Much of his work has been judged inadequate and downright bad, but for someone who wrote literally thousands of poems, this is to be expected. However in his best works he presents himself exposed to the world, tender, naked and aware of the pain of life and the suffering of man.
New Year's Day
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average
O flea! whatever you do,
that way is the river
Issa was born Yataro Kobayashi in the mountain village of Kashiwabara in central Japan. His was a family of farmers with literary tastes. At an early age, Issa lost his mother and gained a stepmother. Issa and his stepmother got along terribly and at the age of 14 his father hired him out as an apprentice in Edo. His advice to his son upon his leaving was: "Eat nothing harmful, don't let people think ill of you, and let me soon see your bonny face again."
For his first 10 or so years in Edo, little is known of his activities. Around the age of 25, he emerged, studying haiku and publishing poems under a man named Chikua, who claimed an attachment to the tradition of Basho.
While studying and imitating Basho, Issa formed his own style by "reaching back past Basho to get to Basho." Or, as Issa himself phrased it through, "countrified haiku."
Don't kill that fly!
Look it's wringing its hands,
wringing its feet
(Approaching a village)
Don't know about the people,
but all the scarecrows
Issa was championed in the group and after Chikua's death, Issa became its master. His leadership was not appreciated as many considered him a rebel and a year later, at the age of 29, he resigned his position.
Following his father's advice, Issa returned home. Soon thereafter, in the tradition of Saigyo, Basho and Buson, he set off on a ten-year journey, tracing their travels. He shaved his head and wore priestly garb. He also officially took the name Issa, which means "a cup of tea" or "a single bubble in steeping tea." He was financially supported by his father, but earned money by teaching at villages and correcting verse along the way.
He made three specific trips over there ten years and published his travel journals. In 1801, when Issa returned home, his father died. In his will, his father left Issa everything upon the condition he settle there and marry. However, Issa's stepmother and stepbrother contested the will and were supported by their villager neighbors. Issa's journal during this time was published under the title, "A Journal of My Father's Last Days", and has been described as being in a style similar to Balzac.
From "A Journal of My Father's Last Days":
Clear ... as today was the anniversary of the death of the founder of our sect, Father was up early in the morning, and had begun to perform his ablutions. I thought this would aggravate his fever, and tried to stop him, but he would not be dissuaded. Turning to the household statue of the Buddha, he began to read a sutra as was his usual custom. His voice was barely audible. I felt depressed as I gazed from behind at his ravaged form.
With my father
I would watch dawn
over green fields
During the next eleven years, from 1802 to 1813, he was involved in litigation over the will. Issa split his time between his home and Edo, where he taught students and composed the bulk of his work. In the end, in a surprising turn of events, the two warring parties decided to split the house down the middle and live side-by-side.
Issa married a local farm girl named Kiku, which means "chrysanthemum". Their marriage was to be troubled from beginning to end. Over the four years of their marriage, they gave birth to and lost two sons and one daughter. None made it past a year. In 1819, as Kiku was giving birth to their fourth child, she died. Her infant son died soon after.
In a dream
my daughter lifts a melon
to her soft cheek
what they look like
Four years later, at 63, Issa married again but broke off the marriage. He married a third time in 1825. In 1827, his home burned down and then in November, quite unexpectedly, Issa died, leaving a young pregnant wife. His death poem:
A bath when you're born,
a bath when you die,
His daughter, Yata, survived and inherited the rebuilt home, which still remains in her family today.
A tethered horse,
in both stirrups
Field of bright mustard
the moon in the east,
the sun in the west
Buson was born in 1716 to a fairly well-off family. As is the case with ancient Japanese poets, little is known of his childhood. It is known that he lost his parents at an early age. Around the age of 20, he left his home village of Kema to study painting and poetry in Edo.
It is interesting to note that in China, painting was not considered an art like poetry. Painting was considered a trade and a good way to make a living. The Wenjen painters of the Tang dynasty revolted against the over-commercialization of painting and, in the process, elevated painting to the level of fine art.
This same approach was taken by Japanese painters like Buson, who adopted the wenjen sensibility to declare their own freedom from commercialization.
Buson obviously was not just limiting himself to painting. He had always written haikai and used painting as a way to finance his life as a poet.
Around the small house
struck by lightening,
A urine-stained quilt
drying on the line
Around the age of 26, Buson set off on a pilgrimage across the country. This was a common practice for many Japanese, the equivalent of the modern day "finding of oneself". During the ten years he wandered, he put most of his efforts into painting as he traveled, but little of his painting (let alone poetry) survives.
He followed Basho's travels through the northern land of Japan and even made illustrations for Basho's book, "Narrow Road to the Far North." He shaved his head and dressed as a lay monk. He did not lead a monastic life, however, as he had a fondness for drink and geishas.
At the age of 36, Buson settled down in Kyoto. Over the next ten years he firmly established himself as the preeminent painter and poet in Kyoto. Sufficiently established and financially secure, at the age of 47 he married. However, this did not quench his tastes for liquor and the aforementioned geishas.
