Clark Coolidge: Kerouac
I thought I’d start out with a sort of two-panel quote from Kerouac to give the range of his language. You might think of these examples. as two polar existences of the words in his work. The first:
Black black black black bling bling bling
bling black black black black
bling bling bling bling
black black black black
bling bling bling
38//Sword etc., flat part of an oar or calamity, sudden vio-dashing young fellow, lent gust of wind; forcible stream of leaf, air, blare of a trumpet or horn, blamable deserving of Explosion as of gunpowder, blame, find fault with Blight; censure, imputation of a blatant Brawling noisy, Speakill, blaze, Burn with a blameful meriting flame, send forth a flaming light, less, without blame innocent, torch, firebrand, stream of blamelessly blameless flame of light, bursting out, actness…
And the second one:
I’m writing this book because we’re all going to die–In the loneliness of my life, my father dead, my brother dead, my mother faraway, my sister and my wife far away, nothing here but my own tragic hands that once were guarded by a world, a sweet attention, that now are left to guide and disappear their own way into the common dark of all our death, sleeping in my raw bed, alone and stupid: with just this one pride and consolation: my heart broke in the general despair and opened up inwards to the Lord, I made a supplication in this dream.
Now the first of those is from the novel Desolation Angels in the first part of that book where he’s in a fire tower in the Cascade Mountains all by himself all summer and obviously he’s bored and looking in the dictionary for inspiration or for whatever reason. I looked in the dictionary too and realized that he’d gone from the word “blade” to the word “bleed.” Everything in that paragraph comes between those two words: blare, blame and so on. He’s working alphabetically through those definitions. I once wrote a whole book using a similar meditation on the dictionary, although I don’t think it was inspired by Kerouac. I think I found it or it was an unconscious influence anyway, a book called The Maintains which I almost dedicated to this section of Desolation Angels.
And the second one is from Visions of Cody, so that you can see the vast differences there. From words that are almost totally outside him, he’s feeding them back in from an objective source, the dictionary, to what you might call an extreme personal inwards, confessional words, a memory of his own consciousness kind of thing. This might give you some idea of the really quite extraordinary range of his work, which I’ve always thought of as a lot wider than most impressions would have you think of him.
From there I want to move to what is maybe the key to receiving his work, which is the sound of the work, his voice. I know that “voice” has been talked about a lot but I think there are certain writers, and with some of them we have the luck of the recorded evidence of their voices, where what you get is a kind of magic voice. Once you’ve heard it you can never read those words again without hearing that voice, even if you don’t have a very developed sub-vocal ability. Do you know what
mean? I don’t know how many of you, when you read silently, hear every word. In my case it’s impossible not to do it. I remember one time asking a class here how many people do that, and about half of them did. I was sort of amazed. Somebody like Burroughs, for example, says that he’s largely visual but that’s a paradox because he’s another of those magic voices. You can’t forget that Burroughs sound. But Kerouac very definitely. I remember when I was first enthusiastic about his books and I used to lend them to friends, they would take them away and come back and shake their heads and say “I don’t know, I just can’t read it.” And I said “What’s the matter?” “Well, the punctuation, I can’t…I mean, all those dashes, what the hell is that about?” “That’s all night. Sit down and listen to this record.” And I’d put on one of those three amazing recordings that came out in 1959, and almost every one of them would go away saying “Oh, yeah, I got it. Yeah, right,” and then they could read him without any trouble.
So I’m sure that’s true, if you have the music of the words to hold in your head. Here’s a tiny example, in his vowels, like “gloom dooms,” that’s a very Kerouac sound. Or with more of the consonants clicking out: “hotshot freight trains,” that’s the Kerouac sound in micro. And I mean not separate from the sense, although there’s an important issue here that I think Susan Howe was touching on in her workshop this morning, which could indicate a whole other pursuit here just parenthetically. What is the relationship for the writer between what he hears of the words and what he sees once they’re written down and fed back into the head that’s hearing those words? To me there’s an incredible generative cycling that’s going on, but there’s also a problem with the registration, which is always inexact, a bit like the notation of jazz. If you write improvised jazznotes down in classical 4/4 or whatever measure, you’re not going to get the nuances of the rhythm unless you divide it into so many micro-moments that it’s nearly impossible to then read and play. Which has happened with some so-called modern classical composers. There are Eliott Carter scores, for example, that as a drummer I’ve tried to read, which are so divided that I don’t see how anyone could fluidly do it.
