Featured Blogger

Kerouac as Poet: A Response to Cedar Sigo

In high school, like many-a lad before me, I thought Kerouac was greatest writer ever. Back then I didn’t read poetry, but when I started to, I turned to his and found it wanting. Or put it this way, the poetry didn’t seem to merit the extravagant praise heaped on it by Ginsberg and others. Ginsberg would speak of Kerouac like he was the most innovative poet of his day, but surely not even Kerouac believed this or he wouldn’t have spent his time writing all those novels. The poems I first encountered in Scattered Poems and Pomes All Sizes weren’t so much bad as throwaway, and not of the virtuosic, Frank O’Hara kind. I probably got 50 pages into Mexico City Blues before I tapped out; I couldn’t imagine running through 192 more relentless one-pagers. Curiously enough at the time, I preferred the title piece of Heaven & Other Poems, not that I thought it was a great poem but that it reminded me of Kerouac more than the cramped scribbling of the other books. And by that I mean that Kerouac achieves his best effects through expansion—in the endlessly unrolling sentences of books like On the Road, The Subterraneans, and Dr. Sax—and “Heaven” gave him more room to stretch out. But the contraction of the other poems seemed to cut against the grain of the genius of his writing.

Years later, having read hundreds of poets and writers in the interim, I came across a used copy of Book of Blues (Penguin, 1995), with an introduction by Robert Creeley and the promising information that the MS was arranged by Kerouac himself, who chose eight series of “blues”—each page its own numbered “Chorus” like Mexico City—from among many such sequences. I bought it, thinking surely Creeley could get at these poems and tell me what was interesting about them. But he couldn’t, or rather, his essay is interesting but doesn’t make the connection I imagined he would between his own minimalism and the pocket-notebook-size pages on which Kerouac almost invariably chose to write poetry. For I remained slightly skeptical of Kerouac’s insistence on this practice. In what he refers to as his “system,” the pocket notebook is elevated to a compositional principle, each page representing a chorus that the poet fills in, in a spontaneous, improvised fashion as the jazz soloist might. But there’s nothing about the jazz chorus metaphor that dictates the pocket notebook, other than the fact that it’s easier to sustain a short improvisation than a long one. I felt like, if he were serious about this metaphor as a compositional method for poetry, rather than as a way to blow off steam between more arduous bouts of novel-writing, he would have varied the size of the notebook, as though altering the time signature or the tempo, in order to explore the varying results.

Still, though Creeley was no help, I was better equipped to read Book of Blues on its own terms, because I was interested in it strictly as poetry rather than as a reflection of Kerouac’s prose. On the whole, I found Kerouac to be a good poet, if not a fully realized one. Again, it remains evident that the bulk of his literary ambition went into his fiction; his poetic production feels casual, even lazy, and there’s plenty of horseshit in Book of Blues. “Much is painful, even at times contemptible,” as Creeley suggests (xii), yet at his best, Kerouac does hit a distinctive note—resulting in surprising lines like “The brain is a pudding / with raisins in’t” (264) or “It’s a strange thing when nuts / get together / To form one cock” (258)—and sometimes achieves whole poems of weird beauty, like the “5th Chorus” of the “first solo” of “Cerrada Medellin Blues” (1961):

What’s all this Innisfree
Running straight thru me?
Was Yeats invented it?
Or O’Shawn the Yurner?
Repetitive old rolling
smoke balloons?
Paul Newman’s mouth
with Spanish ladies
What?——Some truck?
Some cigaree? Halles
Market onions are free?
My Guardian Angel’s
about to tell me— (253)

The “Innisfree” theme runs through the first six choruses of “Cerrada Medellin Blues,” though its significance proves elusive. Why this ostentatiously Irish locale in a sequence named for a Mexico City street? The appearance of Yeats suggests Kerouac has “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” on his mind, alluding perhaps to the state of productive solitude depicted in that poem. There’s anecdotal evidence for such a reading in Paul Maher’s Kerouac: The Definitive Biography (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2004)—that Kerouac was in Mexico in an attempt to recharge his creative batteries (420)—but that matters less to me than the suggestion contained in the opening lines of the subsequent chorus: “Alone with my Guardian Angel / Alone in Innisfree / Alone in Mexico / City” (254). As Kerouac writes in an excerpt from his “Statement on Poetics” prefacing Book of Blues, “the word-meaning can carry from one chorus into another, just like the phrase-meaning [in jazz] can carry harmonically from one chorus to the other” (1), which clearly happens here. Yet “5th Chorus” still holds together as an autonomous unit and in a way the musical metaphor of his various “Blues” does his poetry a disservice, inasmuch as it conceals the fact that Kerouac’s something of an early innovator in what is now called the serial poem, a practice much in vogue today. In any case, elaborating the connection to Yeats only gets us so far in a poem composed almost entirely of questions, collaging together an abstract impression of Mexico City from Irish, French (“Halles Market”), and American (“Paul Newman’s”) materials. Slight as it seems, “5th Chrous” retains pockets of mystery, like “O’Shawn the Yurner,” who I suspect is a Yeatsian/Joycean invention of Kerouac’s own, or “Repetitive old rolling / smoke balloons,” which sorta suggests smoke rings and sorta doesn’t. Certainly there’s more to this poem than any analysis of its constituent parts can yield.

But Kerouac’s poetry doesn’t always rely on opacity to get itself across. In recently rereading “San Francisco Blues” (1954), the opening sequence of Book of Blues, I was struck by the spare, almost imagistic quality of the “28th Chorus”:

You’re as useless
As a soda truck
Parked in the rain
With cases of pretty red
Orange green & Coca Cola
Brown receiving rain
Drops like the sea
Receiveth driving spikes
Welling in the navel void.

I also have loud poems:
Broken plastic coverlets
Flapping in the rain
To cover newspapers
All printed up
And plain. (29)

This poem, like many in “San Francisco Blues” an apostrophe to the city, is at once less baroque and more composed than the “5th Chorus” of “Cerrada Medellin,” written seven years later. The first stanza of “28th Chorus” displays a W. C. Williams influence that is arguably refined out of Kerouac’s “blues” poems over time, while the second mighn’t seem out of place in a book like Pound’s Ripostes. This too is where I see his poetry intersecting with Creeley’s, and it more obviously discloses the engagement with technique that undergirds Kerouac’s more seemingly offhand productions.

Originally Published: April 20th, 2012

Garrett Caples is the author of The Garrett Caples Reader (1999), Complications (2007), Quintessence of the Minor: Symbolist Poetry in English (2010), Retrievals (2014), and Power Ballads (2016). He is an editor at City Lights Books, where he curates the Spotlight poetry series. Caples was also a contributing writer to theSan Francisco Bay Guardian and has coedited the Collected Poems of Philip...