Allen Ginsberg on ‘The Dharma Bums’


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November 12, 1958, Vol. IV, No. 3

The Dharma Bums

A novel by Jack Kerouac. Viking Press, $3.95.

By Allen Ginsberg

A few facts to clear up a lot of bull. “On the Road” was written around 1950, in the space of several weeks, mostly on benny, an extraordinary project, sort of a flash of inspiration on a new approach to prose, and attempt to tell completely, all at once, everything on his mind in relation to the hero Dean Moriarty, spill it all out at once and follow the convolutions of the active mind for direction as to the “structure of the confession.” And discover the rhythm o the mind at work at high speed in prose. An attempt to trap the prose of truth mind by means of a highly scientific attack on new prose method. The result was a magnificent single paragraph several blocks long, rolling, like the Road itself, the length of an entire onionskin teletype roll. The sadness that this was never published in its most exciting form–its original discovery–but hacked and punctuated and broken–the rhythms and swing of it broken–by presumptuous literary critics in publishing houses. The original mad version is greater than the published version, the manuscript still exists and someday when everybody’s dead be published as it is. Its greatness (like the opening pages of Miller’s “Cancer”)–the great spirit of adventure into poetic composition. And great tender delicacy of language.

The long lines of “Howl” are piddling compared to the sustained imagic rhythms of that magnificent endless paragraph. Some of the original, a lot of it, can be seen in the published version though. The book took 7-8 years to appear in mutilated form. By then K had disappeared down that road and was invisible, magic art car soul.

The conception for such prose came from the hero of the Road himself, Moriarty’s prototype, who sent K a long, wild introspective 40-singlespace-page letter. It’s been lost, by me, I think.

The next step (after the rejection of the original “Road”) was to redo the subject, chronological account of the hero’s life, in regular gothic-Melvillian prose.

That was started with one magic chapter about a Denver football field. But then K said, shove publishing and literary preconceptions, I want something I can read, some interesting prose, for my old age. “Visions of Neal” and “Dr. Sax” (1951-53) and another dozen subsequent books (prose, poetry, biography, meditation, translation, sketching, novels, nouvelles, fragments of brown wrapping paper, golden parchments scribbled at midnight, strange notebooks in Mexico and Desolation Peak and Ozone Park) follow.

Writing is like piano playing, the more you do it the more you know how to play a piano. And improvise, like Bach.

Not a mechanical process: the mechanical and artless practice would have been to go on writing regular novels with regular types form and dull prose. Well, I don’t know why I’m arguing.

Too many critics (all incomplete because they themselves do not know how to write). Pound said not to take advice from someone who had not himself produced a masterpiece.

Am I writing for The Village Voice or the Hearing of God? In a monster mechanical mass-medium age full of horrible people with wires in their heads; the explanation is hard to make, after everybody’s cash-conscious egotistical book-reviewing, trend-spotting brother has bespoke his own opinion.

It’s all gibberish, everything that has been said. There’s not many competent explainers. I’m not speaking of the Beat Generation, which after all is quite an Angelic Idea. As to what non-writers, journalists, etc., have made of it, as usual–well, it’s their bad poetry not Kerouac’s.

Be that as it may, “The Subterraneans” (1953) and “The Dharma Bums” (1958) are sketchy evidence of the prose pilgrimage he’s made.

The virtue of “The Subterraneans” was that it was, at last, published, completely his own prose, no changes.

An account of his method of prose (written 1953) about the time of the composition of “The Subterraneans” is reprinted in Evergreen Review, Vol II, No. 8, from the No. 9 of the Black Mountain Review.

An excellent sample of the kind of sentence, the peculiar kind of rhythm, the appropriate alterations of square syntax, the juicy kind of imagery, the intimacy and juxtaposition of strange eternal detail, the very modernity of the thought, the very individuality (and therefore universality) of the specific sense perceptions, are to be found, for instance, in the long sentence that winds from the 6th line of p. 34 to the 13th line of p. 25 (“The Subterraneans”).

(Please quote this if you have room.)

[Not that kind of room–Ed.]

Spontaneous Bop Prosody, a nickname one might give to this kind of writing–that is to say, read aloud and notice how the motion of the sentence corresponds to the motion of actual excited talk.

It takes enormous art (being a genius and writing a lot) to get to that point in prose. (And trusting God.)

Bop because, partly, in listening to the new improvisatory freedoms of progressive musicians, one develops an ear for one’s own actual sounds. One does not force them into the old rhythm. Unless one wishes to protect one’s old emotions by falsifying the new ones and making them fit the forms of the old…

“Dharma Bums” is a late and recent book, he’s weary of the world and prose. Extraordinary mystic testament, however, and record of various inner signposts on the road to understanding of the Illusion of Being.

The sentences are shorter (shorter than the great flowing inventive sentences of “Dr. Sax.”), almost as if he were writing a book of a thousand haikus–Buddhist Visionary at times. He’s had an actual religious experience over a prolonged period of time. This book puts it, for convenience, in the form of a novel about another interesting friend. The passages of solitary meditation are the best I’d say. The wildest sentence, perhaps:

“Suddenly came the drenching fall rains, all-night rain, millions of acres of Bo-trees being washed and washed, and in my attic millennial rats wisely sleeping.”

Now that’s a very strange sentence, an oddly personal associative jump in the middle of it to the eternal rats. Not many prose writers alive (Celine, Genet, a few others) would have the freedom and intelligence to trust their own minds, remember they made that jump, not censor it but write it down and discover its beauty. That’s what I look for in K’s prose. He’s gone very far out in discovering (or remembering, or transcribing) the perfect patterns that his own mind makes, and trusting them, and seeing their importance–to rhythm, to imagery, to the very structure of the “novel.”

In this, in the present American scene in prose, he is the great master innovator. There are others (Robert Creeley, maybe I don’t understand what he’s doing in prose though his poetry is perfect I know). And our legendary unpublished Wm. S. Burroughs.

A few other notes. The meditation in the woods, published originally in Chicago Review, Zen issue, is an excellent sincere long passage. Reading it one wonders how anybody but a boor can vision Kerouac as anything but a gentle, intelligent, suffering prose saint. The abuse he’s taken is disgusting, and the technical ignorance of most of his reviewers both pro and con is scandalous.

There has not been criticism that has examined his prose purpose–nor his hip-beat insight and style–nor, finally, his holy content. It takes one to find one. Don’t expect much understanding from academic journalists who, for all their pretense at civilization, have learned little but wicked opinion. (And you, Wicked Opinion–wrote Gregory Corso.)

I’m only vomiting up some of the horror of Literature. Hacks in every direction. And a nation brainwashed by hacks. I begin to see why Pound went paranoiac, if he did. It’s the same situation as 1910. There is a great revolution, innovation, in poetry and prose and going on now–continuing. That the academics have learned so little in the meantime–I feel betrayed. I’ll stop before I go mad.

Chapter 34, “Dharma Bums,” winds up with a great series of perfectly connected associations in visionary haikus (little jumps of the “freedom of eternity”). (Two images set side by side that make a flash in the mind.) Particularly pp. 241-2. Book ends with a great holy Blah! At last America has a new visionary poet. So let us talk of Angels.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]