Mexico City Blues

Mexico City Blues
by Jack Kerouac
   Jack Kerouac’s book-length poem Mexico City Blues, now more than 45 years old, remains in print, a result of the continued phenomenal interest in its author’s life and work. It has been joined in recent years by a growing number of books of Kerouac’s poetry—most recently an anthology of his haiku—and previously unpublished fiction and nonfiction so that it is now possible to view his first published poetry in a much broader perspective. It is obvious now, for instance, that Kerouac was a much more serious poet than was first thought. Books of poems weave through the industrious middle of his career like golden threads. It is also much easier now to document the course of his study of Buddhism and to understand how Mexico City Blues emanated from that study. An everincreasing number of biographies trace and retrace the course of his career. Two volumes of his letters help flesh out the personal background of his fictional and poetic compositions. Clearly, we are in a better position now to evaluate his work. Yet, without access to autograph drafts of Mexico City Blues, revised typescripts, and proofread galleys, it is impossible for scholars to describe accurately Kerouac’s composition process, to identify literary influences on the poem, and finally to say with any degree of certainty what the author’s intentions were in the most obscure or ambiguous passages. Consequently, 45 years down the road from the initial publication of the poem, we have a clearer picture of how it fits into the entire body of Kerouac’s work, but we are still in the dark about the actual process by which the poem was created. Ironically, this situation is likely to persist until interest in Kerouac’s writing dies down, until all the money that is to be made from his unpublished manuscripts has been made, and until the kind of materials that scholars need to do their work is freely and easily available (and can be quoted without payment of exorbitant fees and royalties). Having said all this in a prefatory way, we are now in a position to evaluate the poem provisionally. First, a word about its position in American literary history. Much debate has been given to the question of when the modernist era ended and when the postmodern era began. Many of Kerouac’s contemporaries, such as the novelist William Gaddis (the model for Harold Sand in The suBterraneans), can be viewed as transitional figures, some of their works satisfying late modernist criteria and others moving into postmodernist territory. Mexico City Blues is clearly such a transitional work. It bears the obvious influence of Ezra Pound’s Cantos and William Carlos Williams’s Patterson, but like its Beat companions, allen ginsberg’s “howl” and “kaddish,” it shows signs of self-parody, the mixing of high, middle, and low culture, and the incorporation of autobiography, all qualities associated with postmodernism. In The dHarma Bums, written just two years after Mexico City Blues, Ray Smith, the Kerouac character, in an argument with the gary snyder character, Japhy Ryder, calls Pound “a pretentious nut,” perhaps in an attempt to distance himself from his modernist forbearer. Directly, the Ginsberg character quotes one of the best known lines from Kerouac’s poem, “the wheel of the quivering meat conception” that begins the 211th Chorus. It is worth remembering, too, that The Dharma Bums is dedicated to Han Shan, the Chinese poet whom Snyder was translating when he and Kerouac met. In the novel, Kerouac provides a brief synopsis of the literary milieu in which the poem was written. The influence of high modernism was beginning to give way to postmodern innovation—but only beginning to give way. It would take another 20 years or more for postmodernism to come into its own, and Mexico City Blues helped pave the way from one era to the next.
   As far as the form of the poem is concerned, it follows one of two major trends in Western long poems: the epic and the sequence. In the United States, Walt Whitman galvanized 19th-century attempts to write an American epic by founding “Song of Myself” on the theme of individuality, a cherished national value. As different as The Waste Land is from Whitman, T. S. Eliot followed in the same vein, basing his condensed epic on the theme of the wreck of Western culture. H.D.’s Trilogy and Hart Crane’s The Bridge, likewise, are organized around a central theme or image. Kerouac chose the alternate route, the form of the sequence. For him, the concept of a blues, a musical form in jazz susceptible of endless improvisations on a basic chord progression, provided the flexibility that his wandering lifestyle required for composition. By adopting a sequence structure—musical rather than literary, like Pound’s Cantos—Kerouac was able to exercise his lyric gifts while still composing at length. Thus, a moment like the one described in the 78th Chorus can flame into being in the context of the book-length improvisation without losing its individual intensity. Looked at in this way, Mexico City Blues can be seen as an accumulation of such lyric moments, an accumulation that could not be strung out indefinitely but that had to conform to the demands of its analogy to musical performance. Unlike the musical form of Louis Zukovsky’s “A”, which results in a tightly constructed poem in the epic tradition, the jazz form favored by Kerouac allowed him to add units as they occurred to him in much the same way that Edgar Lee Masters-though with an entirely different model (the Greek Anthology) and a much stricter theme (the life-in-death of the residents of one small town)-was able to expand his Spoon River Anthology. The Beats, as is well known, were among the few U.S. writers who were influenced by the European school of surrealism. Improvisation is the main aspect of the surrealism that was employed by Kerouac in Mexico City Blues, but he also subjected himself to arbitrariness by confining each chorus to the length of a single notebook page. The result is similar to another contemporary, long, sequence poem, John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Berryman’s poems, of course, are all 15 lines long, showing the advantages and drawbacks of uniform length when contrasted to the variable length of Kerouac’s choruses, but Berryman’s sonnetlike poems avail themselves of the same lyric possibilities while spinning out the story of Henry. Altered states also played a part in the composition of Kerouac’s poem, and many of the choruses, such as the 81st and 82nd, employ a stoned-out free association to achieve their effects, not the least of which is humor. The poem itself has four, perhaps five, themes: Kerouac’s life; the culture, geography, and language of Mexico; the analogy between poetry and jazz; the doctrines and terminology of Buddhism; and possibly the spontaneous method of composing the poem itself.
