Tag Archives: roman candle

Jack Kerouac’s Roman Candles

4 Jul

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Jack Kerouac’s most famous quote is this gorgeous piece of prose from his seminal novel On the Road:::

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 and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

Kerouac’s words have been made into wall art and tattoos. They are inspiring and wondrous. The repetition of “mad” and “burn” drive the energy of the sentence. The verbs make you want to act, make you want — to live, to talk, to be saved. They make you burn, burn, burn. They make you feel as if your senses are exploding. You read these words, and you want to seize the day! You want to be the type of friend who makes your friends’ lives shine brighter, who creates moments in their lives that they will hold onto for the rest of their lives.

The beauty of the “fabulous yellow roman candles” that are “exploding like spiders across the stars” with their “blue centerlight” is mesmerizing.  (Italian author Elena Ferrante also write a magnificent scene involving Roman candles in My Brilliant Friend.) It’s so visual. So visceral. I’ve written before about how Kerouac may have pinched the Roman candle image from James Joyce. See this quote from Ulysses:::

…O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lovely, O, soft, sweet, soft!

But what exactly is a Roman candle?

Years ago, when I first encountered the words “roman candles” I thought they were those eight-inch religious candles in glass. You know the ones. They usually have Mother Mary or some other icon on the glass. Kerouac was Catholic so it made sense to me at the time, and though the image in my mind’s eye was quieter, more solitary, it still enamored me. It had a holiness to it.

As it turns out, though, a Roman candle is actually what we’d typically call a firework. They’re illegal for BBQers and other regular Joes to own in New Jersey and New York — and actually now they’re illegal in Massachusetts too — so I never learned Roman candles were a type of fireworks. The world of pyrotechnics is full of Roman candles, bottle rockets, sparklers, and more!

Developed in China, the Roman candle gained prominence during the Italian renaissance. It burns ever so slowly til it reaches the pyrotechnic star. Then suddenly it bursts into colors!

Here’s how it works, according to Wikipedia:::

Roman candles are fireworks constructed with bentonitelifting chargepyrotechnic starblack powder, and delay charge. The device is ignited from the top, which should be pointed into the sky, away from people. The delay powder is packed tightly in the tube, so that the flame cannot reach around the sides of the plug of delay composition. It therefore burns slowly; as it is consumed, the flame moves down through the tube. When the flame reaches the topmost pyrotechnic star, the star is ignited. Because the star fits loosely in the tube, the fire spreads around it and ignites the lift charge. The lift charge burns quickly, propelling the star out of the tube. In doing so it also ignites the layer of delay powder beneath it, and the process repeats.

About those stars:::

The stars of Roman candles can be found in any number of colors. Colors are manipulated by adding compounds which, when ignited, release visible light and other radiation. For example, when potassium perchlorate (KClO4) is used as an oxidizer, chemical reactions involving the dissociated elements of the perchlorate—potassium and chlorine ions—create barium compounds which emit green light (especially BaCl). The potassium compounds formed by this reaction emit mostly near-infrared light, and so they do not affect the color of the star in a significant way. This reaction occurs at temperatures exceeding 2500°C (4532°F), at which KCl can ionize into K+ and Cl. Alternatively, strontium carbonate can be added to the candle to produce a red or pink star, but, because it does not oxidize, more oxidizers and fuels must be added to sustain combustion. During combustion, various strontium compounds (especially SrOH) emit red light, most of which is between 506 and 722 nanometers in wavelength.[4]

That’s probably way more nerdy information than you needed to know!

Keep the fireworks to the professionals. Yesterday a man in Central Park stepped on a firework and had to get his leg amputated!

I have the day off from work … so of course I’ve gotten sick! But that means instead of going to the beach and watching fireworks, I can bring you literary links related to the Beats and America:::

 

Be safe, and have a Happy Independence Day!!

 

 

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Ramblin’ Jack: Just Because You Don’t Like a Book, Doesn’t Mean It Isn’t Well Written

20 Aug

Over the years, many readers have criticized Jack Kerouac’s work for its rambling prose and sounding too colloquial.  Everyone is certainly welcome to his or her own opinions.  The world would be a pretty boring place if we all liked exactly the same thing.  The literary arts are, to a certain degree, subjective.  One doesn’t have to like or enjoy a work, though, to see its importance and value.  Even if it doesn’t change the likeability of a work, it’s important to consider its artistry before completely dismissing it.