But anyway there is that problem then of registration on the page and also with me the problem of the voice in the head that’s never quite the voice that I can speak. And I think maybe that’s because there’s some of that intellective registrative emphasis on the page mixed with the voice, and all that complex can never really be reproduced as purely voice.
Also, and at any rate, sound is movement. It interests me that the words “momentary” and “moments” come from the same Latin: “moveo,” to move. Every statement exists in time and vanishes in time, like in alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy’s famous statement about music: “When you hear music, after it’s over it’s gone in the air, you can never capture it again.” That has gradually become more of a positive value to me, because one of the great things about the moment is that if you were there in that moment, you received that moment and there’s an intensity to a moment that can never be gone back to that is somehow more memorable. Like they used to say, “Was you there, Charlie?”
Kerouac said, “Nothing is muddy that runs in time and to laws of time.” And I can’t resist putting next to that my favorite statement by Maurice Blanchot: “One can only write if one arrives at the instant towards which one can only move through space opened up by the movement of writing.” And that’s not a paradox.
So here’s Kerouac whizzing along and picking up and there’s something special too about what you pick up when you’re moving fast, about the kind of attention that you can develop.
From one of my notebooks: The goo risen up into clacking, statement. States allover always on the rise. You go past poles and hear voices turning like a wrist over what did she talk over what did you hope to do. Writing in the cleft between known-day/memory and the speeding spaces shafting on and out: What will happen?
A matter of momentum. And I get almost a mystical feeling that if you can get to a sort of momentum that works in waves, rhythmic waves, you can pick up things that you might not otherwise even sense. Kerouac in Old Angel Midnight:
What is this universe but a lot of waves And a craving desire is a wave Belonging to a wave in a world of waves So why put any down, wave? Come on wave, WAVE! The heehaw’s dobbin spring hoho is a sad lonely yurk for your love Wave lover
Kerouac, thinking about Shakespeare, claimed: “Shakespeare heard sound first then the words were there in his QUICK HEAD.” And again, Kerouac: “his handwritten manuscripts were hardly blotted, if at all, as he apparently flowed in his writing and wrote in an inspired hurry what he immediately heard sound-wise while his steel-trap brain kept shutting down on the existencies of plot and character in that sea of ravening English that came out of him.” That’s from an article in Show Magazine in 1964 by Kerouac, called “Shakespeare and The Outsider.”
After all, Kerouac’s first language was not English, it was a kind of Quebecois called Joual, which is a totally vocal language. He says he heard it from his mother before he learned English. His mother would tell him tales in this language, and I’m told it’s like an ancient French, a pre-Academie Francaise standardized French, which was a very flowing language that included a lot of other languages. Which in a way is like English, I guess, from the Elizabethan period onward anyway. In Joual, for example, the word for peppermint is “papparmanne.”
And then I found this letter from Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg in 1952. I think they’d been arguing about some of Jack’s manuscripts and Allen was being a little critical of some of them. Kerouac:
Literature as you see it, using words like “verbal” & “images” etc. & things like that, well all the “paraphanalia [sic] of criticism” etc. is no longer my concern because the thing makes me say “shitty little beach in the reeds” is Pre-Literary, it happened to me to think that way before I learned the words the literateurs use to describe what they’re doing–At this moment I’m writing directly from the French in my head, Doctor Sax was written high on tea without pausing to think, sometimes Bill Garver would come into the room and so the chapter ended there.
