I’ve heard it said that jazz musicians know the “proper way” to play their instrument (in a classical, traditional sense), and they use that knowledge to bend the rules so that their music better represents the emotion or voice they are trying to express. In this way, jazz is not simply playing any note whenever the mood strikes, but a deliberate and coherent rebellion against what is considered ‘the norm’. In much the same way, Beat poets knew what was expected of a writer in the “square” world of literature, but changed the game to better suite their unique voices. Kerouac wrote spontaneously and freely, but he wrote coherently and with purpose. What keeps Beat writing from reading much like Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake is the same concept that keeps jazz bands from sounding like a tuning orchestra; the knowledge, experience, and know-how to use spontaneity as a tool.
Kerouac lays this out very clearly in Essentials of Spontaneous Prose. He does not simply begin to write with no clear goal or topic in mind. He beings his essentials with the notion of meditating on an image, either real or imaginary. He goes on to say: “begin not from preconceived idea of what to say about image but from jewel center of interest in subject of image at moment of writing…” (485). Here, Kerouac reveals one of the best ways in which he keeps his writing coherent yet spontaneous: his words are not premeditated, but they are not random. He begins with an image and then finds the words to describe it in the same way that a jazz musician might start with an emotion and then find the notes to express it. Kerouac is “following free deviation (association) of mind into limitless blow-on-subject seas of thought” (484) and thus keeping the stream-of-consciousness feel to his poetry, but he is writing on topics that are associated and meaningful and thereby keeping his coherency. Like a Jazz musician conjuring up old chords with a new bop groove to create a sound that defined the moment, Kerouac used his bop-prosody to create new poetry to define his moment.
“We’d stay up 24 hours drinking cup after cup of black coffee, playing record after record of Wardell Gray, Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, Willie Jackson, Lennie Tristano and all the rest, talking madly about that holy new feeling out there in the the streets…” (559)