Take Of Mice and Men.  This book did nothing for me when I read it in high school.  I didn’t like the story.  The writing style was just fine, but not particularly innovative.  Still, it was a classic!  John Steinbeck!  I should like it, right?  I didn’t.  I moved on to The Red Pony.  Hated it even more.  But I was determined to like John Steinbeck.  Finally, I read Travels with Charley, which became one of my favorite books.  Same thing with Kurt Vonnegut.  As a teenager, I didn’t feel cool because I thought Breakfast of Champions was simultaneously silly and trying too hard.  Afterward, I read Cat’s Cradle, and even though the nature of the subject matter wasn’t of interest to me, I loved the book.

Sometimes it just takes finding that right book by an author.  Just because it’s a classic doesn’t mean we’re going to all like the same book.  And that’s okay, but it doesn’t mean we should dismiss it—it’s a classic for a reason—or give up on the author.  If we do, we face missing out on some really great literature.

I don’t enjoy all of Jack Kerouac’s books.  And perhaps my favorite of his works is one that many people don’t read: Visions of Gerard.  For the people who don’t like Kerouac because of his subject matter, I’d encourage them to check out some of his other books.

However, even for the books we don’t like, we can still learn from them and sometimes even appreciate them.  When I was getting my Master of Fine Arts—I spell this out to emphasize the artistic nature of literature—in creative writing at The New School, instructors always stressed that we didn’t have to like everything we read but we had to keep an open mind and give each work a fair shot.  One of my first instructors always asked whether we liked the book, sometimes taking a poll.  Of course the interesting part came when we debated why or why not.

I’ll be honest: I read a lot of books I did not enjoy.  Many I ended up giving away to anyone who would take them.  But I kept some of the books I did not like—because even though I didn’t find reading them a pleasurable reading experience, either because they weren’t the style I enjoy or the subject matter bored me, I recognized their brilliance.  Sometimes the books I hated reading the most ended up being the very ones that had the most profound influence on my understanding of literature and the craft of my own writing.

One of these books was Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy.  The antithesis of a beach read, this book requires the reader to concentrate and piece together and analyze.  It’s not so much that the language or concepts were difficult—in fact, quite the contrary.  It was the author’s style, the limited view he gave the reader, that made the book both frustrating and genius.  It challenged my view of what literature was, how literature was supposed to work, and why we read—in a good way!

Now, as far as Kerouac’s prose stylings, there are a few things worth considering:

  • Kerouac’s first language was not English.  He was born in Massachusetts to immigrant parents who spoke to him in the French-Canadian dialect joual.  When he went off to school, half the day was taught in French Canadian and the other half in English.  It wasn’t until he reached high school that he began to feel comfortable speaking in English.
  • While many people critique the American colloquialisms Kerouac uses, it’s worth noting that people praise Mark Twain for doing the same thing.  Kerouac was working to capture a unique American sound, the language of his times.  He used to tape record conversations with his friends and refer to letters they wrote him, just to capture authentic speech patterns and diction.
  • The so-called rambling prose wasn’t just echoing true-to-life conversations and speech patterns; it was also referring to the stream-of-consciousness narrative of modernist novels.  One of the books he read that influenced his writing style was James Joyce’s Ulysses, an experimental novel that employed stream of consciousness.  In fact, you know that famous quote from On the Road about the roman candles?  The one that goes:

… but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

Well, compare it to this line from Ulysses:

…O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lovely, O, soft, sweet, soft!

  • Kerouac read voraciously.  He read the Greek Classics, comic books, the Russian masters, westerns, the bible, and history books.  In his journals, he refers to these works, evidence of his thoughtful contemplation of what he read.  These works influenced both the content and prose style of his own writing.
  • In addition to books, Kerouac’s writing was deeply influence by music.  If you read his work aloud or dissect his sentence structure, you can hear the bebop rhythm of his prose.  He and his musician friend David Amram used to improvise jazz-poetry readings together, creating it spontaneously, on the spot.  This is a lot harder than it sounds.  You have to really have a firm grasp on chord progression, rhythm, rhyme, and language—all while taking cues from someone else who is also improvising.

Sometimes works that seem effortless are the hardest ones of all to create.

 

Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road discusses in more detail Kerouac’s literary development.