“In the other room wild women are dancing as Creeley of Acton Massachusetts and I of Lowell beat.”
- Jack Kerouac, letter to John Clellon Holmes May 27, 1956
by Jonah Raskin
They both cast long literary shadows across American letters in the second half of the twentieth-century. Jack Kerouac was mostly a novelist though he also wrote poetry. Robert Creeley was mostly a poet though he wrote fiction, and a huge body of essays and reviews that ranged over nearly all of modern literature, from Samuel’s Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature to Ezra Pound’s poetry and William Burroughs’s fiction.
Few writers compressed their own experiences at the typewriter as succinctly as Kerouac, and then made them available to wanna-be authors in a kind of ten-step program, except that he offered 28-steps in no particular order of importance. Beginning in early boyhood, Kerouac thought of himself as a writer and threw himself into the world of books. Ironically, even after Creeley wrote and then published books in the 1940s, he was reluctant to describe himself as a writer. As a young man, he was also wary of books and book culture, though that had changed by the time that he met Kerouac in 1956.
Who influenced whom is a matter of debate, though literary historian Steven Watson insists in The Birth of the Beat Generation that Kerouac helped “free” Creeley “from the imposition of plot.” Curiously, on his 1976 list of literary “heroes,” Creeley offered more than a dozen writers, including H.D., Gertrude Stein, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Ed Dorn, and Ted Berrigan, but not Jack Kerouac. Many different writers helped to free Creeley from his New England Puritanism.
Contemporary writers might learn from both Creeley and Kerouac—who came from opposite sides of New England—how challenging it is to pinpoint influences and how difficult it can be to resist the temptations of ego and competition. Creeley and Kerouac both might have identified with the narrator in Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” who observes, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,/And sorry I could not travel both/And be one traveler.” They each carved out their own roads that others have followed over the last 50 years and helped enshrine their reputations.
On his “List of Essentials” for “Belief & Technique of Modern Prose,” Jack Kerouac urged writers to be “submissive to everything, open, listening.” He did that the night when he and Creeley attended a “big 40-people party” in San Francisco in the spring of 1956, when they both consumed a great deal of alcohol. Drinking linked them, though it also divided them. Kerouac would pass out. Creeley became belligerent, though neither one caused trouble at this event; instead, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky stole the show when they took off their clothes and stood naked in the crowd.
Kerouac described Orlovsky as a “mad young Russian Kafkean saint with wild hair.” By comparison, Creeley seemed rather tame, though the patch over his left eye lent him a certain mystique. “Distinguished Buddhists,” including Alan Watts, chatted with “drinks in their hands,” Kerouac wrote, while “wild women” danced with one another in another room.
Kerouac added a brief sentence about himself and his newfound companion that hinted at submerged personal histories: “Creeley of Acton Massachusetts and I of Lowell beat.” Creeley was, indeed, from the town of Acton, about 15 miles south of Lowell, the city where Kerouac was born and raised and where he attended high school. Creeley was born in 1926, four years after Kerouac. In the spring of 1956, when he and Kerouac attended parties, poetry readings, and raucous events, Creeley turned 30. Kerouac was an older brother Creeley never had; Creeley briefly replaced the brother Kerouac lost.
When he wrote the word “beat,” Kerouac meant it to work as a noun and a verb. Lowell was his beat, and he and Creeley were beating drums and behaving like two beat characters in the midst of a brief bromance. On another occasion, also in the spring of 1956, which took place at the Cellar in San Francisco, Kerouac wrote, “I walk in there with Creeley and we drum and beat.”
Years later, Creeley would remember that he and Kerouac attended a party in 1956 where they were “banging on upended pots and pans” and were “keeping the beat.” In San Francisco, they exemplified the spontaneous, improvisational spirit of “beat,” though Creeley was not part of the Beat inner circle that included Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs.
