Jack Kerouac’s poetry has just been enshrined in the prestigious Library of America series, which would have made him proud. No sooner is the book published, though, than comes the reaction. Bruce Bawer trashes Kerouac mercilessly in The New Criterion, with raw insults that go way over the top:
Grimly reconciled though one may be to the annual flood of books by and about the Beat Generation, it’s particularly depressing to see Jack Kerouac’s poetry, of all things, enshrined in the Library of America, that magnificent series designed to preserve for posterity the treasures of our national literature. To read through these seven hundred–odd pages of Kerouac’s staggeringly slapdash effusions set in elegant Galliard, outfitted with the usual meticulous editorial apparatus, and bound—like Twain’s novels and Lincoln’s speeches—in a beautiful Library of America volume is enough to trigger a serious attack of cognitive dissonance.
Well. I must admit that I too prefer Kerouac’s wonderful prose to his vexing poetry. However, I can prove that Jack Kerouac is an important poet, because he has written at least one short poem that seems to mean many things to many people. It goes like this:
The wheel of the quivering meat conception
Turns in the void expelling human beings,
Pigs, turtles, frogs, insects, nits,
Mice, lice, lizards, rats, roan
Racinghorses, poxy bubolic pigtics,
Horrible, unnameable lice of vultures,
Murderous attacking dog-armies
Of Africa, Rhinos roaming in the jungle,
Vast boars and huge gigantic bull
Elephants, rams, eagles, condors,
Pones and Porcupines and Pills-
All the endless conception of living beings
Gnashing everywhere in Consciousness
Throughout the ten directions of space
Occupying all the quarters in & out,
From super-microscopic no-bug
To huge Galaxy Lightyear Bowell
Illuminating the sky of one Mind-
Poor! I wish I was free
of that slaving meat wheel
and safe in heaven dead
Poor! I can prove that this is a good poem from my own personal reaction, because there are only a few poems I’ve ever read that have stuck as powerfully in my brain as this one has.
How many poems can I (mostly) recite from memory? Let’s see, there’s that Basho haiku about the frog, there’s the wheelbarrow and the wet black bough, there’s Prufrock. I could probably manage half of “Howl”, and most of Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay”, though only because I remember it from The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. And, for me, there’s also Kerouac’s wheel of the quivering meat conception.
So I personally believe that Jack Kerouac has got some talent as a poet, even though Bruce Bawer doesn’t think so. He’s written a few other good ones too.
This well-loved poem is often referred to as “The Wheel of the Quivering Meat Conception”, but its actual title is “211th Chorus” from the jazz-inspired Mexico City Blues. However, “The Wheel of the Quivering Meat Conception” later became the title of a song — actually an unhinged 1:24 minute rave-up — by Mott the Hoople in the early 1970s.
The image at the top of this page is a sketch from Jack Kerouac’s notebooks, titled “The Ten-Year Spiritual (or Psychological) Circle of “An American Passed Here”. This was apparently a working title for the novel that would eventually become Kerouac’s first, The Town and the City, which he was writing at the time.