Books Language Life Philosophy

Jack Kerouac’s essentials for prose

Jack Kerouac (right) and Neal Cassady (photo by Carolyn Cassady)
Jack Kerouac (right) and Neal Cassady (photo by Carolyn Cassady)

I just picked up Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down The Bones and was struck by the four essentials that she quotes from Jack Kerouac’s ‘Essentials for Prose,’:

1. Accept loss forever

2. Be submissive to everything, open, listening

3. No fear or shame in the dignity of your experience, language, and knowledge

4. Be in love with your life

And of these the first and fourth run deepest, not just for writing but for life: Accept loss forever. Hitting the hard, flinty truth of what’s necessary to keep focused on today and tomorrow, and leaving yesterday behind. And perhaps a necessary condition for number 4.

There are others, including ‘Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in the mind’ and ‘Keep track of every day, the date emblazoned in yr morning.’ But I also like:

Like Proust, be an old teahead of time.

And coincidentally… in my inbox the latest from Jamie Jauncey’s excellent blog at A Few Kind Words – I love that title. This week he is talking about writing, mentioning in passing Stephen King whose ‘On Writing’ I have also just been reading, and sets out the ‘Flowers Paradigm’ of Betty Sue Flowers (who is emeritus professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, amongst much else):

Every writer brings four people to the writing table: a madman, an architect, a carpenter and a judge. The madman is the unfettered creative genius, the source of raw energy and ideas. The architect is the visionary and planner who gives shape to the building born of the madman’s ideas. The carpenter hammers away bringing form to the architect’s plans. The judge waits till everyone else has finished, then goes round with a magnifying glass shaking his or her head. The trick for the writer, of course, is to understand that he or she needs them all at different stages of the process.

Written largely in a single burst of creative energy in April 1951, few books match On The Road for sheer exhilaration – the exhilaration of being alive, of being on the journey. I remember the first time I read it and how I was completely enthralled, intoxicated even, devouring page after page late into the night until I reached the end. Then starting all over again.

On The Road first editionThe extraordinary energy of the prose, poured out onto a single 120-foot roll of tracing paper sheets that he cut to size and taped together, retains its power, even if some of the attitudes have dated. The book’s essential wild mix of of hedonism and asceticism is still thrilling: Accept loss forever. Be submissive to everything, open, listening. Be in love with your life.

Two versions of the book are now available, before and after the interventions of the judge: The (standard) text as first published by Viking in 1957, which is the first draft revised and edited by Kerouac and incorporating changes demanded by the publisher, and the first draft itself (the madman unfettered), published as On the Road: The Original Scroll.

On The Road original scroll
Original scroll of ‘On The Road’Jack Kerouac – Beliefs and Techniques for Modern Prose

Here’s the full list of Kerouac’s essentials. As you can see, not necessarily just for prose, but also for life. Or the other way round.

1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy

2. Submissive to everything, open, listening

3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house

4. Be in love with yr life

5. Something that you feel will find its own form

6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind

7. Blow as deep as you want to blow

8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind

9. The unspeakable visions of the individual

10. No time for poetry but exactly what is

11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest

12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you

13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition

14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time

15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog

16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye

17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself

18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea

19. Accept loss forever

20. Believe in the holy contour of life

21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind

22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better

23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning

24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge

25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it

26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form

27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness

28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better

29. You’re a Genius all the time

30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

Language Music


Gustavo Dudamel

Jahrhunderttalent. A
nother beautiful German word to follow on from ‘Heimweh’ (see Primo Levi below). In her long article for Intelligent Life magazine Clemency Burton-Hill quotes the music executive Deborah Borda on first seeing Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel in performance –

“The Germans have a word for it: Jahrhunderttalent. Once in a hundred years. That was my immediate feeling. Once in a hundred years.”

It’s a great piece in the best magazine I know (and the only one I subscribe to). You can read the article, and much more, at

Speaking of exciting talents: Listening to her breathtaking recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, I’m tempted to nominate Alisia Weilerstein – except it’s not quite 50 years since Jacqueline du Pré’s landmark recording (also, of course, with Barenboim). But this is no place for ‘either/or.’ Here one can only celebrate abundance.