Now, inevitably I have to talk about Bop. Bop Prosody and all of that. It was a music that was very close and dear to Kerouac and I thought I’d give it a little rundown here. It’s a huge subject and impossible to cover in brief. I’m spending my life listening to it and thinking about it and playing it, but I don’t know how many of you know much about its history. It’s beginning to be a bit far back. We’re talking about the ’40s now so it’s about a half century ago. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and I would say Kenny Clarke, the drummer, probably had the most to do with changing the music, inventing the Bop forms. Also Thelonious Monk. I think the first Bop recording is considered to be a version of “Groovin’ High” which was made in February 1945, and it still had an older swing-style rhythm section, with Slam Steward and Cozy Cole, bass and drums. Then, by November of 1945, you get the famous “Ko Ko” on the Savoy label with Bird, Miles, probably Sadik Hakim on piano, Curly Russell on bass, and Max Roach on drums. Which was a real Bop group. Now the interesting thing about it is the change in rhythm from the Swing era (you might think of Benny Goodman, that kind of thing), from the Swing time to a more evenly divided 4/4 time. Swing time was more like an off-beat oriented time, or um-dah um-dah um-dah with 2/4 feel. Bop 4/4 time is a mere even one-two-three-four, like that. Jo Jones, who was Count Basie’s drummer, one of the great innovators, started playing that shh-ch-ch-shh figure on the highhat cymbals, where the shh was on the one and the three of the beat, which heads more into a sense of even four, rather than playing on that off-beat all the time, which was the way they previously had played. Sid Catlett, a transitional drummer of this period, used to play every beat of the four on his bass drum fairly loud. Jo was playing that too but a little softer. The Bop drummers learned from those guys. In fact Max Roach said a very interesting thing about how a lot of the things he plays he developed from hearing Jo Jones on the radio but not seeing him. He had to make up ways of doing what he heard Jo doing, so when he finally did get to see Jo Jones play he realized he was doing all differently. What drummers call “sticking,” which means which hand you start a phrase with, the various patterns of the hands in making phrases, he might have gotten wrong, but that’s one of the ways that art gets changed and invented.
Now I think that once you get that kind of evened-out 4 beat, you can hear a long line against that a lot easier than you can against a very accented um-dah um-dah um-dah all the time. In Bop there’s actually a sort of ghost of an off-beat but it’s far less prominent. Charlie Parker began to hear longer lines, and Kerouac obviously did. And what you eventually get to from all that is Ornette Coleman, who was maybe the next great innovator, certainly on the saxophone, by the late ’50s, who would sometimes turn the beat around. He wouldn’t stay, in other words, with the one-two-three-four and back to one. He wouldn’t care. If he got a phrase that took him into the other polarity of that 4 he would just go with it and the rhythm section would go with him. Now this gets into yet another phase which really fascinates me too, what’s called Free Jazz which came out of Ornette and Cecil Taylor and Coltrane and so on in the early ’60s and died, seemed to have hit a wall, or hit freedom?, and recanted. There should be a great history written of this and I haven’t seen it yet. But there’s a record you can probably still find by the great tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler which was called Spiritual Unity and it was a trio with him, Gary Peacock, who has played here at Naropa, on bass, and Sonny Murray on drums, and they got to a kind of time on that session which, if you’ve been following at all what I’ve been saying…I realize it’s hard if you don’t have any technical sense of musical metric, but understand that in a 4/4 measure there are always (even to some extent in Bop) strong beats and weak beats, the off-beat or the on-beat, whatever style you’re playing. But these guys made a time where there was no strong or weak beat. It was all lie one-one-one-one-one-one-one to infinity. In other words, you could play anything at all over that time, you could go anywhere and not worry about how to come back. You still hear this sometimes in some musicians, but I don’t know…I sometimes think it was a fear there about being so free that became a barrier. The whole universe could be there and you can hear it sometimes in Coltrane’s late work, for instance, although he maybe wasn’t working specifically with that time.
But anyway, we’re talking about an overlay. The more unaccented you have that 4 for an underlying beat, the more you can extend your line over it and I’m sure Kerouac heard something like that. An opening. He was very fond of a lot of those musicians and listened to them a lot.
Now another thing about Bebop is that a lot of what they were playing were existing tunes, which musicians call “standards,” like “All the Things You Are” and “I Got Rhythm,” the Gershwin tune, was the basis for a lot of them, just taking the chord changes and making your own melodies over the top. Here’s a quote from a Kerouac piece called “The Beginning of Bop” where he’s talking about a band he is watching and listening to.
The tune they were playing was All the Things You Are…they slowed it down and dragged behind it at half tempo dinosaur proportions–changed the placing of the note in the middle of the harmony to an outer more precarious position here also its sense of not belonging was enhanced by the general atonality produced with everyone exteriorizing the tune’s harmony
Now I’ve seen that put down by jazz critics as total idiocy but in fact it is quite close to what Charlie Parker talked about when he broke through, I think in 1939, when he started grabbing notes from the higher intervals of the chord and hearing a possible improvisation there. And there’s a wonderful passage, this is one of the greatest descriptions of jazz improvisation I can imagine, from Visions of Cody. Kerouac is talking about Lee Konitz, who he said “inspired me in 1951 to write the way he plays.” “He can take care of himself even though he goofs and does “April in Paris” from inside out as if the tune was the room he lived in and was going out at midnight with his coat on.” Yeah. That has the feeling of improvisation starting at a base and going out and you can get back if you want since you know where that is but you can also go anywhere and tae whatever form in the going you want.
