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A note on San Francisco Blues
Over the course of his 1968 interview with Ted Berrigan for The Paris Review, Jack Kerouac is asked, “Why must the method for writing poetry differ from that of prose?” Kerouac responds, “As for my regular English verse, I knocked it out fast like the prose, using, get this, the size of the notebook page for the form and length of the poem, just as a musician has to get out, a jazz musician, his statement within a certain number of bars, within one chorus which spills over into the next, but he has to stop where the chorus page stops. And finally, too, in poetry you can be completely free to say anything you want, you don’t have to tell a story, you can use secret puns, that’s why I always say, when writing prose, ‘No time for poetry now, get your plain tale.”
San Francisco Blues was written in 1954 and is comprised of 80 choruses. In his short introductory note to the sequence, Kerouac refers to it as “my first book of poems.”
There is a constant catfight played out in each of the book’s choruses. It’s my suspicion that Kerouac was writing these poems from a window several floors above ground. This view is moved beyond accurate diorama-like description by a sort of infernal (life-giving) confusion in the rhythm, a defect that becomes an entrance. I remember seeing footage of early steam engine cars that would back up haphazardly before shooting forward. I had a similar sensation re-reading these blues. Their measure kicks the imagery through a wrought-iron concourse, then it’s over like a ride at the carnival, you come back out of the tunnel of love into dusty old daylight.
The layout here illustrates Ed Dorn’s conception of the line break in poetry, “The way I write is usually in clots of phrase…When the individual line ceases to have energy….I usually break the line there.” If I were asked to illustrate this distribution of energy over the top of the printed poem I would first draw a line going down straight through the center. To chart the concurrent sensation of the lines piling one on top of another, I would then draw a square around the circumference, as if both the outside and inside of the poem need metal framing, insulation for fear of the spark getting loose. The spark is inescapable and flickering within the boundary.
Kerouac documents exactly what I have always found most charming about the Tenderloin, South of Market, and downtown San Francisco; the grime over limestone that cloaks the entrance to a residential hotel, overgrown alley ways, neon signs straining in daylight. The public are treated as zombies, but with each of their luminous details noted. It is the constant flow of imagery I envy, and his uncanny ability to animate these elements, very similar to the envy I feel when reading Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. It seems to follow Allen Ginsberg’s Mind Writing Slogan, “Notice what you notice.”
San Francisco Blues also brings to mind the work of Clark Coolidge. He has clearly been influenced by Kerouac’s blues sequences, not just by their glamour or imagery, but also through the dynamic of the phrasing. He put together an entire book on his love for Kerouac’s writing, Now it’s Jazz:Writings on Kerouac and the Sounds. I found the poem below in The Unmuzzled Ox Vol. 1 #3. The issue is dated Summer 1972. Whereas Kerouac’s blues contain two or three instances of supreme collision (in which the “story” breaks into pure language), the Coolidge poem seems comprised of nothing but these instances. While the words can be read as if they are following a traditional syntax, in my reading (aloud) each word is always afforded its own beat.
aisles of held nut
doubting which hold up
delimits string along ever
skies time out
till edges slink
hitch tore slam oblong
placement can gong crimps
ply quizzling what’s
an askance by a maybe other
Clearly Coolidge’s manner of hearing language has been informed by reading Kerouac’s works, but it is not prose and not driven by the persona of a main character and his surroundings. Coolidge’s work does suffer similar and marvelous reversals in terms of technique, switching certain pairs of words in order to fill just one with air. The reader is delightfully squeezed out in much of his Coolidge’s earlier work. Regardless of content, “Ply” also seems to be a “chorus” of sorts, a gorgeous, collapsible, fleeting entry.
Kerouac would often compose his blues sequences during his travels and then title them as such. San Francisco Blues is actually one part of Kerouac’s posthumously published Book Of Blues. His former literary executor John Sampas describes this book as “one of the unpublished manuscripts that Jack Kerouac left in his meticulously organized archive. It does not contain all of Kerouac’s unpublished blues poems – he chose not to include, for instance, ‘Berkeley Blues,’ ‘Brooklyn Bridge Blues,’ ‘Tangier Blues,’ ‘Washington DC Blues,’ and ‘Earthquake Blues.’”