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Kerouac Blues Exercise


Jack Kerouac may be loved by young readers & poets around the world (of all ages) for his semi-autobiographical novels like On The Road, but according to one of his Beat friends, it’s his Blues poetry, specifically Mexico City Blues, that is his masterpiece.


In the only book written by a member of the Beat Movement on the actual writing movement itself, Scratching the Beat Surface, Michael McClure says the book-length Buddhist poem is about:


karma and liberation. Thus he begins simply – almost effortlessly – an easy chorus, but one which shows a master ear and master skill carrying over from earlier complex works in prose and verse.” The poem includes “overhearings, and spontaneous expressions, and perceptions, and word games, and insights into Buddhism…” as well as a re-telling of his long-dead brother Gerard’s mystical visions preceding his early death. “ As Kerouac’s cool mind, hand and ear extend the poem, it becomes the channel for great energy” a force McClure calls both mammalian and beatific.”


From Kerouac himself on his blues form:


San Francisco Blues was my first book of poems, written back in 1954 & hinting the approach of the final blues poetry form I developed for the Mexico City Blues.

In my system, the form of blues choruses is limited by the small page of the breastpocket notebook in which they are written, like the form of a set number of bars in a jazz blues chorus, and so sometimes the word-meaning can carry from one chorus into another, or not, just like the phrase-meaning can carry harmonically from one chorus to another, or not, in jazz, so that in these blues as in jazz, the form is determined by time, and by the musician’s spontaneous phrasing & harmonizing with the beat of the time as it waves & waves on by measured choruses.

It’s all gotta be non-stop ad libbing within each chorus, or the gig is shot.”

                                                                       - Jack Kerouac


1st Chorus Mexico City Blues

Butte Magic of Ignorance
Butte Magic
Is the same as no-Butte
                All one light
                Old Rough Roads
                One High Iron

                Denver is the same
"The guy I was with his uncle was
the governor of Wyoming"
            "Course he paid me back"
            Ten Days
                Two Weeks
                    Stock and Joint

"Was an old crook anyway"

The same voice on the same ship
The Supreme Vehicle
               S.S. Excalibur
               Mersion of Missy


2nd Chorus

Man is not worried in the middle

Man in the Middle
Is not Worried
He knows his Karma
Is not buried

But his Karma,
Unknown to him,
May end --

Which is Nirvana

Wild Men
Who Kill
Have Karmas
Of ill

Good Men
Who Love
Have Karmas
Of dove

Snakes are Poor Denizens of Hell
Have come surreptitioning
Through the tall grass
To face the pool of clear frogs




Each participant is given a partner, preferably NOT one they’ve been sitting next to and a pocket notebook. They are sent outside (in decent weather) and asked to use one of the most intriguing lines from the work they’ve done that workshop session, a previous session, or take a compelling line from someone else’s poem. Each partner starts a poem with that line, working with the associations that spontaneously arise. Some might be compelled by sound, others by the content or thematic thread, of the poem. There can be a compulsion to be silly in such situations. Try to go for something deeper, but don’t be afraid to have a sense of play. Once each participant finishes a chorus, to use Kerouac’s parlance, the other person gets to read it and, from the other’s poem, take the last line, or an image near the end of that other person’s chorus, write it down and begin a new chorus of your own starting with the image/line from the other. Continue writing choruses until you get at least nine, or more if you feel you’re getting somewhere.



1:14P – 7.21.09

Auburn, WA


Works Cited:


Kerouac, Jack. Mexico City Blues. New York: Grove, 1959.

Kerouac, Jack. San Francisco Blues. New York: Penguin, 1995.

McClure, Michael. Scratching the Beat Surface. New York: Penguin, 1994.