This is going to be short, because Book of Blues by Jack Kerouac is shit.
I’m sat in Munich airport, again, waiting for the connection that will finally take me back to Heathrow, but from there I have to go back to my abode in North London before doubling back and jumping on a train to go and visit my family for a belated Christmas. I’d rather hoped the book I grabbed out of my suitcase before my long flight overnight (that I slept through) was going to be good. It wasn’t.
Deep in the bowels of Munich Airport, far below my feet, I have a bag containing unread copies of a Virginia Woolf, acclaimed “Un-American Activities” novel The Book of Daniel and a James Bond comic “recommended” by the same article as led me to Never Send Flowers (see review here). In my hand luggage I placed something light and something worthy. Something I thought would entertain me, and something I thought would improve me. The worthy book, which I will be reading next and which will almost certainly be great, is the brand spanking new Visual Editions publication of Don Quixote. The light read was Book of Blues, a collection of Kerouac poetry. “Poetry” in the loosest possible sense. There is one beautiful poem in this overlong collection, and it is a poem by Alice Notley inspired by the work of Kerouac and included as an appendix.
I know I’ve defended Kerouac before, but when I have done so what I’ve defended is his prose, his energetic and life-affirming and dark descriptions of lost self-control, a lack of a point to life and a growing and never-disappearing sense of despair. Kerouac’s best works (in my opinion) are Big Sur, Desolation Angels and – key thing here – THE HEAVILY EDITED VERSION of On The Road. He writes emptiness and hollowness better than anyone else, and as a tragic figure he is compelling to read about: Kerouac spent his life seeking a reason for existence, a transcendental experience that would make the anguish and anxiety and alcoholism pale away into nothingness: a reason he never found. In Book of Blues, a manuscript he prepared from various notebooks before he died, the experience he was trying to use to hide life’s emptiness from himself was poetry. That’s not fair, it was Poetry, it was the White Goddess, it was Inspiration and Creativity and all those other wanky Literary ideas that look beautiful capitalised for just a moment, but then you look closer and realise the meaning hasn’t changed.
Kerouac wrote his “Blues” poems with a simple rule – each page of his notebooks (bought, for the purpose of his blues writing, at a specific size) was one chorus. In the way that jazz and blues improvisers have a set space in which to play – a set of bars, a chorus, a chord sequence – Kerouac had a single page in which to play, and his “Blues” would be collected out of a series of “Choruses”. But like the majority of his unedited (by other people) prose, there is far too much crap here to let even the occasional glimmer of true poetry shine out.
This is “poetry” to read aloud, stoned, at a party where everyone is dressed in black and about to have sex with someone. This is poetry in the loosest sense of the word – there is very little imagery, there are very few captured moments and recognisable ideas: Kerouac filled his notebooks with conversations he overheard, with dull descriptions of things he saw, with advertisements he read, with his opinions about jazz musicians and other (better) poets – the “Blues” here do not read like poems, but like notebooks. There are made up words, there is pretentiousness, there is pointlessness, but there is very little literary Art.
There is no beauty in the poetry here in the way that there is in Kerouac’s prose – these are charmless, unpoetic notes worked over and overworked by someone who didn’t know what they were doing: Kerouac’s edits to his notes didn’t improve them, and his classification of what is found here as poetry is what betrays his lack of poetic aptitude far more than anything else.
We don’t know the writer here – we don’t get a sense of the Kerouac who manages to write his way out of his awful opinions and occasional awful actions – the spontaneity he was trying to capture with his notebook/jazz approach is lost when these things are printed and bound and published by Penguin and invite comparison with other actual, proper, poems.
This is the height of Kerouac at his least forgiveable. Many people I know – especially (let’s be frank rather than sexist) women – do not think Kerouac is forgiveable. That his boozy sleaziness is not outwritten, that his sexual violence (here in problematic prominence) is too present, too ingrained, to ever be ignored. Book of Blues backs up all of these opinions and offers very little to use in disagreement. It is self-important, self-defined poetry that never elevates itself, and uses the word “rape” and the phrase “little girls” with disgusting regularity. Kerouac was a shit, but he was a shit who ultimately lost, died hating himself and everything he’d ever enjoyed: that’s why I tend to ultimately forgive him (1. because I’ve read Big Sur and 2. because I’m a man and my feminism allows little gaps where things I enjoy but know I shouldn’t slip through), but I cannot forgive him here.
I haven’t read every prose work by Kerouac, but I picked this up hoping for at least an inkling, a snippet, of what I’ve enjoyed/found heartbreaking in his finest works, but there is NONE of that here, instead there is only a problematic writer evidenced at his most problematic.
The sexism, the shit writing, the self-importance: that is all one finds in Book of Blues, none of the beauty and self-collapse that characterises the man who on occasiona out-Knausgaarded Knausgaard before he was even born.
This collection of shit poetry – culled by the writer himself from a much bigger pile of what was presumably worse – does nothing for Kerouac.
I didn’t read this twice, which I usually do with poetry, because it would’ve been a waste of my time. This poetry will not open up to analysis – it is facile, it’s something a teenager would read from whilst getting sucked off in front of his peers, a cigarette in one hand and a sense of entitlement getting ready to burst from his balls and cover the room, an idea of poetry as something “cool” but no knowledge of it as something beautiful.
Avoid avoid avoid avoid.
Pull it off the shelves, Penguin. How can I defend Kerouac in the 21st century when you let people see him like this???