"Who talks with the Absolute salutes a Shadow
Who seeks himself shall lose himself"

                    -Richard Eberhart

By Tom Hibbard

The middle of the 20th Century-1950-could be viewed as an end of the Modernist era in American literature and the beginning of a new generation of writers. Though there are many overlapping dates of birth and death-Ezra Pound for instance outlived Kerouac-and many other exceptions besides, the dates of publication of major works seem to fit at least to some degree into this schematic. Part of the weight of it is due to the remarkable parallel between the development of literature and the development of science in the 1900s.

Quantum theory and relativity, the discovery and description of the infinitely beautiful and mysterious structure of the universe characterized the first half of the century. The power of the atom, the astonishing origins and properties of sub-atomic matter, black holes were the intense themes of the second half.

The rigorous, probing early works of Pound, Eliot, Joyce, Stein and Hemingway--parallel also to the other arts-like science, focused on structure, anomaly, temporality, simplicity, invisibility and non-linear interaction ("contingent" action). In a systematic manner, these writers sought an art outside plot and compulsory surface rendering. They sought metaphysical territories of psyche and perception. They sought forgotten worlds reflected in momentary impressions; they questioned unassailable form and structure and found a release of momentous light from subliminal fragments. Pound's Cathay, from which Eliot took the idea of "objective correlatives" and applied it to contemporary society, was published in 1915. The Wasteland itself was published in 1922. Hemingway's pared, emotionally-referential style of writing that first appeared in the Nick Adams short stories was developed in Paris in the twenties. Joyce's Ulysses was first published in Paris also in 1922.

Rather than discord between the generations of writers, there was surprising continuation. Kerouac often mentions Pound with respect, as in for example the opening paragraphs of The Subterraneans published in 1959. Alan Ginsberg in a well-known Paris Review interview said to Pound, "You started it all," meaning Pound's revival of Greek forms, archetypes, trans-national myths, language experiments, use of interdisciplinary and multi-media ideas. The Beats--along with the American Post-Modernists--followed the earlier generation's radical aesthetics of "deep structure" and mystery, developing these to the point where "facticity" and the intangible mixed into a dramatic essence. The writers became themselves creators, inventing "cosmologies" that comprised normative, axiomatic realities but whose fundamental structures were singularities based on the self. They became gods of their own fantastical yet truthful worlds, and, indeed, the Beat world of the '50s was in part the intentional creation of Beat writing.

Throughout this time, language was affected. As the medium of an intellectual realm more and more directed toward paradox and mystery, "standard" language grew supercharged with limitless shattered freedom. Language became science. Brilliance and miraculousness were identified as qualities of reality, and so anything less (or more) than brilliance or miraculousness was distorting. Scientific discoveries, according to Werner Heisenberg, forced physicists "to use an ambiguous rather than an unambiguous language." Subjectivity caused truth to be measured, in part, in a cumulative effect rather than with unvarying absolute authority. Art critic, Donald Kuspit, writes that, "[The idea of relativity in art] signal[ed] an expanded sense of the possibilities and effectiveness of art-an expanded sense of the meaning of creativity...." This increase of possibilities, at the expense of "concrescence," Kuspit calls "poetry" ("the poetry of becoming"). Throughout the 20th century, knowledge and language shifted from an undisturbed confidence in the materiality of objects to more anxious and incomplete poetic conceptualizing.

Kerouac was a pioneer in this sort of atomic writing. His prose, filled with jazz-style improvisation, made-up words, errant punctuation, endless breathless, evocative, more meaningful phrases and sentences was inherently poetic. "Writing the mind," according to Ginsberg, defined poetry. Rule number ten in Kerouac's manifesto of spontaneous Bop prose was: "No time for poetry but exactly what is." But in a quantum, anti-totalitarian universe, "exactly what is" had become elusive and unpredictable. In both a somewhat strict literary sense and the sense of its being prophetic, far-reaching, searching out future life, everything that Kerouac wrote was on the order of poetry, from Visions of Cody to Some of the Dharma (published in 1997). Often his prose was more poetic than his poetry. In the introduction to Pomes All Sizes (1992), Ginsberg flatly says of Kerouac, "He was a Poet."

