Dave's Mental Meanderings
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2005-01-05 22:27:57 (UTC)

People and Places - Part I


I started writing this on December 28th with the intention
of finishing it in one sitting. I hadn’t written anything
in a while and I had the itch bad. Turns out I was
underestimating myself when the idea for this piece was
conceived in my head while driving around listening to tunes
(isn’t that when all good ideas come?) and I thought perhaps
it would blossom into 3 or 4 pages upon completion. Boy was
I wrong. Here I am, going back to the beginning and writing
a foreword after having written 9 pages of what basically
amounts to introductory material. Nine pages down and I
have yet to dig into the intended subject matter of this
discourse. So instead of tacking 5 pages about my intended
subjects onto the end of 9 pages of inane
stream-of-consciousness rambling, I’ve decided to divide
this piece into a few parts. So brew a pot of coffee, light
up a smoke, sit back, relax, and enjoy Part I of my longest,
most heart-felt, and at times most offensive journal entry
to date.

Part I – Poetry Discourse and Statement of Purpose

I’ve never much cared for Kerouac’s poetry. In fact, I was
nothing short of disappointed when I received his Collected
Poems as a gift and found myself decidedly unmoved,
uninspired, and unsatisfied after reading it. His prose, on
the other hand, is breathtaking when it’s at its best.
Sure, he’s got a few pieces of literary charcoal in a
repertoire otherwise composed of diamonds, but that’s more
than excusable… after On the Road, what else is there to
say? Published in 1957 - a decade after the events detailed
therein took place and seven years after his only preceding
novel - that book left a permanent mark on America, the
magnitude of which is grossly unrecognized by most people
these days. And on a smaller scale, it has changed my life
in at least a few ways… some subtle (adopting the word ‘dig’
into my vocabulary – can you dig it?) and others downright
glaring (my propensity for jeans, white t-shirts, coffee
shops, and road trips.) And yet, I’ll be the first to admit
that the reason I don’t care for his poems is obviously the
same reason Kerouac’s name will never be mentioned in a list
of the few greatest American writers. Few greatest authors,
yes… but not writers. Bear with me, for though it may seem
as if I’m making an absurd appeal to semantics with that
last comment, there is indeed an important distinction
between writers and authors. Kerouac easily makes the top 5
greatest American authors for his unrivaled ability to
capture the pure, raw essence of those great insurmountable
concepts and intangibles such as ‘humanity’ and ‘America.’
However, while one cannot help but be swept off of one’s
feet while reading his wildly erratic, boundless, freeform
prose that more closely resembles jazz music than it does
literature, there is still no substitute for beautifully
structured, well governed prose that uses rules and
standards of grammar and linguistics to its advantage rather
than utterly refusing to acknowledge their existence. No
amount of soul-stirring stream-of-consciousness prose can
take the place of the exquisitely crafted and patiently
nurtured masterpieces of Faulkner or Steinbeck – without a
doubt two of the best American writers ever to set in motion
a pen. Furthermore, in the humble opinion of this two-bit,
unpublished, laughably amateur poet and even less qualified
poetry critic, the use of elegant structures and
painstakingly selected language is exponentially more
critical in poetry than in prose. Hell, isn’t that all
poetry is? You can take an idea or scenario and depending
on how you decide to write it down it can become a novel, a
short story, a poem, a play, a song, a screenplay, etc. A
piece of writing fits into one of these broad categories
based not on what it communicates, but how it communicates.
If you write something that’s 400 pages of fictional prose,
it’s a novel, period. I don’t care if it’s about a guy from
Nantucket, it’s still a fucking novel. Similarly, a piece
of writing is a poem when written in such a way that its
structure and language are integral to the piece and indeed
vital to conveying the meaning of its contents to the
reader. And Kerouac was not a big fan of structured
writing, no sir… so is it any surprise that his poetry is
mediocre at best?

