Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Faber Book of Modern Verse

Here are the poets included in The Faber Book of Modern Verse, edited by Michael Roberts (1936 edition):

Gerard Manley Hopkins
W.B. Yeats
T.E. Hulme
Ezra Pound
T.S. Eliot
Harold Monro
Conrad Aiken
Marianne Moore
Wallace Stevens
Vachel Lindsay
D.H. Lawrence
Isaac Rosenberg
Wilfred Owen
Herbert Read
John Crowe Ransom
Allen Tate
Hart Crane
e.e. cummings
Laura Riding
Robert Graves
Edith Sitwell
Sacheverell Sitwell
Richard Eberhart
Peter Quennell
William Empson
C. Day Lewis
W.H. Auden
Louis MacNeice
Stephen Spender
James Reeves
Charles Madge
George Barker
Dylan Thomas
Clifford Dyment
David Gascoyne

This book was my introduction to modern poetry, although the edition I had was the second one, co-edited by Anne Ridler (1951), and I don't recall what additions there were, except for F.T. Prince. Also, Kathleen Raine, maybe. Hugh MacDiarmid? David Jones? Keith Douglas? Dunno. I just got a copy of the 1936 edition, ninth impression, from Amazon UK, for £1.00, plus postage. It is inscribed: Marjorie E. Birol, Charing Cross Road, 15/7/44. Dear Marjorie, Hello. Where are you now? In my heart.

I was in my late teens when I got the paperback edition of the 1951 version of The Faber Book of Modern Verse. What did I know? Not much.

When I was ten, I got a scholarship to go to Bishop Gore Grammar School for Boys. Dylan Thomas had gone to Bishop Gore, long before. I lasted only two years before being asked to leave, else I would be expelled. While I was a student there, I was obliged to memorize this:

Abou Ben Adhem

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An Angel writing in a book of gold:

Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the Presence in the room he said,
"What writest thou?" The Vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord
Answered, "The names of those who love the Lord."

"And is mine one?" said Abou. "Nay, not so,"
Replied the Angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerily still; and said, "I pray thee, then,
Write me as one who loves his fellow men."

The Angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And, lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest!

-- James Leigh Hunt

My next stop was Dynevor School for Boys, better suited to working class ragamuffins such as I, better than the toffee-nosed Bishop Gore. Didn't do me or Dynevor much good, though. I was always getting arrested by the cops, for one thing. They weren't too happy about that at Dynevor. I dropped out, eventually. We had one English teacher named Brynley Cox, who was obsessed with Alice in Wonderland. Mr Cox had a long nose with glasses hanging on it, and he would lick his lips almost lasciviously as he read aloud. The boys would would count his licks aloud, and he would either be oblivious, or he would pretend to be oblivious. The school joke was, "There are 23 masters (teachers) at Dynevor; 22 without Cox." I really learned a lot. I did have one English teacher who was encouraging, Sam Bassett. Sam was a giant of a man, married to a tiny woman. My marks (scores/grades) for both the term and exams in English Language and English Literature were always perfect, or near perfect. Everywhere else there would be zeroes, because I wouldn't have been there. I really learned a lot. The last essay I wrote at Dynevor was on the history of rock'n'roll, which barely had a history (as a pop phenomenon) at that point. Sam gave me ten out of ten. Sam was a very nice man. But I really didn't need encouragement. I didn't give a fuck.

I loved music and movies. Movies brought me to books. And I was off to the races. After I'd started work, unloading trucks in the British Home Stores yard, I began to buy books, American fiction mostly. As far as poetry was concerned, there was always the omnipresent Dylan. Then, in my late teens, I bought the Faber paperbacks of T.S. Eliot's Selected Poems and Four Quartets, after I'd gotten the drift that Eliot was the modern poet. I was writing fiction at that time, stories and attempts at novels. After reading Eliot, I wrote some (dreadful, no doubt) pastiches of Eliot + Dylan and who knows what else.

