Back to Jack

When last we pondered Jack Kerouac, we were contemplating a trip to the mountains of Colorado, and a school, Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, dedicated to extending the literature and spirit of the Beat Generation. Until recently, I was planning a return engagement, as a graduate student. But we are taking a different course as the trip resumes.

Although he inspired many writers of his generation, and their children, Jack Kerouac withdrew from the creative well of the Beats as he hurtled toward his death of liver cirrhosis in 1969, at the age of 47, a victim of his own excess. In the end, he didn’t want anything to do with the literary movement he helped create.

In his final years, Kerouac was bitter, hateful and largely incoherent, even in prime time TV appearances, here on William F. Buckley Jr.’s Firing Line, along with Lewis Yablonsky, a professor who had written a book about hippies, and Ed Sanders, a poet, political activist and leader of The Fugs, a hippy-dippy protest band. Kerouac was out of his element, a bit out of his mind:

That same year, in an interview with Paris Review, Kerouac railed against the left-wing bent of the Beat movement, dismissing the “community” of Beats led by Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti by questioning their politics and lifestyles. All those being lined up by the media as Beat Generation artists were different people, he said.

“They are very socialistically minded and want everybody to live in some kind of frenetic kibbutz, solidarity and all that,” Kerouac said. “I was a loner. (Gary) Snyder is not like (Philip) Whalen, Whalen is not like (Michael) McClure, I am not like McClure, McClure is not like Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg is not like Ferlinghetti, but we all had fun over wine anyway. We knew thousands of poets and painters and jazz musicians. There’s no ‘Beat crowd’ like you say … What about Scott Fitzgerald and his ‘lost crowd,’ does that sound right? Or Goethe and his ‘Wilhelm Meister crowd’? The subject is such a bore. Pass me that glass.”

“That glass” helped Kerouac’s escape from the public spotlight that exposed the “confessional” nature of his writing. As he told Ted Berrigan in that 1968 interview, “It’s our work that counts, if anything at all and I’m not too proud of mine or theirs or anybody’s since Thoreau and others like that, maybe because it’s still too close to home for comfort. Notoriety and public confession in the literary form is a frazzler of the heart you were born with, believe me.”

There it is: the fragile ego behind the bravura of Jack Kerouac. He put himself out there, and he’d taken it on the chin. He was like the battered prizefighter bobbing and weaving against the rat-a-tat-tat attack of an opponent that sticks him every time. He was tired and giving up on writing, which he said he never really liked to do anyway.

51XNA5oKR5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Kerouac previewed his end of days in the brutally honest biographical novel, Big Sur, as he grappled with alcoholism and the nature of friends and relationships, with the constant party of his life but also deeply alone, there at Ferlinghetti’s cabin in the wilderness along California’s rugged Pacific coast. For all his meditation and brooding melancholy on this trip, Kerouac finds solace and inspiration in nature, reflecting truth and light in the words he chooses, or the words that spill out of his mind. Take a minute to read this paragraph from Big Sur out loud. The punctuation will come to you:

“It’s as familiar as an old face in an old photograph as tho I’m gone a million years from all that sun shaded brush on rocks and that heartless blue of the sea washing white on yellow sand, those rills of yellow arroyo running down mighty cliff shoulders, those distant blue meadows, that whole ponderous groaning upheaval so strange to see after the last several days of just looking at little faces and mouths of people – As tho nature had a gargantuan leprous face of its own with broad nostrils and huge bags under its eyes and a mouth big enough to swallow five thousand Jeepster stationwagons and ten thousand Dave Wains and Cody Pomeroys without a sigh of reminiscence or regret – There it is, every sad contour of my valley, the gaps, the Mien Mo captop mountain again, the dreaming woods below our high shelved road, suddenly indeed the sight of poor Alf again far way grazing in the mid afternoon by the corral fence – And there’s the creek bouncing along as tho nothing had ever happened elsewhere and even in the daytime somehow dark and hungry looking in its deeper tangled grass.”

There was something happening here in Jack Kerouac’s brain that defied the caricature of the person we saw in his demise, on TV or in the obituary reports. He took refuge in the work of authors long dead, dismissing his own work as unworthy of the literary tradition he loved, finding little hope in the literary movement that embraced him. And yet he sparkled on the page, and still does.

This sad demise of a literary giant leads me to ask: What if Jack Kerouac didn’t drink himself to death, sitting alone in front of the television at his mother’s house? What if he carried on, in the best of the Beat tradition, to chronicle the personal and cultural transformation that he and his generation were undergoing.