Take Poe for example, to use one of my favorite American
writers of verse. He manipulates and hones structure and
meter down to the minutest detail to guide his readers
through the strange and exciting voyage across the landscape
of the poet’s imagination. Hey, I like that comparison, I
think I’ll go ahead and run with it… so imagine the content
of a poem to be the scenery in a place that you are visiting
for the first time. As if in a dream, you are free from the
physical constraints of your body and your mind assumes a
bird’s eye point of view. What you’re seeing – mountains,
rivers, forests, and what-have-you – that’s the poem’s
content. Those mountains, rivers, and forests are the lost
love, yearnings for home, and revelations of new experience
that the poet is communicating to the reader. Poe’s
deceased lover Annabelle Lee from the poem of the same name,
the youthful love of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the infamous Man
from Nantucket – these subjects also make up the geography
of the poet’s landscape. But as the reader, you can’t just
hover there and take it all in from one vantage point. The
poet’s language and his use of style as he progresses
through the poem is how he moves you around his word. All
the choices the poet makes regarding meter, rhyme scheme,
the degree to which the poet deviates from an archetypal
structure (Romeo and Juliet obviously wasn’t all in perfect
iambic pentameter), and all the poetic devices like
alliteration and consonance… all of these aspects of a poem
combine to form the route by which the poet guides you
through his landscape. Without these devices the reader is
left hovering over a vast expanse of beautiful scenery with
no way to see anything up close or move from one place to
another. When a poem is written well, it is as if the poet
is guiding the reader’s point of view like a skilled pilot,
masterfully executing swoops and dives and guiding the
reader from beginning to end in the way that best impresses
the beautiful landscape he has created upon the reader’s
mind. For example, reading T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”
is like getting a guided tour from Superman across the vast
expanses of the rich and intricate world that Eliot so
masterfully crafted. It is truly an experience of mind-fuck
proportions to which no drug can compare (but which many
drugs can, or course, enhance.) In contrast, reading even
the best of Kerouac’s poetry is like riding in a Greyhound
bus through a somewhat bare-bones version of a scene from
one of his novels.

But alas, I didn’t intend to develop this analysis of poets’
skills to degrade the great Jack Kerouac. He never tried to
imitate the likes of Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, or T. S.
Eliot. He had his own style and he wrote with such a brash
confidence that one can’t help but respect him. He had his
methods and they had theirs, and his method and indeed his
entire philosophy of writing prevented him from surpassing
even the likes of Eliot, whose figurative literary dick I’ve
been sucking so vehemently. I believe that Kerouac was ten
times the visionary as Eliot and had a hundred times as many
wildly beautiful, soul-jarring observations and commentaries
to make. But Eliot just knew how to say it better. He and
other heavyweights like Poe and Stevens wrote about topics
that fascinated them, bothered them, frightened them,
enchanted them, haunted them, and hurt them. Sometimes they
wrote about topics that were entirely impersonal, which is
quite a feat when the poem comes across as being genuine and
not contrived. Much like the surgeon expertly guiding his
scalpel through tender human brain tissue, or the marine
biologist studying a sea anemone more delicate than a puffy
spring dandelion, or the drunken man constructing a 6-foot
pyramid of beer cans amidst the rubble of a week-long
bender, or the model airplane enthusiast removing those
pain-in-the-ass decals from the sheet with tweezers… one
false move can often spell disaster and poets are no
exception, for masters of verse like those aforementioned
must gracefully and with extraordinary attention to detail
assemble each masterpiece as a vessel of emotion,
experience, and humanity. Their goal in writing poetry was
to convey intricate and hard-to-capture nuances of
frequently delicate, gossamer subject matter. On the other
hand, Kerouac’s goal in writing (though I wish he had
confined his goals to the novel form) was to shout at the
reader with enough force blow back his hair and peel off his
eyebrows, leaving the reader exhausted by the time he turns
the final page and puts down the book as if it had ceased to
become and inanimate object when he first picked it up and
has spent the entire time slapping the reader around, but
the he knows it’s for his own good so he just grits his
teeth, hunkers down, and waits for the book to throw its
final blow before returning to its original state as an
inanimate object. As a literary template defined by its
highly structural nature, poetry does not lend itself to a
writer who wants to scream in your face to get your
attention, take you by the shoulders to vigorously shake the
inactivity from your body, and ramble for hours without
pause about all the beauty he sees and wants you to see
also, all the while shouting at the top of his lungs,
naturally, to drown out the thundering rumble of the
behemoth V-8 under the hood of the audacious beast of a
Cadillac in which he chauffers you at 110 miles per hour
down a long straight highway in Missouri.

