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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 Only cleanliness will not have been replaced by dirtiness as next in rank to godliness; there is too much money invested in soap.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.
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."
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?
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.
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 ), 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
--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
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.
Line faced mustached
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
--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.
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."
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.)
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
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.
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.
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
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
--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.
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
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
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
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:
. . .
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
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:
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."
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:
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"  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. . ."
. . . 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
--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:
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."
The good Buddha-material
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.
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.
. . . [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,
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.
The hand began as an animal and from thereon did
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  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."
New knots renewed ink anew:
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