Jack Kerouac Recuerdo
Jack Kerouac was born one hundred years ago on March 12 of this year. When On the Road was published in 1957, the press lauded and disparaged him as the voice of the Beat Generation, giving far less attention to his abilities as a writer. In 1969, like his father before him, Kerouac died an alcoholic’s death in midlife and poverty. Within a few years, On the Road was a best seller, and I was one of many in my generation who saw some part of themselves in Kerouac’s restless characters searching for meaning.
In the pandemic shutdown, having drifted into reading Zen masters and commentators, I discovered a copy of Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums in a box in the back of my closet and read it for the first time. The novel is the story of two seekers. Ray, based on Kerouac himself, admires and trails after Japhy, inspired by the Zen poet Gary Snyder. Together they roam the hills north of San Francisco and backpack in the Sierras. They roam, too, through Zen philosophy and dabble freely in the practices of Eastern religions, most consistently, meditation and chatting—Kerouac’s energetic gush of words taking the reader along moment by moment.
When non-essential places of business began to open up, one of the first places I went to was my local, homey, second-hand bookstore where I found a first edition, paperback of Kerouac’s Visions of Cody, published three years after his death. The first half of the book has been described as a collection of essays, but reads like (and probably is) excerpts from Kerouac’s writing journals. While still at the bookstore, I perused The Portable Kerouac and was disappointed that his poetry does not embody the passion and urgency of his prose. Yet, as in his novels, sections of many of the entries in Visions of Cody are indeed poetic, which is made all the more obvious when the words are arranged in the traditional form, as I have done below (with the removal of two phrases that are asides).
SO I SIT IN JAMAICA, LONG ISLAND in the night,
—happens to be fog—distant low of a klaxon moaning horn—
sudden swish of locomotive steam, either that or crash of steel rods—
a car washing by with the sound we all know from city dawns—
Far, far away a nameless purling or yowling of some kind
done either by a train on a steel curve or skidding car—
grumble of a truck coming—small truck, but has whistle tires in the mist—
a double “bop bop” or “beep beep” from railyards,
maybe soft application of big Diesel whistle by engineer
to acknowledge hiball-on-air from brakeman or car knocker
–-the sound of the whole thing in general
when there are no specific near-sounds is of course sea-like
but almost the sound of the living structure,
so as you look at a house you imagine
it is adding its breathing to the general loud hush—
ever so far in the hush, you can hear a tiny SQUEE of something,
the nameless asthmas of the throat of Time—
In particular, Kerouac’s phrase, “we all know,” speaks to me. In each of his works, in addition to characters and events I know nothing of in my own life, Kerouac chronicles the lives of ordinary people in scenes I recall—clothes rippling on the lines in backyards, iron cellar sidewalk doors we walked over, soda fountains with marble counters, stores that sold sheet music—evoking the memory of a time when the world was quiet, even at certain hours of the day for those who lived in the city. It seems to be something no one remembers now. It was quiet in the homes and the stores and even the streets, which were not yet invaded by the non-stop transmission of disembodied voices and music over the roar of the traffic.
Kerouac’s writing is a testimony to that quiet, when you could hear yourself think things only that kind “hush” elicits. Similarly, in the pandemic, when the cities and small towns across the world were quieted, people began to reflect on what mattered to them. Living alone, I kept company with writers who themselves were seekers. In his last years, Kerouac espoused the Catholicism of his upbringing. Nonetheless, his observations consistently exhibit the Zen values of non-attachment and compassion, values not exclusive to Zen, but certainly essential to writing that stands the test of time.
Notes: SO I SIT IN JAMAICA, LONG ISLAND, from Visions of Cody, Jack Kerouac, McGraw-Hill, 1972, p. 9-10
Author k.k.mills has written and directed five plays and a two-woman show in which she appeared. She has also published poems and a personal essay. Mills taught English and theatre at a liberal arts college on the San Francisco Peninsula for over twenty years. She is currently working on an historical novel.