Clark Coolidge on Jack Kerouac

Clark Coolidge

[[Jack Kerouac]]

NAROPA’s Summer Session – Clark Coolidge on Allen – “Allen Ginsberg – Poet”. We hope to include transcripts of some of that material here, in the months ahead, on The Allen Ginsberg Project. [Editorial note – regretfully, those classes were not recorded] Meanwhile, looking back to 1982, here’s a transcript of Coolidge’s talk at the legendary Twenty-Five Year Anniversary of On The Road – Jack Kerouac Conference (We’ve already included selections from those festivities here, here amd here – not forgetting here and here)

One session (see here), moderated by Larry Fagin featured Warren Tallman, Robert Creeley and Clark Coolidge. Coolidge’s primary focus is Kerouac’s unjustly neglected Old Angel Midnight

“Friday afternoon in the universe, in all directions in & out you got your men women dogs children horses ponies tics perts parts pans pools palls pails parturiencies and petty Thieveries that turn into heavenly Buddha – I know boy what’s I talkin about case I made the world and when I made it I no lie & I had Old Angel Midnight for my name and concocted up a world so nothing you had forever thereafter make believe it’s real”.

So begins the work that Jack Kerouac called Old Angel Midnight which has been a favorite of mine ever since it first appeared in the first issue of Big Table magazine in 1959 and I chose it for that reason, also because I really think it hasn’t been talked about enough or considered as one of the major works in his canon. What I want to do is set up the context of the work with his other works around that time, make a few remarks that occurred to me while re-reading it for this conference and then, mainly, just read a few sections, which I think is more or less the point of us being here and doing this. Anyway he seems to have started writing this work around May 1956 in a shack in the back of Locke McCorkle’s house in Mill Valley, California, and probably picked it up again the next summer, or rather, the next Fall, in Berkeley (actually, it was the next summer). In Desolation Angels, there are these lines describing that time – “With my supply of Morrocan pep pills, I write and write by candlelight in my room the ravings of Old Angel Midnight, nothing else to do”. Also there is some references later to Orlando, so it’s possible he picked it up later there again. It’s been published in two sections that (there are actually sixty-seven sections in the published work – one through forty-nine were in Big Table in (19)59, and then, in the Evergreen Review of Fall (19)64, there are sections fifty through sixty-seven). Also, he recorded three sections from it on two of the records that he put out in 1959 and you should really hear them. I’ll try and read some of this but you’ve got to hear his voice

The first indication of this work, or almost, like, a prospectus for it that I was able to find, was a poem, which is in Scattered Poems, which I believe, since Allen Ginsberg dated (it) 1955 with a question mark..  it’s called“Daydreams for Ginsberg” – “I lie on my back  at midnight/hearing the marvelous strange chime/of the clocks…”…”..I will write/it, all the talk of the world/everywhere in this morning leav-/ing open parentheses sections/for my own accompanying inner/thoughts – with roars of me/all -brain all world/roaring vibrating – I put/it down, swiftly, 1,000 words/(of pages) compressed into one second/of time – I’ll be long/robed & long gold-haired in/the famous Greek afternoon/ of some Greek City/Fame Immortal and they’ll/have to find me where they find/ the t h n u p f t  of my/shroud bags flying/flag yagging Lucien/Midnight back in their/ mouths – Gore Vidal’ll/ be amazed, annoyed – / my words’ll be writ in gold/& preserved in libraries like/ Finnegans Wake and Visions of Neal

That was 1955, and he was evidently thinking of the work. And we have some statements by Kerouac himself about it. One that appeared in Evergreen Review, where he says – ”My idea of how to make a try at a spontaneous Finnegans Wake, with the sounds of the Universe itself as the plot and all the neologisms, mental associations. puns, word-mixes from various languages and non-languages scribbled out in a strictly intuitional discipline at break-neck speed.” Then, in a letter to John Clellon Holmes in 1956, in May of 1956, when he was writing Old Angel Midnight – “And I don’t know what to write anymore. I’ve been finally doodling with an endless automatic writing piece which raves on and on with no direction, no story, and surely that won’t do, though I’ll finish it anyway while doing other things but I wish I could get rid of the compulsion to write” – Right?- “I’ve done enough already to quit the scene Oh well, what to say, do, sing, remember, mourn, reap, wreck, rail against, or cry about, or crash? – nada”. And in a letter to Don Allen, February (19)58 – “And a piece of prose, Chapter 48 from Lucien Midnight [Old Angel Midnight]  my ultimate nutty masterpiece which has no meaning and therefore opens up the Zen gates of cut-link nirvana – hey” – Then, later, in an Escapade magazine article,  1961, he’s a little down on the work after all and he says –  “I began to rely too much on babble in my nervous race away from cantish clichés chased the proton too close with my microscope, ended up ravingly enslaved to sounds, became unclear and dull as in my ultimate literary experiment Old Angel Midnight. There’s a delicate balancing point between bombast and babble”.

