Kerouac, Berrigan, and the Poetics of Providence -- Marisa Januzzi
JK, "Bowery Blues"
When Allen Ginsberg's father died in 1976, Ted Berrigan took over Ginsberg's class at Naropa, and the occasion inspired him to speak about what he called "The Business of Writing Poetry." The first literary experiment he devised for students to try can be read as a revealing gloss on his conceptions of poetic authority and influence:
What I'm suggesting here, is that you take out about three of your best poems and think who your favorite poet is, living poet preferably, and type that poet's name in underneath your poems,and then put them in the drawer for a few weeks, and then find them, and read them, and see if they are good poems by that poet or not very good poems by that poet. And it may give you some sense of where you are at. (TALKING PO. 42)
Berrigan's light-fingered way of lifting lines from the works of his friends-- a poetics of appropriation at work most extensively in THE SONNETS-- can also be seen as a method of self-evaluation, or of self-location-- in the biographical as well as the aesthetic sense of the word ("...see if they are good poems by that poet or not very good poems by that poet. And it may give you some sense of where you are at"). Working against the Zen strain in the Beat literary ego, he uses this experiment of the key signature to assert, perhaps surprisingly, the importance of the identity of the poet to the poem: "The poem is not more important than the poet," he argues. "Not one bit, actually. Not as long as anyone KNOWS the name of the poet." Given this interest in the relation of poet to poem, the word appropriation may be too tuned to the postmodern context of Cindy Sherman and others to accurately describe the sourcework of both Kerouac and Berrigan, whose thematic and technical motives imbue the lyric with a very unironic urban working class ethos of acknowledgment. Provenance is providence, in the form of the Lowell Provision Company, or the meals the older poet ate and remembered because it was open for business.
Berrigan barely rates a mention in the literature about Kerouac, in part because, as Michael McClure has observed, Kerouac is still thought of primarily as a prose writer and a cultural icon rather than a writer whose impact on the poetic experiments of the '60's is at least as important as, say, Olson's.1 Furthermore, in the cultural imagination, Kerouac is somehow forever driving a vehicle which hurtles either west to San Francisco or South to Mexico or East to Nirvana via New England, while Berrigan's name evokes St. Mark's-in-the-Bouwerie, if it evokes anything at all. But as Berrigan reveals in his earliest lyrics and sonnets, and more explicitly in his interviews with Tom Clark and with the man himself, there was no more formative influence on his poetry than Kerouac, and no more salient city than Providence.
Though Berrigan's hometown, Providence, is (obviously) not Kerouac's French Canadian parts of Lowell, Massachusetts, my title phrase 'poetics of providence' ably articulates a topic touching on both bodies of 'work because 'providence' conjures several meanings which should be enumerated. The catechismic sense of the word 'providence' expresses that sense of the divinity of the provenance of goodness, which in the works of both Kerouac and Berrigan is often tied to the goodness of the poem in its moments of energetic departure from homing forms. But Providence, the diocese of Providence, was a famous site of ethnoreligious conflict. According to Jim Fisher, the Franco-Catholic Canadian immigrants to the U.S. between 1860 and the 1920's-- "in search of work in the textile mills and factories of New England-- brought with them an especially pressing anxiety about their role in promoting 'la survivance.'" Fisher fleshes out "the cultural-historical background for Kerouac's mystical, intensely 'gloomy' Catholicism" with an account of the Sentinelle Affair of the 1920's, a dispute which pitted the proassimilationist Irish Catholic hierarchy in Providence against the 'Sentinelles,' a militant Franco-American group who "resented the efforts of the diocese to coerce Americanization through the primary use of English in secondary schools." Acording to Beaulieu, Kerouac (whose mother tongue was Joual) knew all about this affair from his mother, who was apparently fascinated with one of its martyrs. 2
The poets' origins in New England working class Catholic families and towns marks their work with common motives which become striking when they are considered side by side, rather than in the more obvious contexts of the Beats and the New York School, second generation. Ted Berrigan used the lives, works, and names of his favorite poets to locate his own, and, as the 1968 PARIS REVIEW INTERVIEW reveals, Jack Kerouac was one of his favorite living poets. 3 In this paper, I will briefly explore Kerouac's influence on Berrigan by looking at the inscriptions of ethno-Catholic New England origins in autobiographical passages of poems by each-- the "Lowell Cantos" of the MEXICO CITY BLUES, by Kerouac, and (if I ever get there!!) "Things to Do in Providence," by Berrigan. Implicitly, I will be fighting Jones's assertion that "the best way to look at Catholicism" in Kerouac's life and work is "as a form of excess, an imbalance that ultimately contributed to his premature demise" (Jones 114)-- there are many ways to shut down a poem, but troping on this particular language and music of origins, for these poets, was not one of them. Ultimately I will be signing Kerouac's name to Berrigan's poem, with the hope of seeing where the latter poet "is at." The provenance was providence--- 'beat' city, trope, source.