The mad girl
in the boat midday;
you are the slaves
A student asked Buson what the secret to haikai was and Buson replied, "Use the commonplace to escape the commonplace." Buson, however, was not the most congenial teacher and friend as is evidenced by his statement that, "on the whole, it is a bother to keep up relationships with people in this world."
When he was asked to head up the haikai school of Hajin in Edo, he responded with this statement:
"These days, those who dominate the haikai world peddle their different styles, ridicule and slander everyone else, and puff themselves up with the title of "master". They flaunt their wealth, parade their ignorance, and promote themselves by arranging their students' innumerable wretched verses in anthologies. Those who know better cover their eyes in embarrassment and are ashamed of such behavior."
After some prodding, Buson did take on the role of "master" at the school.
stuck to the soles of his sandals,
there's joy also
Buson's work as a haiku poet truly blossomed around the age of 55. He was the acknowledged haiku master and made a sufficient wage as a painter. Books of his poems began being published, including "Light from the Snow" in 1772 and "Around Here" and "A Crow at Dawn" in 1773.
In 1783, at the age of 67, Buson passed away from chest pains. But like the master Basho before him, his life ended with a final haiku, entitled "Early Spring":
In the white plum blossoms
night to next day
"There came a day when the clouds drifting along with the wind aroused a wanderlust in me, and I set off on a journey to roam along the seashores."
Prologue to Narrow Road to a Far Province
In the early centuries of Japanese history, there was a strong tradition of pilgrimage, particularly among poet-monks. This can be seen as a parallel to similar movements in medieval Europe and in America.
Some of the best known poet-monk-travelers include Sogi (1421-1502) and Saigyo (1118-90), as well as the Chinese poet Li Po (705-762). But it was the Japanese poet Basho (1644-94) who perhaps had the greatest influence on those who followed him. This is because Basho is credited with reviving an art form that was expiring to superficiality at the time -- the haiku.
Born outside of Kyoto, Matsuo Kinsaku was the son of a low-ranking Samurai. Little is known of his early years. However, after writing verse as a child, Matsuo moved to Edo (present day Tokyo) where he worked towards establishing himself as a writer. He quickly became a central figure in the burgeoning literary scene of Edo, writing numerous hundred-verse renkus (with another poet), presiding over haiku contests and producing anthologies of verse.
By the age of 34, Matsuo was recognized as a master and a circle of poets began to form around him. Ironically, it was at this time that Matsuo began to recede from the scene. He moved to modest dwellings -- a gamekeepers hut -- outside of town. It was there that he received an unexpected gift that changed him -- one of his students gave him a banana tree, or basho. The banana tree is a broad-leaved plant that tends to dwarf other plants around it. It also was an exotic tree, uncommon to Japan. Perhaps for these reasons, from that point on, Matsuo (who had used other pen names before) became known simply as Basho. Every hut he inhabited the rest of his life included a basho tree and he often traveled carrying one with him.
Basho's studies had begun to widen, encompassing much Chinese literature. He also shaved his head and began work as a lay-monk. He developed a love for solitude and it was then that his true poetic form began to present itself. He began to combine his influences, particularly the traditional forms of Japanese poetry with Zen-inspired aesthetics.
In his lifetime, Basho wrote well over one thousand haiku and numerous travel sketches of his pilgrimages. Here are several examples:
Banana leaves hanging
Around my hut-
must be moon viewing
Listen! A frog
jumping into the stillness
of an ancient pond!
On the dead limb
squats a crow-
Skylark on moor-
how many under
the pine-tree Law?
Four temple gates-
under one moon,
and plumb scent
The crane's legs
have gotten shorter
in the spring rain
behind the mirror
all day the gate-
I herald dawn
It's not like anything
they compare it to-
the summer moon
rice field, ocean,
Not one traveler
braves this road-
Squalls shake the Basho
night my basin echoes rain
All through the night
I listened to the autumn wind
in the lonely hills
Ah me! What a time
to rain-the night of Harvest Moon.
Oh, fickle northern clime!
Sadly, I part from you-
like a clam torn from its shell,
I go, and autumn too.
First winter rain-
I plod on,
Traveler, my name
Sparrows in eaves,
mice in ceiling-
Reeling with sake
and cherry blossoms,
a sworded woman in hatori
Boozy on blossoms-
in a world of one color
the sound of wind
A snowy morning-
chewing on dried salmon
Much is known of life as a poet as his followers took care to record as much about Basho has they could. They sensed his mastery. And in his last nine years of his life he experienced his most fertile period as a poet.
During this period, he also began his period of life on the road. He gave up virtually all his possessions and took to countryside of Japan. He kept record of his travels in what he called his "sketchbooks". These included everything from direct recordings of the day's events, to haiku composed along the way, to fictionalized stories that he thought of as he traveled.
Basho achieved a realization during his travels, a satori where he sensed muga, which is the elimination of the self and the absorption of the self into what one is writing about. Of course, the master himself put it best. One of his disciples, Doho, wrote: "The master said, 'Learn about a pine tree from a pine tree, and about a bamboo stalk from a bamboo stalk.'"
Basho taught that the poet should always detach the mind from the self and enter the object, "sharing its delicate life and feelings."
