Looking over our shoulders, it’s easy to underestimate the poetic art of Jack Kerouac. We remember little beyond On the Road, one of the defining works of the Beat Generation. The book celebrated a life of drugs and jazz on the road in an elegant stream of consciousness screed. Helping the idea that there was little to the writer beyond The Road is the fact that Kerouac himself died too young. He was just 47 and died of an internal hemorrhage attributed both to a lifetime of heavy drinking and a bar fight a few weeks before. Life fast, die hard: this is not the epithet of a master. And yet.
I used to sit under trees and meditate
On the diamond bright silence of darkness
and the bright look of diamonds in space
and space that was stiff with lights
and diamonds shot through, and silence
Someday you’ll be lying
there in a nice trance
and suddenly a hot
soapy brush will be
applied to your face
–it’ll be unwelcome
undertaker’ll shave you
(from 2nd Chorus)
It’s been reported that Kerouac loved poetry and loved making poems and said that his novels were a direct outgrowth of the diverse poems that filled his notebooks throughout his life. Poetry was important to Kerouac, personally and to and for his art. A new book from The Library of America illustrates this as well as anything I’ve seen.
Jack Kerouac: Collected Poems is edited by poet, painter and short story writer Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell. “Jack Kerouac was like a man observing his river,” Phipps-Kettlewell writes, “sitting in the rain, letting it soak through his clothes, his skin, his being; a man weighed down, feeling the cold, his tears as opaque as his heart.”
The book brings together all of Kerouac’s major collected works along with many uncollected poems, some of which have been published here for the first time. ◊
Jones Atwater is a contributing editor to January Magazine.