That’s an interesting point to get to in writing. I’m not surprised that he drew back from it. I think something else happens at that very point (which I’ll get to in a minute), but I did want to sort of set up the writing-context of what he had written just previously and around that time –  Summer of (19)55, he wrote the poems of Mexico City Blues, and then in January (19)56, Visions of Gerard. This is an incredible period, probably close to the peak of his first.. not counting Town and the City but his first really push, big push of writing – it started with On the Road, Doctor Sax and Visions of Cody. In May of (19)56 he was writing Old Angel Midnight and Scripture of the Golden Eternity, I think practically at the same time, or at least very close, then he went immediately from Mill Valley to his summer on Desolation Peak in the Casacades in the summer of 1956, which is described in most detail in the first section of Desolation Angels , which was written then in Mexico that Fall 1956. Then, almost coincidentally, On The Road was published, September 5, 1957. You can see a lot of connections if you read The Scripture.. and Old Angel Midnight together. Interestingly, or not, Scripture.. has sixty-six sections and Old Angel Midnight sixty-seven.  About The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, he said later, “I wrote it in Locke McCorckle’s shack in Mill Valley in pencil, carefully revised and everything because it was a scripture. I had no right to be spontaneous.”

Well, it’s incredible, he’s writing that, and then he was writing this totally spontaneous work, possibly at the same time, or next to. So that you get things that cross over between the two works. For instance, Scripture.. Section 56 – ““That looks like a tree, let’s/ call it a tree”, said Coyote to Earthmaker, at/the beginning, and they walked around the/rootdrinker patting their bellies.” And right at the beginning of Old Angel Midnight, it says, “ “- and at night, ya raise the square white light from your ghost beneath a rootdrinkin tree & Coyote won’t hear ya but you’ll ward off the inexistency devils..”  Also, similarly, Old Angel Midnight – 6, he says,  “The moon is a piece of tea”. In Desolation Angels – 39, “the moon is a piece of me” – and so on. There are many such parallels.

What I want to say about what occurred to me when I was reading this was that you could really, for a study and thought, divide Kerouac’s writing into three phrases which interact (they don’t always go in this order but they blend in and out of each other).
The first would be sketching, what he called sketching, which would actually be sitting down in front of the subject and writing in a pocket notebook. This, for example example of that from Old Angel Midnight would be this, probably “The Mill Valley trees, the pines with green mint look…motionless like cows on the grass” – And then, the next phase you might call, what I like to call, blowing, (as in jazz musicians, blowing on the chords as if you.. as if memory and dream were chord changes in a standard tune). This section might illustrate it – number 12 from Old Angel Midnight – “Lou Little explaining to the newsreel audience how this football player went mad & shows how on a Columbia Practice Hillside”…. “…remembering the little jello cartoon that filled me with such joy as a kid…” “Ring, ring, ring – /Shh, the sky is empty  -/ Shh, the earth is empty – / Look out, look in, shh -/ The essence of jello is the essence of arrangement – /Be nice to the monster crab, it’s only another arrangement of that which you are.”

Okay, and then the third phase might be what’s been called babble-flow, or complete sound voice that’s coming in without any real intent as an opener – like this section – 59 – from Old Angel Midnight – “Aw rust rust rust rust die die die pipe pipe ash ash die die ding dong ding ding ding rust cob die pipe ass rust die words – I’d as rather be  permiganted in Rusty’s moonlight Rork as perdirated in this bile arta pantaler where ack the orshy rosh crowshes my tired idiot hand”….”…wd a lief Erick some son with blady matter I guess as whup a mule in singsong pathetic mule jump field by quiet fluff smoke North Carolina (near Weldon) (Railroad Bridge) Roanoke Millionaire High-Ridge hi-party Hi-Fi million dollar findriver skin fish Rod Tong AppleFinder John Sun Ford goodby Paw mule America Song -”

It seems to me that forms a cycle, (in) which sketching might lead to memory, blowing on the subject of memory or dream, and into this kind of rant, blowing, free-blowing babble, which, curiously, at that point, seems to return to a kind of emptiness which appears in The Scripture of the Golden Eternity (which) he describes as “the immaterial gold ash” of the universe and everything- (“the infinite immaterial gold ash..”) – And then, immediately, in that void of.. of almost pure light, images begin to come back in, (as if in a Japanese scroll-painting),and then he begins sketching again and the whole thing returns. (This section from Old Angel Midnight -(55) might show that – “The wash of trees on yonder eastern nabathaque Latin Walden axe-haiku of hill where woodsman Mahomet perceives will soon adown the morning drear to pail the bring up well suspender farmer trap moon so’s cock go Bloody gurgle in the distance where Timmy hides, flat, looking with his eyes for purr me – O Angel, now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party and ah Angel don’t paperparty me, but make me honied in silken Hoen honey rubbed Oxen tongue of Cow Kiss, Ant Mat, silk girl ran, & all the monkey-better-than-secondary women of Sam Sarah the Sang of Blood this earth, this tool, this fool, look with your eyes, I’m tired of fooling, O Angel bring it to me THE MAGIC SOUND OF SILENCE broken by first birds teepaleep -“) – there’s silence and then the physical world starts coming back in.

In fact, there seems to be a polarity between Old Angel.. and The Scripture.. from the everything babble of., I think it’s maybe the Great American Art Project.. is the everything work – I mean, we live in this incredible mess. Samuel Beckett said once, when they asked him, in 1962, what do we do now?, what is the artist to do now?, and he said, the task of the artist is to “accommodate the mess”, (he used the word “mess”), [“To find a form that accomodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now”]  which somehow reminds me of the beginning of this work when he says ‘ “..Old Angel Midnight for my name and.concoted up a world so nothing that you had forever to make believe it’s real” – (which maybe is what the writer’s gig is? – “make believe it’s real” or something..)

So, anyway, one more thing I want to say about movement and writing, and Bob (Creeley)actually, was talking a little bit about it. It seems to me there’s a point where you get up a momentum, of.. where you aren’t making choices, where you’re maybe hearing voices, and I found a quote from the French writer Maurice Blanchot (in “The Gaze of Orpheus”) which is very interesting in this connection. He says that One can only write if one arrives at the instant towards which one can only move through space opened up by the movement of writing” – Right? – I mean it sounds like a koan or enigma, but really, it isn’t that dense, you have to be writing, you have to have started writing, in order to (get) where you get to the point where these things start falling in, and where you’re somewhere beyond your intention – which was really the thing that turned me on to Kerouac to begin with, turned me on to writing to begin with. I had no ..vaguely… well, I was taught at school, you (know that).., novelists had it all together before, and they just sort of filled it in, and I thought, what a drag! Then I found out it was like playing drums, (which I was already doing). I thought, you know, a drummer doesn’t know in bebop what’s going to happen in the next second, the next bar – and Kerouac impressed me that he didn’t know for sure what those words were going to be. I thought how marvelous, you know, aha!, no-one’s gonna get this.

Anyway, a momentum of sound possibly that, when it gets going, maybe, picks up things, or brings out words. There was an interesting point in an Escapade article that Kerouac published in (19)61 where he says. “In describing the stormy sea in Desolation Angels, I heard the sound “peligrosso” for “peligrosso roar” without knowing what it meant. I wrote it down involuntarily, later found out it means “dangerous” in Spanish” – That kind of thing happens more at times than you ‘d think when you’re in that state.

Anyway enough of that and I just want to go out reading some sections of… it’s just so beautifully vocalized, I mean it just makes you want to read it. I wish he’d recorded the whole work. It would be marvelous. I wouldn’t have to be here…

Warren (Tallman) says I should talk about how I feel about the Steve (Allen appearance) … First of all, I’d seen that thing when it first came out, in complete unbelief ,in black-and-white, on a tv set, and then, years later, Ron Padgett gave me an amazing copy of a tape, a sound tape that he had made in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I guess, (when he was at high-school! ) – off the family tv set, and so I’ve had that to listen to, but (I was just) completely…  I mean there really are no words to describe. .sitting next toTed Berrigan and Ted leaned over and said, “Who is this man?” -I mean, “Who was this man?” Where did he come from?. We know the voice, we know the words, but..

Anyway, I don’t want to go on too much with that, but.. Let me just read some, try to read some sections here to finish

– Section 4  – “..pah – bum with a tail only means one thing, – They know that in sauerkraut bars, god the chew chew & the wall lips – And not only that but all of them in describable paradises – ay ah – Old Angel m boy – Jack, the born with a tail bit is a deal that you never dreamed to redeem…”… “… And don’t expect nothing from me, my middle name is Opprobrium, Old Angel Midnight Opprobrium, boy, O.A.M.O -/ Pirilee, pirilee, tzwe,tzw1, tzwa, – tack tick – birds & firewood. The dream is already ended  and we’re already awake in the golden eternity” – Section 10 – “..I don’t understand this suffering but there’s no ego owning in sufferunderstanding either – And all the combined sounds one human gnoise – Cats yawn I’s like to yawn I’d like to not like and begone bechune & bejesus if what on earth & under heck and over shit we gonna do O hopeless ghosts?.. ”