There’s also a convention in Bop for the quotation of other tunes. Charlie Parker did that a lot, and Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins. Which reminds me of Kerouac’s inclusion of things that happen to pop out in his memory which maybe didn’t have to do directly with what he was describing. Plucked from the great wellspring of forms in his composing head.
Then there’s something I like to call Crazy Seriousness. Kerouac used the word “goof” a lot in a very positive way, as when he was describing the Three Stooges in Visions of Cody. He was talking about Neal Cassady actually, saying how the free imagination he felt in himself was justified in the world outside and he had nothing therefore to reproach himself for. That sense of goof. Or some funny illuminated moment, which you can hear in some of the few live recordings of Bird and Diz playing together.
Also in Bop you’ve got extremes of tempo. Particularly very fast tempos, and Kerouac of course, we know, was a master of fast typing, fast writing.
Now here are some examples of what I think of as Bop phrases in Kerouac. Think of it like in this tempo: dah dah dah dah…. “Lee, who wouldn’t talk to me even if he knew me” dah dah dah dah, one two three four “Lee, who wouldn’t talk to me even if he knew me.” All right? And then, from San Francisco Blues: “The rooftop of the beatup tenement.” Now that’s an iambic pentameter line, “The rooftop of the beatup tenement,” but that’s not how it sounds at all. It’s this: “The rooftop of the beatup tenement.” And we have a recording of him reading that so we know that that’s very much the way he heard it. I mean, “tenement” is almost whole-noted out. But it’s those phrases: “The rooftop/of the beatup-tenement.” I always feel in my own work that I hear that way. I’ve never heard metrics in terms of feet. You know, on and off, weak and strong, in regulated patterns. I think of a whole phrase, no matter how long. And I think of what they call “tala” in Indian classical music, which may be a sequence of as many as eighteen variously accented beats, which gets repeated as a unit to improvise on.
Here’s a great line of Kerouac’s for long-line Bop sense: “Lester droopy porkpie hung his horn and blew bop lazy ideas inside jazz had everybody dreaming.” It’s almost too long for my breath but it’s there.
The other thing about the long line, which is terrifying and wonderful, is that you never know where it goes. I mean, you’re following it for the sense of where, what’s going to drop in, what is that last word, where is it going to take me? Which reminds me of Bernadette Mayer in a letter where she’s talking about her writing and I don’t think she was thinking specifically of Kerouac but it’s apropos. She says
What I seem to have to do is to have someone to address in order to begin, then lose that, mix it up, get mixed up myself, let the language take over, work out some structures within that, see an ending, bypass it and then see how much longer I can last, having more or less abandoned the addressee, then collapse at some false ending, casting the work aside with the unspoken hope that I may have made some discovery.
That kind of says it all. There’s also the sense of you don’t want to finish. There’s almost a sadness when even the greatest long line you can get to, with something really unexpected at the end, when it’s done you don’t want to stop. Which reminded me of something else. I have endless, hopeless, jazz references! I hope that those of you who don’t have jazz as another language will bear with me. But if anybody knows Woody Herman’s early band, and maybe at least Fee (Fielding Dawson) here does, with Davey Tough on drums, one thing they used to do was at the end of a tune, which would often end du-POW, Davey Tough would give about three or five more bassdrum beats, duh-duh-duh-duh-duh. Kind of a stutter on out. And I always wondered what the hell that was all about. Well, finally somebody asked Woody, long after Dave Tough had died, and he said, “Yeah, well, we never could stand to end a number.”
So, another aspect of Bop phrasing is a way of ending the phrase with a kind of Bang, a sudden hard stop sometimes on an unexpected beat. Here’s Kerouac from Book of Dreams, where he’s actually sort of describing the use of this in his own work. “Robert Whitmore my buddy on the SS Carruth is showing me how he describes an apartment building when he writes, ‘the wander wada rada rall a gonna gay, Zack!’ the flow of words and the releasing bop-sound at the end of a prose rhythm paragraph.” And here’s an example from Old Angel Midnight. “He thinks I’m competitive in a long pleasant souse of Wishing all of ye bleed stay meditation everybody martini destroy my black.”
