Essay

Kerouac Versus Alan Alda

While celebrities toasted to their favorite poems at Lincoln Center, our reporter was stuck outside.

by John Freeman
The poetry world has its own celebrities, but it doesn’t often attract the attention of boldface names. In fact, poetic paparazzi moments are so rare that Martin Amis spoofed them somewhat in “Career Move,” a short story that imagines poets to be the toast of Hollywood, bragging about the villanelles they’ve made into movies.

So it was notable when, at the beginning of National Poetry Month, Mike Wallace, Ted Kennedy, Meryl Streep, Gloria Vanderbilt, and others gathered at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall for the fourth annual Poetry and the American Mind celebration. The gala raised some $150,000 for National Poetry Month, a program of the Academy of American Poets.

Apparently that was too rich for my blood. On the night of the event, I skulked away from Lincoln Center without laying my eyes on one celebrity. I would never get a chance to see Alan Alda read poems—especially now that he’s not a presidential candidate on TV. Nor would I hear verse ennobled by Meryl Streep’s lovely voice. All thanks to a mix-up with my press pass.

I wasn’t exactly excited by the event to begin with, but I was curious—and especially after I spent an hour trying to get there, I wanted to know: What did Mike Wallace read? I knew that he once interviewed William Carlos Williams for the New York Post. But Ted Kennedy? Was he a Robert Frost kind of guy?

These were the questions I still had in mind as I stalked toward Columbus Circle in a huff, the angriest man to ever leave a poetry reading without getting in. When I first moved to New York, I loved wandering. I used to carry Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems as if it were a guidebook. Now I didn't see a single “hum-colored cab” on the street.

So I tumbled down the stairs to the subway, irritated and mentally calculating how much time was left in the day. I had left a piece on Jack Kerouac’s newly released Book of Sketches unfinished on my desk, and I might be able to put it to rest. I looked at my phone. I leaned out over the tracks and peered down the tunnel. I bought some pretzels and ate them. Finally, I took out a book.

I had been carrying various Kerouac books around for a week by this point, the tiny brick of Book of Sketches bumping against my backside through my bag. This time I brought out San Francisco Blues. I opened it and read:
Roll my bones
In the Mortiary
      My terms
     And deed of mortgagry
And death & taxes
     All wrapt up.’
               (page 20)
I had no idea what exactly this meant—still don’t—but it was like turning on a mental air-conditioner. I think Kerouac was saying, basically, that you can take all your responsibility and bury it in the ground—because that’s where everything winds up. The 1/9 train rattled into the station and I got on, keeping the book in one hand, grabbing onto the greasy silver upright. I read on.
No such luck
  For Potter McMuck
Who broke his fist
On angry mitts
In fist fights
Falling everywhere
From down Commercial
  To odd or even
All the piers
               (page 59)
Okay, this was a little weird. I glanced up and caught a woman trying to read the cover of my book. I rearranged it so she could, and went back to the poems. And on it went, station following station, until I had passed 14th Street, my irritation lessening with each stop. By the time I got off, Kerouac’s blues had become my own.

I emerged back into the city in the Village, near where the “king of the Beats” used to drink. A drag-queen show was about to kick off. The old tobacco store on Seventh Avenue glowed. Embarrassed by how unseedy it had become, I wondered what Kerouac would make of his village now. What celebrity he would like to read his poems? Gloria Vanderbilt, perhaps? “How do you like fame?” Irene May once asked him. “It’s like old newspapers blowing down Bleecker Street,” Kerouac replied (Jack’s Book, page 230).

Perhaps Mike Wallace would say the same, but I sort of doubt it.
Originally Published: April 26, 2006

COMMENTS (2)

On September 26, 2007 at 9:13pm Richey wrote:
I liked this article a lot - it inspired me to write a short piece in my journal.

On December 22, 2008 at 11:54am dave fiore wrote:
Jack Kerouac for all his problems was a true American Hero for he wrote about the dangers of a capitalistic society that coveted money and things above all else.

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Biography

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle, which can be found online at bookcritics.org.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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