Take as an example the long, languid opening monologue of Desolation Angels, that fabulous document of young Beats misbehaving in public, putting their humanity on display for the benefit of a society experiencing its own hidden, barbarous humanness before shocked and terrified eyes. Here is the delicate, spontaneous, accurate opening page:

Those afternoons, those lazy afternoons, when I used to sit, or lie down, on Desolation Peak, sometimes on the alpine grass, hundreds of miles of snowcovered rock all around, looming Mount Hozomeen on my north, vast snowy Jack to the south, the encharmed picture of the lake below to the west and the snowy hump of Mt. Baker beyond, and to the east the rilled and ridged monstrosities humping to the Cascade Ridge, and after that first time suddenly realizing "It's me that's changed and done all this and come and gone and complained and hurt and joyed and yelled, not the Void" and so that every time I thought of the void I'd be looking at Mt. Hozomeen (because chair and bed and meadowgrass faced north) until I realized "Hozomeen is the Void-at least Hozomeen means the void to my eyes"- Stark naked rock, pinnacles and thousand feet high protruding from hunch-muscles another thousand feet high protruding from immense timbered shoulders, and the green pointy-fir snake of my own (Starvation) ridge wriggling to it, to its awful vaulty blue smokebody rock, and the "clouds of hope" lazing in Canada beyond with their tittlefaces and parallel lumps and sneers and grins and lamby blanks and puffs of snout and mews of crack saying "Hoi! Hoil earth!"-the very top tittermost peak abominables of Hozomeen made of black rock and only when storms blow I don't see them and all they do is return tooth for tooth to storm an imperturbable surl for cloudburst mist-Hozomeen that does not crack like cabin rigging in the winds, that when seen from upsidedown (when I'd do my headstand in the yard) is just a hanging bumble in the illimitable ocean of space--

What Kerouac attempts to establish in the "Beat" books that he wrote during the early fifties which were published in the late fifties and early sixties is a free-form multi-cultural perspective of American society reduced (in the sense of the word from abstract art) to an ethical, spacious logos of the "in-itself" in place of an obstructive, defiled logos of self-justification. Kerouac is arguing, on utilitarian grounds, for a spiritual rather than a material basis of society. Accordingly, his portrait is fast-moving, non-judgmental and suggestive. It foregoes doctrinal religious teaching for a provisional eclectic type of more direct, make-shift symbolic religious philosophy with which it is able to explore the fabric of existence to its fullest extent. The reason for its poetic style is that it wants to avoid indoctrinating credos and hang-ups; instead, opening doors, prospects and minds to the bright, exciting unlikeliness and prodigality of life and, in Derrida's words, "to support pluralism as the structure of Being." Like the Modernists, Kerouac and the Beats aimed to rocket past iconic form and principle that attracted stagnation and brutality and present life's content as it is, in continual motion, unbiased, dazzling, endless, unencumbered of embellishment and routine, inimical toward false or deceptive motives.


Kerouac's most widely acknowledged poetry collection is Mexico City Blues published in 1957. Mexico City Blues is a book of 242 "choruses" of words, neatly written--as is all of Kerouac's writing--on the model of improvised music, using free association, automatic writing, varied intuitive forms and connotative meanings and often nonsense phrases and words. Each chorus is a page long. The poems were first written in Mexico in 1953 during a visit with William Burroughs. According to legend, every day Kerouac entered the broken-down toilet at Burroughs' apartment building, shot up heroin and wrote a chorus. At the time, Kerouac was doing well, getting paid for various pieces of work and receiving a monthly check from the National Academy of Arts and Letters. He was corresponding with many friends and several editors. including Malcolm Cowley. The poems were an unplanned project that (the first draft of which) he completed in a matter of weeks. To Kerouac at the time, their most important quality was "lingual spontaneity." Of this style he wrote to Ginsburg, "...I don't want it arbitrarily negated by secondary emendations made in time's reconsidering backstep." But as much as Kerouac insisted on uncensored first impressions, Mexico City Blues must have been hugely rewritten, since it was originally only 150 separate poems and ended up being 242 connected choruses.
One of those, Chorus 210 begins:

Impressionism.  The drowned afternoon
       along the sunny carnival --
Trees waving over rock walls
       of drowned scummers --
Glutted bloatbellies blue as the bay
       scummed in tangle raft --

In my view, it's a misconception to think of Mexico City Blues as an amiable joi-de-vivre holiday, an uninhibited Impressionist picnic in the country. Though a carnival afternoon of trees and rock walls might be the subject of an Impressionist painting, like many American writers (and movie makers) Kerouac's entire body of writing is broadly influenced by German Expressionism. Kerouac's writing is Expressionist. Originally developed in Germany prior to World War I, flourishing during the post-war period of the Weimar Republic, viciously suppressed under Fascism (only because the Fascists coveted its graphic effectiveness for their propaganda machine), and reinvented in an abstract form in New York in the 1950s, Expressionism is a holistic type of aesthetic that artistically depicts Mankind's deep discomfort and manic hopes in the shadowy so-called "real" but actually "unreal" world. Often unusual apocalyptic signs-earthquakes, storms--are part of its content. Rather than naturalistic Impressionist verdure, Expressionist verdure is tangled and threatening or protective and alert. Houses are off-center and frail. Quite clearly, the above quoted lines are more Expressionist than Impressionist, with the afternoon "drowned," trees walled out and "blue" people bloated and glutted.

