Thoughts on Jack Kerouac
Like many other young people in the late 1960s, I was attracted by the danger that hovered round the very name of Jack Kerouac. Carrying a copy of On the Road, I hoped it might suggest to my peers that I was a real crazy guy. It didn’t take me long to realise, however, that ‘digging’ Kerouac as the wild man of American letters is just as much an insult to his memory as dismissing him for the same reason.
True, as everyone knows, Kerouac was an advocate of what he called ‘spontaneous prose’. But he also coined the phrase ‘Mind is shapely, Art is shapely.’ That is: discipline the mind, nurture the soul, and then speak from the heart. Ultimately his work is not about unbridled self-expression but about honouring the holiness of existence.
The term ‘Beat’ is bandied about a good deal, but what did this most famous of ‘Beat’ writers actually meant by the term? Yes, he was referring to the ‘beat’ of music, particularly the bebop of Charlie Parker, which gave him a model of how to improvise on a theme, taking the notes – or words – to dizzy new heights. Yes, he was also referring to the state of being ‘dead beat’, of having no investment in the shiny world of modern materialism. But these for him were really just means of attaining ‘Beat’ in the sense that mattered most to him: ‘beatitude’, or, as he once explained, being ‘like St. Francis, trying to love all life, trying to be utterly sincere with everyone, practising endurance, kindness’ and ‘practising a little solitude’. His novel The Dharma Bums conveys what this might involve.
The fact that Kerouac himself, in submitting to alcoholism, chose death rather than life by no means disqualifies his art. Visions of Gerard is a meditation on the fact that being alive implies suffering and transience, and on the need to face these without fear while maintaining compassion for other living-dying creatures. He was no irresponsible hedonist; he was a religious visionary.
As to his influence, I see it most clearly in the songs of Bob Dylan, who once famously told us: ‘He not busy being born is busy dying.’ Dylan it was who visited Kerouac’s grave with Allen Ginsberg, and told him that it was reading Kerouac’s volume of poetry Mexico City Blues that first showed him how to write in a living language – one, he might have added, that can comprehend death as well as life. Dylan, too, has used such a language to speak memorably of mortality and the search for spiritual truth.
Laurence Coupe, Beat Sound, Beat Vision: The Beat spirit and popular song (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007)