By Ellen Zunon
I have a date with Jack Kerouac tonight. In my basement. He reads me his poetry from a 1959 recording, while Steve Allen plays a mean piano accompaniment, or Zoot Sims plays jazz sax.
While he reads, I walk. It’s still too cold to walk outside -- our upstate New York winters are lengthy and frigid -- so I walk miles and miles on my treadmill every winter. I’ve listened to other books on tape or CD while walking in the basement.
In "West With the Night," I traveled all across Africa with Beryl Markham and Baron Blixen. In "Wide Sargasso Sea," Jean Rhys introduced me to the imagined early life of Bertha, the mad wife of Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre fame. And in "The Dharma Bums," by Kerouac, I climbed Desolation Peak in the Cascades with a fictionalized Gary Snyder and Jack.
But I like listening to poetry best of all, because it’s really written to be read out loud. And it’s even better with a musical accompaniment. Kerouac’s “Blues and Haikus” have an improvisational feel to them because that’s just what he was trying to do with his poetry: create a verbal equivalent to the spontaneous improvisations of jazz musicians.
Some of the haiku are darkly philosophical, some whimsical, but all are vivid virtual snapshots: Missing a kick at the icebox doorIt closed anyway. A dramatic saxophone phrase punctuates this haiku, and leads up to the next short poem.
Of course, Kerouac was better known for his prose, but he also wrote a lot of poetry. In fact, sometimes he combined the two genres, in a traditional Japanese format known as haibun. This consists of a passage of prose followed by a haiku that sets off the prose. Kerouac used this form in "Desolation Angels," where descriptions of his life as a fire tower guard in the high peaks of the Cascades are interspersed with haiku:
On Starvation Ridge
Are trying to grow.
Jack studied the classic haiku of Basho, Issa and Buson before developing his own theory about what “Western Haiku” should consist of. He felt that western haiku need not conform to the traditional Japanese structure of seventeen syllables, since western languages do not have the same syllabic form as Japanese.
He proposed instead that western haiku “simply say a lot in three short lines in any western language.”Useless, useless, the heavy rainDriving into the sea. This little poem speaks volumes about despair, hope and mortality, if you know how to read between the lines. There are other things you should know about Jack Kerouac.
How he was present cheering on the crowd when Allen Ginsberg read his poem “Howl” in public for the first time, how he gave the Beats their name, and what it meant to him. How he spoke French before he knew any English, how he loved cats, how he was a genius before he killed himself with drink.
Those birds sitting
out there on the fence –
They’re all going to die.
These recordings were originally released on vinyl 78-rpm records in 1959 and 1960, and re-released on cassette tape in 1989. On the tape, Kerouac’s voice resonates in the listener’s ear as naturally as though at an intimate reading in your own living room. And it is indeed a natural spontaneous inflection, since there were no second or third takes in the recording studio.
Kerouac has no trace of a French accent, only a subtle dropping of the r at the end of certain words, as is typical of native New Englanders.
I’ve calculated that in an hour I can walk at most a mile and a half and burn 140 calories on my rickety old treadmill. A pound of fat equals 3500 calories, so I need to walk for 24 hours to burn off each of the five extra pounds of fat I’ve accumulated from eating too much comfort food over the long winter. That’s a lot of haiku. So I’m keeping my date with Kerouac tonight. When spring comes, I’ll have a date with the great outdoors.
In my medicine cabinet
the winter fly
has died of old age.
Writer Jack Kerouac would have turned 85 years old today, March 12, 2007. Ellen Zunon celebrates his birthday with this piece.