By 1959, Kerouac strenuously resisted the co-optation of his term 'Beat' by the media and by hangers-on alike, rejecting the political associations of the word for an autobiographical rendition of its meaning:
... It was as a Catholic, it was not at the insistence of any of these 'niks' and certainly not with their approval either, that I went one afternoon to the church of my childhood (one of them), Ste. Jeanne d'Arc in Lowell, Mass., and suddenly with tears in my eyes and had a vision of what I must have really meant with 'Beat' anyhow when I heard the holy silence in the church....The music of Kerouac's poetry is consistently tuned to the providential prospect of the homosociality of "God's body." Here, for instance, is a strophe of "Enlightenments" (which appears in POMES ALL SIZES):
Beginning to see the light, outside the church-Here the conjunction of Black and White gives Kerouac his theme, as (elsewhere) it will give him his famed technique of Bop prosody. But does the poet really see the 'light' here, and if so, is 'light' (rather than brown, or dark...) what we want him to see? Kerouac's self-confessedly touristic views of the urban 'Negro,' and his appropriation of the motives of blues and bop idioms would make another paper, and a fascinating one [&if anyone knows whether Kerouac studied Langston Hughes I'd like to hear about it]; I originally wanted to call this paper "putting the Wop back in be-bop a loo bop, a- wop bam boom" because I noticed that he tends to solve the problem by invoking ethnic middle ground (here figured as Philip Lamantia). In any case, "the Negro boy and the White boy" are hand-in-hand, and the church is the poet's worksite.
The improvised interruption of the 11th MEXICO CITY chorus taps a slightly different vein:
Brown wrote a book calledGerald Nicosia explicates this passage in MEMORY BABE:
'Brown' is Jack Kerouac, a white man who wishes he were black and is caught half-way between. He wrote a book called THE TOWN & THE CITY, which was about the meeting of his boyhood white world and the black jazz and drug subcultures of NY, and which was influenced by Stendhal's THE RED &THE BLACK. But the title "The White and the Black" also demeans the novel... The author 'switches' from Western discrimination to the logic-obliterating experience of kicks, as the meter switches from iambic to trochaic, then breaks off. (BABE 481)Nicosia thinks that the source of the writer's 'anger' is "only marginally important to the poem"; "more important is the way the process of writing the poem has become the poem's subject." I would agree, but I would argue that theme and technique are inextricable. The brooding on the bandstand recalls the angelic security of the "city on a hill" from which anger, and the poem, falls. The "big band" sound which critics have heard in Kerouac's first novel is pointedly displaced by the jazz bandstand, which precisely marks the new responsiveness of technique to theme-- the insecurity of 'brown' as authority on either 'white' or 'black' necessitates a "switchin" of the sources of providence. The unprinted electrified stretch of the page invokes a "strange, animal travesty of mysticism"4 -but when the musician is finally stopped, the poem broods, and is silent.
