Creeley on Kerouac (Doctor Sax)

Robert Creeley (1926-2005)

Last month we featured transcription of Clark Coolidge on Jack Kerouac from a 1982 Naropa panel that also featured Robert Creeley and Warren Tallman. The occasion was the 25th year anniversary of Kerouac’s On The Road  and this particular panel focused on specific texts. Coolidge’s was Old Angel Midnight, Creeley’s was Doctor Sax.  Here is a transcription of Creeley’s remarks. Following brief introductory remarks by Larry Fagin, Creeley (at approximately two-and-three-quarter minutes in) begins:

Robert Creeley: Thank you Larry, and Allen (Ginsberg), and all of the dear people that have brought this to be. Yeah, it’s an old-time honor indeed to stand up for this.. man, this extraordinary writer, Jack Kerouac. When the possibility of having a particular book in mind was offered, generously, I thought, well you know, it’s hard to make a choice, but the point was I felt always with this writer a particular kinship, in the fact of where we’d, variously, particularly grown up, in a part of Massachusetts, and I want really to.. not talk about Jack Kerouac as a particular man one knew, in whatever particular way, I’d rather talk about this writing, this writer, and try to, briefly, in fifteen minutes or so, make clear why I would absolutely respect him and think of him as an extraordinary resource and articulation of what words can make said.

And in some respects, I think this book (Doctor Sax) is, among other things, a kind of terrific tour-de-force, not.. I’m not at all interested in how quickly it was written (I mean, I presume that all books would be written in five seconds or less, and the rest is the tedium of writing it down, or the pleasure of writing it, down, or whatever, but), I’m not interested in that particular function of time. And so… (but) I’m extraordinarily interested in the diversity of wild formal play the book has, and how that becomes part of its articulation of particular states of being, humanly, a kid, particularly a kid in that place, Lowell, Mass, a grungy, insistently hard-working textile-mills town of industrial Massachusetts..

I’d written notes, endlessly, beginning with page one –  Instantly, one gets the proposal.  It begins very explicitly:

“The other night I had a dream that I was sitting on the sidewalk on Moody Street, Pawtucketville, Lowell, Mass, with a pencil and paper in my hand saying to myself, “Describe the wrinkly tar of this sidewalk, also the iron pickets of Textile Institute, or the doorway where Lousy and you and G.J’s always sittin and don’t stop to think of words when you do stop, just stop to think of the picture better – and let your mind off yourself in this work”
– That sounds… maybe that sounds like relaxation, (but), as a writer, that’s extraordinarily hard to do, (is) to let yourself off your self as a judgment, and habit, and center, of what you’re doing. It’s like some ultimate ability to drive, or swim, or dance the tango, or something. I mean, you just forget all that consciousness of what you’re doing, (and think you’re doing), and go specifically with what’s in mind to say, (what’s being seen as there to say it with, or of), and forget whatever judgments, or qualifications, you might otherwise make, and tell a story completely of the experience, and knowing one to tell.

And in this book, that habit is extraordinarily articulate. Again, in a kind of  feeble dismay, realizing that I was, within an hour or so, going to be sitting here, I realized my notes were written in such a miniscule handwriting that I couldn’t read ‘em!. And, I thought, (Well,) “What the hell, man – I just read this book, and it got to me – What would you say of it if you were trying to describe its interest and its authority to other friends?”

I would say, there are books, there have been books, decisively about states of childhood, (or adolescence more specifically) – and one of the weirdly contesting books of the time and place was.. (not to qualify this writer out of hand or in some sleazy manner, but it was) – The.. I’ve forgotten the title! – I’ve even forgotten the name of the writer! – ha  ha! – (So.. there wasn’t that interest!..) [laughter!] – but there was this book –  (TheCatcher In The Rye– right? [more laughter!] .. I guess I’ve declared my experience of that book forever! – (and).. It was about being a kid. It was like the metaphor of being a child, it was the metaphor of the social and otherwise experiential patterns in that state of person, and social surroundings, and all the rest of it. It was a very moving book, but, paradoxically, it really hit adolescence with avengeance. I mean, endless kids were stuck out there, you know, with no remarkable information from the book.
And this is a very different book. This is a book in the state of this particular experience. One’s self is off the work of some judgment or habit. Although it insistently depends upon agencies of memory (which are incredible) it, nonetheless, is not an investment of memory, it’s not like some déjà vu or backward glance (and)… It’s an extraordinary.. oh god, it’s an extraordinary articulation of what it does seem this state of person, or circumstance, is (not only for this particular author, but, again, what makes it a transcendent, and transforming, book is that it remarkably articulates.. I want to say, rites of passage, and habits of wonder, and comings of age, (coming of age), in an absolutely..I want to say, down-home, explicit, way of world (physical, eventual, substantial, world)). And, again, (if I was going to recommend this to any of you), I would say, you know, the kinds of habits of family or childhood. Again, this is very dear and reassuring – It isn’t simply that he loves his mother, or has had this, the person in this book has had this, sad death of an elder brother, who’s crucial. There’s incredible passages that follow(s) with the, vis-à-vis, “daily circumstances” of family. There’s the room he goes to, there’s the…