In Kerouac’s company, Creeley became, albeit briefly, a part of “the Beat scene,” as the incipient Beats called it. In the spring of 1956 there wasn’t yet a “Beat Generation,” and there wasn’t yet a “Black Mountain School of Poets,” either, though Creeley had taught writing at Black Mountain College, which was imploding in 1956 while the Beats were coalescing and ascending. “The seedbed” for the “new culture” was “the San Francisco ‘Renaissance,’ the Beats,” Martin Duberman observed in Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community, though as he also noted, just a few years earlier, Black Mountain, San Francisco, and New York all contributed to the movement “to break the hold of previously accepted models of behavior and art.”
Two of Kerouac’s biographers, Tom Clark and Gerald Nicosia, both argue that Creeley and Kerouac were cut from the same regional cloth, though neither Clark nor Nicosia looked closely at the communities and the families that shaped them and from which they emerged. Clark interviewed the poet from Acton at length for his biography of the writer from Lowell. He wrote that “Kerouac and Creeley had much in common—both were northeast Massachusetts natives with French Canadian blood—but the main bond between them was that they were intense, engaged drinkers.”
In fact, Creeley’s ancestors were English while Kerouac’s were French-Canadian. Creeley thought of himself as Puritan while Kerouac regarded himself as Franco-American. Clark quotes Creeley as saying, “I always felt very at home with Jack.”
By the time that Clark wrote his Kerouac biography, Jack was already dead. The two volumes of Kerouac’s letters, which offer his story of the coming together and drifting apart from Creeley, were not yet in print, nor were Creeley’s letters. In his biography Memory Babe, Nicosia echoes Clark and emphasizes the bonds that alcohol created. He also wrote that Kerouac and Creeley were both “sad” and imbued with a streak of “wildness,” though in the spring of 1956 Creeley was wilder than Kerouac—wild enough to be arrested and go to jail, which Kerouac mentions twice in his letters.
Nicosia also quotes Creeley as saying that he and Kerouac both “shared the ‘New England apprehension’ that big city people were out to ‘run a number on them.’” That might have been true for Creeley, who preferred small towns and medium-sized cities, but Kerouac thrived in New York and Mexico City. Soon after he met Creeley, he realized that Acton was, culturally speaking, a long way from Lowell.
“Damn . . . his New England,” Kerouac would write. Soon after Creeley read Kerouac’s novel Doctor Sax, which is set in Lowell, he remembered the city he knew as a boy. ”I used to go to Lowell once a year to buy a suit,” he told Kerouac in a letter and added, “You were the kids I never saw!” Creeley was the boy in the suit; Kerouac the kid in denim.
In his very fine book The San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, Michael Davidson complains that Beat writing “has been valued for extraliterary qualities.” Indeed, books about the Beats often indulge in Beat trivia and avoid discussion of the form, style, and language of Beat novels and poetry, though for Beat fans there is no such thing as trivia. For the most part, Davidson adheres to literary topics. Occasionally, he veers away from them and discusses “the Eisenhower doldrums” and “contemporary American life.”
In fact, distinctions between the literary and the “extraliterary” break down with the Beats and Black Mountain, as Martin Duberman makes clear in Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community. Duberman goes back and forth from books to marriages, children, personal relationships, and the social fabric at Black Mountain College, which informed both the teaching and the writing.
“The competition for the few women was rough,” Duberman writes; “There was a hierarchy in the community.” Like the world of the Beats, the world of Black Mountain was dominated by men. Denise Levertov was one of the few women at the college and in the pages of Black Mountain Review, which Kerouac referred to as “BMR.” There was also a pecking order when Beats and Black Mountain writers, including Kerouac and Creeley, got together, with rivalries and name calling on both sides. Robert Duncan resented what he saw as Ginsberg’s arrogance; Gregory Corso targeted what he felt was the Black Mountain literary mafia.
