Kerouac and the Outsider – A Puzzle
by Dave Moore
It was Horst who started it. Horst Spandler has been translating the 1971 Kerouac anthology Scattered Poems into German. Along the way he’s been asking others their advice on the meaning of parts of Jack’s poems. One such query I received, a few months ago, concerned Kerouac’s rather fine “Sept. 16, 1961, Poem” (on page 29). Horst wanted to know whether the line which reads “sad today glad tomorrow: somber today drunk tomorrow” should really have “sober today” as that seemed to fit better.
As Ann Charters, the compiler of the anthology, notes at the back of the book, this poem was gathered from The Outsider magazine, 1962. A friend of mine had a copy of the relevant issue, #2, and provided me with a photocopy of the poem from page 68. Looking at this I could see that Horst’s intuition was right – the words should indeed be “sober tomorrow.”
I decided to check the remainder of the poem for possible typographical errors in the Scattered Poems version. I was surprised to find a major difference near the end. The line which in Scattered Poems reads:
“This is an attempt at the easy lightness of Ciardian poetry”
appeared in my xerox from The Outsider as:
“This is an attempt at the easy lightness of drawing room poetry”
This seemed too major a difference to be a mere typo. I asked others their thoughts, and whether they knew which was the correct version. A letter from a friend astounded me. He enclosed a photocopy from his copy of The Outsider #2, and in this one the line finished with “… of Beatnik poetry.” He also enclosed a xerox of the next page in the magazine, which was a drawing of two vultures observing a ship approaching some rocks. One bird is saying to the other: “So what if Kerouac is on board? You can’t believe everything Ciardi says.” This ties in with the mention of Ciardi in the Scattered Poems version, John Ciardi being a poet much opposed to the work of Kerouac and the other Beats.
But what was going on here? Three different versions of the poem from three different sources. I decided to cast the net wider, and contacted everyone I knew who might have a copy of The Outsider #2 and ask how their version read.
Over the following couple of weeks I was able to monitor the poem in over twenty different copies of The Outsider #2. Five more variant lines were discovered in the process, and the occurrence of each was as follows:
“… of Ciardian poetry” 4
“… of civilized poetry” 4
“… of chamber poetry” 4
“… of Beatnik poetry” 4
“… of drawing room poetry” 2
“… of Ciardi poetry” 1
“… of Chinese poetry” 1
“… of wellbred poetry” 2
The Outsider was a small literary magazine that ran to just five issues in the period 1961-69. It was edited by Jon Edgar Webb and produced by the Loujon Press, the enterprise of Jon and his wife Louise (Lou) in New Orleans. Jon Webb died in 1971, and the Loujon papers are now held by the Northwestern University Library in Evanston, Illinois. I wrote there for advice and guidance with this puzzle, and although the very helpful librarian was unaware of the multiple versions of the poem, he was able to send me a copy of Kerouac’s original typescript of his poem to the Loujon Press, together with Jack’s accompanying note.
In Kerouac’s original, the line in question reads “… of Chinese poetry” and Jack gave precise instructions to the editor:
Dear John —
Be sure everything is linotyped the way I wrote it — There are no typos in my typewriter script — I mean, the punctuation, fucktuation, capitalization and NON CAPITALIZATION & spacing, etc. – I re-typed the poem twice to make every last spacing unsmudged as William the Conquerer’s Record — Yr. first issue of OUTSIDER was very valuable — Fuck Colin Wilson & all anti Christ poets
Despite this, on Kerouac’s typescript the word “Chinese” has been circled in blue and a question mark placed near by. In pencil a line has been drawn towards the circled word “Chinese” and at the end of this drawn line the words “use alternate words” have been written, in a hand other than Kerouac’s and probably Jon Webb’s.
And alternate words were indeed used, as I had discovered. The Outsider #2 was published in the summer of 1962, but Kerouac was unaware of the alterations to his poem for at least two and a half years.