Each time Basho set off on a pilgrimage he would sell all he had, fully expecting that each trip would be his last. He referred to it as setting off into eternity. But each time he returned safely, with sketchbooks full of newly composed haiku and travel stories. And each time he returned, his disciples would provide him with a home that included basho trees planted in the garden.
In 1694, Basho truly set off into eternity, this time on a trip to Japan's southwestern provinces. He grew gravely ill shortly into his trip and died of dysentery at the ripe old age of 50. He was buried in a temple at Otsu overlooking the lake he loved to gaze at, Lake Biwa.
This was his final haiku, written for the friends he was staying with at the time of his death:
Sick on a journey-
Over parched fields
Dreams wander on
A detailed Basho lifeline is here.
During the Heian period of Japanese culture (700-1100), it was a social requirement to be able to instantly recognize, appreciate and recite Japanese and Chinese poetry. It was around this period that short forms of poetry (tanka) grew in popularity over long forms of poetry (choka). The rigid lifestyles of the time carried over into art; every poem had to have a specific form. The approved form was the 5-7-5 triplet followed by a couplet of seven syllables (this was the Japanese equivalent to the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare's England).
From this form developed the renga (linked verse) and the kusari-no-renga (chains of linked verse). These forms were used almost as parlor games for the elite. However, in the mid-sixteenth century there began a rise in "peasant" poetry. It was then that Japanese poetry underwent a rebirth in which the staid forms of the past were replaced with a lighter, airier tone. This new form was called haikai and was later named renku.
Haikai consisted of a beginning triplet called a hokku. The hokku was considered the most important part of the poem. It had two principal requirements: a seasonal word (kireji) and a "cutting word" or exclamation.
The poet Basho infused a new sensibility and sensitivity to this form in the late seventeenth century. He transformed the poetics and turned the hokku into an independent poem, later to be known as haiku. Basho's work focused around the concept of karumi (a feeling of lightness) -- so much so that he abandoned the traditional syllabic limitations to achieve it.
In "On Love and Barley: Haiku of Basho", Lucien Stryk wrote:
"Basho's mature haiku style, Shofu, is known not only for karumi, but also for two other Zen-inspired aesthetic ideals: sabi and wabi. Sabi implies contented solitariness, and in Zen is associated with early monastic experience, when a high degree of detachment is cultivated. Wabi can be described as the spirit of poverty, an appreciation of the commonplace, and is perhaps most fully achieved in the tea ceremony, which, from the simple utensils used in the preparation of the tea to the very structure of the tea hut, honours the humble."
Basho also was one of the earliest proponents of spontaneous prose. He believed in and preached the concept of Shasei (on-the-spot composition and tracing the subject to its origin). To give an idea of his influence, a contemporary school of haiku, Tenro, is popular all over Japan. It includes some two thousand members all over the country who meet at designated temples to write as many one hundred haiku a day. The goal is to attempt to enter objects and share the "delicate life and feelings."
Since the time of Basho, the history of haiku mirrors the Zen ideal that it oftentimes relates. While it has gone through many transformations, developments, and revisions, good haiku today is surprisingly similar as to when Basho developed the form in the seventeenth century.
So what should haiku accomplish? What should it provide the reader? According to the classic haiku poets of Japan, haiku should present the reader with an observation of a natural, commonplace event, in the simplest words, without verbal trickery. The effect of haiku is one of "sparseness". It's a momentary snatch from time's flow, crystallized and distilled. Nothing more.
Of all the forms of poetry, haiku perhaps is the most demanding of the reader. It demands the reader's participation because haiku merely suggests something in the hopes that the reader will find "a glimpse of hitherto unrecognized depths in the self." Without a sensitive audience, haiku is nothing.
There is a growing tradition of western Haiku, and Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac have brought about a new awareness of the possibility of modern Haiku.
It took me a while to figure out how to memorialize William S. Burroughs.
There's something about Burroughs that makes words seem ridiculous, especially trite sentimental words about death. This is the writer, after all, who'd coined the phrase "Language is a virus." When Burroughs' fellow Beat writer Allen Ginsberg died a few months earlier, the emotional response flowed easily, as Ginsberg's own literary style was warm and highly personal. With Burroughs it would be more tricky.
I had gathered a few pieces that I wanted to work with. The first was the transcript of a telephone interview conducted by poet and Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, which Lee had sent me along with three surprisingly great photos he'd taken when visiting Burroughs at his home in Kansas. The second two were short tributes I'd solicited from two writers who'd known Burroughs personally, Robert Creeley and Carolyn Cassady -- not because the pairing of these two people had any special significance in the life of Burroughs, but mainly because I happened to know both their e-mail addresses. Carolyn Cassady's reply was extremely curt and not very complimentary to Burroughs, but I considered her point of view as valid as any other, and it did not seem unfitting that there should be some divisiveness within a memorial to this highly controversial personality.
The fourth piece is, I think, the most remarkable: a personal account of the Tibetan/Egyptian-inspired after-death ceremony, a bardo, conducted by Burroughs' closest friends and partners shortly after his death. This was written by Patricia Elliott, who'd been Burroughs' close friend, and who originally posted it to the BEAT-L internet mailing list.