What was jazz, in Kerouac's automythobiographical epic? Lawrence Lipton accounts for the orality of beat poetry in a chapter of THE HOLY BARBARIANS titled "Poetry & Jazz: Love Match or Shotgun Wedding?" (which obviously is a rhetorical question for Lipton):
We turned to jazz music because jazz is the musical language of America in our time. Modern poetry was born at the same time as modern jazz was born and both have had a similar history. Both have had the same friends and the same enemies. Both aimed at freeing their art from the strait jacket of the printing press: in the case of poetry, from the printed page, in the case of jazz, from the printed score. (Lipton 222)Lipton concludes that "they belong together." Poetry needed to be freed from confinement of the printed page in part because the page is 'square' and would invoke preordained plots and trajectories which are bound to be-- not beat but cemeterial. The idea that Kerouac aimed to free his art from the "straight jacket of the printing press" seems valid in light of the intensely vocable, scatty improvisation of some of the choruses of MEXCITY, but this idea has to be complicated by two biographical facts salient to the poem. The first is that Kerouac famously limited each of his choruses to the "size of a page in his little notebooks, 'like the form of a set number of bars in a jazz blues chorus'" (Nicosia, 460). The second is that his father, Leo Alcide Kerouac, was himself a printer, bound firmly (in life as in the Lowell cantos) to the "slaving meat wheel" of being a family provider in a depression economy. Though he knew he couldn't and wouldn't lead his father's life, Kerouac apparently suffered a lifetime of guilt at his inability to provide for himself or his mother, who supported him well into adulthood.
Chorus 98 animates Leo's voice in a passage which explores the paternal grind: "....'no coal bill's been / Highern this 1924 coalbill/ I got to watch my dollars / Pretty soon the poorhouse'-- / ('Wish I was God,' he adds to think)." This worn and emptied plot is headed squarely and graphically for the grave, as the poet later suggests in the 103rd chorus. If the jazz poetic is a revolt against the dominating authority of the printed page, that revolt may be understood in MEXICO CITY BLUES by reading for the name of the father-- who wishes he "was God," who "adds to think," and who figures the counterplot to this poem as he "walk[s] around like a shadow / Of ink black, with hat" (103rd).
But as Kerouac's transparent embrace of the page may imply, the revolt is ambivalent: the already-dead father, like New England itself, is a tragic figure in the Lowell Cantos, and his tragedy clarifies why the son is "afraid of" his "self" (chorus 88), a self he pointedly seeks to elude or at least to circumscribe in the more Buddhist choruses. His father's life doesn't "add up" in the Lowell stretch of the poem. On his way downtown in the 99th chorus, Leo5 coughs "bursting to part the seams of his trousers" and of lyric language itself: "--Prap-prohock!" is how the cough is rendered, thematizing a forlorn visit to a hock shop (and suggesting Kerouac's debt to the author of the other Leo-- Leopold Bloom). Kerouac uses his polyphonic technique here to invest the portrait of his father with extreme tenderness, even as he fears what embracing the father's (p)lot would mean for his poem:
My remembrance of my fatherKerouac works the printed dimension of this chorus in order to portray his father in strictly confined transit; the confinement is not Lowell but emptiness, repetitive futility, the Void, and sympathy for this man crossing in the street to go to work tempers the revolt against him. This is not simply a lethal trip, it's also, as the poet suggests in the 99th chorus, emasculating:
To see if there's any mail in the boxOne suspects that Leo is looking for a check, and that the insufficiency of "mail in the box" is a sexual and spiritual as well as an economic threat to himself and by consequence, his male progeny. This, I think, is what Kerouac means when, in the PARIS REVIEW session with Berrigan, he suggests that writers "have to be born with tragic vision"-- to which Berrigan quickly responds, "You can only do that if you are born in New England" (PR 81). Notably the exchange occurs in the context of a discussion of fathers, the teaching of writing, and fraudulent-seeming conventional ways of earning a living.
