16 November/ 30 December, 2009
I've begun watching the DVD of Richard Lerner's What happened to Kerouac? --such an inspiration when I saw it on the big screen in 1987. You remember the story --Retta & Tim caught it in Sydney, on their holiday with Anna Couani, same time as I saw it in Melbourne, and we all loved it --in my case, literally bounding the few miles home from the Valhalla cinema in Richmond --for the relief of it as much as anything --that the Beat life & literature had survived despite the tragic rise & fall of the chief protagonist, and was even now inspiring. I confess, though, the monster fan I'd been in the Sixties had taken a political hit from Kerouac's own, apparently reactionary, mouth in '69 when I read Vanity of Duluoz in Melbourne, and then received an aesthetic broadside in England, after reading Ed Dorn's comment in New American Story (Grove, 1965, bought from one of George Dowden's sales), that "Kerouac took care of all of what the informal range of the personal ruminator can do with our material. He continues to do so. I value his writing very much. But it is only partly satisfying. His syntax is quite dull. It allows the use of the 'I' only one device(...) But the limited presence is perhaps our greatest problem." (1963)
But, back to the film, what a buzz! I was totally energized, like Ray Smith emulating Japhy, running down the mountain --the method we learnt ourselves from Dad, as kids, --Isle of Wight summer holidays --to trust the momentum, without thought &, therefore, self-consciousness & fear! (And years passed before I tried that again --around Port Campbell (S.W. Victoria), goat-footed down the rocks & gullies, early '90s with Cathy. Must be time again for another such descent --which is a bit like saying, time I had another flying dream!)
Young acquaintance James Hamilton leant me the DVD --and it occurs to me he may be thinking of just such a project regarding the Melbourne '60s La Mama poetry scene --like, "What happened to Buckmaster (& Co.)?" The scope could & should be expanded, though the earlier one goes the less likely the subjects will be alive. This was underlined for me recently with the death of Alan Murphy. I'd hoped to conduct a formal (publishable) interview with him, informed by numerous chats we had when he visited the Shop --we'd reconnoitre his memories of WW2 & after, the '50s & '60s Melbourne scene, which I delightedly realized connected to my own forays, since the '80s, into alternative histories.
One of the gifts of What happened's second viewing is John Clellon Holmes' conception of Kerouac as "a prose experimenter of consequence who can be spoken of in the same breath as James Joyce." The context for Kerouac's originality, says Holmes, is "The interaction of imagination & reality [which] is the source of all literature (perhaps not the Goncourt Brothers or those Realists, Naturalists, whom no one reads) in which the personality of the author, the consciousness of the author, the point of view of the author, never gets into the book."
No shock of the new when it's enjoyed or suffered half a century of amelioration! One needs, therefore, this kind of literary reminder of Kerouac's stylistic novelty. Even I tend to normalize the style as 'talk-write', familiar now in the contemporary practice of both literature & the variety of non-fiction. But when Kerouac reads from On The Road, accompanied on piano by Steve Allen, you hear the jazz of it --and it's the music of his language, as tho' poetry, which impresses --the texture resembling the process of remembering as well, perhaps, as the way jazz is constructed.
None of that in Bukowski whose talking-writing is more or less as-it-comes but, to use blog-lingo, he's always 'on topic'. Bukowski's facility is that ear-&-tongue craft which knows & trusts to the natural succession, succinctly deployed. No associational runs or fields, nor need there be for the writer narrator he is --just what is, what happened, what happened then, & then...
I'm reminded of Bukowski's great little piece on Neal Cassady as I watch the footage of Cassady & Ginsberg at City Lights Bookstore in 1965. "his eyes were sticking out on ye old toothpicks and he had his head in the speaker, jogging, bouncing, ogling, he was in a white t-shirt and seemed to be singing like a cuckoo-bird along with the music, preceding the beat just a shade as if he were leading the parade." (Notes of a Dirty Old Man; City Lights, '69.)
In the footage, Ginsberg's stoned silly, wanting to ameliorate his friend's hostility to the young counter-culture audience. They're in front of a camera amongst a crowd you'd bet were its subscribers. Cassady ("where's the fee?" he says, as though to provoke any hippy anarchists present) can't settle. He's awkward, agitated, speedy, as if compelled to be on show --nervous as one's read of Ken Kesey or Kerouac himself come to that --nervous to express opinion. He resorts to what sounds like parody of Burroughs & Kerouac paranoia & cynicism : "All the extremists, all the civil rights, all the kids, anybody on any side(...) this is all hindsight what we're talking about --it's already too late --the Pentagon's taking care of all... they're killing us all deliberately..."