– (Section 18) “San Francisco has no vaults – San Francisco has bo vault – Singalrad the sailor Sam said he saw in the so – Go – The students outside the monastery window have subsided in their chatterm light – Ran and farted to show his old rock routine & so “wom”? (Rom Tom?) (Vaii) hmf the noises (float) out the window…”…”I hear the tail fi fu – old Monstr Hufu the Zen Froofroo is now going to vain his glory  by be shitting himself in gruel birth – Ning – Anais Nais Thais Ming – China Tink Hongya Ming Mon the Bong – Sing, & yack dank bar poets won’t Listen to old Kanuck”

– Section 28   “…No that was the Eternal Consoler passing thru as Knife yard, his white shirt knit by Rimbaud Angels did sweep aside the iver mud from this intact  and classify crystal, so that so-that could soolidat smarty pine – Ah, yar – but she yawed so much & I had to be saved from drunken bumhood by these words…”…. “…I’ll tell you een more but now it’s comin on Friday night & GLEE yell the children of Paris running over the grass of St.Thomas d’Aquin where supplicatee hold artistic Europe oil hand out to be larded poignarded bathed powdered put away ah all the Napoleonic troubles in this pastry! –  Tie it all together, Jack, the mirror doesn’t show the real right”

Section 29 –  “Ah Angel Midnightmare – / Ah Crack Jabberwack, play piano, paint, pop your pile anum coitus semenized olium o hell what’s his biblical name, the pot that split in the room ere Sarad had hers, ad her share, the mame, the word, for masturbators, the Neptune O YA you know the name, the Bible Keen Mexican yowl that old tree still hangs in the same moonlight – Ilium, Anum, Ard Bar, Arnum, Odium, Odious, ONAN!  ONAN KERAQUACK go heal yr own toiletbowl, stop dropping shavings in mine & leave my grave unsung, my death unlearn, my qualities you can have, but onanist no quarter given you Angel Midnight  by in that holy gallows of the moon!”
– It’s incredible isn’t it, he put in that whole thing. We all know it so well, when you can’t think of a word? – he runs it all down, the whole trip.

(Section) 51– “Wreck the high church chichipa & get firm juicy thebest the best no other oil has ever heard such peanut aqueeze – On top of which you yold yang midnockitwatter lying there in baid imagining casbah concepts from a highland fling moorish neach by moonlight medallion indicative spidergirls with sandlegs waiting for the Non Christian cock, come O World Window Wowf & BARK! BARK! BARK!  for the girls of Tranatat – because by the time those two Mominuan monlks with girls & boys in their matted hair pans sense wind in the flower the golden lord will turn the imbecile himself into slip paper – Or dog paper – orthat pipe blend birds never peckbecause their bills are too hard -.that window paper.”

Section 56 – “Ack who gives a ruddy fuck about all this American showoffy prose I’d like to know why Whane meant horsefly & Brane something like, & why Owe’s Born is Awe’s Awe’s Dead, & all our intelligent handsome Teddu Boys go yearning after our pink pages & never find & all the riots in Pixy Dilly & all the Traf on the Square, Elgar with his music doesn’t impertaramount the rock of Murican roll? For strings? Air? O nonce, node, these babic ypiks, these Inds, these stupidities, these gem americans.

And finally, to finish, the last section of Old Angel Midnight in Big Table

Section 49 – “Tswit tswit the tsweeo bird of tree in the roaring gulf day, hay blowing in the hay truck ho truck horizon roar of Orlandoar – Trazzz the truck going by in satree beachie roar – OAR! – take this – I-see dream ferry, go ahead stare at grapefruit you forget how to smash meditate when you went rich you forget movies make you sit whittlesick stick whittlefool you’ll never make it now except golden pencilhurl eternidad outa bird tswip lost in explorer moon – O grapefruit! orange wheee waxing moss-old void Saturday ecstatic there-you-go world – O I know all now, think I’ll shut up – You folks, can hear the rest in ear.”

Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) – photo: Tom Palumbo

Here‘s Clark Coolidge and the late great Michael Gizzi in 1994 reading
the whole Old Angel Midnight 

Here’s another don’t-miss lecture by Coolidge on Kerouac (from 1991) – this one was first published in 1995 in the American Poetry Review and was subsequently published in the volume Disembodied Poetics –  Annals of the Jack Kerouac School (edited by Anne Waldman and Andrew Schelling and published by the University of New Mexico Press.

A collection of Coolidge-on-Kerouac, Now It’s Jazz  Kerouac and the Sounds was published by the University of New Mexico Press in 1999

Ron Silliman‘s informed appraisal of that work can be read here

Worth reading too, John Latta‘s observations

[Audio for the above – Coolidge’s 1982 Naropa talk can be found here, beginning at approximately fifty-three minutes in and concluding approximately eighty-and-three-quarter minutes in – the tape (including Tallman and Creeley’s contributions is a record of the whole session) 

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