The "wild howl" of the choruses conveying the Loony, Moony nights of "Lupine [New England] Cold" commemorate circumstances of the poet's birth (on Lupine Street, in Lowell), but the jazz improvisations of the choruses leading up to the 89th (wherein the poet is born) seem to "arrange the manger" in ways which provision against the various wolves at the door. "The moon is true, enough, / but,but,but,but,but, / it keeps adding up," the poet observes in relation to "sex blues" and "sick women" (chorus 176). This accounts, I think, for the selfconsciously false and jaded first beginning of his autobiography, in chorus 88: "I wanted to marry a lovegirl, / A girl-only-interested-in-love girl," / that would be the first sentence/ of this masterpiece/ Of golden litteratur--/ Brap." Masterpieces, gold, litteratur, and conventional poetic crooning are dismissed with a burping sound, along with the lovegirl.
Instead, Kerouac's persona is "born" after a platter of bacon and eggs miraculously supplied in the 80th chorus sets off a succession of deconstructive bop riffs on the melodic standard "Harvest Moon." The miracle of the bacon and eggs is more apparent with the contextual explanation of their source: "Bill G.," a heroin addict with whom Kerouac shared nonce forms of domesticity in Mexico City; in TRISTESSA where the character also appears, the addict's characteristic inability to eat is clear. Laying "bacon and eggs" on a buddy spawns "acons &beggs" for more in a chorus which concludes by putting some mail in the box of that old melody: word, the stanza, and sentence. The body of the speaker and the body of the poem are mutually alive to local manifestations of something like a poetics of incarnation.
Berrigan's career (from altar boy to obetrol angel of poetry) is inconceivable without Kerouac's improvisatory road map, which begins and ends more or less in the same piazza. As Berrigan's "Saturday Afternoon on the Piazza" concludes:
You don't really care who your momma and pappa are,Providence appears in the strange parental forms which frame or enable lyric visions. For Berrigan, the inalienable, class-marked particularity of his origins (the possibility or impossibility of a TV, the woman reeling out laundry, but figured in blue and white like the virgin Mary) explains the emphatic or defensive expansiveness of a line like "The neighborhood I live in is mine!"
"Things to Do in Providence"-- the poem from which that line derives-- initially positions the poet (& poem) in a state of improvisatory shifting of attention, conveying a restlesness which their graphic scatter across the space of the page underscores. The poem's speaker, identfied as Berrigan, goes home to Providence for a visit, and feels "displaced," and fitfully he tries to occupy that "place" by eating a generic meal of meatballs and Pepsi, while the TV delivers him on a "Journey to Shiloh." After the film an abortive phone call to his actual home in NY also the fails to sustain the poem-- whoever he calls says "Hello! I'm drunk & I have no clothes on!" to which the poet can only respond "My goodness!" before hanging up.
"Wide awake all night reading," his books only deepen his restlessness: THE LIFE OF TURNER clams that the artist "'first saw the light in Maiden Lane,'" but certainly Berrigan's birthplace is not quite Maiden Lane, as his mother later reveals, musing over the circumstances of the poet's conception. The observation is underscored by his bemused or rueful observation that he is not mentioned in THE BOOK OF MARVELS, 1934: though that is the date of his birth.
"Providence" finally comes in the form of a 4 AM serendipitous conversation with his awakened mother, a conversation about the integrity of the poet's conception outside wedlock, which was also the circumstance of her conception. The conversation is conveyed in a Kerouackian "limping sonnet" which culminates with the arrival of daylight, self-presence, and the Providence Morning Journal, which seems to herald the poet's final beatific vision of "sleep's epic novels." The neighborhood through which the poet roams is the poem itself, and the hometown map is sketched with Kerouac's improvisatory and lyric pen.
The 1968 Berrigan interview of Kerouac reveals their sense of common poetic origin in providential variations on the "straight" lyric of their childhood. Though Kerouac comes across as too much the individualist to collaborate happily, he improvises a sonnet which takes account of Berrigan as sonneteer and son: "...Do not worry, sweet angel of mine/ That hast thine inheritance/imbedded in mine." Both sons of New England knew that the trip started there.
2 The last lines of the last chorus of MEXICO CITY BLUES may in fact conjure the survivance of the 'Sentinelles' by lyric association: "Stop the murder and the suicide!" Kerouac writes. "All's well! / I am the Guard[.]"
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