Friday, February 27, 2015

Poetic Musings: Beatnik Haibun by Jack Kerouac

Meanwhile the sunsets are mad orange fools raging in the gloom, whilst far in the south in the direction of my intended loving arms of senoritas, snowpink piles wait at the foot of the world, in general silver ray cities -- the lake is a hard pan, gray, blue, waiting at the mist bottoms for when I ride her in Phil's boat -- Jack Mountain as always receives his meed of little cloud at highbrow base, his thousand football fields on snow all raveled and pink, that one unimaginable abominable snowman still squatted petrified on the ridge -- Golden Horn far off is yet golden in a gray southeast -- Sourdough's monster hump overlooks the lake -- Surly clouds blacken to make fire rims at that forge where the night's being hammered, crazed mountains march to the sunset like drunken cavaliers in Messina when Ursula was fair, I would swear Hozomeen would move if we could induce him but he spends the night with me and soon when stars rain down the snowfields he'll be in the pink of pride all black and yaw-y to the north where (just above him every night) North Star flashes pastel orange, pastel green, iron orange, iron blue, azurite indicative constellative auguries of her makeup up there that you could weigh on the scales of the golden world --
The wind, the wind --
And there's my poor endeavoring human desk at which I sit so often during the day, facing south, the papers and pencils and the coffee cup with sprigs of alpine fir and a weird orchid of the heights wiltable in one day -- my Beechnut gum, my tobacco pouch, dusts, pitiful pulp magazines I have to read, view south to all those snowy majesties -- The waiting is long.

On Starvation Ridge
Little sticks
Are trying to grow.

Desolation Angels, 1995 Edition, p.9


Published in 1965, Desolation Angels is broken up into two sections called “Desolation Angels” and “Passing Through,” which are then subdivided into shorter parts. These two stylistically and thematically different halves were originally two books. According to the book’s forward, Kerouac was hoping to get the second section, "Passing Through," published as a standalone novel. The first section, “Desolation Angels,” is almost directly taken from the 1956 journal he kept when he was a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in North Cascades National Park. Its style often approaches haibun, containing prose narrative segments (journal entries) followed by haiku that compliment or expand the segments.  As Matt Theado emphasizes in his eaasy, titled "'A Kick at the Icebox Door': Haiku and Beat Haiku," "prose narrative and the haiku strike a balance, and Kerouac accomplishes this smoothly, creating a series of effects that move from sharpness and clarity to dreaminess and impressionism." The excerpt above is a good example of this style of writing. The following is the commentary by William Higginson ("Haibun in the West," The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku, pp. 217-8):

The density of image, event, experience piled up on one another in Basho's Narrow Roads of the Interior, Buson's Uji Visit, or Issa's My Spring has rarely been achieved in English. Occasionally Jack Kerouac has it, and puts it together with haiku, as in the passage from his novel Desolation Angels, first published in 1965. This section was written in 1956...
Kerouac is sitting in a fire-lookout station on top of Starvation Ridge in the northern Cascades, just south of the border between the state of Washington and British Columbia. It is near the beginning of the two-month stay he has signed up for, and already he feels lonely. Passages of description, like this one, and of memory jogs, philosophical introspection, and the inane word-music of just trying to crank up the writing machine, chase one another around through the forty-seven short "chapters" of which this is number four, entire.

Words filling the void, companions few: "The wind, the wind—" and a fresh sprig or two of alpine fir, a wilting flower, gum and tobacco his only substitute for the booze and other intoxicants left behind with civilization. Kerouac had finished writing On the Road, which would come out the following year, and had yet to start The Dharma Bums. He had hoped to write while he was up there, and to seek a deepening of the religious impulses he felt. "The waiting is long." And the little sticks on Starvation Ridge are at too high an altitude to grow very much, though they try. We might compare Kerouac's attitude toward this landscape with Buson's toward that of Uji.

Note: This journal entry inspired Lynn Edge to write the following haibun, which was first published in Contemporary Haibun Online, 2:2, June 2006:

Black Rock

I stand near a crevasse. Here thousands of years ago, the earth cracked open. Dark lava bubbled up, flowed down a path two miles wide and twenty long, hardened into these New Mexico badlands. This chasm filled with black rock reminds me of Jack Kerouac alone on a mountaintop in Washington. He struggles with isolation, depression, alcoholism. I imagine him dressed in a plaid flannel shirt with a flip-top notebook in his pocket. From his fire-watcher's shack on Desolation Peak, he stares toward the black slopes of Hozomeen Mountain, and writes:

on Starvation Ridge
little sticks
are trying to grow

      ~ Jack Kerouac, Desolation Angels

Kerouac, the original hipster, dead at forty-seven. Buried thirty-four long years ago. My thoughts turn to Gary Snyder, Jack's hiking buddy in The Dharma Bums. Synder still writing poems at seventy-five.

a handful of stems
push through igneous rock
desert marigold

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