I am imagining a Jack Kerouac who survived, even thrived, and is now telling stories of the Information Age – not Kerouac, per se, but an adventurous Beat spirit that infuses a new “Dharma Bums” quest. This literary light has been my muse in writing this blog, and in planning to pick up the thread that Kerouac let die out there on the road many years ago. Stay tuned.

 

Applied Wisdom

Picking up our previous thread, we were at a crossroads  looking for the Way across America that tells the Tai Chi and Qigong story, at both the mastery and the mass levels. The road map is beginning to take shape, although we are still trying to summon the resources. We have a deadline.

Meanwhile, my preparation includes more literary adventures, reading and viewing the latest creations that promote the art of the Tao, both martial and meditative. Most recently, I’ve enjoyed reading Jennifer St. John’s Ten Zen: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times, and I offer a review here. But first, I have a clarification for a previous blog.

I am surprised and pleased to report that Gary Snyder, the poet who inspired the Japhy Ryder character in Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, is not the last of the living Dharma Bums. In fact, an original, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet and Beat publisher at San Francisco’s City Lights, is alive and well, at 97, and writing his memoirs. Ah, the stories he might tell!

Ferlinghetti inspired many aspiring poets and philosophers, including Jennifer St. John, who is both a Tai Chi master and a corporate consultant, principal of House of Taiji and The Fusion Group, LTD, co-located in Weston, Florida. She was so impressed with Ferlinghetti’s unconventional poetry that she chose as her University of Washington senior project a performance arts piece based on his work.

I never met Ferlinghetti, although I wandered his City Lights bookstore looking for a Kerouac volume (Visions of Gerard, found it!). But you’ve got to love his irreligious take on American society, and life in general. Here he is with his “Loud Prayer” in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film, “The Last Waltz.”

St. John’s martial arts journey began when she was 8 years old, bullied coming home from a birthday party. To defend herself, she turned to judo, karate and Kung-fu, and then Aikido before finally finding her home with Tai Chi (taiji). The change to internal martial arts came just after she moved her business to South Florida from New York City. She sought out Sifu Ron Hoffman, who influenced many martial artists in south Florida with his Temple-style Tai Chi, taught by Master Waysun Liao and with further training at a Taoist monastery in Taiwan.

“Ten Zen” is an eloquent synthesis of knowledge and insight that St. John has gathered over the years, as she has applied Taoist philosophy in advising corporations about leadership and management. Like other “Zen stories,” these each conveys a moral – deep truth about life. St. John extends each story with a discussion about the lessons, which you might apply individually, in your home, or at work.

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As St. John tells it, “Ten Zen” began as a single story, “Learning is Letting Go,” about a man who has gathered all the things he has learned, each another stick in the bundle he laboriously carried through the village. He would not relinquish any of the sticks “that represent a lesson I learned along my path since childhood.” However, through good fortune and design, the man loses his entire bundle of sticks and learns a valuable lesson about letting go of the past.

The 10 stories are easy to digest, helped by the editing and design touches by the “editorial team” at The Fusion Group. But they’re also fun to read, as St. John infuses each chapter with life and character. In “When the Master Calls, Go In,” she introduces her story by setting a colorful scene at the “Temple of the Perennial Wisdom”:

“Zen Temple. Massive Formal Gate. Much traffic, dusty itinerant priests arriving from far away. Muscular warrior monks practicing martial skills in the courtyard, and the “kat, kat, kot” sound of martial practice with wooden staves in furious contact. Nuns in gray shirts and tightly wrapped pant legs carry out the business of the temple, their shaven heads indistinguishable from their brothers, but for the softer, delicate, more fluid grace of their carriage.”

It is easy to be carried along by the fluid grace of the stories, but also a pleasure to return and reread, for the language and for the lessons. I am still trying to get in touch with my “Kitchen Tai Chi,” after reading “In the Great Hall,” the final story. Apparently my Tai Chi should enable me to move “smoothly, silently, gracefully at work – moving from wok to kettle to cauldron in a beautiful demonstration of ‘Moving Meditation and Kitchen Tai Chi.” This may take more meditation and much practice on my part..

This slim volume would be a valuable addition to your Zen/Tao collection. You can order it here. You can also get a sense of how St. John applies Taoist principles to workaday complications of corporate life by checking out her blog, “Cornerstones.”