This Old Poem #93:
Jack Kerouac’s Courage
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/5/04

  There is an irony to this TOP’s title because the ‘poet’ in question never displayed a hint of the titular quality- neither in life nor in art. But I won’t delve in to the manifest reasons that Jack Kerouac is a mediocre prosist since it is his terrible poetry that’s the issue here. But, 1st, a word from our sponsor (oh, not really- just the obligatory generic online bio):

  Jack Kerouac was born Jean-Louis Kerouac, a French-Canadian child on March 12, 1922 in working-class Lowell, Massachusetts. Jean spoke a local dialect of French called joual before he learned English. His older brother Gerard died of rheumatic fever at the age of nine. Jean was an intense boy devoted to his mother and was driven to create stories from a young age, inspired first by the mysterious radio show 'The Shadow,' and later by the fervid novels of Thomas Wolfe.
  Lowell thrived as the center of New England's textile industry, but by the time of Kerouac's birth it had begun to sink into poverty. Kerouac's father, a printer and well-known local businessman, began to suffer financial difficulties, and started gambling in the hope of restoring prosperity to the household. Young Jack hoped to save the family himself by winning a football scholarship to Columbia University in New York. He tried and failed to fit in with the military (World War II had begun) and ended up sailing with the Merchant Marines. When he wasn't sailing, he was hanging around New York with a crowd his parents did not approve of: depraved young Columbia students Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr, a strange but brilliant older downtown friend named William S. Burroughs, and a joyful street cowboy from Denver named Neal Cassady. Kerouac had already begun writing a novel 'The Town and the City,' which earned him respect and some recognition as a writer, although it did not make him famous.
  It would be a long time before he would be published again. He decided to write about his cross-country trips exactly as they had happened, without pausing to edit, fictionalize or even think. He presented the resulting manuscript to his editor on a single long roll of unbroken paper, but the editor did not share his enthusiasm and the relationship was broken. Kerouac would suffer seven years of rejection before 'On The Road' would be published.
  He spent the early 1950's writing one unpublished novel after another, carrying them around in a rucksack as he roamed back and forth across the country. 'On The Road' was finally published in 1957, and when it became a tremendous popular success Kerouac did not know how to react. Embittered by years of rejection, he was suddenly expected to snap to and play the part of Young Beat Icon for the public. He was older and sadder than everyone expected him to be, and probably far more intelligent as well. Literary critics, objecting to the Beat 'fad,' refused to take Kerouac seriously as a writer and began to ridicule his work, hurting him tremendously. Certainly the Beat Generation was a fad, Kerouac knew, but his own writing was not.
  He published many books during these years, but most had been written earlier, during the early 50's when he could not find a publisher. He kept busy, appearing on TV shows, writing magazine articles and recording three spoken-word albums, but his momentum as a serious writer had been completely disrupted.
  Defeated and lonesome, he left California to live with his mother in Long Island, and would not stray from his mother for the rest of his life. He would continue to publish, and remained mentally alert and aware (though always drunken). Despite the 'beatnik' stereotype, Kerouac was a political conservative, especially when under the influence of his Catholic mother. As the beatniks of the 1950's began to yield their spotlight to the hippies of the 1960's, Jack took pleasure in standing against everything the hippies stood for. He supported the Vietnam War and became friendly with William F. Buckley.
  Through his first forty years Kerouac had failed to sustain a long-term romantic relationship with a woman, though he often fell in love. He'd married twice, to Edie Parker and Joan Haverty, but both marriages had ended within months. In the mid-1960's he married again, but this time to a maternalistic and older childhood acquaintance from small-town Lowell, Stella Sampas, who he hoped would help around the house as his mother entered old age.
  He moved back to Lowell with Stella and his mother, and then moved again with them to St. Petersburg, Florida. His health destroyed by drinking, he died at home on October 21, 1969. He was 47 years old.

  Of course, this ‘bio’ facilitates many of the lies about JK- such as he was the 1 who coined the term ‘Beat’ (many have claimed it & no 1 knows the real originator), as well as the myth about writing On The Road without pause, when subsequent info proved that JK, indeed, had heavily revised his mediocrity (for whatever that’s worth).
  Here’s a typical ‘poem’- from his long book length poem ‘Mexico City Blues”:

3rd Chorus Mexico City Blues

Describe fires in riverbottom
sand, and the cooking;
the cooking of hot dogs
spitted in whittled sticks
over flames of woodfire
with grease dropping in smoke
to brown and blacken
the salty hotdogs,
and the wine,
and the work on the railroad.