Creeley knew about Kerouac before Kerouac knew about Creeley; he admired Kerouac’s work and was eager to publish it in BMR. Kerouac, who was rarely published between 1951 and 1956, was delighted, and offered Creeley and Duncan a small part of his story, “October in the Railroad Earth”—which would be published in 1960 in Lonesome Traveler, a collection of prose pieces, under a slightly different title, “The Railroad Earth.” There it ran to 46 pages in a 183-page paperback.
Creeley and Kerouac were an odd couple, indeed, as their letters to one another attest, and as Kerouac’s letters to his friends corroborate. Yes, they came from the same part of Massachusetts and belonged to the same generation, but Kerouac was working class and Catholic with a deeply ingrained sense of suffering, redemption, and resurrection. Creeley was Protestant and middle class and eager to leave his background and to venture into uncharted waters that would take him to the sensual, the body, and to a view of human beings that went far beyond the New England Puritanism of his ancestors.
Creeley and Kerouac would both come to realize the social and economic divisions between them. Creeley came to see Kerouac as The Other, while Kerouac would regard Creeley as a kind of square who didn’t dig jazz as he did.
Kerouac’s father was a printer. His mother worked in a shoe factory. Creeley’s father, who died when Robert was four, had been a doctor. His mother worked as a nurse to support the family. Kerouac’s parents came from French-speaking Canada. Like Creeley, he suffered an early emotional loss: the death of his older brother, whom he would write about in the novel, Visions of Gerard. Visions counted greatly for Kerouac, along with the blues, haikus, and myths. Creeley was more domestic and everyday, akin to Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams, while Kerouac turned to Melville, Dostoevsky, Jack London, and Thomas Wolfe. Surprisingly, Creeley wrote a long enthusiastic essay about Walt Whitman’s poetry in which he quoted Dickinson, John Ashbery, and Gregory Corso, and argued that Whitman’s late poems were magisterial.
Creeley and Kerouac lived through and were shaped by the Depression of the 1930s, World War II, and the nuclear age that was born in 1945 when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Kerouac had enlisted in the U.S. Navy, but had found himself unsuited for military life. He was honorably discharged with a diagnosis of “schizoid personality,” which he seemed to accept. In lieu of military duty, Creeley joined the American Field Service and spent two years, 1944-1945, in Asia.
More so than Kerouac, Creeley had a keen sense of the shifts in the zeitgeist and an ability to summarize them. “The forties were a hostile time for the writers,” he explained in his introduction to The New Writing in the USA (1967). “The colleges and universities were dominant…poems were equivalent to cars.” Kerouac had a similar perspective on the post World War II era, though he looked at prisons and hospitals, not at colleges and universities, to take the pulse of the nation. “The Beat characters after 1950 vanished into jails and madhouse, or were shamed into silent conformity,” he wrote in his 1957 essay “About the Beat Generation.”
Creeley and Kerouac had both enrolled at Ivy League colleges—Creeley at Harvard, where he studied with F.O. Matthiessen and adopted some of his intellectual rigor before dropping out; Kerouac enrolled at Columbia, where he played football briefly and later mythologized his athleticism. At the New School, he took Alfred Kazin’s class on the American novel and asked Kazin to help him find a publisher for his work. He didn’t want to teach Melville, as Kazin did, but be Melville. “I’ve invented a new prose, Modern Prose, jazzlike breathless swift spontaneous,” he told Kazin in 1954.
Creeley and Kerouac both married early and were divorced by the time they met in 1956. Kerouac had a daughter, though he refused to accept her as his child or help support her. By 1956, Creeley had two sons and a daughter who had grown up with him and their mother, Ann MacKinnon—Creeley’s first wife— and who traveled with their parents. Creeley could be as myopic as Kerouac about women. In 1956, after a divorce from MacKinnon, he wrote to a friend to say he had a new wife, though he didn’t mention her name until the friend inquired. Only then did he say her name was Bobbie.
Like Kerouac, Creeley was often on the road and not just in the U.S—he went as far as Southeast Asia, and to France and Mallorca, where he founded Divers Press—and then to Black Mountain, North Carolina, where he edited BMR, which often included work by students and members of the faculty. By 1956, Creeley had a book of short stories to his name and four books of poetry, all under the imprint of small presses, while major publishing houses put Kerouac’s fiction into print. Still, as Ginsberg noted in February 1955, “you’re legendary already without having published.”
Kerouac’s first novel, The Town and the City (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,1950), introduced the concept of “Beat,” along with a cast of Beat characters and the theme of the road, though not the style that would come to define his work. In 1955, New World Writing #7 published his fiction piece “Jazz of the Beat Generation” under the name Jean-Louis; it was widely read and served as a kind of teaser for On the Road, which came out two years later from Viking. A note from the publisher that accompanied “Jazz of the Beat Generation” read, “This selection is from a novel-in-progress, THE BEAT GENERATION. Jean-Louis is the pseudonym of a young American writer of French-Canadian parentage.”
In The San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, Davidson makes two significant claims: that Creeley had much in common with the Beats; and that male bonding was Kerouac’s main theme. What Davidson doesn’t point out is that real human beings— Kerouac himself, along with Cassady, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Snyder, and others— inspired Kerouac’s fictional characters.
Art and life blend and bleed into one another in the Legend of Dulouz, the series of fourteen interconnected novels that begins chronologically with Visions of Gerard and ends with Satori in Paris, and that cover the life of the protagonist who goes by a variety of names, including “Smith” and “Paradise.” When Kerouac writes, “I first met Dean,” he was drawing on his own personal experience and simultaneously creating a fictitious persona.
As Creeley noted in an essay published by Le Roi Jones and Diane di Prima in their Beat inflected journal Yugen, the “I” and the “self,” rather than the “we” and the “they” were “a mark of the new poetry” of the 1950s. He added, “And that’s a good thing.” No American poets and novelist in the second half of the twentieth-century perfected the use of the “I” and were more versatile when writing about “the self” than the Beats, though Saul Bellow also used the first person pronoun to great effect in The Adventures of Augie March (1953).
When Creeley wrote “Jack’s Blues,” he was thinking about Kerouac and mimicking Kerouac. He began the poem, “I’m going to roll up a monkey”—with monkey as code for marijuana cigarette. The 16-line poem in four stanzas borrows from Beat idioms and reflects some of Kerouac’s marijuana experiences, but the lines and the stanza are too neat and tidy on the page to be Kerouac.
In the untitled poem that begins “If there is such a thing as fact/it is possessed by happy Jack Kerouac,” Creeley wrote about Kerouac, but “Happy Jack Kerouac” is a misnomer. Creeley wanted Kerouac to be happier than he was. As Kerouac noted, Creeley certainly needed to get out from under his own sadness.
If Kerouac’s novels are about male bonding, as Davidson writes, they’re also about the displeasures and dissolutions of male bonding, which mirror the disintegration of the author’s real life friendships. With Creeley and Kerouac the bonding was almost instantaneous, while the break-up was quicker than with Kerouac and Neal Cassady, for example, who went their separate ways, and prefigured the ending of On the Road, where Sal Paradise leaves Dean Moriarty behind and rides in a Cadillac to Carnegie Hall to hear Duke Ellington perform.
Creeley found the ending of the On the Road especially powerful. “The fade off on Neal is very moving,” he wrote. “He just stands there as one moves out—it hurts to read it.” Curiously, Kerouac never described his bonding, and its opposite, with Creeley, not in The Dharma Bums (1958) or in Desolation Angels (1965), the two books that cover the mid-1950s. Kerouac already had enough male bonding to last a lifetime when he met Creeley in the spring of 1956, that unique moment of cultural ferment that provided the backdrop to the strange time they shared and that had a far more lasting impact on Creeley than on Kerouac.
After Kerouac separated from Creeley, he moved to the East Coast, witnessed the publication of On the Road (1957), leapt into the writing and the publication of The Dharma Bums (1958) and then the recording and the release of three LPs, one with Steve Allen on the piano and another with Zoot Sims and Al Cohen on saxophones that was called Blues and Haikus (1959). Kerouac was eager to let go of the time he spent with Creeley, though he would dredge up unhappy memories and share them with friends, including Gary Snyder and Phil Whalen. To Snyder he wrote, “I don't prize him like I do you because he starts fights.” He added, “I’m afraid of him.” To Whalen, he exclaimed, “damned Creeley got me smoking again in Marin in 1956. Damn him and his beard and his New England.” He was good at blaming others and not taking responsibility for his own actions and habits.
In the early 1960s, when Creeley invited Kerouac to visit, Jack begged off. In 1962, Creeley wrote from Albuquerque, New Mexico to say, “I wish you could get here.” Kerouac replied politely a month later, “Certainly I would love to see you, but I havent [sic] any way of stopping off at Albuquerque.” He added, “I’m expected in Paris by my old buddy Burroughs.” Creeley sent Kerouac invitations on other occasions and Kerouac found reasons not to accept them. For a time, he was worried that Creeley thought that he had sold out, which wasn’t a far-fetched conclusion. Creeley had written to say, “I like you being famous. You make money, you hear.” Kerouac wrote to Whalen to say, apropos Creeley, “I thought he thought I was ‘commercial.’” Commercial success and fame was forbidden in both Beat and Black Mountain circles, though Ginsberg would go on to enjoy both.
Not surprisingly, Kerouac set condition for meeting Creeley. “If we go driving let me do the driving,” he insisted, though he added, “I don’t even drive, myself.” Kerouac also distanced himself from Creeley’s work, and from Creeley’s identity as a writer. He told Donald Allen, who edited The New American Poetry and included work by Kerouac and Creeley, that Creeley was a “very strange writer.” On the subject of Creeley’s seventh book of poetry, For Love, Kerouac noted, “there’s not enough swing in it.”
Kerouac never offered Creeley criticism of his work in any letter he wrote and sent, nor did he say anything negative to Creeley about their time together in 1956. In his letters to Kerouac, Creeley only offered glowing remarks about Big Sur, which he described as “a completely articulate, human and beautiful thing,” and about On the Road as “a beautiful solid & completely heart-open thing.”
Why Creeley and Kerouac never reunited again after their time together in 1956 is a mystery, though clues abound. From the beginning there was a sense that a lasting friendship between them was not to be. Ginsberg arranged for the initial rendezvous, which occurred at “The Place,” a bohemian bar in North Beach that was managed by two Black Mountain College alumni, Knute Stiles and Leo Krikorian.
Kerouac arrived before Creeley arrived and took a seat at the back of the room, eager to meet the author that Duncan told him had “written a thousand pages in which the only apparent physical action was a neon sign over the storefront flashing on and off.” That was an exaggeration, though the story impressed Creeley, who entered The Place with Ed and Helena Dorn not knowing what Kerouac looked like. Ginsberg hadn't bothered to describe him. Creeley and the Dorns “waited, peering about to try to figure out which one of the others was Kerouac.”
Creeley kept looking at a man who was “sitting up against the back wall . . . seeming alone, sort of musing,” though he didn’t approach him. Shyness stared at shyness. When Ginsberg arrived, he asked Creeley if he had seen Jack. “No,” Creeley said. “There he is,” Ginsberg replied and pointed to the musing man at the back of the room. Ginsberg added, “He’s sittin’ right over there.” Kerouac had been drinking and was “comatose.” Later, at the apartment Kerouac shared with the writer and petty criminal Al Sublette, “Jack passed out on a bed,” Creeley remembered. When Creeley woke Kerouac, he stared at Creeley who felt, he said, ”like a didactic idiot.” Creeley noted that there was “little conversation that night, unhappily.”
In San Francisco that spring, Kerouac and Creeley had limited time for conversation; they were often in a crowd, surrounded by noise and music. “Weird things going on around here,” Kerouac wrote and added, “Allen Ginsberg is famous in San Francisco.” It was seven months after Ginsberg performed parts of Howl at the 6 Gallery, where Gary Snyder, Phil Whalen, Philip Lamantia, and Michael McClure also read. McClure read some of his own work and some of Creeley’s poems. Kenneth Rexroth served as the lively MC.
The evening belonged largely to Ginsberg not to Kerouac, who had ambivalent feelings about Ginsberg’s newfound glory and fame. When Ginsberg introduced Kerouac to people they would ask, “Who’s this?” Kerouac told John Clellon Holmes that Ginsberg was “a great saint concealed in a veneer of daemonism.” [sic] Aside from the Place and the Cellar, (and cafes and parks, where Ginsberg read from Howl), the main gathering space for the poets was the home of Kenneth and Marthe Rexroth, where Creeley fell in love instantly with Marthe.
Kerouac broke the news about them to John Clellon Holmes and also to Snyder, explaining that Kenneth blamed him, Kerouac, for his “domestic troubles.” Ginsberg also wrote Snyder to say that Kenneth was “flipping out,” “threatening” to commit suicide and predicting that Marthe would take her own life. Kenneth remembered the death of Natalie Jackson, a young woman from New Jersey, who was part of the Beat inner circle in San Francisco. In December 1955, Rexroth told Ginsberg, “He’s not going to make a Natalie of my wife.” According to Kerouac, Creeley read his work “nervously before a disapproving audience of women because Kenneth Rexroth’s wife is going to run away with him somewhere.”
Even before Creeley arrived in San Francisco and began his relationship with Marthe, there was bitterness on Rexroth’s part about BMR and its editor. Rexroth had been a contributing editor to BMR. He resigned to protest what he regarded as “attacks” on Dylan Thomas and Theodore Roethke. Creeley didn’t apologize. He also published Michael Rumaker’s negative review of Howl, which contained comments about Kerouac that could be construed as snide; Black Mountain faculty members were not all of one mind about the Beats in the mid-1950s.
Creeley genuinely cared for Marthe and she genuinely cared for him. Briefly, they considered marriage and a new life together in New Mexico. Aside from her bed, which she shared with Creeley while Rexroth was out of town, Marthe gave Creeley a typewriter. He hire himself out as a typist and also typed a stencil of Ginsberg’s Howl, which was then used to make mimeographed copies of the poem that the poet used at readings until Ferlinghetti published Howl and Other Poems in the Pocket Poets series.
In New Mexico, in the summer and fall of 1956, Creeley looked back at his relationship with Marthe. “It’s god knows lonely, and I hate the failure of it,” he wrote to Kerouac, who served as a kind of confidant whether he wanted to or not. Creeley noted wistfully that he and Marthe “very nearly married.” He added, “It was very great no matter” and ended the letter, as he so often did, “My love to you.” He sent love to almost everyone with whom he corresponded, including William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson. Kerouac would sign his letters with more than a dozen different names, including John Kerouac, John, Jack, Jacky, Jaqui, Jaqui Keracky, St. Jean Lavesque, Zagg and Zaggo. It's no wonder that in his introduction to Book of Dreams, Creeley wrote insightfully that Kerouac was “the many in one,” and that “the ‘Jack’ I found in this book was not a consistent or necessarily integrated presence.” His up close, intimate time with Kerouac helped him reach those conclusions.
After Kerouac and Creeley caroused in San Francisco—after the brawling and the parties and the ruckus with Rexroth—they migrated to Mill Valley in Marin County. In May 1956, Creeley had the rare opportunity to watch Kerouac at work as a writer. Years later, he related his impressions to Nicosia, who included Creeley’s comments in his biography Memory Babe, published 14 years after Kerouac’s death.