Something that also happens with that, in Kerouac, is that I always hear the individual words with an intense physicality of separation. And that previous quote is a good example of that because a lot of words are not syntactically connected. “…bleed stay meditation everybody martini destroy…” Whack. As he said in a letter to Don Allen in 1959, “The rhythm of how you decide to rush your statement determines the rhythm of the poem.” Here’s an example of that from Visions of Cody. “There and there alone, we’ll find our chops and smoky talk of the most important dinner time in Denver,” Hear the acceleration in those last six words? Bob Creeley used to talk about how Charlie Parker and Miles Davis were able to give each unit of duration a feeling of longer or shorter, slower or quicker time without; it actually being slower or quicker, which is one of the great secrets of jazz movement. And I’ll be really specific here, I have to be. There’s a record by Sonny Rollins called Newk’s Time, and there’s a tune on there called “Tune Up.” Listen to what he plays after he gets through the theme, on the first eight bars of his solo. He plays three phrases, and by the third phrase you would think he was going about three times as fast, that he really had accelerated way beyond the original tempo, but he hasn’t. It’s all in the genius of his phrasing.
Here’s another good one. Kerouac: “Figures crossing the general raily layout in a flat void of activity afternoons.” Which reminds me of Ray Bremser, who is another great Bop poet who should be better known, I was once given a manuscript of his by the bass player Buell Neidlinger who used to play with Cecil Taylor’s early band. Ray had written this poem called “Drive Suite”: sometimes literally under Cecil Taylor’s piano at the Five Spot. He’s a brave man. But “activity afternoons” echoed for me with Ray’s phrase in “Drive Suite”: “Pituie balloons.” Somehow he heard Cecil producing “Pituie balloons.”
Here’s a bit of a diversion but it’s all part of the same fascination. I remember a statement that the composer Arnold Schoenerg made years ago when he was asked “What is the first thing you get in your mind when you start to write a composition?” He said, “an unnameable sense of a sounding & moving space, of a form with characteristic relationships; of moving masses whose shape is unnameable & not amenable to comparison.” Well, he couldn’t sustain that, it’s almost impossible to describe. But there’s that sense of a “sounding and moving space.” I know that’s absolutely indicative of the right direction. I feel that myself. There’s a thing there that’s got all the outside and it’s got the momentum and it’s going to move and it’s going to demand certain forms and it’s totally not embodied at all. There’s no material to it yet and you feel absolutely that you’re about to embody that, whatever your material is. I think painters feel that too. I remember Philip Guston talking that way. In fact he and I used to talk about paint and words to the extent that we weren’t talking about paint and words anymore, we were talking about art, I mean, making that thing where we use all whatever materials we’ve been given to make it with. I remember some nights talking with him where we felt like it’s absolutely up there somewhere and it’s not paint and it’s not words. I found this echo of the same idea in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s book, Hope Against Hope. “I imagine that for a poet auditory hallucinations are something in the nature of an occupational disease. As many poets have said–Akhmatova (in Poem Without a Hero) and Mandelstam among them–a poem begins with a musical phrase ringing insistently in the ears; at first inchoate, it later takes on a precise form, though still without words. I sometimes saw Mandelstam trying to get rid of this kind of ‘hum,’ to brush it off and escape from it. He would toss his head as though it could be shaken out like a drop of water that gets into your ear while bathing. But it was always louder than any noise, radio or conversation in the same room.”
And then I thought of this from Kerouac, talking about another jam session that he saw, talking about these tenor players that he called the “workingman tenors”: not the stars but the guys that came to the lesser clubs and blew their hearts out every night to whatever audience, “They seemed to come on in their horns with a will, saying things, a lot to say, talkative horns, you could almost hear the words and better than that the harmony, made you hear the way to fill up blank spaces of time with the tune and consequence of your hands and breath and soul.”
So, to kind of pull all this together, I’ll show what I see as three aspects of Kerouac’s writing. Forgive me for generalizing at all because this is a very particular artist, it’s all in the details. But there are three areas of working that you can point to as being different from one another that he would hit into and then move between. The first one is what I call Blowing (as a jazz musician does) on Memory, or on the Subject of Image. As if you could blow present words swinging over key centers of memory. As if words could be the melody of image. Word melody over image chords, that way? What we’re really talking about here is improvisation, which is a totally fascinating and endless area. I always look for statement on this from the great musicians. The latest one that intrigues me is Cecil Taylor’s “Improvisation is the capability to talk to oneself.” That’s certainly what a writer does. Kerouac said in “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” “blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image.” And on page one of Doctor Sax, “and don’t stop to think of words when you do stop, just stop to think of the picture better–and let your mind off yourself in this work.” Plus the great one in the Paris Review interview where he says, “All of it is in my mind, naturally, except that language that is used at the time it is used.” All right.