Who would you nominate as a Jahrhunderttalent?

Language Life Philosophy

Just Do It

Loved this from Matthew Kimberley’s Get A Grip:

action is the difference between ‘screw it, let’s do it’ and ‘fuck it, let’s have a kebab.’

Also loved this from Jeanette Winterson’s latest, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal:

Manchester spun riches beyond anybody’s wildest dreams, and wove despair and degradation into the human fabric

A great sentence on the mix and contrariness of Manchester, the world’s first industrial city and the city where she was born.

Language Life Poetry

The intricate web of love

I’ve been reading the Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, a Virago paperback I picked up in the Oxfam bookshop a while back. On the strength of her writing here, she is much underrated and deserves a wider readership.

For example, this wonderful entry for 16 Feb 1950  on the cremation of her mother:

… Nora’s small purple coffin coming out of the hearse; the one bunch of brilliant spring flowers on it. Out of such bare material, out of mere birth and death, we spin the intricate web of love, we distil it from these poor bones and ashes, and with it conceive the tale that is told and ended when we die.

Followed the next day with:

It is a curious sensation to get one’s mother by post; and rather hastily I took her upstairs and unpacked a small violet cloth-covered casket, with a shiny name-plate (good lettering). After breakfast Evans & I buried it with some moss and snowdrops under the cherry tree …

Writing with a rare lightness of touch that captures the spiritual and often disconcertingly practical dimensions of the death of a loved one.

Running through the diaries is her account of the intricate, and tangled, web  of her love affair with Valentine Ackland, with whom she lived in Dorset.

It’s odd reading a published diary that unfolds in a landscape and towns and villages that you know well. It adds an extra poignancy when you know the hotel at Yeovil Pen Mill station to which Sylvia retreated, heartbroken, when another lover of Valentine’s came to stay at their house. I will have to call in and see if they are aware this fine writer was a guest at the hotel in the late ‘40s.

My room looks out on the main road, with buses – behind is the station. I have a view of the laundry, some public trees, and a poor, almost real wood. I have a choice of a bentwood chair, an easy one that is not easy, and the window sill, which is best.


Books Language Life

Jeff in Venice

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is not Geoff Dyer on best form, but just when you think you can’t take any more of Junket Jeff downing Bellinis in Venice or drifting in Varanasi, he comes out with a passage like this, and suddenly there isn’t a book you’d rather be reading:

Her voice promised absolute devotion; but then the note was stretched further still, beyond this, until you wondered what you would have to do to be worthy of such devotion, such love. You would have to be that note, not the object of devotion but the devotee. Her voice slid and swooped. It was like those perfect moments in life, moments when what you hope for most is fulfilled and, by being fulfilled, changed – changed, in this instance, into sound: when, in a public place, you glimpse the person you most want to see and there is nothing surprising about it; the pattern in the random, when accident slides into destiny. A note was stretched out as long as possible and then a little longer; it continued, somewhere, long after it was capable of being heard. It is still there, even now.

For Geoff Dyer at his best (IMHO) read Out of Sheer Rage. This is one of my favourite books and it’s every bit as wild and wonderful as its progenitor, Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature .

Books Language Life

The Corrections

A week in bed ill at least provided an opportunity to finish Jonathan Franzen’s breakthrough book. I know, only a decade behind the curve and I should be reading Freedom, ideally the uncorrected version.

The quality of his writing is exceptional, but I found the book easier to respect than to love. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss this wonderful line, on Denise (for me the most vivid and exciting character):

Her heart was full and her senses were sharp, but her head felt liable to burst in the vacuum of her solitude.


Books Language Life Poetry Uncategorized

The merry merry month of May

I have been meaning to write about the merry merry month of May, and its derivation, since April. But I’ve come to the conclusion that I haven’t written about it, not simply because I’ve been massively busy with new work, but because it’s just not a question that interests me enough. Look around you is probably the answer, and perhaps one of the poems in Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday, published in 1600:

O, the month of May, the merry month of May,
So frolic, so gay, and so green, so green, so green;

So the poem for this month is from (the poet laureate) Carol Ann Duffy’s collection Rapture. I have chosen the poem ‘You‘; you can read it here.  Then buy the book. You won’t be disappointed. Incidentally, isn’t ‘Rapture’ a beautiful word? The sound of the word alone carrying its meaning.