I don’t know.. you know, again, I was embarrassed, in some respects (I didn’t want to explain the book. I thought it would be both offensive and specious). There’s.. the book..’s about, (it’s not about Lowell, it happens inLowell), and, at one point…
Let me tell you what I remember. At one point, Jack and his crony, Dicky (Hampshire)…
Let me just read you (just) a bit of this.. The flood has hit Lowell, a fantastic flood, the classic March flood (two seasons that Kerouac is fantastic concerning are October and March – he’s a great poet – anybody who lives in New England, or even pass(es) through on a bus, would, if they happen to be in either of those two months, would, hopefully, get some physical sensations – they’re incredible physical times in New England – March, incredible!) – So, it’s like all of New Hampshire is rushing to the sea! – this river, the Merrimac, is really going for broke. (The only text we have otherwise, I think, easily accessible on the Merrimac River is Thoreaus (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers), very different and it’s not… It isn’t that it isn’t Kerouac’s Merrimac, but the Merrimac of Kerouac is, like, the river, man. it’s like… And this river is incredibly raging, it’s swollen, and the kids are absolutely dazzled with the river, man, it’s taken over, it’s going to.. it’s rushing through Lowell ‘s more sadly impoverished sections of the town, (one sad friend’s house is now, literally, underwater). This is a glory, and its absolutely terrific , all the world is rushing..

So, himself and Dicky. He says:
“It was like a newsreel of the 1930’s to see us all huddled there in gloomy lines with minstrel-mouths shining white in the darkscreen”, etcetera, etcetera.. “incredible mud underfoot, the hopeless tangle of ropes, tackle, planks – (and seabags began pouring in that night). Mon dieu, Ti Jean, regarde la grosse flood qui va arrivez” – “tut-thut-thut “ – with her cluck tongue. (My goodness Ti Jean look at the big flood that’s going to happen)” – (One of the great delights of this is the clunky terrific translations from, quote, French-Canadian – Jack Kerouac, I think, in some respects, rightly believed that French-Canadian kept French together as a language. I least.. if you were speaking French in Massachusetts, you’d, obviously, believe that!) –  “Cosse qui va arrivez? ( that’s.. the boy answers, “what’s gonna happen?”) – ”Parsonne sui” (“Nobody knows”).

Of..anyhow, let’s continue.. “..Dicky Hampshire’s eyes gleamed with  excitement. It was the greatest sight we’d ever seen when we crossed the back Textile field and came to its high-end plateau over the dump and the deep canyoned river quarter mile wide to Little Canada, and saw all the way there the huge mountain of ugly sinister waters lunging around Lowell  like a beast dragon – We saw a gigantic barn roof floating in mid-stream, jiggling with the vibration of the roar in the hump there – “Wow!” Hungry, tremendously hungry as we got on this excitement we never went home to eat all day. – “The strategy is to snare one of them barnyard roofs and make a gigantic raft”, said Dick, and was he ever right –“ – (Only Fielding Dawson, in any literature of any time could say that and make it hit, quite with that impact – “And was he ever right!” – “)

“We rushed towards the river across the dump. There, in brightest morning, where the great chimney loomed 200 feet high, orange brick, overtopping the brick mass of Textile so nobly situates in height-vistas, there were our green lawn-slopes (the lawns of power houses neat and swardgreen) where we’d been playing King of the Hill for eternities, three years – there was the cinder path to Moody Street at the bridge (where cars were parked in this exciting morning, people were gathered, how many times I’ve dreamed of leaping over that fence at bridge end and in dream glooms rush down by the shadow of the iron underpinnings and the jutting rock of the shore, and bushes, and shadows, and Doctor Sax dreary ambiguities, something namelessly sad and dreamed and trampled over in the civil wars of the mind & memory and further scene-dreams on the straw slopescundrum-cluttered overlooking a little cliff drop to the waterside rocks) – We felt we’d grown up because these places  and scenes were now abluted in pure day by the white snow mist of tragedy. Tragedy roared ahead of us – all Lowell with bated breath was watching from a thousand parapets natural and otherwise in the Lowell valley. Our mothers had said ”Be careful” and by noon they too, huddled in housewife coats, locked the door and suspended the ironing  of the wash to come and peek at the river even though it entailed a long walk down Moody across Textile to the bridge – ”

To make a long story short. Dicky, his friend..they spot a chicken-coop roof that’s kind of.. “It came pirouetting in bumps along the fendered shore – we hooked it at our mooring with a small piece of rope on one end (tied to a car bumper stuck in the ground for ten years) andthe other end more  or less helf by a  board bridge with rocks on it, temporarily – chicken feathers we found as we romped up and down the tin roof . It was a solid raft, wood on the bottom, tin on deck – it measured fifty feet by thirty, immense – it had slipped over the wollen Fallswithout damage. But we never bargained for any long trip on the Merrimac Sea – we thought we had it securely tied, enough anyway, at some point the rope broke, Dicky saw it and jumped on the dump – but I was strolling along the outer, or flood, edge of the chicken roof and didn’t hear (from eternity roar of river) what Dicky wanted to say – “Hey Jack – the rope broke – come on back”. In fact, I was dreamily standing surveying that tremendous and unforgettable monstrous rush of ..…. –

and then, two-and-a-half pages, effectually, a long time goes by:
“Jack! Jack!” Dicky is calling. “Get off the raft – the rope’s cut off – you’re floating away!” / – I turn around and survey the damage – I take a quick run to the edge and look over at brown bottomless waters of the 90 degree dump and its receding from the last shoe hold fender at Dicky’s feet, a four foot jump in just a second…I knew I could barely make it and so I wasn’t scared but simply jumped and landed on my feet on the dump and the raft went out behind me to join humps of the main midstream, where it was seen pitching and diving like a gigantic lid – it could have been my Ship”

Well, again, how could I… In the middle of those two turns, when they get on this floating chickencoop roof and that point where he jumps off, there’s this fantastic.. not just imagination, but there’s all this wild and impacted and expanding wonder of  “what’s happened?” And I know, (from, happily, the various critical resources a propos the writing of the book – texts, happy useful examinations of the manuscript, etc), I know when it was written – in Mexico, etcetera, etcetera -and that certainly enters as a fact in the text, (tones and feeling and place), but, I’m fascinated by the way this man is so remarkably here – and it’s not that…  I, at this point.. I’m a selfish reader. I don’t care what the man or the woman writing a book thinks or feels, I selfishly want the entire experience of what’s being said to me. And the authority of a writer I respect is one that not just gives it to me or speaks to me, and says,  “Bob, that’s the door, you go out that way, or two blocks down, or…” – I love that information, but I want to be.. I want that person, that writing, to absolutely take me over. I want to hear nothing else in the universe but that voice speaking to me. And I hear words. I’m always confused by habits of reading that don’t feel the words as a physical event of sound and ear, (or sound therefore occurring in ear locating in mind-image), because I always hear a voice speaking to me. And I.. if there were nothing else I wanted to say as (a) respect and honor of Jack Kerouac’s extraordinary authority and genius as a writer, (it) would be his.. the intense and practical and insistent and transforming attraction of his way of saying things. Of that, you cannot…  In a book of over two hundred pages, you cannot.. You can choose instances of its power, but it’s the continuing voice that’s talking.

One of the hardest numbers in the world, technically, as a writer, is to enter the text and leave it, without just.. without changing things, I mean…  I mean, I was just happily involved with an interview, like they say, and at one point in the talking, they said, “Can you just hold it, we’ve got to change the tape” – Kerouac had the power, he could say that, you know, “I need another cigarette before I continue with this”. And you really wait for him, you know, to come back.  It isn’t that you feel reassured that now the author is there too, but you recognize that the wonder is truly communal, that not only yourself, but it’s like “Who touches this, touches a man”, or.. it’s the great Whitman point of the authentic.. the authenticating power of what happened to you, specifically (to me specifically, then) –

“I was there, I saw it”, you know. And that power in Kerouac is so.. so variably, intensively, and brilliantly used, this voice that’s consistently and insistently talking, and, you know – “Precipice watching with eagle eye of Indians in the plateau morning for a chickencoop roof to bump into our hands” – Again, it’s far far away from the imagination of “Did Mr Kerouac, in the wisdom of his extreme ability, say,  “Should I say “chickencoop roof”? – or, possibly, should I say “henhouse roof”? – or, you know, so I chose, no, no I want..”
No, when you’re moving in  this power of things being said, that are coming to be said in your possible mind or saying of things, you’ve got a rhythm that’s so articulating and insistent there are no… no choices of that specious order – “Is this the right word or the wrong word?” – It’s “chickencoop to bump into our hands” – “Well, but maybe he should have said “come into our hands””? – Forget it – “bump into our hands”.

“It came pirouetting in bumps” – (he loves bumps!) – “along the fendered shore” – (it’s a crazy meld and diversity, the tones of language – again, what, reading the book again, was delightful to me was the wild comfortable improvisations of forms – there were lovely poems in the text, for instance, dear and extraordinary poems, there are.. there’s a lovely, like, playlet, or scene, that is a whole script, so to speak, designed as, almost like, like a movie-script (at one point one character says this, the other says that), there’s great investments of imaginal gothic wonders of powers of magic and evil.And then it continues. And there’s no trick to it. I mean, there’s not.. you’re not arriving at some bleak and desultory symbolism. When the powers of the world, so to speak, fail, at the end of this book (not to spoil it for you) they fail in a remarkably particular way. I mean, Doctor Sax, the great imaginal hero and companion and instruction of the world and what can save it from its awful evil, he digs that he hasn’t made it – “Goddam it, it didn’t work!” –

“And he’s standing there saying “Goddam, it didn’t work”. His normal voice is rueful. “Funny thing is, I never knew that I would meet Judgment Day in my regularclothes without having to go around in the middle of the night with that silly cape, with that silly goddam shroudy hat, with that black face the Lord prescribed for me”./ He said, “Ah you know, I always thought they’d be something dramatic in dying. Well”, he says, “ I see that I have to die in broad daylight where I go around in ordinary clothes”. He had wrinkles.. around his eyes…” – Anyhow – “I felt sick. “Why can’t we have another – why can’t we have some more – why do we have to go through all this –“/ “Well I know”, said Doctor Sax, “but –“/ We both watched…”

Anyhow, they realize the World Snake was terrific, the fact that existence, that, presumably, may be somewhere under the floor, this very minute.. There’s no human relief from its power, there’s no ultimate exorcising of its authority, there’s certainly no accommodation of it, there’s only the wonder of what can humanly displace it and confront it and live in its presence and survive it.. And.. there’s a.. so, suddenly you recognize as a reader (I’m speaking now of myself, you, actually, as the reader)  – “Gee, I’ve arrived at that incredible tender moment when the world is recognized as particular, we live and die in it, our physical bodies are not to be gainsaid:

“And Doctor Sax standing there with his hands in his pockets, his mouth dropped open, uptilted his searching profile into the enigmatic sky – made a fool of –/ “I’ll be damned”, he said with amazement. The Universe disposes of its own evil!”/That bloody worm was ousted from its hole, the neck of the world was free -/The Wizard was dissatisfied, but the neck of the world was free – / I have seen Doctor Sax several times since, at dusk, in autumn, when the kids jump up and down and scream – he only deals in glee now./ I went along home by the ding dong bells and daisies, I put a rose in my hair. I passed the Grotto again and saw the cross on top of that hump of rocks, saw some old French Canadian ladies praying step by step on their knees. I found another rose, and put another rose in my hair, and went home./By God.”

I’d like to stop there. Hopefully questions later, if you’re interested but that’s all I can (reasonably say) – Thanks…

Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately two-and- three-quarter minutes in and concluding at approximately twenty-four minutes in 

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