   Kerouac’s main failing as a novelist—which he ingeniously converted into a tremendous asset-was his inability to invent characters, plots, or scenes, the very kind of invention at which most fiction writers excel. As long as he was young and resilient, capable of traveling and experiencing new adventures, this failing was overshadowed by the exciting prose of his thinly disguised autobiographical novels. But when middle age began to come on him in the early 1960s, the drawbacks of his method of converting his own escapades into fiction became more and more apparent. Kerouac announced his awareness of the problem first in BiG sur, which begins with an aging narrator who is meditating on the misperception of his readers that he is still young and vigorous. This awareness culminates in the pathetic narrative of satori in paris. Near the end of his life, however, Kerouac seemed to discover, first in vanity of duluoz and then in Pic, that he could refashion his life again from a greater distance in retrospect. If he had not succumbed to alcoholism, most likely he would have proceeded to fill in the gaps in the Duluoz Legend on the model of the new postmodern beginning that was signaled by Vanity of Duluoz. Like his fiction, Kerouac’s poetry also relies heavily on a direct rendering of his personal experience, and because of the intersection of its condensed poetic form and his spontaneous method of composition, Mexico City Blues contains one of the most revealing versions of his life.
   Mexico City Blues treats these recollections in a more systematic way: It gathers into a group of choruses (the 87th to the 104th) the kernel of Kerouac’s youth; then it touches on various important events in his adult life; finally it merges with the present to capture the “future memories,” so to speak, memories as they are being made. The importance of the poem hinges to some degree on this observation. Since Mexico City Blues presents the Duluoz Legend—Kerouac’s fictional autobiography—in a nutshell, the poem must have special significance among Kerouac’s works from the point of view of both writer and readers. In this long poem, Kerouac found a way to encapsulate his past, represent it in a symbolic religious dimension, and thus use ego—the product of family, memory, and individual desire-as a means to transcend itself. His family members become figures of legend, and he himself becomes a Tathagata, one who has “passed through,” as he calls himself in the 216th-B Chorus, the “Venerable Kerouac.”
   More than a fourth of the choruses of Mexico City Blues contain references to events in Kerouac’s life, and this sheer bulk, if nothing else, makes autobiography one of the most important themes in the poem. Beyond that, however, the autobiography in the poem is very carefully developed, having three distinct time frames and a religious significance all its own. The time frames function almost spatially to create perspective: close-up, medium range, and far distance. The religious motif also connects autobiography to the most important theme of the poem, Kerouac’s exploration of the concept of anatta, the possibility of annihilating the self. As the singer of the poem delves deep into his past, recalls significant moments in his adult life, and tries to capture experience as it is happening in the present, he learns that the cost of selflessness is the recognition that even memory is an arbitrary conception. For Kerouac, who was called Memory Baby by his boyhood companions, this must have been a shocking realization.
   The function of Mexican words, settings, and myths in Mexico City Blues, though much simpler than the function of the autobiographical theme, is far less obvious. At first, it seems to serve merely as a binding agent, a rather convenient, superficial element that serves to connect various aspects of the poem—some of them highly abstract—to a concrete sense of place. This is particularly true with respect to the Buddhist theme. While Mexico-especially the Native American side of it—does serve to ground the poem, as it grounded On the Road, doctor sax, tristessa, and desolation anGels, it plays other roles as well. Chief among these are the sound effects that the Spanish language provides, the opportunity that life in an ancient society gives the singer to illustrate his views on reincarnation, and the images that foreign landscape and folkways contribute to the surrealism of the poem.
