restricted access The Poet Rolls On
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The Poet Rolls On
Collected Poems. Jack Kerouac; Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell, ed. Library of America. 816 pages; cloth, $40.00.
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While Jack Kerouac’s novels such as On the Road (1957), Dharma Bums (1958), and Big Sur (1962) continue to generate much of the predominate buzz surrounding his significant body of work, his poetry deserves no less dedicated attention. As a few scholars—along with his notable pal Allen Ginsberg—have argued for over the years that Kerouac is a poet, through and through. What he achieves with the conversational prosody of his poems is astounding and as truly American as jazz or blues, which are in fact the foundations off of which he builds his verse. Many poets following in the wake of his work are already well aware of this fact (Clark Coolidge’s Now It’s Jazz: Writings on Kerouac and the Sounds [1999] being one phenomenal example). Any avid reader of Kerouac, such as Coolidge, will not be surprised by the contents of the Collected Poems, but new and future readers will be happily thrilled. Nothing new has been added to what’s already available in print, yet all has been usefully gathered together, including items such as the poem “Sea” from the closing pages of Big Sur, in an ideal size and format. The volume is even nearly small enough to slip into the average coat pocket.

Of the various half dozen or so individual volumes of Kerouac’s published poetry, nearly all have appeared posthumously. It was Kerouac, however, who selected the contents for the majority of them in his lifetime. He was continually either sending poetry manuscripts to publishers or awaiting their appearance in print. His care over manuscripts was both meticulous and rigorous. As has been widely reported, his working desk at home was always kept in fastidious order throughout his many frequent moves with his mother. His was a writing life. He carried a notebook everywhere and would constantly be writing in it while a flurry of activity unfolded around him or the conversation of his friends reached ever headier, glorious heights, often sailing joyfully into the absurd. At every turn, Kerouac tracked the impulsive, frenetic patterns of speech as events unfolded around him. The poems join with the novels as a vast autobiography of his roving spirit: a celebration of himself, his friends, and his heroes, both literary and other. He often varied his compositional form of writing while working over the same subject material of a particular time and place; thus, to complement his novel Desolation Angels (1965), there are his poem-sequences Desolation Blues as well as Desolation Pops (1956; haiku).

Blemished by the odd quirk or missed detail, this is ultimately not the perfect edition of Kerouac’s poems. Editor Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell’s introduction is a lengthy, numbered, sectioned-by-topic collage of Kerouac quotes that works a fine homage—with the exception of a brief, rather confusing and out of place tangential foray into Haitian zombie lore. Her reference to zombies as “people-poems” and claim that “Poets are made to contain, not carry. Yet they endure their fate as sacrificial zombies or lambs of God, taking on the pain of the world” are intriguing, however she fails to articulate exactly how Kerouac’s work fits into such zombie studies. There’s undoubtedly some brief meeting place between the impact and influence of Western religion upon Haitian voodoo and Kerouac’s own Catholicism, but the attempted presentation of it here is miserably out of place when set amidst Kerouac’s verbose engagement with life—which, aside from occasions of drunken stupor, is difficult to imagine as ever appearing anything like the behavior of the walking dead!

Notably missing from the Collected Poems is information concerning Trip Trap (1973), a collaborative book of haiku Kerouac wrote with Lew Welch and Albert Saijo while on a road trip home to New York from San Francisco. Perhaps this is because of its collaborative nature, yet two versions of the likewise collaborative poem “Pull My Daisy written by Kerouac...