It would be interesting to see the notebooks from his travels Kerouac used when he was writing his novels, because it’s almost as if he were using what musicians call Fake Books: those books that have the chords to the tune that you’re referring to, and here Kerouac was taking off from what was in his notebooks at every split second. There’s a wonderful interview with the poet Philip Whalen, who knew Kerouac very well and watched him writing at one point and described it.
He would sit–at a typewriter, and he had all these pocket notebooks, and the pocket notebooks would be open at his left-hand side on the typing table–and he’d be typing. He could type faster than any human being you ever saw. The most noise that you heard while he was typing was the carriage return, slamming back again and again. The little bell would bing-bang, bing-bang, bing-bang! Just incredibly fast, faster than a teletype. And he’d laugh and say, Look at this! And he’d type and he’d laugh. Then he’d make a mistake, and this would lead him off into a possible part of a new paragraph, into a funny riff of some kind that he’d add while he was in the process of copying. Then, maybe he’d turn a page of the notebook and he’d look at that page and realize it was no good and he’d X it out, or maybe part of that page. And then he’d type a little bit and turn another page, and type the whole thing, and another page, and he’d type from that. And then something would–again, he would exclaim and laugh and carry on and have a big time doing it.
That’s something to be aspired to. I think that’s the only description, at least that I’ve found, an actual physical image description of Kerouac writing. Now this might be an example of Kerouac doing that kind of writing, jumping from memory chord to memory chord. From Old Angel Midnight.
Lou Little explaining to the newsreel audience how this football player went mad & shows how on a Columbia Practice Hillside it started with father & son, the gray reaches of the Eternity Library beyond–I go visit my sweet Alene in her subterranean pad near the 3rd Avenue El & Henry St of old Mike Mike milkcan Lower Eastside Dreams & pink murders & ther she wont ope the door because I cant get the job I tried so hard to get & the woman said my form wasn’t right but Neal made it but regretfully it is he’s shipping out & I’m on the ship with him telling him “If you wash dishes dont say a word, if you’re a yeoman do yr work all well”–I can see he hates to go without me to this other Grayshore–Sitting before my stove on a cold gray Saturday morning with my coffee & my pine, eating jello–remembering the little jello cartoon that filled me with such joy as a kid on Sarah Avenue, the little prince wouldn’t take pheasant or delicate birds or celestial puddings or even Mominuan icecream but when the little bird brought his jello inverted in a rill mold cup he went wild & saved the kingdom, red jello like mine, in the little dear lovable pages–of long ago–My form is delight delight delight
Ring, ring ring-
Shh, the sky is empty-
Shh, the earth is empty-
Look out, look in, shh-
The essence of jello is the essence of arrangement-
Be nice to the monster crab, it’s only another arrangement of that which you are
Now Kerouac talked about something he called “alluvials,” and if you look that up in the dictionary it says “aluvium, solid material deposited by running water,” which you get in a delta at the front of a river. He said, “Add alluvials to the end of your line when all is exhausted but something has to be said for some specified irrational reason.” Here’s a great example, in fact he used it himself in a letter to illustrate just that. Talking about Lester Young, the great tenor player.
Lester is like the river, the river starts in near Butte Montana in frozen snow caps (Three Forks) and meanders on down across states and entire territorial areas of dun bleak land with hawthorn crackling in the sleet, picks up rivers at Bismarck, Omaha and St. Louis just north, another at Kay-ro, another in Arkansas, Tennessee, comes deluging on New Orleans with muddy news from the land and a roar of subterranean excitement that is like the vibration of the entire land sucked of its gut in mad midnight, fevered, hot, [and here’s the alluvium] the big mudhole rank clawpole old frogular pawed-soul titanic Mississippi from the North, full of wires, cold wood, and horn.
He got back to Lester. So that’s about blowing on memory chords. And then the second aspect of his work I’d like to show is what he called “sketching.” In “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” he said, “Time being of the essence in the purity of speech, sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words.” And, in a letter to Allen Ginsberg from 1952.
