This paper is a short inquiry into the quality of Jack Kerouac’s poetry. Kerouac is an American writer who has maintained an enduring hold on succeeding generations of readers through his long prose works, such as On the Road and The Dharma Bums. He wrote numerous books of poetry, approaching the art seriously and passionately. Many of his poetry manuscripts, unable to find a home while he was alive, have been published since his death in 1969.
These books include The Book of Sketches, The Book of Haikus, the multi-book volume, Book of Blues, Pomes All Sizes, and Scattered Poems; as well as the contemporaneous volumes, Heaven and Other Poems, and Mexico City Blues. Some prose works also contain Kerouac poems.
Allen Ginsberg said, “Alas a poet not yet appreciated by the Academy as represented by major college Anthologies used in the quarter century or so since Kerouac’s death in 1969” (Pomes All Sizes vi).
Is such neglect justified? We know that if a writer produces both poetry and prose, often the poetry will be overlooked – especially if the writer’s novels have done well. Few know that Sandra Cisneros began her career as a poet and has published excellent verse volumes with Knopf. Few are familiar with the poetry of the novelist Erica Jong. Master of Fine Arts programs force creative writers to specialize, thus widening the gulf between genres as well as implying that writers can be good only if they are “one note Johnnys.”
I have set up a few criteria to my beginning inquiry into the quality of Kerouac’s verse:
(1) Willingness to cross taboos to explore dangerous subjects – one form of bravery
(2) Intelligence or awareness
(3) The appearance of vulnerability and honesty – another form of bravery
(4) Original Contributions to the craft
(5) A few magnificent poems
I realize my list is limited and biased, and would be glad to entertain suggestions to improve and enlarge my standards of evaluation if I decide to expand this paper into a book. I will not attempt the impossible: to limit my standards to the purely aesthetic, literary, or technical.
One function of literature is to bring into the light what festers in darkness. Taboos often get crossed in art. Ginsberg played a role in America’s painfully slow but gradual acceptance of homosexuality. Kerouac was confused and ashamed of his gay side. I quote this passage from the 1950s to show Kerouac brave enough to undertake a taboo subject few writers today will explore, childhood sexuality – and perhaps understandably so, with our concern for child abuse. This passage may make you uncomfortable, and we must note that Kerouac may not have seen or recorded all that is happening:
The tall sexual Negro
boy on the junkyard
street near the Gas
Tank Jamaica, about 7
or 8 yrs old, he was
running his palm along
his fly in some Sexual
story to the other little
boy Negro who had his
arm around him as they
came up the street in
the gray rain of Satur-
day afternoon – smoke
emanating from junk fires,
smell of burnt rubber, piles
of tires, junk shops
with old white stoves
on the blackmud sidewalk…
(Book of Sketches, 384)
With such a large body of poetic work, I could quote many passages to suggest the intelligence or awareness of this writer. Mexico City Blues can be enjoyed for its shrewdness. Kerouac is not afraid to write abstractly in his poetic work, although he does not do so often. In the passage I am about to quote, abstraction would be hard to avoid:
Light is Late
it happens after you realize it
You don’t see light
Until sensation of seeing light
Is registered in perception… (107)
Vulnerability and Honesty:
The Beat poets Kerouac and Ginsberg were the first confessional poets, before Anne Sexton, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, or Sylvia Plath. Robert Lowell acknowledged his debt to Ginsberg. Here is Kerouac moving from intelligent thought, to immediate observation, to vulnerable self-confession, all in one poem. Poets talk about movement in a poem. This one has it:
That which has not
long to live, frets—
That which lives
Is full of peace
And there is no man who’ll live forever
Here it is California,
little young girls going to
school in the fresh &
dewy sidewalks of sleepy
My life so lonely &
empty without someone
to love & lay, & without
a work to surpass
myself with, that I
have nothing nothing
to write about even
in the first clear joy
of morning— (Book of Sketches)
Kerouac was inspired by California architect and historic preservationist Ed Divine White, “to sketch in the streets like a painter but with words.” Kerouac’s sketching technique reminds one of Zola walking through the tenements of Paris with a notebook, or of Van Gogh getting out of his studio to paint in the fields and streets.
In The Book of Sketches, Kerouac with pen and notebook, writes about ships and ship’s harbors; people on the streets; rail yards and trains; friends, hitchhiking, and nature. This method creates an immediacy and precision of detail nearly impossible to achieve when in the study, “reflecting in tranquility” – to alter slightly Wordsworth’s phrase. At times the details are so overwhelming – or data heavy – that the writing begins to bog down and bore, but at other times sketching is highly effective. Here is one short example, from “Sketch of a Beggar.” Recall that this was written in the early 1950s; traditional rhyme and meter were still dominant but have been abandoned by Kerouac:
The strange Allen Ansen-looking
but fat chubby Mexican beggar standing
in front of Woolworth’s on Coahuila
behaving spastically, with short haircut
big pot belly, rocking back and forth
jiggling his hand…He cant conceive that
someone (as I) can be watching from
across the street 2nd story window…
(Book of Sketches 411)
The sketch technique that Kerouac initiated in poetry was acknowledged and borrowed by Allen Ginsberg in such poems as “The Bricklayers’ Lunch Hour,” and “Iron Horse.” Ginsberg carried it forward by using a tape recorder. Kerouac of course knew what he was doing and to ward off criticism wrote the following, short explanation under the title of the book, “Proving that Sketches ain’t verse/ But Only What Is.”
The sketch is a recording of what is observed, by the senses, in word form, and can make a claim to the truth that verse written from memory may lack, since memory usually is less reliable than perception. I want to quickly mention that Kerouac was also one of the first to experiment with different shapes for poems beyond the traditional acrostics and shape poems. He made list poems, poems with numbered lines, poems with illustrations, and he often moved his lines and stanzas around on a page to give the reader visual variety or to signal pauses.