There is so much that could be said about Dylan Thomas, but I'll be as succint as possible. First, here is Kenneth Rexroth in Disengagement: The Art of the Beat Generation (for New World Writing, 1957):

Now Dylan Thomas and Charlie Parker have a great deal more in common than the same disastrous end. As artists, they were very similar. They were both very fluent. But this fluent, enchanting utterance had, compared with important artists of the past, relatively little content. Neither of them got very far beyond a sort of entranced rapture at his own creativity. The principal theme of Thomas’s poetry was the ambivalence of birth and death — the pain of blood-stained creation. Music, of course, is not so explicit an art, but anybody who knew Charlie Parker knows that he felt much the same way about his own gift. Both of them did communicate one central theme: Against the ruin of the world, there is only one defense — the creative act. This, of course, is the theme of much art — perhaps most poetry. It is the theme of Horace, who certainly otherwise bears little resemblance to Parker or Thomas. The difference is that Horace accepted his theme with a kind of silken assurance. To Dylan and Bird it was an agony and terror. I do not believe that this is due to anything especially frightful about their relationship to their own creativity. I believe rather that it is due to the catastrophic world in which that creativity seemed to be the sole value. Horace’s column of imperishable verse shines quietly enough in the lucid air of Augustan Rome. Art may have been for him the most enduring, orderly, and noble activity of man. But the other activities of his life partook of these values. They did not actively negate them. Dylan Thomas’s verse had to find endurance in a world of burning cities and burning Jews. He was able to find meaning in his art as long as it was the answer to air raids and gas ovens. As the world began to take on the guise of an immense air raid or gas oven, I believe his art became meaningless to him. I think all this could apply to Parker just as well, although, because of the nature of music, it is not demonstrable — at least not conclusively.

I've no idea to what extent I might agree or disagree with this, but what is undeniable is that Dylan was in his way a radical poet, and he was most certainly one of the few lines of defense against the increasing conservatism and orthodoxy of British poetry.

"Dylan Thomas was made to stand for everything they detested: verbal obscurity, metaphysical pretentiousness, and romantic rhapsodizing," David Lodge, Working with Structuralism (1981).

Looking back, I see Dylan, his compatriot Vernon Watkins, David Gascoyne and Kathleen Raine as some of the few poets who were not adhering to the increasing constriction that produced the famous New Lines anthology in 1956. Dylan and Vernon had been associated to some degree with the New Apocalyptics, a self-explantory mode of poetics. Gascoyne was Britain's sole, prominent Surrealist poet, and Raine was deeply immersed in William Blake and Carl Jung.

Kathleen Raine

William Blake

Carl Jung action figure

I've looked at several Kathleen Raine poems online, looking for one that might approximate the kind of feeling I got from her work back in, say, 1959-1962. I could not find one, but that's memory for you. Raine called Vernon Watkins, "The greatest lyric poet of my generation." Vernon was from Swansea, as Dylan Thomas was, and as I was. He was a diffident man, apparently. He worked at Lloyd's Bank on St. Helen's Road. The story was that he had gone home once and left the bank unlocked. Good old Vernon. We saw him on the street many times. He must have been in his mid-forties then. We never approached him. What could he possibly have had to say to Welsh faux-beatniks? I remember his work as appealingly vague, somehow, an impression not entirely supported by what I've seen of his work recently, but not entirely reversed, either. The Dylan/Vernon letters were always a pleasure to read. What came through most was the friendship between them, and the easy ways in which they entertained each other.

Vernon Watkins by Alfred Janes

The mystery to me is David Gascoyne, the youngest poet in the original The Faber Book of Modern Verse. He always represented hope, somehow -- a British Surrealist! Other British poets who were sometimes called Surrealists did not seem like Surrealists to me, such as George Barker and Hugh Sykes Davies.

Yves Tanguy

The worlds are breaking in my head

Blown by the brainless wind

That comes from afar

Swollen with dusk and dust

And hysterical rain

The fading cries of the light

Awaken the endless desert

Engrossed in its tropical slumber

Enclosed by the dead grey oceans

Enclasped by the arms of the night
The worlds are breaking in my head

Their fragments are crumbs of despair

The food of the solitary damned

Who await the gross tumult of turbulent

Days bringing change without end

The worlds are breaking in my head

The fuming future sleeps no more

For their seeds are beginning to grow
To creep and to cry midst the

Rocks of the deserts to come

Planetary seed

Sown by the grotesque wind

Whose head is so swollen with rumours

Whose hands are so urgent with tumours

Whose feet are so deep in the sand

David Gascoyne

The mystery is why he didn't seem a good model for someone such as myself. In a peculiar way he was more distant than Paul Éluard, or even Philippe Soupault. He was no more use than Dylan was, and Dylan was no use at all. The best known Welsh poet of the 1960s, Bryn Griffiths was compared with Dylan endlessly, but there was no way to make use of Dylan, it seemed, without trying to be him. Bryn Griffiths did not do that. What he did do was emigrate to Australia, eventually.

T .S. Eliot and e. e. cummings both provided some inspiration. And Hart Crane. I didn't get Pound. I suspect that he seemed a little bit too much like the British poets of the day, with their classical educations and their allusions and their fart in a thunderstorm poems. Clearly, Pound was more than that, but whatever he was, was too much for me.

I loved Dylan and I still do, especially A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog and Return Journey; and I still have high regard for many of the poems, such as "Poem on His Birthday" and "Poem in October." I had a hard time with Dylan as a reader, he was so bombastic, with that English preacher's voice. I much preferred to hear Richard Burton read Dylan's work. We read and reread Caitlin's Leftover Life to Kill and John Malcolm Brinnin's Dylan Thomas in America -- and I'd like to read them both again now. Also, I'd like to read Brinnin's biography of Gertrude Stein, The Third Rose. Credit must go to Dylan, though, for singlehandedly reviving the oral tradition in American poetry with the tours described by Brinnin in his book. Of course, there were readings going on before that, but Dylan was really the progenitor of all those poets in Greenwich Village cafés and the avant garde of the general outbreak of poetry readings in the 1950s.

192 Caergynydd Road, Waunarlwydd

This is where I lived from aged 13 to 22, with my mother, Anne, and my sister, Synde (then named Daphne). 192 was at the bottom of a long road of row-house flats, one flat on the bottom, one on the top. Ours was the bottom flat of our segment. Our door was the one on the right. The right window was the living room. The left window was my room. The far left-window belonged to the Coopers next door. There was another bedroom which was my sister's. There was one bathroom, a kitchen, and my mother slept in the living-room.

Farrow bungalow

This is the bungalow where Marie Farrow lived with her parents and her elder siblings, a brother, John, and a sister whose name I can't recall. I fell in love with Marie in a small park, where she was hanging around with three other thirteen year old girls, Adelaide Phillips, and Rita and Jennifer Howell. I was the same age. They called me over as I walked through the park. I would never have had the nerve to just go over and chat with four strange girls. Marie and I became fast friends, especially after I corrected the words of a song Marie was singing, "Secret Love." The other girls got the words wrong, too, but it was Marie that I corrected. The girls had called me over because Adelaide was interested in one of my friends and they had wanted to quiz me about him, when they weren't singing. Marie was the only person to see the first poem I ever wrote, a pastiche of T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas and whatever. No one has ever been as impressed as Marie was that I had written a poem. She kept reading it, over and over, reading bits aloud and looking at me. The last time I saw her, ten years later, I was still in love with her.

I couldn't even get the picture straight.


This is the bungalow where Marie Farrow lived with her parents and her elder siblings, a brother, John, and a sister whose name I can't recall. I fell in love with Marie in a small park, where she was hanging around with three other sixteen year old girls, Adelaide, Rita and Jennifer. I was the same age. They called me over as I walked through the park. I would never have had the nerve to just go over and chat with four strange girls. Marie and I became fast friends, especially after I corrected the words of a song Marie was singing, "Tammy." The other girls got the words wrong, too, but it was Marie that I corrected. The girls had called me over because Adelaide was interested in one of my friends and they had wanted to quiz me about him, when they weren't singing. Marie was the only person to see the first poem I ever wrote, a pastiche of T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas and whatever. No one has ever been as impressed as Marie was that I had written a poem. She kept reading it, over and over, reading bits aloud and looking at me. The last time I saw her, seven years later, I was still in love with her.

I couldn't even get the picture straight.

So, it all comes down to this: would you prefer to think of me as someone who knew the words to "Secret Love" or as someone who knew the words to "Tammy."

The fact is that as I was writing this, I realized that my own mythology -- fell in love with Marie when I was thirteen, saw her for the last time ten years later -- was bogus. "Tammy" was the song that Marie and the girls were singing. "Tammy" was released in 1957, so it was unlikely that they were singing it when we were all thirteen, in 1954. My first reaction was to keep the personal mythology, and to substitute "Secret Love" for "Tammy." Everything else is as true as anything I know.


Lally said...

This autobio stuff is so great to read. So
satisfying and enlightening (the Gascoyne poem kicked it) I knew of all the poets except Raines, (one of the quotes I posted on my blog back a ways was from a letter to Vernon Watkins from Dylan Thomas, I loved those letters when I was young and first discovered them, Lee and I named our daughter Caitlin after Dylan's wife!—and the Rexroth quote about Dylan and Bird was
surprising, I always kind of sneered at the guy because of his jealous dismissal of Kerouac, but the man was smart, no doubt, and perceptive about a lot of shit before most others, just not Jack). I could read volumes of this stuff, so please don't stop (and in writing and researching my own "memoirs" lately—as opposed to the 27 books already full of versions of my life & experience!—I discovered as you did that often my personal mythology is in conflict with the "facts" i.e. actual dates etc., but the way you shared both with us on the teenage girls and song incident was brilliant, fucking brilliant man. Can't wait to read more.

douglang said...

Thanks, Michael. The visit to Wales during which I took the photographs of 192 Caergynydd Road and the Farrow bungalow (in 1999) was a revelation in itself, regarding memory. This included the scale phenomenon -- places and things I hadn't seen since I was a kid being much smaller than I remembered them; and just faulty memory.

The personal mythology aspect left me no choice that I liked. I didn't want to sacrifice my view of my own history, wrong as it was, and I didn't want to sacrifice the facts. So, it is very gratifying that you appreciated it so much. And it is very encouraging, too, for which I thank you.

mark wallace said...

Thanks for another great post, Doug.

To me, the Rexroth take on Charlie Parker seems very weak, ignoring the vocabulary of jazz which Parker profoundly changed. Rexroth tries to turn Parker's music into some romanticized encounter with life and death that strikes me as similar to the embarrassing essentializing that Kerouac also does to black American art and culture.

Parker, in taking arrangements of notes that were considered outside the jazz vocabulary, that sounded "wrong," makes along with Ellington and Gillespie the first moves in the history of jazz that might be recognizably avant garde, "anti-jazz" in the same that way that Williams is writing "anti-poetry" and in so doing, profoundly reorganizing our notion of what counts as music. That's a hell of a lot of specific content. That there's some kind of essential spiritual, life vs. death struggle in Parker's music is something that I wouldn't rule out (clearly, one might say, Bird soars) although a struggle of that kind is much more blatant in Coltrane's approach.

mark wallace said...

Let me add, though, that in the context of its time and place, Rexroth's comment would have appeared very radical to the world of white modernist poets and literary critics. After all, it doesn't become common for white folks to consider jazz as an art as such at all for quite awhile, although some people consider it cool to have Art Tatum entertain at their parties. To have placed a musician of a less than thoroughly respected form of "popular music" up against The Great White Hope that Dylan Thomas was for some many people was something that I bet ruffled more than a few feathers.

Lally said...

Not sure what you mean Mark by Kerouac's "embarassing essentializing"..."to black art and culture"—could it be similar to Picasso's "essentializing" of African art and culture, or Gertrude Steins' of children's art & culture, or for that matter Parker's of European art & cultue (or more specifically, as all these should be, but you started it, European "classical" music) etc.? If you don't like Kerouac, you can say it, you have to belittle his accomplishment because he... what exactly, dug Parker's music and the atmosphere and spirit he found in some predominantly African-American environs like old Harlem etc.? And was way ahead of the curve both in the form and content of his books, like writing about "inter-racial" relationships, including romantic, sexual, male, female, creative, work place, etfuckingcetera. Don't mean to sound too defensive, I think Kerouac's work defends itself quite adequately, as I also do Dylan Thomas's and for that matter Parker's, who as far as I know was never accused of hitting "wrong" notes (though he may have been), rearranging the possible melody lines that could be played over standard chord changes, which "jazz" musicians had been doing for decades before him (listen to Sidney Bechet for one) but because of the rate at which he played them—that's what his contemporaries found revolutionary and instantly began to mimic. But don't get me wrong, I appreciate your stating your opinions so strongly, it made me think about mine. And it's all personal perspective and interpretation anyway, for the most part, ain't it?

mark wallace said...

Michael, thanks for your helpful reply. I like Kerouac quite a bit; he's always been a (relative) favorite writer of mine. I just don't go to him for an understanding of African American culture any more than I would go to him for an understanding of gender. I feel like I can be comfortable appreciating the significance of his contribution while criticizing a bit where it fell short.

Yes, I do think his shortcomings aren't entirely dissimilar from those of Stein, a problem that Al Nielsen wrote about in his first book. Kerouac's work is by no means dissimilar from a lot other white Modernist uses of black culture; no worse maybe, but no better either. His greater engagement with that culture in some ways, like the interracial relationship in The Subterraneans, is both ambitious relative to white racism at the time but also caught up in that racism more than he realizes. For instance, whether the whites who came on down into Harlem for kicks in the 20s deserve praise or criticism is a complicated question. So I'm not trying to grind an axe here, just saying that neither Rexroth or Kerouac is much of a jazz critic.

I would contend that the difference between Gillespie and Parker and earlier virtuosos wasn't simply a matter of speed; Art Tatum could play notes at least as quickly as either of them. It was that their progressions hadn't been part of the conventional, more lyrical notions of what jazz solos could sound like. I think "atonal" would be the fancy word. Absolutely people said they played wrong, and some people said it wasn't jazz at all. Thelonious Monk was understood that way for nearly twenty years. A book of old jazz interviews like Max Jones's Jazz Talking shows that even a lot of black musicians reacted extremely negatively to Parker and Gillespie.

In any case I appreciate your raising these issues. I'm not sure where other people stand on Rexroth and Kerouac relative to jazz and African American culture more broadly.

douglang said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
douglang said...

Thanks for this lively discussion, guys, and for the questions posed (and answered).

My main concern in including the Rexroth passage was to give some sense of what I found exciting as a young would-be writer in Wales back at that time. And, also, I wanted to put Dylan Thomas in a particular context.

I do love Rexroth, but he can be a trial. Some of his poems dealing with women make me cringe, and they would have made me cringe in 1960 (or whenever), if I'd read them then. Regarding his view of Charlie Parker, the “relatively little content,” comment does seem way off to me. His idea of Bird as a “rapturous” cultural force was more interesting to me than any specific insight into jazz that he was offering.

I must say that I’ve always thought of jazz as an avant-garde kind of music from the get-go, as a rhythm-based music that was a complete revision of “European” standards, with Parker and Monk bringing in huge, significant (and in some ways logical) shifts. No one before them had suffered the denigration that they did; even from jazz critics who went on to become quite prominent, this is totally true. Whereas Louis Armstrong’s amazing innovations were greeted with tremendous enthusiasm, as were Duke Ellington’s.

The Kerouac issues are more complicated for me. By the way, Michael, I read your post on the publication of the “On the Road scroll” at Lally’s Alley, and I was still thinking about that when I started reading these comments. I remember Norman Mailer saying he thought that Kerouac had a massively naïve and romanticized view of “negroes” – to use the term that was current when Mailer made his comment, late 1950s, I think. Mailer admired and respected Kerouac, although he had a whole list of reservations about him as a writer, including, “His rhythms are erratic, his sense of character is nil…” He described Jack as being “as sentimental as a lollipop,” but he also said, “At the best, his love of language has an ecstatic flux.”

Two points come to mind. The first has to do with overt racism versus embedded racism, which Mark raised. I do think that it’s not difficult to glean less evolved social attitudes out of Kerouac’s writing. I’ve no strong sense of Kerouac’s political persona in this regard, despite having read two biographies (Ann Charters and Tom Clark) and a lot more besides. I just don’t know. More significantly for me, I tend to agree with Mailer on the issue of character in Kerouac’s work. Kerouac was almost as rapturous in writing as Bird was in music, and I think that this factor extended to everything he wrote about. His critics (and Truman Capote) all failed to realize the extent to which Kerouac’s prose was not really literary, even though he had aspirations in that direction, as his first novel demonstrated. He was not looking for social, psychological or political depth. And that’s not to say he didn’t achieve any of that, or that he shouldn’t be held responsible for his failings. But I think he's all about that “ecstatic flux” to which Mailer referred

Lally said...

Okay guys, points taken. As for jazz, I played it as a kid and always thought that if it weren't for rascism, cats like (can't help falling into the old jargon on this subject, does that mean I'm essentializing...) Monk and Tatum or Parker and Bechet, might have been Nobel winning physicists or some other kind of high science that requires deep mathmateical knowledge and instincts, because, in the end, what they were doing with notes amounted to solving established higher math problems, or creating new ones and eventually solving them as well. The way they ran scales was totally like basic math. And Mark, you're right that there were those, especially "civilians," who thought "Bird" and "Diz" created music that sounded atonal, and those who didn't get it considered it "wrong" in some ways, but it wasn't like they didn't make it to the juke boxes of my boyhood (1940s USA) or weren't famous ("Diz" especially as the heir to Armstrong's popular image of the "jazz man" only for Diz it was more the "be bop jazz man"—his soul patch and beret and bent trumpet were everywhere, yes caricatured in many white newspapers and magazines, but mostly in a humorous and even affectionate way, despite the deep rooted racism of those times, and I suspect you would see that kind of affection as another version of "racism" like you say Kerouac was guilty of, and there's some truth in that, in the sense that "the other" was exotic and either demonized or romanticized, but having witnessed old style segregationist brutal racism up close back then and in the 1950s, I'm sure those on the receiving end would have happily accepted the romantacizing, in fact, many even encouraged it, yes, probably as a survival tactic, but I can't think of any category of humans, ethnic, "racial," religious etc. that don't do that). There were all kinds of opinions about what sounded "wrong" to various critics and groups of people in "American" popular and more esoteric music, and yes Tatum and others played "fast" (so did Teddy Williams and Lional Hampton and for that matter Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw) and all had respected chops, even if what they did with them was criticized or questioned etc. But the fact is, with three older brothers playing various horns in various "swing" bands and living outside Manhattan, in North Jersey, which was always a hotbed of musical creation, especially jazz, (tons of luminaries in the jazz world came from or ended up in Newark, Englewood, Passaic, South Orange, etc.) and in the 1950s playing "jazz" myself in Jersey as well as Manhattan, getting to know and hang with and play with older African-American ("spade" we said at the time which was the street term used by whatever the correct term is now for something that is an arbitrary social term anyway, since many "black" Americans I met back then were passing for white, and many "white" Americans obviously had some kind of mixed blood in them, Anatole Broyard anyone?) whose main comment on Bird was always, always, always, about how fucking fast he spit out notes, like no one before him. Yes, his innovative use of improvised as well as composed melody lines based on scale variations (which is what all the innovators basically have done until "free jazz" released the improviser from having to base his choice of notes on the harmonics of a particular scale, even chromatic ones, and therefore likewise and key or chords related to it) sounded to some as discordant or "noise" (my father for one) but it was still chord and key based. And as for Mailer and Kerouac Doug, I remember we always differed on them. I never dug Mailer, found him a pompous phony frankly. And almost never found his characters real, but either extensions of himself or the romanticizing or faux intellectualizing of "others" (like the Irish or "Negro"). I used to teach a short story of his about the handsome, tough, etc. Irish teacher of bullfighting (!) in lower Manhattan who gets the short, kinky-haired, ears-sticking-out (etc. an exact description of Mailer at the time) young Jewish woman to let him, well, let's say have backdoor sex with her. The characters were like cardboard symbols, to me, and obviously were a conscious or unconcious plea from the supposedly macho Mailer to be violated by his romantic image of the Irish, the same Mailer who did the most damage he ever did in a real fight, to his then wife, and with a knife if I remember correctly. I know that's not about his writing, but I always found that writing like him, full of faux intellectual innovations that didn't do anything anyone else hadn't done before or wasn't doing then and usually better, in my opinion. But Kerouac, especially now that his notebooks and letters and so on have become available at last, as well as that original roll manuscript they're calling "the scroll" was deliberately and consciously working to create a new form for the novel in which he could yes pour out his heart and soul in a sometimes romantic way, but also could address issues of spiritual and social depth and still tell a "story"—but in a way and a format that had never been seen before. Reading that scroll version today, or for that matter an earlier version of ON THE ROAD, which became VISIONS OF CODY (not published until after Kerouac died, because editors and critics and academics found it just too "wrong" but now is obviously prescient in its various techniques and approaches to prose narrative, beating almost all the avant-garde prose writers touted today by so many "intellectuals" etc. by a mile or more, both timewise and in the breadth of his "experiments") you not only encounter the kind of real life experience wisdom, as well as vulnerability and admission of failure at social interaction and attempts to bridge the racial and ethnic and economic divides of that time, but also success at doing all that in ways that no one else was doing. I mean talk about Parker or whoever, I was there, I was a kid in love with black culture and reading every book available that touched on the topic of race or race relations, and as far as fiction or poetry or even memoirs etc. there was very very very little and most of it was old fashioned stylized self aggrandisement (like Mezz Mezzrow's autobio, though it was great fun to read) (or later Lady Day's supposed "true" story as told to and written by William Duffy), or novels like Sinclair Lewis's KINGSBLOOD ROYAL or Lillian (shit I forget her name now) STRANGE FRUIT etc. All of which were totally conventional, and bore little or no resemblance to the real life experiences I was having and/or witnessing. While Kerouac's recounting of his experiences or what he witnessed, filtered through his deep sense of life's futility and brevity, and the cloud of impending doom he seemed to always be living under, was romanticized to the extent that the fleeting moments of joy were such a huge relief to his sadness at life's inequities and disappiontments and losses. But he found that joy, unlike any other novelist or poet or literary figure who came before him (at least in the USA) picking cotton until his fingers bled with a family of migrant Mexicans and migrant African-American farmworkers (hello, can you see Mailer doing that, let alone writing honestly about it) or in a relationship with a Mexican heroin-addict prostitute or accomplished African-American woman, in which he may have romanticized their ethnicity etc. and its wider implications, but no more than they did him, or people still do him. He was ahead of the curve on almost every level, including intellectual, and still, with all the proof that has come out in the last several years (in his papers etc.) of how intentional all his innovations and discoveries were, and of the almost super human effort he put into them to achieve the results that were mostly rejected, dismissed, or ridiculed, outside of the commercial success of an overly edited and revised manuscript of one version of ON THE ROAD (or worse still, the effects of his alcoholism are confused with the accomplishments of his earlier, less affected genuis). In this new unedited version of the roll ms. of ON THE ROAD, he couldn't be more honest about his own romanticizing of the road, of other cultures and categories, and yet his descriptions and dialogue are so fucking accurate, at least from my own experience, that he's really the only writer I can think of who got that time and place the way at least this reader did, either vicariously through the adults around me, including older siblngs, or on my own a few years later. I'm sure anyone growing up in the South, white and with a similar sensibility to Capote's would say the same for his writing, and maybe a Harvard educated New York (in the generic sense as well as actual location for most of his life) Jewish intellectual who spent a lot of time at literary parties and in higher social circles including among contemporary celebrities (I once was a "beard" for Mailer at a Hollywood party, posing as the boyfriend of one of his many mistresses while he introduced his current wife to everyone; I did it as a favor to the mistress, an old friend, and once again found Mailer even more phony than usual—not to confuse the man with the books but, everyone seems to do that with Kerouac and his alcoholic behavior) etc.

mark wallace said...

You're making a lot of important points, Michael. I remember meeting and talking with Joyce Johnson a few years back, when she published her collection of letters with Jack. When some of the women audience members asked her questions that implied criticisms of Kerouac (who, after Hemingway, may very well be the American writer most commonly disliked by feminists), what she said was that while Kerouac was clearly unreliable and had many other problems in his attitudes towards women, becoming involved with him had helped make her writing career possible. "My parents wanted me to marry a banker," she told the audience, "and meeting Jack was a way out of that." So I definitely do agree that contemporary attitudes may make it to easy to overlook the importance of Kerouac's contribution to freeing up possibilities in American life for lots of people, not just white guys.

It's funny, but around anti-Kerouac attitudes I often find myself vigorously defending his work, whereas around full-bore lovers of his work, I share the love but point out problems. To anybody who knows me, I guess that would sound just like me.

douglang said...
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douglang said...

Michael, your passionate and articulate defense of Kerouac is very convincing, even though I did not need to be convinced. I love Kerouac. He was of great importance to me early on, something I’ve started to write about already in the draft of my next post in this thread. I’ve ordered the “scroll” version of “On the Road” and I anticipate reading it with great pleasure.

My point about Kerouac’s writing not being “literary” was not well made. What I meant was that he was not trying to produce a continuation of nineteenth century conventions in writing fiction, except maybe in “The Town and the City.” What he was doing was as you described it, creating a completely open vision of the world as he saw it. After all, the tenets of “spontaneous bop prosody” demanded an unedited expression of the self in the moment. If that led to writing that might contain indications of stereotyping that readers today could interpret as being patronizing and/or prejudicial, those are the breaks. I think that Kerouac “romanticized” everything. It is not a case like that of T. S. Eliot, who was consciously and deliberately anti-Semitic, and is much more problematical because of that.

One of the reasons that I am hyperconscious of this kind of thing is that I moved from one culture to a very different culture at a relatively late age (on the brink of my 32nd birthday), and I was obliged to deal with a good deal of recognition concerning where I began and ended and where social imprinting began and ended.

When I saw film of Kerouac on a talk show in the 1960s with Ed Sanders and some other antiwar activists, it was clear that Jack was in many ways a very conservative man, and that it was in some ways difficult to assess where he began and ended and where the normative values of American life instilled in him began and ended. I think no less of him for that, because he had the courage to be who he was and to tell us who he was.

OK. Norman Mailer. He was important to me, also, back in the day, and I still have a good deal of regard for him. He was the first person that I knew to write in unqualified support of John Dos Passos, Thelonious Monk, Sun Ra, and William Burroughs. Of all his “literary” contemporaries, Mailer was the most supportive of Kerouac. This, despite his disparaging remarks, which he made about everyone, even James Jones, whom he adored.

Jazz was (and remains) an important part of my life, also. When I first heard John Coltrane, it changed my life. When I was eighteen, I bought an extended-play record, “‘Round About Midnight” on one side, “All of You,” on the other, not ever having heard Miles Davis before and barely knowing who he was. Mark’s comment about Coltrane totally applies to my experience of hearing that music. Jazz and Kerouac were far bigger influences on my writing early on than anything that was available in my own culture. Although I will say this about that culture: jazz was accepted as serious music in the UK (and Europe) long before it was here, as were other forms of American music. One of the things that excited me about Rexroth’s “Disengagement” essay was that Dylan Thomas was placed in such exalted company as Charlie Parker.

I’ll end with my two favorite statements about jazz. “If you don’t live it in your life, you can’t play it on your horn.” Charlie Parker said that. “There are no wrong notes in jazz.” Thelonious Monk said that.

Lally said...

Amen, brothers, amen.
PS: all points well taken, but despite his supposed "first thought best thought" and "spontaneous bop prosody" etc. (which he did seem to mostly adhere to in his poetry) the recent opening of his personal papers makes it clear he was consciously attempting to find a form for the novel that would not only be new but allow for more "truth" about how people often left out or mischaracterized in literature really felt and lived their lives, including jack himself. But it was conscious. He did the more-or-less Wolfian conventional novel with TOWN AND CITY, but as the various different mss. for ON THE ROAD prove, he did not just spontaneously write it however it came out, he wrote it and rewrote it and used notebooks and other notations as the source for some of the riffs and dialogue etc. even for the so-called "scroll" version. Anyways, we all agree there's more to Kerouac than meets the eye or how he was thought of while he was still alive.

awsexton123 said...

No wonder I fell in love with you, Doug. What a great blog! I think we met at Compendium Books--I had been living in a youth hostel near the Smithfield Meat Market. The hostel was filled with Irish kids 'school leavers' 14, 15, 16 years old whose parents could not afford to keep them home. I got some of my stuff burgled and went to Compendium (who had my Eigner bibliography in their window for christ sake-I thought I had died and gone to heaven). You were there and when you heard my sad tale about the hostel, you invited me to stay at your house. My first memory of that house was your book collection--all those penguins marching across the bedroom walls. I would like all your friends and fans to know that as I remember, your penguins were arranged by color--or shall we sat colour. When I met you, Doug, I thought I'd hit the jackpot--and in many, important ways, I had. Love you.

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