Sketching (Ed White casually mentioned it in 124th Chinese restaurant near Columbia, “Why don’t you just sketch in the streets like a painter but with words”) which I did…everything activates in front of you in myriad profusion, you just have to purify your mind and let it pour the words (which effortless angels of the vision fly when you stand in front of reality) and write with 100% personal honesty both psychic & so on etc. and slap it all down shameless, willynilly, rapidly until sometimes I got so inspired I lost consciousness I was writing. Traditional source: Yeats’ trance writing, of course. It’s the only way to write. I haven’t sketched in a long time now & have to start again because you get better with practice. Sometimes it is embarrassing to write in the street or anywhere outside but it’s absolute…it never fails, it’s the thing itself natch.
There are great examples of this that I won’t quote because they’re long. Like in Visions of Cody toward the beginning, his description of the bakery window, where you know he’s standing in front of this window describing every beautiful little piece of peach and icing inside and it just drives you crazy with hunger, and horror. And there’s the great sketch of that cafeteria, like a Horn & Hardart’s in New York. Or here’s a shorter one from Old Angel Midnight.
The Mill Valley trees, the pines with green mint look and there’s a tangled eucalyptus hulk stick fallen thru the late sunlight tangle of those needles, hanging from it like a live wire connecting it to the ground–just below, the notches where little Fred sought to fell sad pine–not bleeding much–just a lot of crystal sap the ants are mining in, motionless like cows on the grass.
And the third phase or aspect I picked out is what’s been called Babble or Babble Flow: just letting it completely go on. Here’s a take I had on it at one point: Pressure off words so they pile and collide in and he hears them in mind as if spoken by another. Words, then, are fresh solids of the just heard. And a line by Kerouac: “infantile pile-up of scatalogical buildup.” Increasing density turns the mind-ear away from impulse or remembered image toward sound as material for the making. Then Kerouac says, in Old Angel Midnight: “The total turning about & deep revival of world robe-flowing literature till it shd be something a man’d put his eyes on & continually read for the sake of reading & for the sake of the Tongue & not just these inspidid stories writ in insipid aridities & paranoias bloomin & why yet the image–let’s hear the Sound of the Universe, son.”
So, here’s a sample of Kerouac’s Babble Flow.
Aw rust rust rust rust die die die pipe pipe ash ash die die ding dong ding ding ding rust cob die pipe ass rust die words–I’d as rather be permiganted in Rusty’s moonlight Rork as be perderated in this bile arta panataler where ack the orshy rosh crowshes my tired idiot hand O Lawd I is coming to you’d soon’s you’s ready’s as can readies by Mazatlan heroes point out Mexicos & all ye rhythmic bay fishermen don’t hang fish eye soppy in my Ramadam give-cigarette Sop of Arab Squat–the Berber types that hang fardels on their woman back wd aslief Erick some son with blady matter I guess as whup a mule in singsong pathetic mule-jump field by quiet fluff smoke North Carolina (near Weldon) (Railroad Bridgel Roanoke millionaire High-Ridge hi-party Hi-Fi million-dollar findriver skinfish Rod Tong Apple Finder John Sun Ford goodby Paw mule America Song-
I guess you either hear the music of that or you don’t.
Now, something that occurred to me out of thinking about Babble Flow is something that Bernadette and I used to think about a lot, what we called the Everything Work. It’s the incredible ideal that you could get so practiced in this kind of improvisational quickness of mind and word-dropping-into-the-slot that every single thing could be included. In fact, Bernadette still has a project called Mind of Hour where she wants to be able to capture/notate everything her mind possibly touched on in that hour. She tried to teach herself shorthand, all kinds of hypnosis and still couldn’t quite find a way. But anyway it’s an ideal, something to shoot for, and there’s a great feeling of it in Kerouac. The inclusion of everything or the desire to have everything in there, so you get sections which are catalogues of things. This is maybe the simplest form of the everything impulse. Like at the beginning of Old Angel Midnight: “Friday afternoon in the universe, in all directions in & out you got your men women dogs children horses pones tics perts parts pans pool palls pails parturiences and petty Thieveries that turn into heavenly Buddha.” Or, talking about Neal Cassady in Visions of Cody “his whole frame of clothes capped by those terrible pants with six, seven holes in them and streaked with baby food, come, ice cream, ashes–I saw his whole life, I saw all the movies we’d ever been in, I saw for some reason he and his father on Larimer Street not caring in May.”
