Most people think of Jack Kerouac as a novelist – and rightly so. His era-defining On the Road, foremost among a score of his other novels, is still in print after nearly sixty years and has become shorthand for the literary movement known as the Beat Generation. Its audience has only expanded. But fewer people may know that Kerouac often thought of himself more as a poet than a writer of prose. In his statement on “The Origins of Joy in Poetry,” Kerouac views himself and his work firmly in the company of poets:
The new American poetry as typified by the SF Renaissance (which means Ginsberg, me, Rexroth, Ferlinghetti, McClure, Corso, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Philip Whalen, I guess) is a kind of new-old Zen Lunacy poetry, writing whatever comes into your head as it comes, poetry returned to its origin, in the bardic child, truly ORAL as Ferling said, instead of gray-faced Academic quibbling.
Composing “whatever comes into your head as it comes” perfectly encapsulates the “spontaneous prose” method Kerouac claims to have employed in On the Road; in this case, however, Kerouac clearly identifies it as a mode of poetic writing.
“The Origins of Joy in Poetry” is gathered together with selections of Kerouac’s verse, written over a period spanning 1945 to 1970, in Scattered Poems (City Lights, 1971 – Pocket Poets #28). Here one finds Kerouac’s poems for Allen Ginsberg and Arthur Rimbaud, his very fine attempts at Haiku, and selections from the well-known sequence “San Francisco Blues.” Surprisingly, given Kerouac’s disdain for the “gray-faced Academic quibbling” of the mid-century literature department, one of the most delightful pieces in Scattered Poems is “A Pun for Al Gelpi.”
Al Gelpi was a freshly minted English PhD lecturing at Harvard in the early ’60s when he invited Kerouac, then living with his mother in nearby Lowell, MA, to give a reading on campus. I happen to know Al, who is now a freshly retired English professor at Stanford, and he remembers Kerouac’s reading at Harvard as one of the most raucous he ever attended. Crowd members spilling out of the overflowing lecture hall leaned their heads in through open windows to hear Kerouac recite lines of verse from memory. The evening went off the rails as some members of the crowd outside began passing drinks in through the windows, hoping to see a visibly drunk Kerouac get even looser. The poet gamely accepted each one.
At a certain point, Kerouac halted mid-sentence and demanded that somebody bring him a volume of Emily Dickinson so that he could read from it. Al scrambled up to his room in the dormitories and brought back his Dickinson, but by that time it seemed that the reading was nearly over. Kerouac could barely form a complete sentence. Still, the poet and the professor became fast friends, corresponding and meeting over dinner when they could, inspiring “A Pun for Al Gelpi,” scribbled down in one of Kerouac’s letters to Al:
Jesus got mad one day
at an apricot tree.
He said, “Peter, you
of the Holy See,
Go see if the tree is ripe.”
“The tree is not yet ripe,”
reported back Peter the Rock.
“Then let it wither!”
Jesus wanted an apricot.
In the morning, the tree
Like the ear in the agony
of the garden,
Struck down by the sword.
What means this parable?
You’re really sipping
When your glass
is always empty.
In 1992 Kerouac’s archives were unsealed, marking the start of a major boom in posthumous Kerouac publications that continues to this day. That same year City Lights brought out Pomes All Sizes, a manuscript collection of Kerouac’s poetry that had languished in the City Lights vaults for decades after Kerouac’s widow had prevented further publication of the writer’s work.
The publication of Pomes All Sizes (City Lights, 1992 – Pocke Poets #48) was supervised by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who told the Los Angeles Times that the volume illuminated a critical phase of Kerouac’s career between 1954 and 1965. “It spans the last years of [Kerouac’s] life,” Ferlinghetti explained. “He became more and more alcoholic, and there’s evidence of that in some of the poems.”
City Lights editor Nancy Peters also thought that the poems “show a side of [Kerouac] people don’t think about. His sensitivity to the sadness of life is really apparent in this book.” But the despair evident in the volume is not unmixed, as demonstrated by the calm appraisal of human suffering in Kerouac’s self-portrait as “The Buddha”:
I used to sit under trees and meditate
on the diamond bright silence of darkness
and the bright look of diamonds in space
and space that was stiff with lights
and diamonds shot through, and silence
And when a dog barked I took it for soundwaves
and cars passing too, and once I heard
a jet-plane which I thought was a mosquito
in my heart, and once I saw salmon walls
of pink and roses, moving and ululating
with the drapish
Once I forgave dogs, and pitied men, sat
in the rain countin’ Juju beads, raindrops
are ecstasy, ecstasy is raindrops – birds
sleep when the trees are giving out light
in the night, rabbits sleep too, and dogs
I had a path that I followed thru piney woods
and a phosphorescent white hound-dog named Bob
who led me the way when the clouds covered
the stars, and then communicated to me
the sleepings of a loving dog enamoured
At the end of his life, Kerouac re-embraced the Catholicism of his youth, facetiously claiming that he had only dabbled in Buddhism as a ruse to encourage the attempts of friends like Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder to get closer to some form of spirituality. But “The Buddha” doesn’t stand alone in Kerouac’s corpus. The Dharma Bums, which details his friendship with Snyder (“Japhy Ryder” in the book), has been criticized for reflecting a dilettante’s idea of Buddhism, yet it does represent Kerouac’s sincere attempt to re-contextualize the faith for American readers of the 1950s. Moreover, the School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, a Buddhist institute, is named after Kerouac.