Also what made me sit up this week was the South Africa Today series of articles in last Sunday’s Observer, which I have just caught up with. The piece by Rian Malan is wonderfully caustic, the article by Albie Sachs full of quiet beauty, but best of all the farewell note written to Margie Orford by Rashied Wewers, the oldest member of her writing class in Victor Verster maximum security prison:

I am

A book with a damaged cover, but what is

Written between the lines could save a country

From a disaster.

Language Poetry

Spring in the rain

This month’s poem celebrates the beginning of spring and the clocks going forward (in the UK). A hugely influential poem, which I never tire of reading and thinking about, and which is very easy to memorise due to its brevity. Language at its most controlled, charged with meaning.

Click to read The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams and some background material.

Books Language Life

Lean as a gnawed bone

and as cold as an axe head.’

Thus the description of the Duke of Norfolk in Wolf Hall, which is every bit as good, and exhilarating to read, as the reviews say it is, and the beginning of which is an object lesson in how to start a piece of writing in the middle of the action.

The description sparks the image of ‘lean’ Cassio in Julius Caesar, but also … of poor old Posh (of & Becks) who never manages to look as if she’s enjoying anything. Quite the opposite of Ms Dahl, if the tv ads for her upcoming cookery show are anything to go by. Move over Nigella, there’s a new star in the kitchen.

[later.. ] But of course Posh is Anne ‘glancing around with her restless black eyes, eating nothing, missing nothing, tugging at the pearls around her little neck.’

Language Music Uncategorized

Kisses on the bottom

English is such a rich language for ambiguities that you can have almost as much fun trying to write a sentence that cannot be misunderstood, as writing lines that deliberately exploit a play on words.

And characteristically, the way we most commonly describe a play on words is ‘double entendre’ which, of course, is not English at all (which, incidentally reminds me of one of my favourite jokes; you know the one…).

The flexibility of the language has often been brilliantly exploited by lyricists, especially in the classic Broadway era in the thirties and forties.

The authorities in some states were in no doubt that Joe Young had more than the bottom of the page in mind when he wrote, in the song “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter”

I’m gonna write words oh so sweet
They’re gonna knock me off my feet
A lot of kisses on the bottom
I’ll be glad I got ’em

and banned the version released by the Boswell Sisters, who had the first big hit with the song in 1936.

Ben of the Spikedrivers recounted this tale when introducing the song at Mick and Deborah’s wedding – and hopefully it’s true. Deb’s sister went on to give a spellbinding version of the song.

Madeleine Peyroux also has a good version, but check out the Bozzies on Youtube.
(And may all your letters come with kisses on the bottom).

blogging Language Uncategorized

Funny. Especially if you know what IDK means


[from via]

Books Language technical writing


By chance caught a wonderful programme on the radio today, on the way back from a seminar on LinkedIn given by Paul Tansey of Intergage (who, incidentally, has a neat way of lodging his name in your brain – he tells an anecdote about transposing the initial letters, which gives you: Taul Pansey).

This digression, by happy coincidence, is not entirely off topic because the radio programme was about the French experimental literary group Oulipo, who create work by imposing restrictions on the way a text will be produced.

Oulipo, standing for Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature) was founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais in reaction to the Surrealist movement, to which Quennau had previously belonged. Instead of following the whims of the subconscious, Oulipians deliberately introduce constraints.

According to Queneau, Oulipians are ‘rats, who build the labyrinth from which they will escape’. Queneau’s works included Cent Mille Milliards de Poemes, or 100,000,000,000,000 Poems, in which each page contains a 14-line sonnet, split into 14 strips, which can be separated and re-combined in any order. He estimated that it would take 190,258,751 years for someone to read every combination.

The most famous example of ‘constrained’ literature is Georges Perec’s novel La Disparition, which avoids using the letter ‘e’. It is ingeniously translated into English by Gilbert Adair under the title A Void – again without using the letter ‘e’. Think about it – no ‘he’, ‘we’, ‘they’. Or ‘choose’, ‘delight’ or ‘delirious’. But you can have ‘avid’. And ‘vivid’….

