Kerouac’s Wheel

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.

11 Responses

  1. I disliked Kerouac’s poetry
    I disliked Kerouac’s poetry for many years, but someone recently gave me the Library of America book and I began reading it and enjoyed it immensely. I found Bawer’s “review” baseless — not because he didn’t like Kerouac’s poetry but because he fails to critique it, instead making personal and unrelated jabs. Take this sentence for instance: “Objectively speaking, Kerouac and his pals were little more than a bunch of unprepossessing misfits.” This is “subjectively speaking” not “objectively”—as evidenced by the scores of writers and readers who have been influenced by Beat literature. Furthermore, words and phrases like “pals, “little more than,” “unprepossessing,” and “misfits” are by no means neutral/objective. More so, what do Kerouac’s “pals” have to do with his individual poetry? Bawer spends the majority of the time talking about Kerouac’s personal life instead of saying anything important about his poetry. He said nothing of Kerouac’s method, influences, or style—all of which are quite interesting. I’d recommend these articles:

    I’d prefer a review that makes a case — for or against — Kerouac’s diction and line breaks.

  2. Thank you Asher Levi…
    Thank you Asher Levi…

    As astute readers of Kerouac’s poetry know, Jack Kerouac was a huge poetry presence in his own “write”. Not everyone writes turgid scholarly poetry…Kerouac wrote poetry which came alive on the page & begged to be performed.

    Fortunately, there are fewer of Bruce Bawer types than there are of us. Otherwise, the world would not have read Jack Kerouac’s poetry.

  3. Time has proved Jack’s worth,
    Time has proved Jack’s worth, anyone who is spouting such crap after all these years is totally out of touch with what has gone down over the last 60 + years, not only in the USA but the entire world. I”m amazed such naysayers still haunt the literary world.

  4. I can’t speak too much on his
    I can’t speak too much on his poetry because I haven’t had much experience with it. I’ve watched a few youtube videos of his and I always liked it.

    I do own a copy of his haiku book and love that tremendously.

    although, isn’t this guy kind of missing the point entirely? I look at Kerouac’s body of work as poetry. His “prose” is extremely poetic.

  5. …the ending of the 211 is
    …the ending of the 211 is an eloquent paraphrase of the apostle Paul….to die is gain….the wheel, what we call life, is full of turmoil, fear, and gnashing of teeth. The critic seems envious and tasteless. **he wrote Mexico city blues** of course he belong to any society, hall, or top ten list. It is widely acclaimed for good reason. Authentic and hopeful. Without form. A completed work. What does it matter anyway? Not sure Kerouac would care either way.

  6. Kerouac’s poetry is like jazz
    Kerouac’s poetry is like jazz – improvised and free flowing. And listen to him read any of his stuff, excerpts from On the Road, the Steve Allen stuff – it’s all a sort of a river of words with a jazz beat.

  7. Wikipedia on Bruce Bawer
    Wikipedia on Bruce Bawer states “… is an American literary critic, writer and poet. His work focuses mainly on criticism…” which pretty much makes what he had to say about Kerouac something he does for a living per the cut and paste.

    Kerouac gets national attention from his poetry and Bawer slams it being a “literary critic” and shows his dislike of Jack’s success showing his envy being an unknown poet.

    The New Criterion has fails by publishing this man Bawer’s sour grapes critique, showing their shortsightedness on an American poet’s well-deserved recognition.

    Bad on TNC.

  8. Mtmynd, it turns out that
    Mtmynd, it turns out that Bruce Bawer is also a political writer who specializes in attacking Islamic culture (all too popular a cottage industry these days). Here’s an example of his work, called “Tolerating Intolerance”:

    Not impressive, not at all. Being a literary critic is the least of his problems.

  9. I agree with Wojciech, i.e.,
    I agree with Wojciech, i.e., there is no clear line between Kerouac’s poetry and prose (and indeed letters); Bawer might have addressed the connection. Kerouac’s work is all a partly impressionistic word-flow, often it works really well, sometimes less well, but in any event is made to be read aloud with breath-pauses and other incidents of speech and human interaction.

    Kerouac’s haiku though is amongst his most disciplined writing, and deserves a thorough analysis, it can’t be dismissed in a few bon mots. Amongst my favourites in his canon is The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, also numerous of the “Blues” he wrote. He was a noted minor poet and a great post-War novelist.


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