Unsure how to make these pieces fit together, I finally decided to follow Burroughs' own example and give up on trying to
reconcile the individual parts. Burroughs had found meaning in the "cut-up" style of writing, in which sentences and paragraphs from various sources are spliced together intuitively but not logically, often revealing hidden meanings within. Getting into the spirit, I took inspiration from his title "Naked Lunch" and Ginsberg's related title "Reality Sandwiches" and decided to call this whole project "Sliced Bardo". That's it, and here it is.
As James Grauerholz says in the final section, facing the fire: Let's burn it.
"Give the director a serpent deflector
a mudrat detector, a ribbon reflector
a cushion convector, a picture of nectar
a viral dissector, a hormone collector
what ever you do, take care of your shoes"
-- Phish, "Cavern"
"If I don't explain what you want to know
You can tell me all about it at the next Bardo"
-- David Bowie, "Quicksand"
Many thanks to Lee Ranaldo, Robert Creeley, Carolyn Cassady and Patricia Elliott.
Bardo in Kansas by Patricia Elliott
Patricia Elliott, a friend of William S. Burroughs in Lawrence, Kansas, posted many heartfelt accounts of his last days and the days that followed his death to the BEAT-L, an internet mailing list where she is often a lively part of the conversation. (If you'd like to know how to join this list, visit this page).
I was tempted to include all of Patricia's posts here, but decided instead that this description of a Tibetan/Egyptian-inspired death ceremony had special power and was best left to stand alone. Burroughs was a writer who thrived on contradiction, and so I particularly liked the idea of a Buddhist death ceremony for a man whose strong skepticism and libertarianism did not make him a natural Buddhist in life. (Example: In a letter to Jack Kerouac, who was deeply involved with Eastern philosophy for most of his later life, Burroughs once wrote: "A man who uses Buddhism or any other instrument to remove love from his being in order to avoid, has committed, in my mind, a sacrilege comparable to castration.")
The energy and humor of clashing ideas has always been at the heart of Burroughs' art. In that spirit, here's a scene from the final act of his life story.
-- Levi AsherAll week long I didn't want to go. I felt swept with anxiety and decided about 7 times I wouldn't go. James [Grauerholz], who never calls me, called me around 1 PM and said he was just checking in to make sure I knew to come. Bob, John Myers, Lena and I drove out to Wayne Propst's farm for the bardo around six. Wayne was a close and dear friend to William and an old and dear friend to me. Wayne is a mad scientist, ingenious with all things mechanical. I made a pasta salad and John Myers took a six pack.
Wayne and his family live on lush riverfront land, lots of outbuildings, scene of hundreds of experiments and gatherings. William really never missed Wayne's parties. Lena heard at school from a friend, who was also going to the bardo, that Wayne might blow something up. The excitement builds when Wayne is involved. Wayne has an old farm house, many outbuildings, trees, giant warm barn. His property runs along the Kansas River (we call it the Kaw River). Beautiful kaw valley bottoms.
The bardo is staged to be in front of the barn, in a small pasture. The big barn doors open to the pasture, flooding light from one space into another. In the middle of the pasture there was a massive dome-shaped heavy wire cage with a wire doorway. Inside were lumber, fireworks, pictures, and pages and pages of things that people brought and were bringing. I guess there were a hundred and fifty people. I knew a hundred of them, wide varieties of different folks, overwhelming for me. Actually exchanged cards with some kid that does a Burrough's site. Perfect weather, light breeze, around 60 degrees.
Around dusk, standing in front of the barn, Wayne spoke (on a nice speaker system), then introduced James Grauerholz. Now it is getting dark. James reads a farewell to William's soul letter from David Ohle, first by lighter -- of course at one point you heard a little sound from James, when it got hot, and then someone brought up a kerosene lantern from the barn, and James then read a note from Giorno. Then James said a few things and explained some of the Egyptian and Tibetan Buddhistic relationships in the ceremony, tying in the significance of William's writings in his book "The Western Lands".
Wayne goes to the dome and lights the fire. It was glorious, it grew, it swirled, popped, pulsed, danced. The cage was a dome about 12 feet high and 20 feet across. Things like pictures, posters, objects d'art, and many many papers were laid on the lumber, but things and paper also hung suspended from the cage. Once the fire flowered came Williams voice, reading from "Western Lands". It was perfect, I swear the fire danced with his voice. The Cheshire cat had his smile but William's voice was the most evocative voice. I got up and went nearer the fire, strode around the fire, circled it three times. Most people sat in chairs and on benches in a large semi circle, music, flames, love. I stood up with James and Bill Hatke, the sparks flew wild. In the crowd was William's dentist, Charley Kincaid, (he had been one of the pallbearers at the Liberty Hall service), and he is the wildest, funniest man, with a wonderful good soul. That guy can distract you from a root canal with his wit. Fred Aldridge sat in one chair, He shot with William weekly for ten years or more. Fred is a tall skinny redhead. I've known him for 30 years. I introduced William to Fred. William was like a father to Fred's soul. Fred is a talented musician and artist, driven always to some elegant perfection. There were the New York suits standing in the barn. They seemed to be having a remarkably good time, the most relaxed I had ever seen the suits. In the crowd are such a variety of people that I am stunned but recognize that these were all people that William had built a relationship with over the 16 years he had made Lawrence his home. William loved persons rather than people, and he loved fun. It was a fun and a sober sight to see the embers chasing to the sky and think that's William's soul flying to the western lands.