Simplified Technical English, which I use for writing for translation, pares down vocabulary and sentence structure to provide the clearest expression of technical instructions.

In Simplified English, each word is precisely defined; there is only one approved word for a concept, and each approved word can have only one meaning. This eliminates ambiguity, improving precision and clarity (especially for non-native speakers of English). It also reduces the cost of translation (if translation is needed).

And Eunoia? It’s the shortest word in English containing all five vowels. From the Greek word εύνοια. It means ‘Beautiful thinking‘.

The programme, presented by Ben Schott (of Miscellany fame) is well worth a listen. You have six days left to catch it on iplayer here.

Language Life Poetry


The British poet and novelist Richard Aldington is probably best known as one of the three ‘original Imagists’, with Ezra Pound and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, but always known as H.D. At this time she and Aldington were married).

In late spring 1916 Aldington was conscripted and on June 24th left London for Dorset, where he was stationed for military training until December.

As the day for embarkation draws closer you can sense the growing tension in this letter to George Plank (a friend of H.D.’s) dated November 15th in which he writes of
“them bloody, bleedin’, fuckin’ trenches … I wish I wasn’t a soldier; I do, George, I do. But if you’re a good boy you shall have all my medals to play with / When I get back / When I get back / To my o-o-old Ken-tucky / home!”

In another letter to Plank, on the eve of departure, he writes:

“off to France in a couple of hours; … I have a conviction that I shall be killed, but it doesn’t worry me except for H.D. You must help to find her another husband, some nice Yank of cultured opulence who’ll not bore her too much.”*

In fact, though wounded on the Western Front, he survived. His most immediate literary response to the war was his collection of poetry Images of War, published in 1919, which included the poem The Lover, in which he synthesizes fear and desire.

*Source: Louis Silverstein’s H.D. Chronology, Part Two (1915-March 1919)

The field of poppies

Clubmen’s Down, near Shaftesbury in Dorset, was recently spectacularly transformed into a carpet of poppies.

The owner of the field, conductor John Eliot Gardiner, described the multitude of poppies as “the beneficial fallout of organic farming. They are ecologically and pictorially a wonder, but agriculturally a bit of a disaster.”

The field had been left as grassland for seven years, but ploughed for turnips for winter feed for sheep this year. This disturbed the poppy seeds, enabling them to germinate, and the very wet July and August, followed by a very dry September, provided the perfect growing conditions.

We went walking to see the field a couple of Sundays ago; it was a truly extraordinary sight.

Books Language Poetry Uncategorized

50 up

We have just published the 50th issue of Tears in the Fence, magazine of poetry and prose.

Published 3 times a year, we have editorial bases in England, France, Australia and the USA and subscribers around the world. David Caddy is the Editor, with associates Sarah Hopkins and Tom Chivers; I am responsible for the design and production.

At 164 pages, the 50th issue is the largest yet and features poetry and fiction by, amongst many others, Elizabeth Cook, John Welch, John Kinsella, Peter Riley, Sarah Connor, Alexis Lykiard, Pansy Maurer-Alvarez, Todd Swift, Rupert M Loydell, Lucy Lepchani, Jeremy Reed, Juliet Cook, Adam Horovitz, Gerald Locklin, Lynne Wycherley, Donna Hilbert, Martin Stannard and Iain Sinclair.

There is also a ‘hand’ from Loose Packed by Lee Harwood and John Hall. Loose Packed is a set of 52 related fragments, with no fixed order for their reading. They are planned for publication as a pack of playing cards by Acts of Language,  and have been exhibited in 52 different 6 x 4 inch frames, in four differently coloured suits.

Here’s a bit from ‘Take Stock Now…’ in the latest TITF:

Under a vast sky

This restless house

That road

(these tiny objects)

Things to cling on to

For more information and subscriptions, see (and join) Tears in the Fence on Facebook.

50th issue celebration

To celebrate the 50th issue there is a free event on Saturday 5th September, 3.00pm – 8.00pm at The Bell, Middlesex Street, London E1 7EX.

