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I think I was probably older than most writers are when they first realize that literature is not just books–that it is a system of ideas and ideals, a paradigm, a way of being.

I was 18 or 19.  It was the middle of July in a steaming, sucking, temperate summer, and I was in northern Minnesota at a cabin my family has rented every summer for as long as I have been alive.  Back then, the cabin got three channels, broadcast, via antennae.  After trying, unsuccessfully, to get drunk in local bars, I was suffering a dearth of shit to do.

Desperate, I tagged along with my considerably more bookish sister to the bookstore in town.

I gravitated toward the classics section thinking that classics must be classics because they’re better than average; my odds of not ending up disappointed must be best there.

I stopped at the first name I recognized but that I was sure didn’t belong to someone who had been dead for over 100 years.

It was not On the Road, whose title I recognized but whose specific significance was unclear to me.  It was another book by the same author whose back cover sounded more interesting.  It was Dharma Bums.

I read the whole thing in a day and a half.  I got a terrible sunburn from sitting in the fishing boat, aluminum hull clanging against the dock, reading non-stop for hours upon hours at a time.

It was unhemmed, expansive, and bursting–by train, by road, by foot, going where it wanted to go regardless of where the pavement pointed.  It was prose, head, and heart without boundary.  It was nowhere and everywhere all at once.  Omniscient.

For a non-reader (and a non-writer), it was a revelation.  I had no idea a book could be like that.  No one ever told me.  I didn’t know you could do that.

It changed my brain forever, kicking open a door to whole new world of ideation that, like it or not, I would not be able to close again.

He has had this effect on lots of people, apparently.

So imagine my disappointment, shame, and dismay when, as my attention in school slowly began to turn more towards literature and I proudly trotted into my classes eager to talk about Jack Kerouac and the Beats, I discovered that I was a decade or two late to the party.  At some point Kerouac had gone out of fashion, and there was furthermore a vocal, bored majority in the literary quorum who actively despised him.

Their primary concern seemed to be that too many people liked him, too many people read him.  Too many shitty writers, especially.  Secondary to that, he was male, white, and dead.

 

All dick moves on his part.

 

He commanded the kind of cultural ballast most writers dream of when they dream of becoming writers but that even the most talented and savvy among us have no hope of ever actually wielding in the current literary and cultural climate.

The kind of power that no writer has had hope of wielding, perhaps, since Kerouac.  Maybe because of Kerouac.

To empower him was to admit vulnerability to a tantalizing occupational ideal that he had created, that had helped saturate the market by making “writer” an occupation that could get a person laid or on TV, and that had, for decades, proved to be a totally futile pursuit for too many.

To top it all off, perhaps worst of all, he didn’t even want it.

Publicly.

That such an insufferable persona and writerly stereotype should be so ubiquitous in American culture and literature is, for a lot of people, simply too much to bear for too long.  It is difficult to remember that he was not and still is not the stereotype.  He was the prototype.

As in so many areas of life, anything or anyone too great (in terms of value or size, as you wish) or too singular has to be cut down and profaned to protect the rest of us against forced acknowledgment of our own common smallness.

Conversely, at the time, arbitrary attacks on Kerouac’s character and legend undermined my pride in my feeling–a naive one,  but one that I nevertheless still hold on to now–that Jack Kerouac and I understood something that most people didn’t understand.  That we shared a kind of unique intuitive perceptual tic.  That because of it, I could and would always and forever and exactly understand anything he said or did and nothing about him would ever catch me off guard.

I loved Kerouac with the kind of obsession that one only comes by out of all-consuming envy.  If I digested enough, read enough, studied enough, I hoped–without knowing I hoped it–that I’d become him.  In worshiping him, I worshiped my highest ideal for myself and the person I thought, deep down, I already was.

My Piscean brother.  He lifted me up.

When he was cut down, so was I.

I had internalized him.  He was me and I was he and so on.

Goo goo ga joob.

It was naive and immature.   I played my own part in the Kerouac mimicries so despised by his most exasperated critics, not because I’d ever sat down or set out to write in Kerouac’s voice but because his voice–singular and infectious to begin with–was so emblematic of the kinds of thoughts I wanted to express but struggled to, it took on synonymity with them.  When I thought of those ideas, the thoughts came in his voice.

It was a bizarre experience, and the fixation–a kind of repetitive motion–was so severe that I had to refuse myself the liberty of writing anything within 3 days of reading anything by Jack Kerouac.  Not even a quote or a line.  His voice was a song that stuck in my head, and any time I tried to open my mouth, I sang it.  It only took a few notes.

The Subterraneans was the second Kerouac-dealt blow to the head that altered, permanently, my perception of language and writing and that laid the groundwork for the final, fateful moment when, against all prudent fiscal consideration and good sense, I changed my major for the last time.

The book is said to have been written in three straight days and nights without sleep, during one of Kerouac’s Benzedrine benders. The punctuation in the book only vaguely resembles that which one ordinarily finds in the English language.  Sentences rarely–and arbitrarily–end.  Emdashes abound and quotes are left hanging open.  The prose careens, caroms, and hurtles, trying desperately to keep up with a brain speeding relentlessly forward and out of voluntary control, like a body pulled ahead of feet in a flat run downhill.

The craft is impeccable.

The love affair the book describes is short, runs at high speed to impossible heights, plummets, and ends, just like the writing of the book, like the Beats’ heyday in SF, just like the voice in the prose–unable to stop, slow down, pace, or return to correct, it just plows forward, determined to capture every detail, every interjecting thought, by hook or by crook.

It was a revelation.  It was harmony of form and content free of overproduction.  Order from chaos.  It just emerged like that.  Fully formed as Athena.  Organically & intuitively.  “First thought, best thought,” Ginsberg said, which I trust was true for Kerouac and that I was sure could be true for me if I could ever let down my guard enough to be aware of my first thought.  If I could ever just get my hands on whatever was lurking under there, the slick shadow moving around beneath the bubbles, before some other part of my brain rushed to alter & approve it or cover it up altogether.

Those spontaneous, uninhibited creative moments of seeming possession, dissociation, and automatic writing that writers have traditionally attributed to Gods and supernatural creatures seem to have been readily accessible to Jack Kerouac for much of his adult life.  And if they were not actually, his ability to make it look that way is unparalleled in American literature.  It’s not surprising that he preferred religious imagery–and that it is what others have preferred to use when speaking about him.  Every act of writing appeared as in invocation or an ecstatic outburst comparable only to the visions of mystics.

And yet, the experiences were profane.

Swaddling himself and his friends in the language of religion was a protective gesture–a pulling-down of the heavens around himself and his confidants, vulnerable as they were, wandering in a socio-cultural wilderness, most of them dogged by unrelenting demons, none of which were ever totally apparent in his writing.  He was loathe to pathologize himself or others, and it is only in nonfiction–mostly written by periphery characters or people who weren’t there–that we learn of the darker side of the Dharma and the Beat.

 

Childlike as he was, he was a patron.  A guardian.

Even in death, he manages to wrap his arms around the shoulders of the young, the timid, the eager-to-matter.  Young writers looking for God in a brutish world at a time in their lives in which the needly nature of existence is slowly, tortuously, revealing itself to them.  Why not Kerouac?  Why not?

I prefer to think of his appeal to young writers in this way.  For me, he has been a safe escape while I learned to think and write for myself.  He remains a genuine inspiration–revisiting his work now, my chest still burns at the recognition of my own thoughts, my mind sets into a excitable motion whose only possible expression is in the written word.  I still, sometimes, read him aloud to friends when we are drunk.

In his prose, expansive emotions and complex ideas bubble up and overwhelm from the tiniest holes in the surface of a dull day, and the powerful, complex academic mechanics and melodies of language find accessible, organic expression.

Kerouac makes writing fun.  Makes being alive on planet earth a heady, religious experience in and of itself.

For that, he could be the savior of the old and jaded, too, were he allowed.

If he makes you uncomfortable, if his ubiquity unsettles you, if his devotees make you embarrassed, it might be for what you see of your secret self in them.

The pimple-faced writer.  The unsophisticated literary appreciator.  The artist too excited to be properly ashamed.

The innocent.

The small.

The trying-like-hell-to-be-drunk.

 

You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

 

 

Happy 90th birthday, Little John.

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Becky Palapala BECKY PALAPALA is the author of many unpublished poems, diatribes, and terse letters, which she holds captive in a homely tote bag in her bedroom. The poems that escaped can be found in online publication at Strix Varia, Paper Darts, and in other nooks and crannies of the internet. In 2008-2009, she served as a poetry editor for Ivory Tower. After an iliadic battle with higher education, Becky graduated with a B.A. in English Literature in the spring of 2010. She currently lives with her husband, daughter, and dog on the outskirts of the Twin Cities, where she pines for her rivertown home and attempts to befriend the rabbit that lives in her yard.

19 Responses to “Wine, Poetry, and Virtue”

  1. “I played my own part in the Kerouac mimicries so despised by his most exasperated critics, not because I’d ever sat down or set out to write in Kerouac’s voice but because his voice–singular and infectious to begin with–was so emblematic of the kinds of thoughts I wanted to express but struggled to, it took on synonymity with them.”

    I think I once had a discussion with Nick Belardes about this. I suppose there are certain writers who you just can’t help but let into your own work. Kerouac certainly got into mine, and it took a long time to shake him off. His voice and his ideas were just too brilliant.

    I wrote something a while ago about how I couldn’t stand Kerouac anymore. It happens from time to time, especially when you spend all your damn life editing essays about him and having to fact-checking every goddamn name and date, but it’s not really true. I will always have a soft-spot for one of the writers who made me care so deeply about writing and reading and living and travelling. (Although I’m still struggling to find the end of sentences. It’s been about 5 yrs since I forced myself to stop writing 20 page sentences. But I still write years as “yrs”. Damn.)

    • Becky Palapala says:

      I’m always surprised–or maybe, really, not surprised–to find how much some people feel contempt for him as a person. As if they knew him and he’d slept with their mothers and never called.

      I figure in those cases, there’s a healthy helping of sour grapes at work. He may have been strange and cavalier, and towards the end, a kind of sloppy hippie-hating mess, but plenty of other authors were unquestionably worse human beings than he was and don’t manage to inspire the kind of contempt Kerouac can.

      That he managed to continue to be him and to write as he wrote despite all those things, and generally with the appearance of total effortlessness, could be upsetting, I suppose, to the contemporary full-time writer, trudging through copy, glad-handing, consumed by the business of writing…I suppose to them, Kerouac’s a kind of God of a different age. Zeus in the age of Franzen. A myth or bogeyman or something.

      • I think a lot of the hate comes from what he became, and how that plays out for the rest of us. You pick up a copy of Kerouac in your teens or early twenties, and he blows you away with playfulness and openness and freedom. You see yourself in him and everything you hope you could be. Then you pick up the biographies and see him fat and drunk on TV… I think people come to hate that because they fear for what it means for them, personally. Maybe. That’s my working theory. He was really a very tragic figure and I guess that comes as a bit of a shock for people.

        And yes, I love the making up words bit. Last week I signed up a new book for my little Publishing Company. It’s a study of Beat Poetry, and one whole chapter is concerned with Kerouac, and it goes into his made-up word improvisations. It’s fascinating. Absolutely bloody brilliant.

        music brawl,
        “Hoap!” “Hap!” & “Hi”
        In the street of blood
        And bells billygoating

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I just find it heartbreaking. Like, utterly. I ended up revisiting the story of his last day or so in the course of brushing up for this, and it screwed me up all over again.

          Why I should feel so much empathy for him and not for so many other people is a bit of a mystery, except to say that I live with the constant nagging awareness that I, personally, just as a function of who I am, am probably constantly one too-traumatic life experience and a few bad decisions away from mortal substance abuse.

          The debilitating introversion, especially, is a killer for anyone who engages in a hobby like writing that is likely to thrust them into a larger public eye. Cobain is another whose deterioration and demise I feel inexplicably acutely, though in that case, I’m not such a huge fan of his art.

          That’s to say I identify, I guess, which is just more of that goo goo ga joob stuff.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Oh. And my biggest Kerouac-inspired offense, the one that I cannot let go of: Making up words. I can’t think of examples right now, and though I try to disguise them as legitimate compound words by using hyphens, it’s all him.

  2. Becky this was so killer. I loved it. Especially: “As in so many areas of life, anything or anyone too great (in terms of value or size, as you wish) or too singular has to be cut down and profaned to protect the rest of us against forced acknowledgment of our own common smallness.”

    That is still reverberating with me. Peace.

  3. Richard says:

    Very well, done Becky, and a great tribute to a giant of literature. Also, so you do feel empathy on occasion. Who knew? Wink.

