Jack Would Speak Through the Imperfect Medium of Alice

So I’m an alcoholic Catholic mother-lover

yet there is no sweetish nectar no fuzzed-peach

thing no song sing but in the word

to which I’m starlessly unreachably faithful

you, pedant & you, politically righteous & you, alive

you think you can peel my sober word apart from my drunken word

my Buddhist word apart from my white sugar Thérèse word my

word to comrade from my word to my mother

but all my words are one word my lives one

my last to first wound round in finally fiberless crystalline skein


I began as a drunkard & ended as a child

I began as an ordinary cruel lover & ended as a boy who

          read radiant newsprint

I began physically embarrassing — “bloated” — &

          ended as a perfect black-haired laddy

I began unnaturally subservient to my mother &

          ended in the crib of her goldenness

I began in a fatal hemorrhage & ended in a

          tiny love’s body perfect smallest one


But I began in a word & I ended in a word &

          I know that word better

Than any knows me or knows that word,

          probably, but I only asked to know it —

That word is the word when I say me bloated

          & when I say me manly it’s

The word that word I write perfectly lovingly

          one & one after the other one


But you — you can only take it when it’s that one & not

          some other one

Or you say “he lost it” as if I (I so nothinged) could ever

          lose the word

But when there’s only one word — when

          you know them, the words —

The words are all only one word the perfect

          word —

My body my alcohol my pain my death are only

          the perfect word as I

Tell it to you, poor sweet categorizers


Every me I was & wrote

          were only & all (gently)

That one perfect word 

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  1. In video footage of Alice Notley reading this poem at The Poetry Project at St Marks Church in the Bowery in New York City in the early 80s (an outtake from Canadian director Ron Mann’s fantastic documentary Poetry in Motion; a clip below is available on Youtube), the poet explains before reading the poem, “The Jack is Jack Kerouac and the Alice is Alice Notley.” How does knowing that this poem is about the writer Jack Kerouac, credited with coining the term “Beat generation,” change the meaning of the poem for you as a reader?
  2. How does the poet challenge popular attitudes about Jack Kerouac as a literary icon?
  3. How does the poet represent time in an unusual way?
  4. How does the speaker in the poem feel about Jack Kerouac?
  5. If you were doing to recite this poem, what tone would you use? Would it shift throughout the poem? Where?
  6. In writing this poem, Alice Notley takes on the voice of Jack Kerouac and imagines how he would talk back to his fans and detractors. Think about someone you admire who is no longer alive and write a poem in his or her voice. For a more detailed version of this exercise, click here.




  1. Watch Alice Notley read this poem at The Poetry Project at St Marks on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
  2. The Poetry Project in New York continues to be a poetry community hub, and they still hold 24-hour marathon poetry readings every New Year’s Day. Their site is here: http://www.poetryproject.org/
  3. Alice Notley is now recognized as one of the best poets of her generation and has won many major awards for her work. See her read from her Griffin Poetry Prize–winning book, Disobedience: http://www.griffinpoetryprize.com/see-and-hear-poetry/h-n/alice-notley/
  4. Alice Notley 101: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/article/250508?gclid=CjwKEAjw7uKwBRDUlJvRo-z6rgMSJACbmSBhdQj-bOvUp2oT3bQ9Yz_mhCgwzaoQh7l3pW06o-eGfRoCOZzw_wcB
  5.  A long interview with Alice Notley by Creative Director Alice Notley: https://damianrogers.wordpress.com/2010/01/28/interview-with-alice-notley-part-one/
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Bibliographical info

“Jack Would Speak Through the lmperfect Medium of Alice” by Alice Notley from Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems, 19702005 (Wesleyan University Press 2006). © 2006 by Alice Notley and reprinted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.

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