Literary Tattoos (ii): Tattooing Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) was born a Catholic in a French-Canadian community in Lowell, Massachusetts. He was the key figure of the cultural phenomenon of the 1950s known as the Beat Movement. Beat as in beatific, as rhythm, beat as in beaten down, exhausted, beat as in defeated.  Throughout his life, he sought fusion of his Catholicism with his Buddhism, Christ with the Buddha. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl acknowledges Kerouac as the “new Buddha of American prose.”

A reader once described Jack Kerouac’s On the Road as “a map of someone’s heart.”  Every book he wrote, every line, was a mark on the map of his heart.

Beat philosopher and author of Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs, summarized Kerouac’s reach and impact in these words:

“Jack Kerouac was a writer. That is, he wrote. Many people who call themselves writers and have their names on books are not writers and they can’t write, like a bullfighter who makes passes with no bull there. The writer has been there or he can’t write about it. And going there, he risks being gored… [Kerouac] went there and wrote it and brought it back for a generation to read, but he never found his way back. A whole migrant generation arose from Kerouac’s on the road to Mexico, Tangier, Afghanistan, India.”

A New York Times critic once said that if you don’t read poetry you’ll never have your heart broken by language. The same goes for Kerouac. If you don’t read Kerouac, you may never have your heart broken by sentences like this:“…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

Maybe that’s too long a sentence for a tattoo unless you want your whole back inked.More practical might be one of Kerouac’s haikus, what he called “pops.”

In my medicine cabinet
     the winter fly
Has died of old age

Cat eating fish heads
— All those eyes
In the starlight

In his prose, there are many lines becoming to skin:

One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.
Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry.
the road is life
The beauty of things must be that they end.
Don’t think. Just dance along.

Kerouac’s own favourite line comes from On the Road:“The charging restless muteunvoiced road keening in a seizure of tarpaulin power.” If I could only wear one Kerouac, it would be, “The secret of writing is in the rhythm of urgency.”

– By J.S. Porter

1 Comment

  1. Eric Mader May 31, 2012at7:59 am

    Makes me want to go back and read some Kerouac. I’m afraid I don’t even have a single volume of his work around here, the last copy I had, bought used c. 1984, finally having succumbed to mold in the tropical humidity of Taipei, where I live.

    Burroughs’ assessment of Kerouac, and of what makes a writer, is spot on–many writers fated to being “like a bullfighter who makes passes with no bull there.” This ties in well with your own chosen Kerouac line: “The secret of writing is in the rhythm of urgency.” How know such urgency when you choose to fight bulls in mall parking lots where bulls don’t appear?

    Here tilting at windmills in Asian mall parking lots… E.