    I think I’ll write a similar piece on Franzen. Just to piss off the Internet.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      I would pay to hear you wax all earnest and emotionable about Jonathan Franzen.

      The internet might, too.

      It would be a work of sarcastic genius, highlighting the increasing promotional and commercial depravity of contemporary literature.

      Where fame is the means and the end.

      Then you could, like, pour mayonnaise on yourself as you shout a recitation of Pomes All Sizes on a street corner or outside an Apple store or something.

      Major performance art potential.

  4. DB Cox says:

    Enjoyed this piece. I much preferred Kerouac’s novels to his poetry. I did like the recordings of his reading some of his poems accompanied by Steve Allen playing some jazzy piano in the background. They seemed to come to life on the musical canvas.

    My favorite poet of the so-called beats was Bob Kaufman. For some some reason he’s often overlooked.

    Thanks for this.

    DB Cox

    And I have a poem featured in this issue somewhere (for some reason, they decided to change the main screen)

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Thanks, DB. Glad you enjoyed.

      Yeah. My understanding is that there’s a redesign underway and the current main page format is just an “under construction” growing pain. Temporary, anyway.

      I, too, prefer Kerouac’s novels, but it’s fair enough to say they’re poetIC if not poetry.

      In terms of beat poetry (and another who is often overlooked), I’m partial to Gregory Corso, whose sense of humor was unique among the beats and also kind of ahead of its time. Smart and wry and absurdist.

      His personal story is an interesting one, too. He taught himself how to write poetry while he was in prison.

  5. Gloria says:

    It is difficult to remember that he was not and still is not the stereotype. He was the prototype. – - Yes, exactly.

    I once wrote a whole, long narrative piece in the voice of Kerouac. Not on purpose, either, but because I had just finished On The Road and it was all burning and alive in everything I did. The rhythm of his words is infectious.

    This is a beautiful tribute to him, Becky. And yes, why not Kerouac?

    • Becky Palapala says:

      If you’re going to go Golden Calf, I say GO BIG.

      None of these esoteric, fringe characters. My idol has to be false LIKE A BOSS.

      It’s a right of passage for a lot of writers to–whether they like the beats or not–go through a beat persona phase. If that persona doesn’t make its way into one’s consciousness via the actual books and written works, I think it makes its way in just through cultural osmosis. Beat-itude moves from areas of lower to higher concentration all but inevitably.

  6. This is great, Becky. I fell into this essay right away and I can’t help but think it’s partly because you pulled off a trick, intentional or not, of mimicking some sort of Beat-style genuinely, without the cliché or pretension that the naysayers speak of.

    I read Dharma Bums first too, before any of his others, and remember that feeling that I knew and somehow had befriended these characters. The Beats mattered instantly and their seeking of beauty and truth would always nullify the critics for me.

    Here’s one line that beamed out at me“…if I could ever let down my guard enough to be aware of my first thought.”

    This is a curse of writing now (one of them anyway) that I routinely fear we’ve gone too far to correct. It might even help explain why there will never be a modern writer with Kerouac’s ballast, as you nicely put it. The first thought so often comes out loaded every time now, weighed down by the inevitable baggage, or it’s expressed with a deliberate immaturity and dullness. I do wonder if we’ll ever get back.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      So glad you enjoyed, Nat. I disregard about 90% of all compliments I receive, but never yours. Thanks.

      Self-censorship is a bitch. And it seems the more that goes before us, the more self-conscious we are about what we’re saying for fear we’ll draw complaints of hackneyism, whether for style or content.

      On the other hand, hackneyism is fucking dreadful and absolutely to be avoided. But fear of the pedestrian makes us prone to doctoring shit up that probably was at its most powerful in its raw form.

      I don’t know. It’s a terrible curse because puking all over the page is no more advisable than overproduction. As always, the gold is somewhere in the midlands, which are a hair’s-breadth wide and drop off on either side.

  7. zoe zolbrod says:

    Wonderful piece. That is all. I am going to go watch a Nirvana documentary now.

  8. kristen says:

    “If he makes you uncomfortable, if his ubiquity unsettles you, if his devotees make you embarrassed, it might be for what you see of your secret self in them.”

    Yup. Holds true for pretty much all things/interests in life, I reckon. Source of discomfort=cause for deeper look.

    Enjoyed this–thanks.

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