So, The Everything Work. And let me bring in a cast of a few outsiders, great artists, to back this. Thomas Bernhard. I don’t know if anybody here’s read him, a wonderful Austrian novelist, now recently dead, who said: “Unless one is thinking of everything at each moment one is not thinking at all.” That’s in a book called Correction. And Willem deKooning, this in a New York Times story about him in 1983. He’s talking about his painting: “It’s never right, you know, because it doesn’t have everything in it. So you keep going until you’ve put everything you can into it. Then you go on to the next one.” You only go on to the next work after you’ve put everything in it that you can, I mean, dig that as a statement about composition. And then I found this from John Berger in his book called And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief As Photos: “Once one lived in a seamless experience of wordlessness.” He’s probably thinking about Paleolithic man here. “Wordlessness means that everything is continuous. The later dream of an ideal language, a language which says all simultaneously, perhaps begins with the memory of this state without memories.” That’s an interesting riff, if you think about it in connection with what I’ve been talking about. And then this just cracked me up. Do you know the stand-up comic Steven Wright, who has these great one-liners? He said: “When I first read the dictionary I thought it was a poem about everything.” Which it is, if you can dig it that way.
Okay. Now, the opposite of everything, you might say, is ignorance or the breakdown of recall, which I think is happening to me more and more and I’m trying to make it into a positive aspect of the work. Kerouac says, in an Escapade magazine article in 1961: “in describing the stormy sea in Desolation Angels I heard the sound ‘Peligroso’ for ‘Peligroso Roar’ without knowing what it meant, wrote it down involuntarily, later found out it means ‘dangerous’ in Spanish.” I one time wrote down in a notebook: You enter meaninglessness every time you reach for a word. I think poets all know the feeling of grabbing a word and you really don’t know what the hell it means but you put it in and you know it’s right, and you always find out somehow, or maybe you find a way of finding out it’s right, but anyway it goes in and has to go in.
And then there’s pure forgetting: Not being able to think of something and using that as part of the structure of the writing itself. This from Midnight again:
Ah Angel Midnightmare-
Ah Crack Jabberwack, play piano, paint, pop your pile anum coitus semenized olium o hell what’s his biblical name, the pot that split in the room ere Sarad had hers, ad her share, the name, the word, for masturbators, the Neptune O YA you know the name, the Bible Keen Mexican yowl that old tree still hangs in the same moonlight–Ilium, Anum, Ard Bar, Arnum, Odium, Odious, ONAN! ONAN KERAQUACK go heal yr own toiletbowl, stop dropping shavings in mine, & leave my grave unsung, my death unlearn. my qualities you can have, but onanist no quarter given you Angel Midnight by in that holy gallows of the moon!
So finally, I was thinking about Kerouac’s work as being in motion in a cycle between these aspects of the work: Sketching, he’s right in front of the things, leading to the Memory Blowing, writing the words coming off the memory or the notebooks from the experience, perhaps leading then on to the BabbleFlow, which in some cases leads to a feeling of a sort of emptiness and almost, in a Buddhist sense, that he was aware of that emptiness in which the world images began to appear again, and the cycle goes around. As maybe an example of that cycling in miniature, this section from Midnight again. I’m using Old Angel Midnight a lot because it’s almost a Kerouac-in-small, almost condensed. He’s so vast and to give you quotes to get all these elements in would take hours. It would be wonderful to hear, it would be incredible, but we can’t so I’m using here these short prose paragraphs of Old Angel Midnight. And I’ll end with one from towards the end of that work which shows the whole cycle coming around again.
The wush of trees on yonder eastern nabathaque Latin Walden axe-haiku of hill where woodsman Mahomet perceives will soon adown the morning drear to pail the bringup well suspender farmer trap moon so’s cock go Bloody yurgle in the distance where Timmy hides, flat, looking with his eyes for purr me–O Angel, now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party, & ah Angel dont paper-party me, but make me horrified in silken Honen honeyrubbed Oxen tongue of Cow Kiss, Ant Mat, silk girl ran, all the monkey-better-than secondary women of Sam Sarah the Song of Blood this earth, this tool, this fool, look with your eyes. I’m tried of fooling O Angel bring it to me THE MAGIC SOUND OF SILENCE broken by first-bird’s teepaleep-
This essay is excerpted from the forthcoming book DISEMBODIED POETICS: Annals of the Jack Kerouac School, edited by Anne Waldman and Andrew Schelling, to be published in February 1995 by the University of New Mexico Press.
Clark Coolidge has performed his work across the U.S. and Europe, and is a contributing editor to Sulfur. Coolidge originally presented this essay as a lecture at the Naropa Institute on July 8, 1991, and portions of “Kerouac” appeared in Talisman.
Copyright World Poetry, Incorporated Jan 1995
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