During 1964 the Italian translator Fernanda Pivano had been compiling an anthology of new American poetry and had been in touch with Kerouac for contributions of his own, and of his friends. The collection, Poesia degli ultimi americani finally appeared in November 1964 and included Kerouac’s “Sept. 16, 1961, Poem” as well as several choruses from Mexico City Blues and Some Western Haikus. Fernanda sent Kerouac a copy of her book, and received the following letter:
January 11, 1965
Dear Fernanda — Thanks for the Christmas card and the anthology in the
mail — There’s a great mystery in it. I really am tremendously curious to find out and I wish you would tell me: on page 246 is the end of my poem
(“Sept.16, 1961 Poem”), the second line from the top reads: “This is an
attempt at the easy lightness of civilized/poetry.” But I had written
“Chinese” poetry and I go on to say that I shd. really “use my own way,”
ie., western instead of eastern. WHO CHANGED THE WORD CHINESE TO
“CIVILIZED”? And why? How did you get that poem? Was it that printed page from The Outsider? And if so, was it already marked like that? This is a case of altering my poetry without my knowledge, and I’m sure it wasnt you, but somebody did it. Now you’re going to think I’m mad at you again but I’m not: I only want to know, out of great curiosity, how this unauthorized change came about, and who did it, and why. As you see, it gives the suggestion that I dont consider myself civilized! Just think how James Joyce would have hit the roof! So long, Cara Nanda
It appears that Fernanda had used a version of the poem from a copy of The Outsider with “civilized poetry” (just as Ann Charters later used one from a copy with “Ciardian poetry”). Kerouac was naturally annoyed to learn that his poem had been altered by someone else without his knowledge or permission. I can’t help imagining how further incensed he would have been if he had known that multiple changes had been made and were in circulation in different copies of The Outsider #2.
I have so far traced eight different variant lines in twenty-two different copies of the magazine. It is known that 3000 copies of the magazine were printed by the Webbs, on a hand press, in an operation which took almost a year. Being hand-printed, it would have been relatively easy to change a word or two of type at any time, but why would anyone want to?
Maybe Jon Webb was just having some fun at Kerouac’s expense. Being of an older bohemian generation, he may have looked down on Kerouac and his buddies whom he possibly considered to be “the new kids on the block.” Or maybe he was attempting to stir up further trouble between Kerouac and John Ciardi? It’s maybe significant that no more work of Kerouac’s appeared in other issues of The Outsider.
Why did Kerouac not learn of a change to his poem until 1965 – did the Webbs not send him a copy of The Outsider #2? It’s probable that they did, and at least one copy has been found which contains Kerouac’s intended word “Chinese”, so maybe that was the version they sent him in 1962.
In 2003 Jeff Weddle published his PhD thesis for the University of Tennessee: “The Loujon Press: An Historical Analysis.” I contacted Jeff to ask if, during his research, he’d encountered anything about these unauthorized changes. Jeff replied that he had noticed a difference between Kerouac’s typescript of the poem and its appearance in his copy of the magazine, where the word appears as “civilized,” (and this is mentioned in his thesis) but he was unaware of the multiple variants.
In his thesis Jeff Weddle also notes that Jon Webb heavily edited and re-titled the piece by William Burroughs which appears in The Outsider #2 as “wilt caught in time.” According to Weddle, the published version “bears little resemblance to the author’s original submission.”
Again, since Weddle has apparently seen only one copy of The Outsider #2, it is possible that different variants of the Burroughs piece were published. Jeff told me that, while he was investigating the Loujon Press for his thesis, he had come across other examples of Webb changing texts. This is evidently an area which requires further research.
Does anyone out there have access to copies of The Outsider #2 with yet different versions of that line in Kerouac’s poem? Perhaps we can sample more than 22 of the 3000 copies known to have been printed.
And how about the William Burroughs piece? Maybe variant versions exist of that, too.
Let’s compare notes.