on Hallelujah Town
I got to stomp my foot,
And say, whee,
            hey day, now oan
            from now oan,
            I don't wanta
            cant wanta
            wont wanta
                      hear about it
not in my Oakland
            Saloon, not in my bar
            Not in my brokenglass
            Not in my jar

Blue, black, race, grace,
             I love ye.

The primitive, almost mantra-like rhymes--". . . not in my bar. . . / Not in my jar"--dress the celebratory indifference of "Inside, Inside Me / I'se free . . . / I don't wanta / cant wanta / wont wanta / hear about it . . ." wear a patronizing mask that differs barely a whisker's breadth from the Al Jolson-esque blackface that Kerouac dismisses in the "116th Chorus": "The Great Jazz Singer / was Jolson the Vaudeville Singer? / No, and not Miles, me." The idiom is "Uncle Remus meets Dr. Seuss," but that's how voices often meld in the echo chamber that is Mexico City Blues
     And in a great deal of nondescript verse to appear since, that the influence of Kerouac made almost as common as weeds. How distant from the sort of free dissociating that we find in Blues are the huge swatches of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E School verse inflating the latter half of so many of today's contemporary poetry anthologies? Observe how much "The Hand As," from Cole Swensen's Seven Hands, which appeared recently in Conjunctions's American Poetry: States of the Art issue (2000):

The hand began as an animal and from thereon did

some guile that soft
plural kite
who thus                              shard
                                           comes to mind first    I mean note
the exploded

used to mean star
or stop
in every native language

you hold it up. Stark. Startle. Arp. . . .

One misses the instrumental dimension--not to mention the laser-like focussing in on how and where language, agitated by soul-search, disembarks the poem trolley when, having reached the end of the line, it disgorges its lonely passenger in the middle of nowhere--that buoys up Mexico City Blues's "choruses" and saves the worst of them from mere flatness or soddenness of sentiment. Apart from being a poet (Conjunctions's "Notes on Contributors" informs us), Cole Swensen also translates "French poetry, prose and art criticism." Reading her poetry it's hard to draw even an imprecise line where her intuition as a poet leaves off and her formulary (and prescriptive) sense of how to encompass (in words) just what art has to do in order to be art may be seen to kick in. Not so with Kerouac; but what was distinctive, and unique, about his style has plainly disappeared from the verse instrument passed on to his acolytes. When Kerouac "plays" with spatial relationships springing up between words and phrases, it all serves what he called the "medium of Lingual Spontaneity . . . a kind of challenge Jazz Session for letters." Prose, poetry--it made no difference: it was all to be a fresh transmutation of language into satori-driven derivations of 

SPONTANEOUS PROSE so that though the eventual LEGEND [of Duluoz] will run into millions of words, they'll be spontaneous and therefore pure and therefore interesting and at the same time what rejoices me most: RHYTHMIC--It's prose answering the requirements mentioned by W. C. Williams, for natural-speech rhythms and words. . . .

     Kerouac even went so far as to publish in the Grove Press house journal Evergreen Review in 1959 a "List of [30] Essentials" purporting to establish a new basis for "Belief and Technique for Modern Prose." Originally submitted (with only 27 items) to Arabelle Porter, an editorial assistant at New World Writing (whose seventh issue had recently published a draft of a chapter of On the Road titled "Jazz of the Beat Generation"), the list was in part drummed up as a sop to an irate reader of the magazine who had complained that "by the standards of the story . . . literature becomes subject to evaluation and representation by illiterates." Weighted much more heavily toward articles of faith than technique, its "essentials" read today like boilerplate of the sort used to foster self-esteem in novice writers. Well, some of them do; #s 11 and 14, urging the aspiring author to cultivate "visionary tics in the chest" and to follow Proust in being "an old teahead of time," are as apt to frighten people away from the program as #26, "You're a Genius all the time," is to attract them. Only the first prescription bears the unmistakable stamp of its author: "Write on, cant change or go back, involuntary, unrevised, spontaneous, subconscious, pure."
Did any of this--and by "this" is meant not just the 30 "essentials" but the Kerouac approach to expression in verse and fiction--really affect the course of non-metrical poetry in the United States during the last half-century? Though many still refuse the evidence of their eyes and ears, there is simply no use in arguing with the incredible mass of evidence, everywhere discernible in such long-lived anthologies as Donald M. Allen's The New American Poetry (1960; revised and reissued in 1983 as Postmodern American Poetry), and Paul Hoover's Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry (1989), that it most certainly has. Be it good or bad for American poetry, more young poets not writing in traditional or "strong" measures look and sound today like Kerouac than like William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, or the Robert Lowell of Life Studies. And a significant number of them appear to have accepted, in part if not totally, the spontaneous, even improvisatory, mode of composition Kerouac engaged in, though his involvement with Asian religion, despite the brief infatuation with it by the hippie movement of the 1960's, has pretty much gone the way of Alan Watts's and D. T. Suzuki's scholarly reputations and book sales.
     Evidence or no, the hard question nonetheless remains: Was Kerouac a notably better poet than say, fellow Beats Gregory Corso, Denise Levertov, Edward Dorn, Philip Whalen, Michael McClure, Larry Eigner, Jack Spicer, Lew Welch and John Wieners? Or for that matter, Allen Ginsberg? Does even Mexico City Blues at its best stack up against work like Levertov's "Scenes from the Life of Peppertrees," Wieners's "A Poem for Painters," or McClure's "For Artaud" (all of which may be found in Allen's The New American Poetry), let alone the work of Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Frank O'Hara, or closer to home, a poem like Kaddish or Wichita Vortex Sutra? Is helping to found a style of poetic realization, as Kerouac claimed to have done, equatable with leaving behind a handful of unquestioned masterpieces which not only exemplify the sublimities of that style but transcend its limiting rigidities as discernible in lesser exponents whose work it has filtered down to? 
     If the verdict is a positive one it still fails to make a case for Kerouac seeing himself as the Ezra Pound of the third American renaissance of the '40s and '50s (F. O. Mathiessen's age of Emerson and Whitman having been the first, and the modernist second wave, spanning the years 1910-30, the second). His way of di- and de-versifying poetry, of severing its moorings not only to the cultural past but from an envisionable future, was no doubt influential, but not that influential. What Kerouac most seems to have bequeathed to the poets that came after him was a dynamic rather than a style or template: a way of energizing contemporary spoken and gestural idiom along unprecedently rhythmical lines. In his ABC of Reading Pound spoke of three dimensions of poetry: melopoeia, the poem's melisma or melodic signature; phanopoeia, its rootedness in distinct images; and logopoeia, its groundedness in the unique syntax of its language and culture. Mexico City Blues of course incorporates all three of these dimensions but they pale on the whole before the role played by a fourth dimension dominant in Kerouac's poetry to a degree greater than in almost any other poet of his time. Yes, this poet's "blues" are capable of a brusque and even athletic musicality--"Call the roller of big cigars, / The muscular one, and bid him whip / In kitchen cups . . ." might even come to mind--of a saxophonist honking his heart out in pursuit of sounds horns are incapable of making within their normal note range. And they might now and then thrust up an occasional image out of nature or dream of cityscape, and risk the bends to search the depths of a morganatic and disenfranchised idiom to retrieve a pearl or two of Logos denied. But if there's a --poeia to be experienced in Kerouac's flights of soul-fancy and Eastern phantasmagoria it's rhythmopoeia, the inseparability of what is said in poetry from energy and movement, pulse and endlessly shifting rubato around, behind and between that steady pulse's beats.
     Granted, excellence in this mode was for Kerouac an achievement honored more in the breach than in the observance; but once in a while, once in a great while, something perfectly magical coalesces out of nonsense, fatuousness--indeed, sheer unmitigated nerve (and sometimes guile)--and it gives promise of someday putting paid to the wild, crazy, unaccountable revolution begun by the American poet-modernists. Not the garden variety Oppens and Reznickoffs, but the truly gifted ones, like Louis Zukofsky, who burned in exquisitely lightless night until the onset of his time (close to the time of his death) exploded in a shock of recognition our poets are still recovering from. Yes, like Zukofsky, for whom the poem was crystal dissolved into its colloidal liquidities transposed as rhythm deftly harmonized with sound--as here, as anywhere in the poetically immense colloidoscope "A":

