25/6-28/6/06 , rewritten August, 2006
Weymouth & Melbourne
Dear Bernard, Regarding your day of Kerouac synchronicity & scores has me thinking of the way Kerouac entered my life. The first Kerouac I ever saw & purchased was Big Sur, a Mayflower-Dell pb, found right under my nose amongst the general literature, thrillers, romances, in the tiny kiosque I was required to work in, on the tourist deck of the then Sitmar Line's flagship, Fairstar, late September, 1965. Just as I'd been disbelieving of the hoo-hah around the Albert Hall poetry reading earlier that year --one of those "almost" experiences because I was working on the railways in London and could have attended-- so was I suspicious of Big Sur's lurid blurb, "the story of the crack-up of the King of the Beats"! However, I enjoyed it and the clincher was the fantastic sound poem at the end of the book, Kerouac's transcription of the ocean at Big Sur... Back home from the voyage (Southampton to Australia via Suez, Aden returning via Singapore, Colombo, Aden & Naples) I researched the Beats at our beloved Reference Library at the Civic Centre and began hunting for Kerouac & Co. around the new & secondhand bookshops in town.
I found On The Road on a stall in Kingsland Square Market; The Dharma Bums somewhere in St Mary's Street; new editions of Lonesome Traveller, Visions of Gerard, & Burroughs' Dead Fingers Talk at the Paperback Parade, bottom of East Street & adjacent to the Tech & the Art College in the Docks area.
In 1964 I made the momentous discovery of Whitman's Leaves of Grass in an 1896 hardback pocket edition on the pavement table outside Gilbert's! When I read Ginsberg later on I immediately sensed Whitman as his progenitor. Whitman was my daily companion when I sailed for Melbourne on the migrant ship Fairsky in 1966.
On the family summer-holiday on the Isle of Wight in 1965, prior to my voyage on the Fairstar, Uncle Dennis (Bean), Dad's step-brother, gave me a copy of the first issue (Autumn, 1952) of Perspectives , which I thought a wonderful American literary mag (and in retrospect I've realized it had to be since it was probably doing its cultural-political bit in those first years of the Cold War), containing poems & prose by William Carlos Williams. The poems astonished me (they included Proletarian Portrait, Poem /"so much depends", This Is Just To Say /"I have eaten the plums")! I hardly believed they were "poems" at all coming as I was from an enthusiastically consumed diet of DH Lawrence & the school syllabus of Chaucer, Shakespeare,R. Browning et al! I remember discussing the poems with you --it seemed like the simplest sentences had been rearranged vertically and called poems! We were shocked, amused, delighted by the simplicity. I tried my own hand at the style --wrote 20 or 30 in a day-- they werent any good but at least the cat was out of the bag...
In Southampton I looked for WCW at the Civic Centre Library but could only find Charles Williams. Had I not been exposed to WCW, Charles wouldnt have seemed a dud, and it wasnt until the late 1980s that I read him again (in the context of the Arthurian mythos & the Inklings I was happilly researching for myself & to stock at the Shop). But you came home one night from work with WCW's Kora, Or a Season in Hell, snaffled at Gilbert's, the best bookshop (new & secondhand) in town. Later you brought home Paterson , in the Macgibbon & Kee edition, which you must have ordered specially. Paterson, of course, carried dedications & material for Allen Ginsberg whom we'd read in the Penguin Modern Poets series, in the volume with Corso & Ferlinghetti. In retrospect, what a marvellous period of literary discovery, characterized by the displacement by the new Americans of the British & European (mostly French) writing we'd thrived on previously. Important to state here that the Beats were slotting into the place made by the following American writers (I quote from the lists I have from 1965-66) : Faulkner, Saroyan (read as early as 1963),Baldwin, Steinbeck, Caldwell, Hemingway... That time's crucial academic critics for me were Ihab Hassan & Leslie Fiedler, and foremost of the new commentators was Norman Mailer following on from the great trailblazer Henry Miller...
The hunt for Kerouac & the Beats resumed in Melbourne after emigration in 1966. My Alladin's cave was Franklin's, the secondhander in Russell Street on the edge of Chinatown. Maggie Cassidy , The Subterraneans, Protest (the anthology juxtaposing the Beats & the Angry Young Men, to the former's obvious advantage one must say), The Village Voice Reader, all came my way in quick succession. The fuller context included Randall Jarrell, Bellow, JD Salinger... I bought Desolation Angels from the South Yarra bookshop in Toorak Road, around the corner from where I was living in Park Street (Lorin Ford's dad's boarding house as fate would have it --and that's a whole other story). There it was, the Andre Deutsch, British first-edition, in its silver dust-jacket, in the bookshop window, waiting for me! The baby of a girl-friend wet on it one day, soaking the front-cover & ruining the end-papers. Although aghast I had to accept it as a Beat annointment!
