Missing the point on Jack Kerouac
By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
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.
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