I feel when William first died, his spirit was there in the room with his body. It was comforting. Then I felt his spirit whirling around the world, I almost know he went to Tangiers for a moment. I feel he is gone. We have lots to do now.
Two additional notes: Sue Brossau (David Ohles' wife) mentioned that the fire cage was one that Wayne and William had made for a bardo they'd held for Allen Ginsberg.
For a little illumination, here is, approximately, James Grauerholz's remarks at William's Bardo Burn, 9/20/97
Why are we here?
Each and every one of us has a different answer to that question, and we can meditate on those reasons while we take part in this event tonight.
It has something to do with our hosts, Wayne and Carol, and I know we all thank them for making this gathering possible.
It has something to do with Lawrence, our community - not the "metropolis" of Lawrence, frankly - but the community that we found when we came here, however many years ago we came here ... the community that we built here, over the years that we have been here ... the community that we share, now, while we are still here.
And it has something to do with William Burroughs. William lived here for sixteen years, longer than he lived in any other place in his life.
Every time William went out in the town, he always ran into friends; he had friends here, everywhere he went.
And every time he travelled far away, he always came home to Lawrence.
Lawrence was William's home, his final home. He lived here, he lived well here, and he died here.
And we all miss him very much.
Now, I don't know how many of us are Buddhists, and I'm pretty sure there are no more than one or two ancient Egyptians here tonight, but I'd like to say a few words about their belief systems concerning life, and death, and life after death.
The ancient Egyptians postulated seven souls - as William's voice will be explaining for us, in a moment ... three of those souls split, at the moment of the death, the other four remain with the subject, to take their chances with him in the Land of the Dead. But first he or she must cross the Duad, the River of Shit, all the filth and hatred and despair of all human history -- then, on the other side, lay down the body, the Sekhu, the Remains, and journey through the Land of the Dead, encountering souls from your own life who have gone before - through a thousand challenges and trials, you try to make your way to the Western Lands ...
The Buddhist belief (I can't do this justice right now, but this is basically it) is that your soul, more or less, is reborn again and again, into new lives. Ideally, you would not be reborn, but escape the wheel and of death and rebirth, into nirvana; but the highest enlightened ones consciously vow to be reborn as many times as it takes for all sentient beings to become enlightened, they sacrifice their opening to nirvana - that is the boddhisattva vow.
The idea is that after physical death, the soul wanders through a spirit region known as the Bardo, re-living past experiences, facing images left over from other lives, other karma - and then, usually after about seven weeks, is re-born - attracted to a male and female coupling, and born again, to suffer again.
We are gathered here tonight to perform a ceremony that is ancient and universal - the burning of objects and images associated with the departed, to symbolize the dissolution of the physical body and its intermixture with all other elements - for example, Native Americans, it was pointed out to me tonight, burn the dead person's belongings immediately after death ...
Now if I haven't waited too late and I can still read this, I'm going to read you some short remarks sent here by David Ohle, and by John Giorno:
First, from David Ohle:
"Sendoff Message to the Soul of Bill
Well now, Bill. They say you've done your Bardo time, and now your SOUL is fixing to head off somewhere.
But look here, baby. We're gonna miss that creaky old soft machine you've been walking around in these eight score and three. We got used to it, you know. Those wise and witty things it said. And wrote. And it must have pumped fifteen tons of lead into the world.
I don't know about souls, my dear. But if you have one (and I know you believed you did), then let's give it the giddyup 'n' go. Shoo! Everybody say it, "Shoo! Giddyup! Git on, Bill's soul!"
And take care crossin' that River of Shit.
Sorry I ain't there today, my dear, but I figure when you're talking soul travel, what the fuck is a few thousand miles? I'm looking toward Kansas right now. I see something."
And this from John Giorno, and I'll try to approximate his delivery:
to fill the world,
you have accomplished
and great bliss,
and the vast empty
of Primordially pure
I mean, in the larger sense ... William had a very definite answer to that question:
We are Here to Go.
Okay, let's burn it.
But then I caught his act at the Nuyorican Poetry Cafe, sharing a bill with Ron Whitehead, Brian Hassett and others, on a night that happened to be the night William S. Burroughs died (though nobody knew this at the time). He didn't sing "Pull My Daisy" and I ended up loving every minute of his performance. I think the problem has been the bright lights, the uncomfortable chairs and the academic atmosphere of some of these earlier events. In a small dark smoky club way past midnight a vintage hip-cat like David Amram can finally show us who he is, and this night at the Nuyorican I understood for the first time why Jack Kerouac wanted him onstage while he read his poems. Amram's passionate belief in the power of music is infectious. At one point he had the entire crowd going in a two-part syncopated handclap -- one half of the room providing one beat, the other half complementing it -- that was, I realized, probably the most complicated musical arrangement I will personally ever participate in.
