You know Jack Kerouac. Everyone knows Jack Kerouac. Father of the Beat generation, though he disliked that label, author of the free thinkers bible On the Road, culture maker, lover of the mad, and general all around badass. He receives as much posthumous love as any other dead author, perhaps more; this year saw the release of a new movie based on his On the Road, a new biography, the release of unpublished fiction, and importantly, so I would like to contend, a release of all his collected poetry. That I didn’t really know Kerouac not only wrote poetry, but did so prolifically and said numerous times that he values his poetry more than his fiction, attests not only to my ignorance but to this sort of curious and almost arbitrary way of how we remember our artists. In fact, we often remember our artists not for the reasons they would have liked to be remembered. This raises a bunch of complex and somewhat academic questions about the nature of legacy, who chooses how we as a culture remember an artist, and why, but putting these larger questions aside, we do well to focus on Kerouac the poet.
The Library of America’s new collection, the daunting Jack Kerouac: Collected Poems is a staggering book in numerous ways. It’s sheer size, over 700 pages testifies to a person who thought and lived in his own world of poetry the way some of us live with our mundane daily concerns. He wrote more poems that most of us will read in our lifetimes. This book, masterfully edited and arranged by Marilene Phipps-Kettlewell, brings together many published books of poems as well as a large smattering of unpublished works. Phipps-Kettlewell not only edited this tome, but put together a brilliant introduction entitled “Jack Kerouac, In His Own Words.” The introduction, regardless if you feel you can wade through the 700+ pages of poetry, deserves its own read through. Phipps-Kettlewell cuts and pastes her way through all of Kerouac’s poems to create a vivid sort of autobiography of the man and his thought. On top of this she adds a collection of other poets’ thoughts on Kerouac and adds her own ideas giving us beautiful insights like this:
To be a poet’s poet is to hurt. To hurt singularly, to hurt incomprehensibly, to suffer a wound that never heals, a wound not meant to heal because bleeding is the very nature of this wound–it is a divine gift–it is the wound of a savior.
She creates the perfect mindset to delve into his dense poetry. While you can detect a consistency of themes and style throughout the collection, you also veer towards awe at the scope of his power. Kerouac writes in all styles of poetry whether haiku, or confessional, mystical or mundane, metered and not, prose poetry, and what we might call proems, to the extent that towards the end you feel in the presence of a rare sort of master who tapped into some Platonic ideal of poetry so that he can tinker at will with its foundational mechanisms.
Importantly, even more than in some of his more edited and therefore polished prose,
you can feel the restless mind of this eternal soul in his poetry. Unedited, unrevised, these are the immediate dispatches from a febrile consciousness overwhelmed by the beauty, tragedy, absurdity, love, and humor in the world. Of course, this comes with some downsides as much of his poetry, at least on the first few passes is largely unintelligible. However, despite this hurdle, as you read more and more you enter into a new sort of thinking, a new consciousness in which if it doesn’t make logical sense it begins to make sense in the way of dreams. Some of the poems are indeed more straightforward, but most either take part so much in idiosyncratic context, or read as the work of a mystic as to require a constant stream of commentary. But something in this effort feels like a purer representation of what it meant to be and think as Jack Kerouac, as an individual, not as the writer of a generation, or some figure, or some cultural marker and hero. Here we see so many of the facets of Kerouac’s expansive personality: the skeptic, the rebel, the lover, the madman, the painter, the drunkard, the child, the mystic, the believer, the doubter, the Catholic, the lapsed Catholic, the animal – as if to feel that he encompassed the whole world in his soul.
Kerouac’s poems, in this manner, do represent purer manifestations of the artistic ideas he cared for. On numerous occasions, perhaps no more fascinating that his interview in the Paris Review’s Art of Fiction series, he delineates much of what he wants from good art. (Side point: When did artist’s stop doing this? When did they stop making sweeping statements, often at odds with other artists, about the purpose, goals, and proper methods of art. I miss this sort of ambitiousness.) Of course, I cannot do a better job than Kerouac himself at capturing the range of his styles:
The spontaneous style of On the Road…all first person, fast, mad, confessional, completely serious, all detailed…highly experimental speed-writing of Railroad Earth to the ingrown toenail packed mystical style of Tristessa, the Notes from Underground (by Dostoyevsky) confessional madness of The Subterraneans, the perfection of the three as one in Big Sur, I’d say, which tells a plain tale in a smooth buttery literate run, to Satori in Paris, which is really the first book I wrote with drink at my side (cognac and malt liquor) . . . and not to overlook Book of Dreams, the style of a person half-awake from sleep and ripping it out in pencil by the bed . . . yes, pencil . . . what a job! Bleary eyes, insaned mind bemused and mystified by sleep, details that pop out even as you write them you don’t know what they mean, till you wake up, have coffee, look at it, and see the logic of dreams in dream language itself.