Ginsberg burbles : "Well, that's the point -- I have no idea who's running the country..." (It's only the point if running the show's important --our holy man's political shadow or his share of politics' own shadow.) As for Cassady --never an easy place to speak outside & think against the consensus. Much reason, therefore, to be jumpy.
Bukowski perceives Cassady as Kerouac's boy : "you liked him even though you didn't want to because Kerouac had set him up for the sucker punch and Neal had bit, kept biting. but you know Neal was o.k. and another way of looking at it, Jack had only written the book, he wasn't Neal's mother. just his destructor, deliberate or otherwise."
Now what a can of worms that is. Off the top of my head : the ethics of attribution however complicit or acquiescent the assignee; the double edge of exemplarity; the downside of fulfilling the mythic life however transformative its promise...
I'll close on an entirely optimistic & beautiful note --namely, the letter from Henry Miller to Kerouac's publisher at Viking, written October 5th, 1958, reproduced in the 50th Anniversary (American) edition of The Dharma Bums (Viking, '08), which Karl Gallagher, another Dharma Bum I assure you, recently showed me. (As I understand it, your British edition has Ann Douglas's introductory essay but no letter from Miller, which is a pity.)
The line we always felt existed, as far-flung readers & enthusiasts, between Henry Miller & the Beats --though aspects of Miller also obviously resonate in Bukowski : the pariah-worker novels --Miller's Molloch, for example, a first cousin of Post Office , Ham on Rye, etc. --is here joyously underlined.
The Dharma Bums was the first Kerouac novel Miller read. His letter ripples with praise with praise & enthusiasm. He's led to say that Kerouac "is the first American writer who makes me feel optimistic about the future of American letters. Whether he is a liberated individual I don't know, but he certainly is a liberated writer. No man can write with that delicious freedom and abandonment who has not practiced severe discipline." After many similar compliments, Miller concludes, "Others run out of 'material' sooner or later. Kerouac can't. He's all there is, because he's identified himself with everything, material or non-material, and with the silence and the space between. We've had all kinds of bums heretofore but never a Dharma bum, like this Kerouac. He doesn't throw dust in your eyes... he sings. "God, I love." Take hope, you lost ones --Jack's here!"
All best wishes for the New Year!
25th August, 2010
Dear Kris, Yer 'tis -- the letter that's been so long coming. I think you'll understand that I was absolutely swamped by family events. It was so difficult coping with looking after Mum as she declined following her fall last July (2009) and fracturing her left hip -- which impeded her mobility -- wheel-chair, zimmer frame and stair-lift. And then her Alzheimers.
Everything passes she said. And now she has -- April 3rd. And slowly, slowly I emerged. She released me from her for the second time. It was truly cathartic. Now I'm flowing and blossoming like never before. And I'm ready, and up for getting back to being a Dharma bum.
Having said that, I'm curtailing this correspondence for now. It certainly sustained me. Your letters kept the light flickering within me. I did tell you that it hadn't gone -- that it was still there! But now I fully understand things in my heart instead of in my head -- that poetry can save you, And what is working for me at the moment is the new initiative with my publishing. Stingy Artist Editions lives.
I've not had the head or feeling to publish anything since 1996 --14 years --& now everything --including the publishing --is flowing again. It started with my poems for Mum in July (4 Poems, i. m. Berthe Tawa). And because of that I thought of two further projects. One, for Franco Beltrametti -- a folded broadside -- two of his letters to me -- facsimile -- & two poems I'd written for him. The other publication is for dear friend Marilyn Kitchell --I wonder where she is? --a similar thing --but a folded card. In total I've got plans for a dozen or so publications between now & the end of next year. I'll be ready for 2012!
Big Dharma explosion? Where will the Bums take us? Reminds me of Franco's poem, Crucial Matters (to Robert Creeley), in Three for Nado, by Franco, which I published in 1992 :
see it in print
keep it together
give me a break
and never be done
with all of it
We'll never be done with any of it! Anyway, Dharma brothers forever!