In 1994, City Lights republished an entire volume of Kerouac’s Zen koans and sutras called The Scripture of the Golden Eternity (Pocket Poets #51), written around the time of The Dharma Bums, with a new introduction by the poet Anne Waldman, a fellow poet and a professor at Naropa. Waldman acknowledges both Christian and Buddhist tendencies in Kerouac’s spiritual writing but makes it seem all the deeper for that eclecticism:
A sutra is historically a dialogue between the Gotama & one or more of his disciples, and carries the orally delivered, exact words of the Buddha. Scripture, on the other hand, suggests the Christian canon – the Holy Scriptures or sacred writings of the Bible. Kerouac had a recondite knowledge, and appreciation, of both canons. And he’s able in this remarkable text to get the two together in his own head, also throwing in a bit of Native American shamanism in the figure of Coyote.
Kerouac never followed an Eastern teacher, and his Buddhist practice was certainly never as dedicated as Snyder’s or Philip Whalen’s. But he seemed to have found, like many before and after him, a remarkable semblance between the teachings of the Buddha and the Christian gospels understood without the ghoulish encumbrance of American religiosity. As a result, Kerouac’s description of what he called “enlightenment” is both undeniably beautiful and recognizable to adherents of both traditions:
During that timeless moment of unconsciousness I saw the golden eternity. I saw heaven. In it nothing had ever happened, the events of a million years ago were just as phantom and
ungraspable as the events of now or a million years from now, or the events of the next ten minutes. It was perfect, the golden solitude, the golden emptiness … There was no question of being alive or not being alive, of likes and dislikes, of near or far, no question of giving or gratitude, no question of mercy or judgment, or of suffering or its opposite or anything … It seemed
like one smiling smile, one adorable adoration, one gracious and adorable charity, everlasting safety, refreshing afternoon, roses, infinite brilliant immaterial golden ash, the Golden Age.
The ‘golden’ came from the sun in my eyelids, and the ‘eternity’ from my sudden instant realization as I woke up that I had just
been where it all came from and where it was all returning, the everlasting So, and so never coming or going; therefore I call it
the golden eternity but you can call it anything you want.
One further Kerouac title that we are proud to have published is the unexpurgated manuscript of his Book of Dreams (City Lights, 2001), which is just what it sounds like. In his papers, Kerouac left behind a notebook in which he carefully described, day by day, years’ worth of his dreams, providing rich insight into a fund of lyric imagery that he probably drew upon in writing his poems and novels:
That gorgeous blonde dancing bare-breasted on a golden stage before the sullen Charlotte N.C. audience, that Zaza-like Gabor beauty – at one point she began pulling up her panties, you could see the brown hairs of her Venus hump starting to show between her sensuous thighs so sexy-tossed – Old ladies began leaving the theater in civic excitement, finally even young men rose and held local caucuses among their seats and I even heard some of them calling for a committee, a rope, a lynching – uproars gathered – the blonde danced on, her huge bulbous soft white breasts with pale pink nipples bouncing in the golden footlight glow – I began to cry out “Stop this furor, this is a beautiful woman – enjoy and watch her – never mind your lynchings and laws – Is that all you’re interested in? There’s life and love staring you in the face, sip it while you can!”
How can you not love the euphemism of “civic excitement,” referring here to an emotion somewhere between arousal and homicidal frenzy? Or the image of Kerouac, glimpsed by his own dreaming self, attempting to bring everyone back together again in the burlesque dancer’s momentary embodiment of truth and beauty. “You’re really sipping / When your glass / is always empty.”
Throughout his life Kerouac blurred the boundaries between biography and fiction. Consequently, readers deeply familiar with Kerouac’s work can have a ball with the Book of Dreams trying to pick out dream images, scenes, and characters that might also appear in the creative work. Freudian literary theorists can get their ya-ya’s out, too. Rocky Mount, North Carolina, is where Kerouac’s sister, Carolyn, lived during the time when he was writing most of his great fiction, and when he was composing The Dharma Bums Kerouac would often retreat from his rental in Orlando, FL, to a cabin on his sister’s property in Rocky Mount in order to write and reflect. As far as I know, no North Carolina strip clubs appear in Kerouac’s work, but it is not hard to imagine that writing wasn’t all he got up to during those visits. Interestingly, the town where Caroline Kerouac lived is fictionalized in On the Road as Testament, VA – the only pseudonymous place name in any of Kerouac’s books.
Follow the City Lights blog for more looks back through our catalog as we celebrate 60 years of publishing in 2015.