You will find all of these forms and then some in this collected works. Yet, and this perhaps signifies the presence of the consummate artist, Kerouac knows when to bow to the exigencies of form. Though he largely and vigorously adheres to his principles of improvisation, of flow, and therefore of a lack of editing, he explains his need for rigidity in haikus:
The haiku is best reworked and revised. I know, I tried. It has to be completely economical, no foliage and flowers and language rhythm, it has to be a simple little pictures in three little lines. At least that’s the way the old masters did it, spending months on three little lines and coming up, say, with: In the abandoned boat,/The hail/Bounces about.
If you, like me, find it strange that such an autonomous, independent thinker would speak of “masters,” then I think we forget how much work and study and obeisance to a tradition it takes to break out of tradition. We tend to forget that the Beat artists and writers, for lack of a better category, were artists steeped in the world and history of poetry, not some sui generis poets who created ex nihilo.
Indeed, in bowing to the masters of the form, Kerouac emerges as one in his own right. He takes this Eastern poetic style, one ensconced in the desire to capture and concretize a fleeting moment in, “three little lines” and makes them wholly his own. Haikus from the Eastern world tend to focus on nature, on both the concreteness but ethereality of life intertwined with nature, or on more abstract mystical thoughts. Kerouac though, on top of this content, captures the unique rhythms of American life, an American life often largely divorced from nature:
Hitch hiked a thousand
miles and brought
Here, Kerouac, not only manifesting what we would expect from the author of On The Road, uses enjambments particularly well. He first leaves you to guess, “a thousand” what? We might assume miles, but before we reach the next line he leaves it amorphous enough to create a strange image of perhaps hitch hiking a thousand cities or days, not something as concrete as a thousand miles. In the next enjambment, a real beauty, Kerouac playfully undercuts or at least changes the tenor and tone of the first two lines. We would expect him to say something momentous. If you hitch hiked a thousand miles and brought me something, I would expect a little more than a bottle of wine, but here it feels intimate, loving, playful, and downright perfect.
On a different notes, he paints a different sort of portrait in one of my personal favorites from this book:
— the lady next door
I find it hard to deny the power of this latter haiku. It feels wholly American in all sort of ineffable ways that I think even J.D. Salinger in his later more reclusive, mystical years might have approved of. I find it hard to hold back from sharing so just one more haiku:
The cow, taking a big
dreamy crap, turning
To look at me.
On a different note, the improvisational notion of writing in a Jazz riff style, or Jazz Solo, i.e. Kerouac’s spontaneous flow works much better on the smaller more compact scale of a poem, of a lyric than in the endless flow of a novel. A poem provides inherent boundaries that the novel does not, and in doing so, creates a more artistic Kerouac.
Looking at the whole of the book, the effort itself testifies to a somewhat lamentable situation we still find ourselves in. It makes sense that Kerouac would be remembered for his books and not for his beloved poems. I get the sense that Kerouac might have thrived considerably more in a different era. Some writers, you feel, were born in the wrong time. Kerouac belongs not only in a different time, but in a different place. I can see him as a Shaman, or a Buddhist Monk, or the Buddha himself, or even a charismatic Hasidic Rabbi who guides his flocks through fervid visions and keen insights on the psychology of the soul. When Kerouac grew into a spiritual guide, he did so in a time that too easily veered into the simplistic hippydom he never cared for and even denigrated. (As noted in a recent biography, Kerouac: His life and Work, “Kerouac saw the hippies as mindless, communistic, rude, unpatriotic and soulless.”) Though a man with countless followers, I never get a sense that he felt properly understood or connected to those who worshipped him. His works oozes a sense of alienation from all cultures, not just the consumerist culture he often fought against. In a different time and place, in an era in which he could feel at home, I could see this book serving as a bible for a whole society. For now, it will remain as perhaps one of the key books of a certain style and collections that offers a window into one of the most captivating artistic minds of the 20th century.