Missing the point on Jack Kerouac
In the New Criterion this week, Bruce Bawer recycles the classic conservative screed against the Beats by way of lamenting the publication of Jack Kerouac’s collected poetry by the Library of America. It’s an odd piece, not least because “Collected Poems” came out a year ago, but also because of how completely Bawer misses the point.
“[P]erhaps the best way to try to get through Kerouac’s poems,” he complains, “is to approach them not as literary texts but as private ramblings of the sort you might find in the files of a psych ward.” A line or two later, he reminds us that “a voyeuristic frisson is not the same as an aesthetic experience.”
Well, yes, of course ... but to dismiss Kerouac’s poetry through the lens of voyeurism (or worse, psychosis) is to misread him in a fundamental way.
Kerouac, after all, was more prudish than prurient, and his work, though self-revealing, is not about exposure in the manner Bawer suggests. Rather, he was a self-mythologizer, a writer who sought to make meaning out of his experiences as a way of fixing them, in a very real sense, as a barricade against time.
He wrote in the vernacular, bringing in the rhythms, the textures, of spoken language. His principle of spontaneous composition — “No pause to think of proper word,” he warns in “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” “but the infantile pileup of scatological buildup words till satisfaction is gained, which will turn out to be a great appending rhythm to a thought and be in accordance with Great Law of timing” — was an aesthetic of liberation, all the more so because it gave him permission to work without looking over his shoulder, without regard for whether what he was doing was bad or good.
This, Bawer argues, is part of the problem. “Objectively speaking,” he writes, “Kerouac and his pals were little more than a bunch of unprepossessing misfits. And yet — with their glib contempt for capitalism and mainstream society, their romanticization of criminality, drug abuse, and the tragedy of mental illness, and their narcissistic rebranding as virtues of their own shiftlessness and dissolution — they would turn out to be, to an amazing extent, the seed of pretty much everything that was rotten about the American 1960s and their aftermath.”
But here is where Bawer gets it most wrong — not only in his sneering reference to “everything that was rotten about the American 1960s,” but also in his dismissal of Kerouac as glib or facile.
He quotes only one poem (a negligible one, I agree, “selected purely at random”) while neglecting to acknowledge any of Kerouac’s formal innovations: the development of an American style of haiku, for instance, or the invention of what he called the blues poem, in which he used each notebook page as a kind of rhythmic frame, like the chorus in a jazz solo.
“I want to be considered a jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jam session on Sunday,” Kerouac wrote at the start of “Mexico City Blues,” the longest and perhaps most successful of his blues poetry experiments. “I take 242 choruses; my ideas vary and sometimes roll from chorus to chorus or from halfway through a chorus to halfway into the next.”
I remember the first time I read that paragraph as one of the transformative moments of my early writer’s life. I was in high school, bound and gagged by the canon, reading poetry in English classes that didn’t speak to me, even as I was beginning to puzzle out how to write poems of my own. Kerouac, for me then, was a cleansing wind. He was not afraid to write in his own voice, to let himself wander from perception to perception. Most important, he was not afraid to fail.
This would change as he got older and more besotted by alcohol; “[W]hen the time comes to pay the rent again,” he told the Paris Review in 1967, “you force yourself to sit at the typewriter, or at the writing notebook, and get it over with as fast as you can.” That’s the tragedy (or complexity) of his writing life, that for him, liberation led to dissolution and discovery to disaffection and dismay.
And yet, unlike Bawer, I don’t see this as a flaw in the writing — or, for that matter, as having anything to do with the Beats. What were the Beats anyway but a gang of like-minded writers and artists branded as a movement (with their own enthusiastic participation) by a culture eager to label and explain?
No, for me, it all comes back to freedom, the freedom to be yourself on the page. That’s what Kerouac stood for, and it’s also why he continues to linger with us, especially among younger readers, nearly half a century after his death.
“In the end,” Bawer suggests, “perhaps the most complimentary thing one can say about Kerouac is that he was the only Beat who wavered in his commitment to their facile rejection of responsibility and embrace of eternal childishness.” That, however, was never what he was about. Rather, Kerouac wrote, as he lived, out of his own loss and sadness, seeking to evoke both the futility of everything and the aching, temporary consolations this allows.
As for the poetry, some of it works and some of it doesn’t, which might be said of any one of us. But when it’s cooking, it’s direct in a way that resonates, a burst of living language on the page.
Here’s an example, a sharp (and fatalistic) poem called “Pax”:
“I demand that the human race / ceases multiplying its kind / and bow out / I advise it // And as punishment & reward / for making this plea I know / I’ll be reborn / the last human // Everybody else dead and I’m / an old woman roaming the earth / groaning in caves / sleeping on mats // And sometimes I’ll cackle, sometimes / pray, sometimes cry, eat & cook / at my little stove / in the corner / ‘Always knew it anyway,’ / I’ll say / And one morning wont get up from my mat”
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