$275,000,000,000.00 in debt
says the Government
Two hundred and seventy five billion
dollars in debt
Like Unending
And Unnumbered Sentient Beings
Who will be admitted --
Not-Numberable --
To the new Pair of Shoes
Of White Guru Fleece
O j o !
The Purple Paradise

  Ok, a critique of government waste. Explain why Heaven & O j o ! (eye!) are on lines alone? If this were a well constructed Stevensian or Rilkean poem he might be able to get away with such throwaways- but this is not at that level- not even close. This next trip attempts stream of consciousness- but then why not a proem?

Bus East

Society has good intentions 
Bureaucracy is like a friend
5 years ago - other furies 
   other losses -
America's trying 
to control the
Forest fires,
The essential smile In 
the essential sleep Of 
the children
Of the essential mind
I'm all thru playing
   the American 
Now I'm going to
   live a good quiet life
The world should be 
built for foot walkers
Oily rivers
Of spiney Nevady
I am Jake Cake 
Write like Blake
The horse is not
      pleased Sight of his
gorgeous finery 
   in the dust
Its silken nostrils 
   did disgust
Cats arent kind 
Kiddies anent sweet
April in Nevada -
Investigating Dismal Cheyenne 
Where the war parties 
In fields of straw 
Aimed over oxen
   At Indian Chiefs 
In wild headdress 
Pouring thru the gap 
In Wyoming plain 
To make the settlers 
Eat more dust
   than dust was eaten 
In the States
   From East at Seacoast 
Where wagons made up 
To dreadful Plains 
Of clazer vup
Saltry settlers 
Anxious to masturbate
   The Mongol Sea
      (I'm too tired
         in Cheyenne - No
sleep in 4 nights now, &
            2 to go)

  Again, this poem just goes off into nothingness. I have written better poems in literally 5 minutes- no, just extemporaneously at a poetry reading. The poem in question:



Wonder if my poem title will be acceptable.
(The Absence of Courage)



Courage is an interesting virtue.
The only difference between courage
and unrealistic hopefulness is success.
Courage to me means standing up against injustice,
or at least finding the strength to do something
your character or the outside world would rather you didn't do.
It's that noble buck with big horns we admire and have the deepest
of respect for,
it's that noble buck with big horns we like to shoot down and hang on our

Like the tobacco in a cigarette, the only way to draw it out
from the depths of your character is to embrace it and set it on fire.
But don't take more than you can handle,
or you might find yourself coughing up the illogical notion,
the practicality of your subconscious triumphing.
Bite off just enough,
enough to sustain hope, but not enough to defeat the
cowardice in your soul to the point where you altogether snuff restraint
and self doubt.


I have seen courage in a number of places,
in the sun for it's miraculous overpowering of darkness every morning,
in a woman who decides to have a child despite life threatening consequences.
I've seen it mainly in action movies,
where it exists without the natural predators of insecurity and sensibility
found in the real world.
I've seen it in the insurrection of children who decide to just say yes,
I've seen it in the cynical gaze of withered old addicts who are trying to
say no.

Courage, it's a wonderful thing.
It's both a blessing and a curse.
Embrace it and harness it,
but do it in moderation,
or it might get the better of your self-doubt and sensibility.

  This is a dull sermon, not a poem. Show me a single poetic technique that enhances what is said. There is none. The only technique that is poetic is the enjambment- but what does it add? Here’s the 1st stanza rendered as prose:

  Courage is an interesting virtue. The only difference between courage and unrealistic hopefulness is success. Courage to me means standing up against injustice, or at least finding the strength to do something your character or the outside world would rather you didn't do. It's that noble buck with big horns we admire and have the deepest of respect for, it's that noble buck with big horns we like to shoot down and hang on our walls.

  What is added with the line breaks? Nothing. As a reader, you should demand reasons for the razzle-dazzle in ‘poetry’. This has none. Why are the sections #d? Is there that stark a difference?



The tobacco in a cigarette
from your character is on fire.
Snuff restraint.

  In the rewrite you at least get imagery & an antiphonal command whose provenance might provoke something within. The original gives you a yawn & a wet thumb eager to turn the page. Whatever, it’s only Jack ‘The Whack’ Kerouac, after all.

Final Score: (1-100):

Jack Kerouc’s Courage: 30
TOP’s Courage: 55

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