David Amram also has his own web page now, so I figure it's about time I write about him in Literary Kicks.
2. This must be my month for coming to terms with people I didn't appreciate before. A few weeks ago a young editor at William Morrow named Benjamin G. Schafer challenged me to read a book he'd just put together: the Herbert Huncke Reader, published by Morrow this month. I've always found Huncke an intriguing personality -- a more street-wise original-junkie friend of the core New York beat writers in the 1940's, he shows up as a colorful character in 'Junky','On The Road', 'Howl' and many other Beat classics. He's written books, (for Hanuman, Cherry Valley Editions, etc.), but I'd personally never read any of them, and I sort of casually dissed him as a writer in my Herbert Huncke biographical page here at LitKicks. Benjamin Schafer, who worked hard putting this book together, asked me to put aside my preconceptions and give Huncke a fair reading for the first time. He pointed out a few pieces for me to read, and I began with 'The Magician,' a haunting, honest tale of heroin addiction that reads like a Buddhist parable. I also tried, at his recommendation, 'Beware of Fallen Angels', 'Faery Tale' and 'Easter', and the long autobiographical novella 'The Evening Sky Turned Crimson.' And, okay, I admit it: Huncke is a talented writer, and obviously took the craft seriously. His picturesque slice-of-life tales express with honesty and humor the state of mind of the City Hobo: junk-sick, impoverished, stripped completely naked of his own morals. This theme reverberates in the writings of William S. Burroughs, as well as movies like 'Midnight Cowboy' and the songs of Glen Campbell (just kidding about the Glen Campbell part).
If you are interested in the roots of the Beat Generation -- it was Huncke, by the way, who introduced Kerouac to the term 'Beat' -- you don't want to miss this book.
3. Speaking of Kerouac -- he's all over the place lately. This month is the 40th Anniversary of the publication of 'On The Road,' and a 40th anniversary edition of the book has been published, along with some other fanfare. More interestingly, Viking Penguin has finally published an unseen Kerouac work of major importance: 'Some Of The Dharma.' It's a thick hardcover volume of Kerouac's notes and musings about Buddhism, and stylistically it's somewhere between a Joycean literary experiment and a personal journal about the tragicomic spiritual condition of mankind. It has no plot, almost no characters or dialogue, and the sentences are laid out like free verse. This book is not for everybody, but I've been skimming several of its hidden surfaces for a few weeks now, and I haven't run out of interesting discoveries yet. Among other things, we know now the origin of the phrase "God Is Pooh Bear" from the last paragraph of 'On The Road': Cathy Cassady, the daughter of Neal and Carolyn Cassady, said it when she was a few years old.
Other Kerouac web news: there's now an online version of Paul Maher's Lowell-based Kerouac Quarterly, and there's a new permanent web page to describe the annual Lowell Celebrates Kerouac festival which takes place this weekend. Still no news of the Francis Ford Coppola film of 'On The Road', and I'm figuring this film will never get made. One film that will get made, though, and which I'm really looking forward to, is a Burroughs-related project, partly based on the novels 'Queer' and 'Junky,' that will be directed by Steve Buscemi (I wrote about this in a previous Beat News entry, below, and have since gotten word that the project is still on and gathering steam).
4. Other new books: 'A Far Rockaway of the Heart' by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (whose City Lights bookstore finally has a web site!). 'A Different Beat: Writings By Women of the Beat Generation' is another spin on the theme begun by last year's excellent "Women Of The Beat Generation" anthology published by Conari Press. This book is written by Richard Peabody and published by High Risk Books; I just bought it so I don't know if it's good or not, but it has writers like Carolyn Cassady, Elise Cowen, Diane Di Prima, Joyce Johnson, Hettie Jones, Lenore Kandel, Jan Kerouac, Janine Pommy Vega and Anne Waldman, so I'm pretty damn sure I'll like it.
Finally, my wife and I have both become incredibly fascinated by the new edition of the Folkways' Records 'Anthology of American Folk Music', originally compiled by Beat outer-orbit personality, experimental filmmaker and all around strange-guy Harry Smith in 1952. This thing is wild. We see folk music in it's rawest form: authentic jug bands, porchlight crooners, church choruses, and numerous other characters from the deep country, both white and black (you often can't tell which), singing and talking in a mega-hick vernacular as compelling as it is strange. Many of these singers were the country-hobo equivalents of the city-hoboes presented by writers like Herbert Huncke (above). When these guys sing the blues, they sing the blues.
This record was one of the first collections of folk music available in public libraries, and as such played an important role in the developing sensibilities of future folk-rockers like Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia. You can read more about this historic re-release in Wired News and Furious Green Thoughts/Perfect Sound Forever.
5. Farewell -- one last time -- to Mother Teresa, Princess Diana and William S. Burroughs.
April 5, 1997
I spent today with my 70-year-old stepfather, a person who's been a really positive force in my life and a good friend as well as a parental figure. He's having a hard time lately, having just been diagnosed with a serious case of bone cancer. My mind was buzzing with some news I'd heard last night, that Allen Ginsberg -- who'd also just been diagnosed with a severe case of cancer -- had "taken a turn for the worse." It was kind of a "dark cloud over my head" day.