The second major contribution to the craft of poetry is Kerouac’s jazz poetry. He wrote: “I want to be considered a jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jam session on Sunday…my ideas vary and sometimes roll from chorus to chorus or from halfway through a chorus to halfway through the next” (Mexico City Blues). The notion that a theme or idea in a poem does not end with the poem but may play into another poem halfway is unique, as is the emphasis on the oral that most of his “Blues” jazz poetry books maintain. Kerouac’s “form” in Mexico City Blues was to compose each poem on a small notebook he carried in his pocket.
Such an approach is a new conception of form for literature. Traditionally, form in poetry was determined by metrics, line length syllable counts, or by rhyme scheme. AR Ammons much later modified Kerouac’s technique to write a book length poem called
“Tape for the Turn of the Year”, typing the long skinny poem on a roll of adding machine tape. Ammons’ method also relates to The Dharma Bums and On the Road where Kerouac used taped sheets so he would not have to pause to insert paper in his typewriter and lose the flow of thought and emotion.
Kerouac also adds, “As in jazz, the form is determined by time, and by the musician’s spontaneous phrasing & harmonizing with the beat of time,” (Heaven and other Poems 56). Kerouac is arguing for an oral-based free verse where the poems develop shape determined by the emotions of moments in time, much like a jazz improviser playing with a tune on stage. This was a time when Columbia University’s English department generally disapproved of Whitman. Later, in a letter to Don Allen, Kerouac would observe, “Funny how they look so old fashioned now, they were written in ’54 but now everyone writes like that…” (Heaven and Other Poems 58).
My son is a jazz musician, and we sat down one afternoon with Kerouac’s ‘blues books’ and could not find any definite 1950’s jazz beats in the lines of those poems. If they follow a beat at all, it is the “beat of time” – the grand time of the universe – not the beat of jazz music performed.
Innovation in technique distinguished Walt Whitman’s verse, but by using that technique Whitman created magnificent poems. A poet only needs a few magnificent poems to make it permanently into the anthologies, and to be more than “a poet’s poet,” but who can “survive” being compared to Whitman?
Although I believe Kerouac wrote excellent poems using new techniques, he did not succeed magnificently as Whitman does so often, from “Song of Myself” to “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Many consider Mexico City Blues to be his best poetic work. I do not agree. Such opinion derives from a time when little of Kerouac’s verse was available. The choruses of Mexico City Blues remind me of Ezra Pound’s Cantos in their lack of concern for the reader and in the pretentious overuse of names of friends and of Buddhist phrases. They seem closer to the work of John Ashbery than to the work of Beat writers, who wrote about and hoped to be read by the ordinary and even the downtrodden “fellaheen.” Still, Kerouac does get off many excellent blues riff poems. I quote from the 242nd chorus:
Charley Parker, forgive me—
Forgive me for not answering your eyes—
For not having made any indication
Of that which you can devise—
Charley Parker, pray for me—
Pray for everybody and me
In the Nirvanas of your brain
Where you hide, indulgent and huge,
No longer Charley Parker
But the secret unswayable name
Where Pound called his individual poems “Cantos,” Kerouac calls his “Choruses.” The parallel is clear, and like Pound, Kerouac aims to produce an important book length poem sequence. Mexico City Blues has long been in print and until a few years ago was a common sight on the poetry shelves of most bookstores. Unlike Pound, Kerouac is able to complete his work and manages to come to a final synthesis and resolution, relating Buddhism to the artist’s search for the ultimate, but ultimately choosing the path of art over the path of Buddhism (Memory Babe, Nicosia 488). The choruses are avant-garde in style yet in part religious poems – unusual in our secular era – and that’s why Kerouac relates them to jazz on a “Sunday afternoon.”
“Touchstones” were the method the Victorian poet and critic Mathew Arnold used to make critical evaluations. Using touchstones means to use other writers as a means of comparison and a way to set up standards. I have used both Whitman and Pound as touchstones to help place Kerouac’s achievement as a poet. Comparing Kerouac to Whitman is a bit unfair. Few poets the world over can compete on such a level. Plenty of poets fill the of college anthologies who are far from being equals to Whitman.
Does Kerouac deserve to be in the college poetry anthologies as Ginsberg thinks? I firmly believe that Kerouac does, on the strength of poems contained in the recently published Book of Sketches. “First Book” has musical lines such as these:
August senses September
In the deeper light of
Autumn in the brown
burn of the corn, the
the faint singe appearing
This sixty-two page, three sectioned poem, achieves not only fine lyric moments, a memorable narrative line, and interesting characters, but it also has the immediacy and vivid accuracy of imagery only possible with the sketch technique.
…in the corner where
the light falls flush,
that shows a tiny
waving threat of
by the greedy house-
The poem explores the hard life of Kerouac’s sister and brother-in-law, living with their child in the South, with compassion and dignity. Here Kerouac does follow Whitman’s example to write about the common people in language most can understand. The fact the poem requires little work by scholars or critics will not, I hope, interfere with the poem’s future reputation or appreciation.
Kerouac’s long poem does not have the dramatic urgency of Ginsberg’s great Kaddish, but is a fine poem nevertheless with its slower pacing and rhythms. Here the poet speaks with dignity and reserve. There is no sense of the artist’s heavy pain or near crackup. Fine moments exist in all of Kerouac’s poetic work. His book of haikus is humorous, readable, and full of wonderful surprise turns of phrase. In his haikus, Kerouac is one of the first to break with the five, seven, five Japanese syllabic pattern imposed on English. The sustained poetic achievements that Kerouac will be remembered for, I believe, are best found in the recently published Book of Sketches and The Book of Haikus.
This essay was originally published in Beatdom #12