   Only in retrospect, in the last section of Desolation Angels, did Kerouac himself come to understand fully that the great faith that he placed in Mexico derived from his own personal vision. In the process of an ill-fated move to California to be near his newfound Buddhist friends, including the poet philip whalen, Duluoz stops at the Mexican border with his mother, and together they walk over into Juarez. After lighting a votive candle for her dead husband in the church of Maria de Guadalupe and observing the penitents in devotion there, Duluoz’s mother exclaims, “These are people who have heart!” They are, in short, the “Mexico Fellaheen” Kerouac celebrated in Lonesome Traveler, kinfolk under the skin to the poor French Canadians from which the Kerouacs were descended and fellow Catholics to boot. While Catholicism may have gained the upper hand in Kerouac’s ideology during the later years of his life, it is clear that his memory of Mexico here is the memory of a time during which, thanks in large part to Buddhist doctrine, he had managed to suspend for a while the many conflicts of his consciousness. The narrator concludes this episode of Desolation Angels on a note of satisfaction with his mother’s intuition about the place: “Now she understood Mexico and why I had to come there so often.” Kerouac’s feeling for Mexico, to which he erected many guideposts in his novels, was a feeling for the people, their religion, their way of life, their earth. In 1955, he made a monument to the feeling, and as the art that manipulates and finally masters the divisions of his consciousness demonstrates, Mexico City Blues deserves a permanent place among our other literary monuments to that ancient land. By a fateful coincidence, the great bop saxophonist Charlie Parker died on Kerouac’s 33rd birthday, March 12, 1955. Bird himself was only a year and a half older than Kerouac, and his death must have set the seal on Kerouac’s already acute sense of mortality. Though mention of the recently deceased musician is severely limited to the 239th, 240th, and 241st choruses, Mexico City Blues is clearly an elegy for Parker, and the inspiration of his saxophone work suffuses the poem. Kerouac has come to a realization of the art that binds them as well as the art that separates them. He makes it clear in the epigraph to Mexico City Blues that he wishes both to identify himself as a jazz musician and to distinguish himself as a poet. He accomplishes this feat by discovering a new voice for himself, a voice with its origins in the stylings of bop instrumentals, a voice that takes on profound religious significance in the course of the poem. That is—and this holds true for much of Kerouac’s writing, including Mexico City Blues—that the style of the blues, presumably both the composition and the performance, puts both singer and audience in touch with the most elemental workings of the mind. This contact with the unconscious accounts, I suspect, for the sense that Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee, among others, report with respect to Mexico City Blues: “Some of the choruses read like scat singing played back at low speed, words ‘blown’ for their musical values or their punning link to the subject matter that Kerouac had in mind.” The form of the blues, which LeRoi Jones [amiri baraka] once called primarily a verse form, provided Kerouac with an analog to his intuition about poetics. He re-called to us that words are fundamentally sounds, and he committed himself to exploring their deepest significance by returning signs to song. Buddhism seems to have served as the dynamo that powered Kerouac’s poetic impulse. The first book he wrote after beginning his study of the sutras, San Francisco Blues, was composed in the Cameo Hotel during spring 1954 while Kerouac was working as a brakeman on the Southern Pacific. While it has neither the coherence nor the magnitude of Mexico City Blues, it does indicate the direction in which Kerouac’s writing was impelled by his newfound religion. A certain stillness in these blues poems contrasts markedly with the motion of his novels. The observation of detail, which is great in both the fiction and the poetry, seems to be externalized, objectified, detached. The philosophical content, which is much more apparent in the poems than in the novels, flows directly from Kerouac’s focus on the details of daily life on skid row. He gives a strong sense that the characters, their actions, and the world in which they occur are all illusory. In short, Buddhism provided Kerouac with a new mode of imagination, one that complemented and supplemented his fiction.
   In Mahayana Buddhism, Kerouac also found a fatalism that corresponded to his own Celtic nostalgia, with the important difference that the inevitable extinction of the ego, instead of an event to be feared, became the object and goal of his study and meditation—and of his writing. Oswald Spengler (who was no fan of Buddhism) embodied a similar fatalism, so Kerouac, in having read The Decline of the West, had previous experience of a profound resonance to this theme in a powerful text. Like The Decline, the Buddhist scriptures confirm the universality of two terms of the Kerouac family motto: work and suffer. Unlike Spengler’s organic determinism, however, Buddhism makes a place for the third term: love. In fact, the impact of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths-the omnipresence of suffering—is counterbalanced in Kerouac’s writing only by the need for compassion. If suffering is life’s given, the compassion for all sufferers must form the basis for an active response to human relations. In this sense, Kerouac’s Buddhism might indeed be said to have provided him with an ethics.