Kerouac's radioactive, anguish-filled, heroin-lit Times Square planet is easily identified with Brechtian Expressionist squalor. Like the running man looking over his shoulder in the opening sequences of Truffaut's film Shoot The Piano Player, Kerouac's special mode of Expressionism highlights desperate restlessness. Living in a seductive, paranoid nightmare of quick fixes, crime, gaudy flashing lights of delusion and facade, Kerouac finds no sure door that opens to refuge and rest. Every step is along the abyss. Kerouac's Expressionism is based on an unabated survivalist flight from Death.

I know that I'm dead
I won't camp.  I'm dead now.
What am I waiting for to vanish?
   The dead dont vanish?
       Go up in dirt?
How do I know that I'm dead.
   Because I'm alive
      and I got work to do
         Oh me, Oh my,
            Hello -- Come in --

(from Chorus 235)    

What is Death? It is the genetically stereotypical misleading push-or-pull landscape insisting on its contentment to the point of betrayal. It is the Western Lands of Burroughs' book of the same name, of boa constrictors, hamburger joints, lethal poisons and artificial eyes. It is the overcrowded land of absence, where the me is always and only the not-me, "was afraid of myself simply/ and afraid of everyone else." It's the incontestable unknown. It's the cow jumping over the moon with goofballs and unconscious, black-out encounters. It's "America Madhouse." It's "Charlie Chaplin / dancing in moral turpitude / playing Bluebeard killer / on ass-kiss couches." It is "languid junky speech with lidded eyes." It's the stifled stilted land of the midnight scream.

Propey, Slopey, Kree.
Motey, slottey, notty,
Potty, shotty, rotty, wotty,
Salty, grainy, wavey,
Takey, Carey, Andy

I want to emphasize that Mexico City Blues, despite it's free form and "lingual spontaneity," is far from uninhibited or even confessional. Although for Kerouac erasing troubling subject matter is forbidden, inserting qualifying commentary is acceptable. In a perilous Dantesque underworld journey, Kerouac is constantly watchful, poker-faced, closed-mouthed, armed with an array of strategies. If Kerouac offers a new poet-poetry paradigm, it is one that foregoes pleasing patronizing advice for the reader and candidly makes its way directly into the claustrophobic heart of the mystery. "(BLANK, the singer / sings nothing.)" On a secret mission of high stakes, Kerouac gives dishonesty what is dishonesty's and the angels above the rewarding wisdom that belongs only to eternity. Where is the other side of the coin? What is the good news? The good news is that someone (Kerouac) is making this sort of special journey, facing death, refuting it, uncovering it and showing it for the worthlessness that it is, in the process holding onto something of much greater value. The opposite of Death is creativity, excitement, poetry. "Everything's perfect dear friend."

You don't have to worry bout death.
Everything you do, is like your hero
The Sweetest angelic tenor of man
Wailing sweet bop
On a front afternoon
When not leading the band
And every note plaintive,
Every note Call for Loss
        of our Love and Mastery --
        just so, eternalized --

(from 114th Chorus)

Expressionism is always about change. What journey is worthwhile that ends where it begins, without obtaining or gaining anything? Kerouac's underworld journey is to immortality, but it is also of immortality, a scientific expedition, begun with an hypothesis but without presumption. It can't presume God or favor any pre-existing religion. Death is too strong, too overpowering, too omnipresent an adversary for that. Kerouac excitedly jumps from religion to religion, with only one law of radical self-questioning. His 242 choruses do not tell a tale; each chorus retells the same tale, of infinite loneliness, infinite ignorance. Kerouac's vision is not utopian; rather it uncovers categories of hidden data that vastly alter our idea of realism. The face of virtue remains sacred and saintly, but the journey is a degrading bottleneck and war in shapless infinity.