I came home about 8:30 and heard that a friend had called. Since this friend was a friend of Ginsberg and hardly ever called me, I knew what this meant. I checked my email, and there it was, in a hundred subject headers.
Ahh, Allen Ginsberg.
According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, he'd be sailing around the first Bardo (or something like that) by now. This is a really amazing book, if you've never read it. It's an instruction manual for how to die, and it describes in detail the cosmic journey your soul takes as your body begins to accept your death and your mind begins to break free and float away. It describes what you will see and feel as you make this journey:
"From the heart of Amitabha, the transparent, bright red light-path of the Discriminating Wisdom, upon which are orbs of the same nature, -- leaving neither the centre nor the borders of the red light-path unglorified with orbs and smaller satellite orbs,-- will come to shine ..."
And it warns you what to avoid, what demons will try to distract you:
"Be not fond of the dull white light of the devas. Be not attached to it; be not weak ..."
And warns you not to succumb to the sin of self-pity, or to cling to what is now lost:
"Thou wilt beget a fear for the dazzling yellow light and wilt wish to flee from it. Thou wilt be fondly attracted towards the dull bluish-yellow light from the human world. Do not fear that bright, dazzling yellow light, but know it to be wisdom ..."
The book also describes in precise detail what odd or disorienting sensations will occur, so as to allow particularly sensitive people to "prepare" for the journey into death. There are pages and pages like:
"At the moment of death the empiric consciousness, or consciousness of objects, is lost. This is what is popularly called a 'swoon,' which is, however, the corollary of super-consciousness itself, or the Clear Light of the Void ..."
So I figure ... if what the Tibetan Book of the Dead says is true, Old Ginzy ought to be having himself a swinging time up in the First Bardo right now. I bet he's already gathered a crowd around him.
Let's hope what the book says is true.
Place of death: East Village, New York City
Time of death: 2:39 in the morning, April 5, 1997
Cause of death: Heart attack in combination with severe liver cancer.
I'll put links in here tomorrow morning -- but it's saturday night, I'm tired, and I haven't seen my wife all day. Here's my Ginsberg page, Mongo Bear's Ginsberg Site, here's Corduroy's and here's Colin Pringle's Beat Archives. Bill Philibin's Memorial Page is also good, and the unique Cosmic Baseball Association's is too.
Here are some more memorial pages:
Thanks to Michael Stutz for the photo.
2. Speaking of Kerouac: if he were alive today, he'd be celebrating his 75th birthday on Wednesday, March 12. (And can you imagine what a character he'd have turned into by now? Would he have ever stopped drinking? Would he have any friends left?). Anyway (getting back to reality), Stone Soup Poets of Boston will be sponsoring a celebration of Jack's birthday at the Old West Church in Boston's Beacon Hill at 8:00. The featured event will be a reading by the fascinating poet John Wieners and other writers and musicians. Tickets only five bucks (cheap!), write to Jim at email@example.com for more info.
Nearby in Lowell, the Kerouac contingent there will be gathering at the Dubliner on 197 Market Street to listen to jazz and poetry and, in their words, toast Kerouac's Irish Connections. Sounds like a crazy night in Massachusetts this March 12.
3. Water Row Books, one of the most authorative Beat-related bookstores around, has just released 'Beat Speak -- An Illustrated Beat Glossary circa 1956-1959' by Asleigh Talbot. The title might seem a little faddish but the book is actually very gritty and double-edged, with a strong emphasis on the hard drugs, lurid sex and police-paranoia that marked the Beat community in its prime. Definitely an interesting perspective.
4. Oh yeah ... did you ever read those excellent in-depth interviews with writers in the Paris Review? The latest issue's interview subject is Gary Snyder. Can't read it online though, so don't bother trying.
A lot of people, myself included, consider this Jack Kerouac's second best novel (after You-Know-What). Published in 1958 by Viking Press as the follow-up to that very successful book, The Dharma Bums is a gentler and more spiritual work about a group of writers on the cusp of literary fame and flying on a Buddhist kick, inspired by Zen lunatic Japhy Ryder, who is to 'Dharma Bums' what Dean Moriarty is to 'On The Road'.
Virtually all Kerouac's novels are about him and his friends, and 'Dharma Bums' is no exception. Japhy Ryder is Gary Snyder, Alvah Goldbook (who reads a poem called 'Wail') is Allen Ginsberg (author of Howl), and Neal Cassady makes a few brief appearances, not as Dean Moriarty but as Cody Pomeray. Kerouac himself is represented as Ray Smith. Furthermore, 'bow-tied wild-haired old anarchist fud' Rheinhold Cacoethes is Kenneth Rexroth, 'big fat bespectacled quiet booboo' Warren Coughlin is Philip Whalen ... I could go on and on, but let's just get to the book already.