Kerouac had the “ability,” Creeley remembered, “to translate immediate sensation into immediately actual language.” Drawing on his interviews, Nicosia explained that Creeley observed Kerouac “not figuring out how to get it down in writing but virtually writing it in his head, so that the actual putting down of words on paper was but a mechanical extension of the process. Often he’d grab his notebook and do just that.”
Still, Kerouac’s techniques were mostly not “mechanical” but rather organic and fluid—sometimes surrealistic and dream-like, as Creeley would explain years later in his Introduction to Kerouac’s Book of Dreams in which he recalled the time he spent with Jack in Mill Valley and at a farewell party for Snyder, who was going to Japan. In that Introduction, Creeley wrote that Kerouac loved “the muffling, displacing edge between consciousness, as it’s called, and the dream-filled sleep one leaves to come back to it.” He did know Jack.
There was something unfinished about the relationship between Kerouac and Creeley in large part because Kerouac never communicated his feelings. “Submissive to everything, open, listening,” he advised writers but didn’t follow though, much as he didn’t live up to his suggestion, “Try not to get drunk outside yr [sic] own house.”
Ginsberg scolded Kerouac on more than one occasion, and had opportunities for communication denied Creeley. After he attended the Vancouver Poetry Festival in 1963—along with Creeley, Levertov, Olson, and Duncan— he wrote to Kerouac, who avoided the event, to say, “You put me under a spell for years.” Under that spell, he explained, he was unable to express to Kerouac his hurt feelings. Now in 1963, he finally said that he didn’t like it that Kerouac called him repeatedly “a hairy loss,” though he also admitted that the comment helped to dislodge him from “his high head.” Ginsberg added, “You coulda saved me faster by calling me tender heart, honey.”
Kerouac rarely if ever called any of his friends “tender heart, honey.” His own sense of loss, especially the loss and the pain associated with the death of his older brother Gerard, impacted his relationships in adulthood with Ginsberg, Cassady, Snyder, and Creeley. Having lost Gerard, he was wary of intimacy and loss. Still, he expressed his pain in novels and poetry such as Mexico City Blues. In the “241st Chorus,” the next to the last in the book, Kerouac wrote, “Charlie Parker, forgive me . . . / Charley Parker, pray for me— / Pray for me and everybody.” In that poem, Kerouac refers to Catholicism, turns Parker into a jazz saint, and begs for absolution.
Like Kerouac, Creeley wrote poems for his culture heroes, among them D. H. Lawrence. Creeley’s meditation on the English novelist and poet, titled “Poem for D.H. Lawrence,” is as much about himself as it is about Lawrence. It derives much of its force from the image of “the figure by the window,” which is repeated five times, along with the phrase “In the beginning,” which provides an echo of Genesis and lends the poem a Biblical solemnity.
The spirit, rather than the letter, of Christianity informs both Creeley’s meditation on Lawrence and Kerouac’s ode to Parker, though Buddhism also lies behind Kerouac’s work. Indeed, it’s “Nirvana” he wanted.
Kerouac and Creeley will always be linked with one another, if only because they’re both in Donald Allen’s 1960 landmark anthology, The New American Poetry, though they were also uncomfortable with the kind of geographical designations and discrimination that inform the book.
Creeley spoke for himself and for Kerouac in his review of the “San Francisco Scene” for Evergreen Review—which included work by Duncan, Rumaker, Rexroth, Kerouac, and Ginsberg. There was “a danger in promoting geographical relationships,” Creeley noted; “They are rarely significant, and add somewhat specious labels to writers who have troubles enough.” Troubles and joys touched both Kerouac and Creeley. They both transcended geographical boundaries, even as they remained in separate worlds, neither willing to take the other’s road, though they occupied the same time and the same place in the spring of 1956.
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