Thinking about Morley on the trio's mountain climb... Initially I accepted that the none too subtle foil he plays to his Zen-lunatic pals was all that he was, in every way the straight man. But,in retrospect, Morely actually survives the figure of irritating buffoon drawn by Kerouac, perceived by Ray. It took courage, after all, to climb the mountain by himself (a kind of punishment for his dereliction with the crank-shaft and the earlier problem with the sleeping-bag) --he accomplishes it with a humour that's somehow older & zanier than either Ray or Japhy. He isnt anxious about not climbing the summit, happy to lie on his back at the penultimate stage, content within himself. there's a nobility about him...
I wonder what you make of theBuddhism in TDB? Can you remember your impression years ago and how does it strike you now?
Dear Kris, Absolutely ages since I've written. I don't want that to be my constant plaint tho'. Or that I've been diverted --but I have-- Dad's illness having galloped on somewhat. He has leukaemia now and I don't think he knows. He told me his MDS had transformed to anaemia, the consultant informed him. But I think he misheard due to his deafness, and what the consultant actually said was leukaemia. Well, this is the Great Matter, Life & Death, that we are all involved in, which leads one to Zen --"trying to do something about 'me'!" Zen is the step one takes after psychiatry & psychology have failed according to Roshi Jiyu Kennett.
Dogen : "The most important question for all Buddhists is how to understand birth and death completely for then, should you be able to find the Buddha within birth and death, they both vanish."
Buddhism and Zen is what drew me to Kerouac. I don't think it was as early as you. First of all I bought and read Zen Flesh, Zen Bones --the Paul Reps compilation. I would quote 'stories' to everyone from it, circa 1970 --I don't have your memory for events and don't have voluminous diaries either. But about this time I was aware that something different was afoot. Different to our Western, Christian society (helped along by Jung and Hesse). My first reading of TDB would be after that. As to whether I was aware of Kerouac in the late Sixties --I don't think so. I was 20 in 1968, when I left home, and I'm sure I didn't know Kerouac then. I missed an opportunity, in 1969, to run the poetry section in a bookshop near Winchester Cathedral. Maybe if I had I'd've run into him. It seems to me that when I went to Buddhist Summer School in 1971 for a few days with my friend John, on the invitation of Patti Ellwood, his mother, I think I was aware of Kerouac. It was here I bought one of the volumes of R.H. Blythe's Haiku. I wish I'd bought the set.
I don't know what sort of meditation I was doing at the Buddhist Summer School. I just sat on cushion. Most people sat on chairs. And I don't remember the incident you've retold me of how I was still sitting on my cushion when everyone else had gone and the monk told me I could "go now"... I do remember the bell resounding, on and on, for an eternity. Then nothing. Blissed out maybe.
I follow Soto school of Zen now. That was my inclination since the mid-70s. Shikantaza = just sitting. I don't know what Japhy was doing when he sat and meditated with his eyes open, which was a revelation to Smith -- "and Japhy sat down in full lotus posture cross-legged on a rock and took out his wooden juju prayerbeads and prayed.' That is, he simply held the beads in his hands, the hands upsidedown with thumbs touching, and stared straight ahead and didn't move a bone. I sat down as best I could on another rock and we both said nothing and meditated. Only I meditated with my eyes closed." (TDB, p53.)
Hey, it's just gone five p.m. --time for my meditation/zazen. I've resumed my practice. Things are always changing. Nothing stays the same. I sit on chair now. Years on my little black cushion have ruined my left hip. But I'm just so pleased to be sitting again. Important thing is to be upright. Sitting on zafu is such a lovely feeling tho'! Not that "lovely feelings" are the point of course. Japhy obviously a young yogi to be able to manage full-lotus. I used to sit Burmese posture -- simply sitting with one leg in front of other, which I feel is no small feat in itself for me. Maybe if I can overcome hip problem through yoga I'll sit on cushion again one day. But who cares? Sitting up, lying down --do the best you can.
[posted 11 April '06] to be continued