It begins with Ray Smith bumming a ride to the San Francisco Bay Area on a freight train. He shares a boxcar with a hobo who shows him a slip of paper containing a prayer by Saint Teresa. This is the first of several Dharma Bums we will meet. (NOTE: 'Dharma' is one of the most important words in the Hindu and Buddhist religions. I hate to try to define this word, but it basically means 'your spiritual duty,' or 'your place in the universe.' A Dharma Bum is a bum because it is the right thing for him to be, because by being a bum he is fulfilling a spiritual duty greater than himself.)
Ray Smith arrives in Berkeley, California, where he lives with Alvah Goldbook and hangs out with Japhy Ryder. The three of them spend most of their time hanging around the house arguing over whose brand of Buddhism is most enlightened, and their conversations provide some of the funniest scenes in all Kerouac's books (well, okay, that's not saying much -- Kerouac is not a funny man). When Japhy Ryder brings a beautiful girl named Princess over for a clothes-optional session of 'yabyum,' Ray Smith is frozen in confusion, unable to reconcile his contemptible sexual desires with the spiritual consciousness Japhy Ryder is trying to introduce into his life.
The contrast between Ryder and Smith's approaches to spirituality is the main theme of the novel. Japhy Ryder is a cool-as-a-cucumber Zen Buddhist, calmly conducting tea-drinking ceremonies, inventing haikus and arranging sessions of yabyum with beautiful women. Ray Smith is a strict no-nonsense Theraveda Buddhist, viewing life as an all-or-nothing battle between lustfulness and purity. He hasn't had sex in a year, believing sexual desire to be an obstacle to enlightenment. The drastic nature of Smith's religous choice (I'd hyperlink to Kierkegaard here if I knew of a site to link to) means that his Buddhism is a constant source of internal strife, in contrast to Ryder's matter-of-fact, intuitive acceptance of Eastern ways. Ryder is living as a Buddhist, but Smith is 'wrestling with' Buddhism, and thus his experience with it is far more intense (and interesting) than Ryder's, even though Ryder is an 'expert' and Smith a novice.
Goldbook makes it a trinity of ideas: he views the ascetic Buddhist principles as an unnecessary intrusion into his fun life of sex, drugs, good food, warm beds and all the other things that make life worth living. He understands and respects the Buddhist religion, but is hoping to put off changing his life for it as long as possible. (This was, it turns out, Allen Ginsberg's initial reaction to the Buddhist 'trend' of this time. He would ater take the religion much more to heart.)
Japhy Ryder and Ray Smith go off to climb the Matterhorn, a tall and challenging mountain in the High Sierras. They bring a friend, Henry Morley (in real life, John Montgomery), who provides comic relief by doing everything wrong. The writing is wonderful here -- I don't do much reading on 'outdoorsy' subjects, but Kerouac's description of the mountain and the climbing process is bright, vivid and intensely personal. You can feel the howling wind as Smith clings to a depression in a rock only a hundred feet from the peak, terrified to take another step. When they're back down at the camp, you can just taste the bulgar wheat porridge with bacon, and (even better) the pancakes with maple syrup they find at a restaurant back in town.
The whole climb is symbolic, of course. That's why it's poignant and significant that Smith clings to a rock near the peak (clinging is a Buddhist metaphor for failing to give up your vain desires) while Ryder makes it to the top alone. Only moments later, Kerouac realizes 'It's impossible to fall off mountains you fool!'
A good scene from the book, Ryder and Smith camping out after a long day of climbing, is here.
Back in Berkeley after the idyllic outing, Smith plunges back into the city world of misery and maya (the Buddhist word for illusory distractions). Cody Pomeray (who plays a pointedly diminished role in this book, as if to emphasize the fact that Kerouac is now under the influence of the peaceful Gary Snyder, not the crazed Neal Cassady) asks Smith to look after a girlfriend who's been acting very weird. Smith tries to talk to her but they don't click together, and under his care she suddenly kills herself.
More distractions: Smith goes East to stay with his family. A rather conventional bunch, they depress him with their petty lives, and he expresses his feelings by camping out on the porch instead of sleeping inside in a bed. He gets in a fight with his brother-in-law, who forbids him to play with his dog anymore. (If this all seems like typical adolescent family-related angst, keep in mind that Ray Smith is in his mid-thirties at this point.)
The bummer continues: Smith returns to Berkeley, but he's sick of hitchhiking and hopping freight trains (see excerpt). He hooks up with Japhy Ryder, but Japhy seems depressed himself, and mumbles something about wanting to get married and make a lot of money. But Japhy and Smith manage to ride out this bummer, and after a while everything's swinging again. Japhy's going off to Japan, and Smith meets his charming family at a riotous farewell party.
The book ends with Smith following in Japhy's footsteps by traveling to the Cascade Mountain range in the Pacific Northwest to spend a season as a fire lookout. Japhy had told him stories about these mountains and the forest rangers he knew there, and Smith is thrilled to experience it all on his own. He is led by another Dharma Bum, Happy the Mule Skinner, up to the top of Desolation Peak, where he will live in a small cabin by himself. The last few pages are wonderfully descriptive and happy; Smith has found his own inner peace, at least for a while. We leave him in a state of ecstasy, falling to his knees to say a happy prayer of thanks for all the beautiful nature around him.