Kerouac, in his admitted "unspeakable" scrapes and faux pas that often leave him scarred and prostrate, with many broken bones and dreams, far from an isolated, totalitarian, pure religious image, proceeds from a remote, conceptual spiritual picture to a faithful, sharply discerned, empirical parousia. Kerouac's presentation of himself is that of participant rather than observer. He is variously a sensational success, a disgusting failure, an only friend, a formidable opponent, a childlike Catholic acolyte, a mystic Buddhist, an irreverent defiler. Kerouac, using the words of Hannah Arendt, "bridges the gulf separating a religious culture from the secular world we live in." There is nothing outside the infinite. Mexico City Blues is a song of the age-old journey from the one to the many, from the capricious authority of form to the autonomous strength of Being and understanding, from flesh to free will. It is the journey of civilization, of secularism-of "socialized men" evolving into existence. Laughing at death but repelled by suicide, Kerouac's lasting works-both his prose and his poetry--carry the silken thread of human life and all the poetic butterflies of its mysterious origins.


Kerouac's novels-his convincing epistles, disembodied ghost tales, tragic battles of love and blindness, childhood brushes with the evil one-are his best, most dedicated works. But his poetry is an interesting body of work also. His raucous haikus, written with others, give a sense similar to the Great Depression of a generation of Americans active and migratory. In poems like "Heaven" or in Scattered Poems, Kerouac helpfully restates his general themes in a way that, as he says, he is able to say whatever he wants. These poems contain biographical information or illuminating phrases useful in assessing what he is doing overall. Scripture of The Golden Eternity is similar to Eliot's Four Quartets, both being attempts at a poetry entirely abstract, philosophical and fervently spiritual.

Pomes All Sizes, published in the Pocket Poets series of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights books in San Francisco in 1992, is an important piece in the puzzle of Kerouac's oeuvre. There are some new destinations, such as Berkeley and the Bowery. The "Buddhas of Old" are more famous and have their own names and own poems. The poetry is more clearly directed, as though Kerouac felt more sure of his intent. Hobos and flop houses play a larger part, as in "In his declining years Dr. Sax was an old bum living in Skid / Row hotel rooms in the blighted area of SF around 3rd / Street-He was a mad haired old genius now..." In fact, in his declining years Kerouac lived in Florida with wife and mother in a house he owned.

In San Francisco Blues and the Book of Blues, relatively recently published in the 1990s, Kerouac senses the roots of coming worlds in crumbling urban areas. Robert Frank's photographs in The Americans, published in 1958, portray the nation in a moment of reflection staring into the gloom ahead. In criticism, Kerouac and his pals are seen as part of a new generation. In truth they existed in the cracks between generations, outside of time. Kerouac's vision is less of specifics in the future than of a humanity unencumbered of the madness of a reflected man-made legitimacy. "You see there / in the Vines and Berkelies / is projected by the spectral / Honogrank Machine." The vision itself weighs upon us. From liberating hill-tops of embarkation, the bluesy, full-blown all-night café-radio of rotting hotels makes its point that, despite being hideously surrounded and bound, a new millennium is slowly, somehow finding its way into existence. Kerouac catches the (non)message in lines such as

San Francisco is too sad
Time, I cant understand
Fog, shrouds the hills in
Makes unshod feet so cold
Dayblack in the white windows
And gloom in the pain of pianos,
Shadows in the jazz age
Filing by...

Or in these widely selected lines from McDougal Street Blues (New York)

The goofy foolish
   Human parade
Passing on Sunday

On Sixth Ave and 4th
Sits Bodhisattva Meditating
In Hobo Rags
   Praying at Joe Gould's chair
For the Emancipation

He offers his hand & feet
   To the passers by
And nobody believes

   One moment less than this
Is future Nothingness Already

The Chess men are silent, assembled
   Ready for funny war--    

They are strolling to
                   Their death
Watching the Pictures of Hell
Eating Ice Cream 
                   of ignorance

But I can't write, poetry,
    just prose

Poetry is immoral. In Pomes All Sizes are the memorable lines from "Running Through-- / Chinese Poem Song", "-Men need wine / & poetry / at least."

For Modern China preens
        In virtue too
          for no better reason
             than America-
Nobody has respect for the cat
     asleep, and I am hopelessly
            inadequate in this poem
           --Nobody has respect
             for the self centered
             irresponsible wine invalid
            --Everybody wants to be strapped
             In a hopeless space suit
                 where they can't move
                 --I urge you, China
                    go back
                         to Li Po &
                            Tao Yuan Ming

We need wine and poetry....Do we have them? Do we have any idea what they are?