Confirmed readers include Elizabeth Cook, Brian Hinton, George Ttoouli, Sarah Hopkins, Todd Swift, Ian Brinton, Hannah Silva, Vahni Capildeo, Ketaki Kushari Dyson, James Wilkes, Tom Chivers, David Caddy.

This event is in association with Penned in the Margins.

Books Design Language

The beauty of good design

Danger - weir

… is that it ages gracefully. And stylishly. Because it has integrity.

This sign, alongside the Stour at lower Bryanston, says what it needs to say in a plain, simple, appropriate font, and just keeps on geting better as the years pass.

Photograph taken during a morning walk with the dog in the present cold snap. The winter festival (just kidding), with added illness, provided some time for reading, including Kingsley Amis’s classic first novel, Lucky Jim where he is already firing on all cylinders:

‘I just wondered,’ Beesley said, bringing out the curved nickel-banded pipe round which he was trying to train his personality, like a creeper up a trellis. ‘I thought I was probably right.’

Skewered in a single aside. An object lesson in making words work. Not far from Proust’s less harsh but equally damning characterisation of Dr Cottard in Swann In Love who was ‘never quite certain of the tone in which he ought to reply to any observation, or whether the speaker was jesting or in earnest …

And so by way of precaution he would embellish all his facial expressions with the offer of a conditional, a provisional smile whose expectant subtlety would exonerate him from the charge of being a simpleton, if the remark addressed to him should turn out to have been facetious. But as he must also be prepared to face the alternative, he dared not allow this smile to assert itself positively on his features, and you would see there a perpetually flickering uncertainty in which could be deciphered the question that he never dared to ask: ‘Do you really mean that?’

I was very pleased to be given This Book Will Save Your Life by A. M. Homes. A good, easy read which bounds along engagingly: Chocolat meets The Life of Pi, with added donuts. Enjoy.

Finally, with best wishes, a thought for the new year (where danger ahead also threatens). This from one of Jeanette Winterson’s recent newsletters:

Do it from the heart or not at all

Happy New Year.


Language and silence

Pink clouds

It’s not that often that I’m pleased with a photo I’ve taken, having something of a perfectionist streak and only too ready to see faults. But I was really pleased to see this one come up on the computer screen. I took it one evening last week while out walking the dog and, in the meantime, of course, had completely forgotten about it.

As autumn slides into winter – almost literally this year with so much rain – it’s great to catch a perfect moment as dusk falls, the soft pink-edged cloud against the dark blue of the oncoming dark. No stars yet, just the moon. And just me, and the dog, in the landscape. A Nick Drake moment. A threshold moment. Between day and night, between language and silence. Between contemplation and foreboding.

I saw it written and I saw it say
Pink moon is on its way … *

This hinterland is explored by Sara Maitland in ‘A Book of Silence’, published by Granta on the 13th Nov, and featured in both the Guardian and The Observer last weekend. From the excerpts published, this looks like one not to miss and a sparkling addition to recent writing immersed in the landscape, such as John Deakin’s ‘Waterlog’ and Kate Rew’s ‘Wild Swim’ – ‘It passed. The dawn was bright. The cotton grass danced among the tussocks …’ – and I was reaching for my walking boots.

‘Silence does not seem to be a loss or lack of language; it does not even seem to be the opposite of language. I have found it to be a whole world in and of itself, alongside language and culture, but independent of it. It comes from a different place altogether.’

So here I am, sitting on my doorstep in the sunshine, looking out at my huge nothing. I don’t feel worried about falling over the edge of a bottomless chasm, but rather I have a sense of moving up a level, into some finer, cleaner air.’

[Sara Maitland, ‘A Book of Silence’]

And so here also am I. Back working from home, on my own, after an ill-judged business (business? hmmm!) partnership was put out of its misery (and not before time).

Clearly – returning to the photo for a moment – it would be better, for the composition, if the moon was a little higher and further to the right. But just this once I’m willing to let it go. It is what it is. I am where I am. I’m not saying I didn’t consider photoshop, but this is no time to paper over the cracks. At the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month it’s time to start afresh, on solid ground.

*lyrics from Pink Moon by Nick Drake