   There is really no way to know exactly how Kerouac felt when he wrote Mexico City Blues during the months of August and September 1955, and in some ways Kerouac’s spiritual quest is just one more literary issue, available to readers only through other texts, such as biographies. The really pressing question is how his Buddhism functions in the poem to create a formal unity, one that can be perceived and experienced as unity by a compassionate reader. Kerouac’s need was not unique, however. In his devotion to Buddhism, as in so many things, he seems to have captured the spirit of his age. Mexico City Blues is a profound cry uttered on behalf of American culture for meanings that our way of life—and therefore our individual ways of life—lacks. That is what helps give the poem its power and living value. The Buddhism of Mexico City Blues, like the Buddhism of Tristessa and visions of Gerard, is a Buddhism in perfect equipoise with Catholicism. By contrast, the Buddhism of The Dharma Bums, written only two years after the poem, often seems preachy, even sappy. The Buddhism of Mexico City Blues, on the other hand, appears in its finest spiritual and literary bloom. In fact, it enlivens Kerouac’s Catholicism, which was frequently so stale and dogmatic and is vibrant in the literary sense only in Visions of Gerard, another remarkable product of Kerouac’s Buddhist period. Regardless of Kerouac’s failure to build on, solidify, practice, and renew his study during the last decade of his life, for a few years in the 1950s Buddhism became an agent of equilibrium in his life and clearly provided the direct impetus for him to become a poet. The openness of Kerouac’s spiritual quest and his passion in the crisis of it are only the most immediate values of his religious poetry. The balance between the two religions—effectively a new religion, at once both private and public—helps make Mexico City Blues an extraordinary work of literature. In it, as in so much of Kerouac’s fiction, the personal is transmuted into the representative, though the language of his poetry never loses its distinctive accent. Buddhism provided a counterbalance against Catholicism that allowed Kerouac to move forward into totally new fields of perception.
   Obviously, then, Mexico City Blues holds an important place among Kerouac’s works, both as a highly condensed poetic exploration of his own life and also as the consummate literary expression of his Buddhist beliefs. In a broader sense, it also exemplifies the influence of both surrealism and jazz on his spontaneous method of composition and makes a contribution to the long series of literary homages to the country of Mexico. But is the poem important in a literary sense?
   Ironically, it seems likely that Kerouac’s reputation as a novelist and his notoriety as a cultural icon may continue to work against his stature as a poet. Very few novelists writing in English have established a dual reputation as poets. Herman Melville and Thomas Hardy come to mind, but few others. Perhaps Kerouac was reaching back to his cultural roots to imitate the great Victor Hugo. But poetry in America is a much more elite field than fiction, largely because of the size and nature of its audience. Also, despite the fanaticism of some Kerouac fans, it will be difficult to convince that audience to invite Kerouac into the ranks of the major 20th-century poets, to allow him to share the limelight with the writers who composed the important long poems of that era. Kerouac himself was often at odds with contemporary poets, such as James Merrill (the model for Merrill Randall of Desolation Angels). Nevertheless, when viewed in the context of literary history, Mexico City Blues can be seen to play a crucial part in the transition from modernism to postmodernism (a transition that paved the way for poems such as Merrill’s epic, The Changing Light at Sandover). Kerouac’s poem, then, takes its place alongside The Dream Songs, Howl, Kaddish, and charles olson’s tHe maximus poems as a mediator between Eliot’s Four Quartets, the later Cantos of Pound, and especially William Carlos Williams’s Paterson and the long poems that were to come in the 1960s and the following decades. Mexico City Blues may be, as Beat poet michael mcclure once claimed, “a religious poem startling in its majesty and comedy and gentleness and vision,” but we can now see that its importance is even greater than that. Mexico City Blues has only now begun to take its place among the major poetic works of late modernism, and perhaps, after the long overdue foundational work has finally been done on Kerouac’s texts, we may be able to say that it not only stands among the major works of the 20th century but also among the major long poems in English of any era.
■ Jones, James T. A Map of Mexico City Blues: Jack Kerouac as Poet. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992.
   James T. Jones

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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