Kerouac’s ‘frisco’ holds a romantic space in many of our imaginations. Before leaving, I secretly thought of myself there on the steep streets of that city, writing and reciting poetry and drinking red wine with other ragged, wannabe beatnicks.
But I didn’t go to poetry readings in dingy, dimly lit rooms in cramped North Beach apartments. I went to pay homage with all the other tourists, at the bar where Kerouac used to drink. With the masses, I browsed the bookshop that published Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ when it was considered rude and obscene. Lurked in the poetry room upstairs. Drank the words in those books like liquor from an old boot.
Happily, my time there wasn’t completely bereft of writing. I did have a poetry class once a week. My teacher was 85 year old Dan Langton who spent the class telling us stories from years gone by. He was like a grandfather, telling his grandchildren tales from his youth, rambling, unable to stop. And sometimes you wanted to put your head down on the table and go to sleep. Often though, if you listened you learned something. Not how to write a poem, by God no, but just stuff, about life. Looking through my book now, I find small wisdoms everywhere. I will share some with you:
“Death is reality only when you are dead.”
“University is for delaying adult decisions.”
“Learning should be useful and sweet.”
“If a poet writes something that you have to be a learned person to get, then he’s a snot.” – Thanks Langton, I needed to hear that!
“Lie and lie and lie until you see the truth.” – From Picasso.
Toward the end of semester he said about our assignments: “There are only three grades possible. I have never given a D or an F in my life. I’ll leave that to God.” (Langton is a staunch atheist).
On progress: “One of the joys of the world is to sit on a train and watch the world go by. I took a fast train to Marseille once, and no one looked out the window. If you did it was like looking at a bottle of homogenised milk.”
“The only true contemptible emotion is contempt.”
“If you want to know the names of the rivers, don’t stray too far from the water. And take the advice of those who have waded in it.”
“Go home. Be wise. Do good.”
I borrowed one of his books of poetry from the university library, it was full of love sonnets to his wife.