(1959) Jack kerouac's personal note on the title page of Mexico City Blues declares his wish "to be considered a jazz poet," and the poems 242 choruses are invested with a musicality and improvisational quality that answer his wish. As with musical compositions, each movement of this book-length poem is independent, but the piece is more fully comprehensible and purposeful when taken in its entirety. The 242 choruses contain allusions to a vast range of experiences, from Kerouac's life: "I was the first crazy person / I'd known" ("88th Chorus"), from literature: "F Scott Fitzgerald . . . Who burned his Wife Down" ("30th Chorus"), and from religion: "Nirvana? Heaven?" ("199th Chorus"). The poems private set of references is typical of the beat poets, writers associated with this radical shift in American poetry in the mid-twentieth century who often looked outward for experience, then immediately recorded personal responses to everything (unconcerned with social respectability). The more a reader knows about the poet, in this instance, the fuller the understanding of the poem because the background explains the importance of otherwise obscure or confusing places, names, and events. It certainly helps to explain what Charlie Parker and Buddha are doing in the same poem, indeed in the same chorus ("239th Chorus").
Mexico City Blues was written in three weeks, largely influenced by marijuana and morphine, in Mexico City during August 1955. Along with his personal writing philosophy of "spontaneous composition"—writing down experience and impression unmediated by reflection—the only structural rule Kerouac set for himself was that each chorus had to fit on a single page in his notebook (Jones 141), but he occasionally sidestepped this restriction merely by picking up where the page length had stopped him in the next chorus, virtually midsentence or mididea. Some portions of the poem are simple transcriptions of the musings of Ker-ouac's neighbor, Bill Garver, a morphine addict he had known in New York. But the book is primarily an exercise in creative self-analysis done by a profoundly talented man with profoundly powerful demons.
The poem's rhythms are jazz rhythms, and a nonstop reading of the poem emphasizes the beat of Ker-ouac's verse as it affects the delivery of the words and lines. The occasional digression into "scat," nonsensical and wordless jazz sound play, provides Kerouac with a respite from the intensity of the issues with which he deals throughout. By providing this natural bridge, designed for the particular musicality of the poem, Kerouac conceals his momentary retreats from the subject matter (essential to the poet's ability to continue) as a change of pace rather than an explicit break. In the poem Kerouac records his attempt to resolve the major issue of his life: the death of his older brother in childhood. This event complicates the Roman Catholic Kerouac's religious seeking, his alcoholism, and his problematic relationship with his mother and, to a lesser extent, with everyone else he knew.
These psychological by-products of early childhood loss are wound together in Mexico City Blues, as the language of Buddhism provides Kerouac with both hope for spiritual and mental relief and pleasure for the ear. The critic James T. Jones explains that "the religious motif also connects autobiography to the most important theme of the poem, Kerouac's exploration of the concept of anatta, the possibility of annihilating self" (33). The "211th Chorus" ends with perhaps the deepest desire of Kerouac's heart: liberation from "that slaving meat wheel / and safe in heaven dead."
The seeming discontinuity of the choruses, leaping as they do from subject to subject in a stream-of-conscious-ness fashion, is resolved when they are placed within the framework of Kerouacs life. He found in these poems a way to articulate "personal conflicts into poetic tension [through] his combination of lyric and narrative, cumulation and repetition, language spinning and ideas, in a metaphorically musical structure" (Jones 165). Mexico City Blues is a kind of Beat generation variation on the tradition of King David's psalms, full of confidence, doubt, longing, and joy, dealing with spiritual and corporeal things, by a 20th-century romantic psalmist.
Allen GINSBERG, who embraced what he called Ker-ouac's "spontaneous bop prosody" (Miles 317) and whose poem howl was written the same year as Mexico City Blues, approached Lawrence ferlinghetti, at City Lights Books, to publish Kerouacs book (see poetry presses). Although Ginsberg even offered to pay the costs out of his own royalties from Howl and Other Poems, Fer-linghetti rejected the manuscript. Ginsberg finally approached Grove Press, which published the book in 1959. The book received such a blistering response by Kenneth rexroth that more congenial reviews by Robert creeley and Anthony hecht were unable to redress the harm. Rexroth's opinion was scathing: When Kerouac had written previously about "jazz and Negroes, [he had concentrated on] two subjects about which he knew less than nothing," Rexroth claimed, and he did the same thing with Buddhism and drugs in Mexico City Blues (14). Even so, in spite of his unconcealed derision, Rexroth admitted that the book exhibits a "terrifyingly skillful use of verse, the broad knowledge of life, the profound judgements, the almost unbearable sense of reality" one expects from Kerouac (14). Certainly this poem skillfully and beautifully communicates Kerouac in all of his simultaneous vulnerability and confidence.
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