May 31st, 2006
Dear Bernard, Two things for starters : Firstly, your pile of Buddhist literature beside TDB -- and "diverted" would be a censure were it not that our book is also a Buddhist novel or, shall we say, a novel in which 1950s Californian Buddhism is evoked; and secondly, the experience of literally sitting down to read the book...
I wrote in my notebook, "Never forget that the extraordinary amount of biography [i.e., Beat generally and Kerouac in particular] stands upon the actual words of the biography's subject. Here is that subject [Kerouac] as author. These are the words, the sentences, the pages; THIS IS THE BOOK! (May13/06)" Incidentally, I think that a famous book has the same aura as a famous poem. Lines of prose generally arent memorable as those in a poem, although there are great passages in TDB , but the aura of author & book bestows upon the words the expectation of the memorable. From another angle,one returns from the biography (which has come to parallel a particular social & cultural history) to the book & the story & the words. The whole edifice is stripped back. The opening sentence, quite formal in comparison to the confidential chat (epistolary) he largely disports, is poignantly transparent. There's more than a touch of Hemingway about it. "Hopping a freight out of Los Angeles at high noon one day in late September 1955 I got on a gondola and lay down with my duffle bag under my head and my knees crossed and contemplated the clouds as we rolled north to Santa Barbara." I did this, I did that, I did the other; that is, in order to arrive at the graceful pass this was done in that circumstance. The reader also hears the sound of his story. He's talkin' to ya!
Regarding the Buddhism : Preceeding or outside of this novel resides the story of how & where Ray Smith (Kerouac) came upon Buddhism, of a kind distinguished from but compatible with Japhy Ryder (Snyder)'s. In the novel one realizes that Beat's physical expedition , the journeys & kicks as it were, is saved by & savoured through the mystical lens. It's easy to forget this or for it to be displaced in the Proust/Joyce absorption of daily life whether reminisced, observed or cogitated. The characters strive to overcome the contradiction. Life is the practice -- Ray & Japhy are dharma bums after all -- and the point of it is self-realization & good old pilgrimage as its own justification. Concepts like salvation & revelation occur to me too but in the sense of redeeming or restoring wonder to a ransacked & mindless contemporary life.
I do agree that it's our "true calling" as you suggest! We'd be among the lost without it. Mind you, Kerouac lost it too and a book like Big Sur is as eloquent a document of self-destruction as Malcolm Lowry's Dark As the Grave... My thought in 1965 or so was that my life should be devoted to the search for truth and that one had to go out into the world, away from hometown, to discover it. Travel related to encountering & experiencing the unfamiliar. I was learning about hitch-hiking before I'd heard of Kerouac's (Japhy's words actually) "ruck- sack revolution". And as children we both knew about India (the Budhha, brahmans, the Hindu stories, yoga etc) & about China & Japan from Dad, inheriting his references (the Upanishads, Paul Brunton for example) ahead of anything from or about the Beats.
I do think of you as the "Abbot of Goldy Abbey" in all seriousness! "Poet" is also a matter of self-appointment. The fancy, "abbot", more truly describes your life than anything else and that's surely the point? You are willing to bear the real burden which the fantasy imposes. Ditto, poet -- after & because of which the mystery gradually opens up to one. Your extensive reading in Buddhism and many years of various meditation practice in your sangha of one confirm your title! "Goldy Abbey" -- amongst all that Weymouth bucket & spade who could guess what was going on in Goldcroft Road? Rather like Dad's secret life in Shelley Road, Thornhill when we were growing up -- who would have guessed the yoga, the trances, the vegetarianism, the interest in UFOs & astral travel? A great pity he didnt relate to our expeditions when we got to adolescence...
A NOTE ON & ABOUT KO UN
31/5/06 When you mentioned Ko Un to me one time, I confused him with the Korean poet published by Forest Books,London -- I thought we had two of his titles in the Shop. I checked & saw we had two other Korean poets, Kwang-ku Kim & Ku Sang, both translated by Brother Anthony of Taize. Then, synchronistically, I found Ko Un in the new University of California catalogue, his Selected Poems with, as you say, Snyder's introduction. When David Prater, who edits Cordite magazine, on-line nowadays, came by the Shop one day he told me he'd recently returned from tremendously enjoyable stay in -- surprise -- Korea! I said how Korea was beginning to feature in my life, for example Kris Coad's selection for the international ceramic award in Seoul, and then your interest in Ko Un. His eyes lit up! On this & subsequent occasion he's described Ko Un's unique standing in Korea, and Brother Anthony's work there.
5/6/06 Visited Ko un's & Brother Anthony's web-sites this morning before hurrying through winter fog & cold to the train -- both of them appear to be remarkable men. Brother Anthony, for instance, is now a naturalised Korean, still with the Taize community & teaching at Sogang University. Ko Un's statement on his life & poetics is unusual & attractive. He doesnt believe in the poem as a text but as belonging to the universe. (An echo of Olson there, "a thing of nature" & etc.) His poetry, he says, relates to the present & not to any literary history. (And yet very early in his Selected he's referring to Han Shan...)
18th June, 2006
Dear Kris, I was sitting-up in bed early this morning with "our book", reading, at about 5.30 a.m. I suppose, by rights, as Abbot of Goldy, I should have stirred even earlier to "do" zazen, set a good example, but early morning zazen never suited me. And, of late, zazen doesn't suit me full stop. It's something about that upright posture. It is posture and not the concentration. It's a pity. A pity, also, I don't have a sangha about me. I don't want to be too secret. Don't want to be as isolated as Dad was. The trance visions he saw were too much to bear by himself. So he stopped. I think he stopped as soon as he saw the emenations of devils appearing out of his skull. And also maybe his chakras were too open due to vibration of Om chanting. I don't know. It's not really my area. I did mention the UFO stuff to him the other day. "What about George Adamski?" I asked him. (He had the book, Inside the Space-ships .) But he agreed it had been a false trail. In fact all his "interests" disappeared and he was not to lead us anywhere in life. Though probably my ongoing interest in yoga & vegan diet stem from him. And of his children I probably take the most from him...
I must tell you about a great synchronicity that occurred the other day. Mum & I caught the early Jurassic Coast bus to Bridport and I took The Dharma Bums along with me in case I needed to have a little read during the day. It proved to be talismanic. I called into the second-hand bookshop I always look in on and what do I find among all the usual books (no one buys from the poetry section) but Mexico City Blues, Grove Press, only L3.50p. I don't have it in my collection. I was ecstatic. Then, on way home, back in Weymouth again, staring me in the face in W.H.Smith's are a pile of copies of Big Sur -- this time only 99pence! Brand new paperback. What a successful day. A great trip. Mind you, I'd rather be with Japhy & Ray, where I am in our book, hiking up Matterhorn, composing haiku as I go...
(to be continued)