And so we finally get to the point of my inexcusably long
introduction, which is that Kerouac’s inability to master
poetry is perhaps an explanation of why my
55-word-per-minute typing ability can barely keep up with my
brain at the moment, whereas my preferred modus operandi
when I’ve got something interesting to write about involves
a pad of paper and a Bic pen, and results in anywhere from
one to three pages of poetic verse as the end result of two
or three hours’ work. Having only written two poems in the
past two months and thereby falling short of my informal
goal of at least two per month, I should be jumping at the
opportunity to freeze my ass of in Starbucks’ poorly
furnished and deplorably heated smoking section (AKA the
fucking sidewalk outside) and crank out a few pages of verse
now that I’ve really got something good to write about. And
trust me, the thought crossed my mind. In fact, yesterday I
even got as far as sitting there at Starbucks, pen in hand
and pad of paper fluttering annoyingly in the bitterly cold
wind, but I just couldn’t do it. It just wasn’t coming.
Sure, I have ups and downs like all writers probably do.
Sometimes it comes easily and the verses seem to dance into
my head like so many anthropomorphic gifts from my muse on
high, already neatly packaged in the appropriate meter and
rhyme scheme. Ah, but alas my muse is a fickle vixen if
ever there was one, for there are times when I fight tooth
and nail for every last hard-won turn of phrase, internal
rhyme, and alliteration. But I can remember few if any
instances in the past when I just couldn’t do it. Clearly
this was more than a mild case of the poet’s eternal
scourge, the infamous writer’s block. And it wasn’t like I
was fighting impossible odds in that foolhardy,
certain-death dilemma to which two and a quarter centuries
of American poetry have yet to provide a single solution:
finding something to rhyme with ‘self’ besides the absurdly
played-out ‘shelf’ and the utterly useless and totally gay
‘elf.’ Nor was it one of those annoying but easily overcome
15 minute long just-need-one-goddamn-word-that-fits hang-ups
that are always hiding right around the corner, just waiting
for a chance to become the proverbial fly in my
ink-and-paper buttermilk. I wasn’t getting tripping up on
awkward words that don’t fit well in metered verse, like
‘appendectomy,’ ‘brucellosis,’ ‘chiropractic,’ or perhaps
the worst of them all: ‘mahi mahi.’ I wasn’t deadlocked in
weighing the relative merits of the Shakespearean sonnet
versus the limerick. And I most certainly was not having
trouble rhyming words, which is no doubt thought to be the
only difficult aspect of writing poetry by most if not all
of the literary Special Olympiads who doubtlessly make up
the entirety of my online journal’s devoted fan base… and I
use the phrase ‘devoted fan base’ in its loosest possible
connotation, which even still leaves me relying on the
not-so-rock-solid assumption that even a single goddamn
person will read this. Now, where was I before I digressed
with that brontosaurus of a run-on sentence? Ah yes… I was
explaining that I found myself utterly unable to compose a
poem about the phenomenon that has occupied more and more of
my admittedly reefer-addled mind of late. I couldn’t even
get the first line down. Hell, that would have been
monumental progress; I couldn’t even decide what direction
to go with the poem. A yearning expression of anticipation?
A retrospective glance at all the good times and all the
bad breaks that have led up to this phenomenon, perhaps? Or
maybe a third-person viewpoint, allowing me to utilize
narrative omniscience to get inside the heads of all parties
involved? But try as I might to find an angle from which to
attack, in the end I had no choice but to resign myself to
the fact that I simply am not prepared to do justice to such
a veritable mind-fuck of overpowering thoughts,
expectations, and remembrances that are bombarding my
ill-prepared, resin-clogged brain cells like a tidal wave
upon so many Indonesian peasants. Not yet. It’s all just
too much.

Are you excited? Are you on the edge of your seat? Are you
glistening, woeful reader, with anticipation? Probably not,
but even so, stay tuned for Part II where hopefully you’ll
find out why the fuck I’m writing this to begin with.