New knots renewed ink anew:
without wheel, coin-paved gold,
couriers mountain streams land tie
Sun's echo of song, innocence
Works no need empire mines,
A goblet of prase, gems
shade light of a shrine
till a simplest mouth pierces 
the meaning--the devotion of
craft ground fine before hero--
itself longs the taper right,
fare, light, for delight not
raising false hopes above nature,
miracle confirms only the possible
the eyes redeem while justice
monkies mischievous life, if she's 
beautiful they'll see: action's end
is to finish. . . . 

Can Kerouac compete with Zukofsky? No. Can he offer us a glimpse of what might happen if someone, someday, could? Possibly, just possibly. Anne Waldman, probably the most articulate groupie writing today of Kerouac the poet remains completely convinced that he could. Editor and author of over 30 books, world traveler and Distinguished Professor of Poetics at Naropa University, she had this to say in 1995 on the subject of "Influence: Language, Voice, Beat and Energy of Kerouac's Poetry":

What spoke to me initially (first read Mexico City Blues) was passionate cry & heartbreak, sensitive, goofy--energetic lines popping open, all antennae raw & in the wind, and the constantly shifting exchange of earth & sky. Down to earth, down to his own rhythm, then out with the spin of an infinite mind riff. And up, way up, to revelation like "The Victor is not Self" or "(ripping of paper indicates / helplessness anyway") or "We die with same / unconcern we lie." Philosophical. And stoned. And details. And naming things. And naming people. And naming heroes, writers, musicians, Buddhist saints & Boddhisattvas [sic] & deities. So everybody's included. People's names are pure sound & sacred because they exist & are therefore holy. It's like the "sacred conversation" you see in Italian paintings where all the saints are smiling beatifically and conversing in gentle tones on profound subjects. Nothing's excluded, and yet Mexico City Blues is a very discriminating serial poem. It has an amazing clarity, honesty, aspiration. Nothing is unnecessarily inside it. And friendly too. A real experiment in original mind living in conditioned mind wanting to "blow" free. . . .

     A way of saying, like Koestenbaum on Stein, "Kerouac is nice." But he can be good, too. Very good, almost heartbreakingly good, as here, in Mexico City Blues's "30th Chorus," where he plays Shelley to Scott Fitzgerald's Keats as softly, as ever a morning sunrise was to a tenor player gone on his keys in the soulfulest night of the dark:

Tender is the Night
Tender is the Eve Star

F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Alamoan

           Huckster Crockett Hero
           Who burned his Wife Down
           and tore up the 95 Devils
           with crashes of laughter
           and breaking of glass
           in the monocled Ibyarritz
           the Little Grey Fox
           OF NEW HAVEN CONN
           Via Princeton    O Sure

Tender is the marlin spike
           Tender is the sea
Tender the London Fog
           That Befalls to Me

Tender is the Cat's Bath
Blue Meow
The Little Grey Fox
          That nibbled at the grapes
Tender was his foreskin
          tender his Nape. 

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