Most people think of Jack Kerouac as a novelist – and rightly so. His era-defining On the Road, foremost among a score of his other novels, is still in print after nearly sixty years and has become shorthand for the literary movement known as the Beat Generation. Its audience has only expanded. But fewer people may know that Kerouac often thought of himself more as a poet than a writer of prose. In his statement on “The Origins of Joy in Poetry,” Kerouac views himself and his work firmly in the company of poets:
The new American poetry as typified by the SF Renaissance (which means Ginsberg, me, Rexroth, Ferlinghetti, McClure, Corso, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Philip Whalen, I guess) is a kind of new-old Zen Lunacy poetry, writing whatever comes into your head as it comes, poetry returned to its origin, in the bardic child, truly ORAL as Ferling said, instead of gray-faced Academic quibbling.
Composing “whatever comes into your head as it comes” perfectly encapsulates the “spontaneous prose” method Kerouac claims to have employed in On the Road; in this case, however, Kerouac clearly identifies it as a mode of poetic writing.
“The Origins of Joy in Poetry” is gathered together with selections of Kerouac’s verse, written over a period spanning 1945 to 1970, in Scattered Poems (City Lights, 1971 – Pocket Poets #28). Here one finds Kerouac’s poems for Allen Ginsberg and Arthur Rimbaud, his very fine attempts at Haiku, and selections from the well-known sequence “San Francisco Blues.” Surprisingly, given Kerouac’s disdain for the “gray-faced Academic quibbling” of the mid-century literature department, one of the most delightful pieces in Scattered Poems is “A Pun for Al Gelpi.”
Al Gelpi was a freshly minted English PhD lecturing at Harvard in the early ’60s when he invited Kerouac, then living with his mother in nearby Lowell, MA, to give a reading on campus. I happen to know Al, who is now a freshly retired English professor at Stanford, and he remembers Kerouac’s reading at Harvard as one of the most raucous he ever attended. Crowd members spilling out of the overflowing lecture hall leaned their heads in through open windows to hear Kerouac recite lines of verse from memory. The evening went off the rails as some members of the crowd outside began passing drinks in through the windows, hoping to see a visibly drunk Kerouac get even looser. The poet gamely accepted each one.
At a certain point, Kerouac halted mid-sentence and demanded that somebody bring him a volume of Emily Dickinson so that he could read from it. Al scrambled up to his room in the dormitories and brought back his Dickinson, but by that time it seemed that the reading was nearly over. Kerouac could barely form a complete sentence. Still, the poet and the professor became fast friends, corresponding and meeting over dinner when they could, inspiring “A Pun for Al Gelpi,” scribbled down in one of Kerouac’s letters to Al: