A writing exercise by former Creative Director Damian Rogers
Source poem: “Jack Would Speak Through the Imperfect Medium of Alice” by Alice Notley
To figure out how this poem works, read it silently and out loud. To hear how the poet reads it, watch this clip from Canadian filmmaker Ron Mann’s documentary Poetry in Motion, which shows Notley reading the poem at The Poetry Project’s annual 24-hour New Year’s Day celebration at New York’s St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery in the early 1980s.
Then, to see how the feel of the poem shifts when read in a different voice — but also to hear how the unique music of the poem does not change — watch a quick clip of Sadie Anne Hirschfield’s recitation (at about 1:30) from the Poetry In Voice/Les voix de la poésie finals in 2012.
2. GO DEEP
It’s helpful to know that Notley wrote “Jack Would Speak Through the Imperfect Medium of Alice” in the voice of the writer Jack Kerouac, whose books and public image are at the center of what the press called the Beat Generation. Kerouac was already dead, and so Notley imagined that he was speaking through her. She uses the poem as a kind of fake or “unauthorized autobiography.” In the poem, Notley imagines Kerouac claiming all the aspects of his life — even the ugly, unglamourous details of his final years. “Jack Would Speak Through the Imperfect Medium of Alice” directly addresses his fans who only want to remember him as he appeared in his youth, as the gorgeous, athletic, jazz-loving, trailblazing author of On the Road and The Dharma Bums.
I interviewed Alice Notley in 2007 and we spoke about this poem. I asked her if she knew Jack Kerouac. “No,” she explained, “but Ted [Berrigan, her first husband] had interviewed him. And the interview was quite a profound experience for him. And I had read all the Kerouac that was available at that point. I was highly influenced by Kerouac, actually, even though he was a prose writer. And the biographies started coming out in the ’70s, around the time I wrote that poem, and they weren’t about his writing. [Laughs.] And it was very irritating that they weren’t about his writing. They were about his life. There weren’t any books that really were about his writing. I suspect that no one still knows how to talk about his writing.”
I asked her how Kerouac’s work influenced her and she said, “Oh, the rhythms, the vocabulary, the sympathy. What I really liked about the Beats was their sympathy. A poem was sympathetic to anyone who came inside its orbit…. Jack did this writing that’s in love with and interested in all the people that it deals with. [It combines] this total interest in all the characters with this fantastic language that comes out of Shakespeare and jazz, floating on these amazing rhythms, blowing out of the mouth that way.”
In “Jack Speaks Through the Perfect Medium of Alice,” Kerouac’s life is revealed to be an unbroken circle, beginning with his death and ending in his birth. Notley also incorporates what she loves about Kerouac’s writing — his sensual love of language and the musical quality of his work — into the style, sound, and rhythm of the poem.
3. TRY IT YOURSELF
First choose someone to write about. Do you have any dead heroes? It could be a famous writer, painter, athlete, prime minister, revolutionary — anyone who has been the subject of a lot of biographies. You want to choose someone with a large public life who has already died — whether last year or 400 years ago — so that you can look at that life as a whole.
Do some research and write down some of the major details of your chosen subject’s life, including aspects that reveal your hero’s flaws. For example, Jack Kerouac ended his life living at home with his mother, overweight and suffering from alcoholism. Though he was interested in Zen Buddhism at the height of his fame, he returned to the Catholicism of his youth. Many of his fans, who loved him for the way he seemed to embody the iconoclastic, bohemian spirit of the so-called Beat Generation, felt betrayed by his later conservatism. They preferred to remember him in his prime and found the rest of his life an embarrassing slide into failure. Rather than erasing these unappealing facts, Notley’s poem demands that we recognize them as equally a part of Kerouac’s life. To truly encounter his spirit, she seems to say, we must examine him fully, warts and all.
Imagine what your hero would say if he or she could speak through you. Write a letter to the modern world in your hero’s voice that addresses both fans and detractors, acknowledging the less attractive aspects of your hero’s life while still celebrating what you admire. As you write, try to weave together the good and the bad, embracing the contradictions you discover. Human lives are messy and we are closest to our heroes when we face their humanity.
Consider also following Notley’s example by starting with your subject’s death and working backwards.
MORE CONTEXT FOR THOSE WHO WOULD LIKE TO TAKE IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL:
As helpful as it is to know more about this poem’s subject, Jack Kerouac, it’s also tremendously useful to know more about Alice Notley’s own biography when thinking about how this poem works. Alice Notley was born in Bisbee, Arizona, in 1945, and grew up in Needles, California. She attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to study fiction, earning her MFA in 1969, but she switched to poetry early on and has reportedly never looked back. Widowed twice, she was married to the American poet Ted Berrigan (1934-1983) and the British poet Douglas Oliver (1997-2000). Her two sons with Berrigan, Anselm and Edmund Berrigan, are also both poets. Though closely associated with the “Second Generation New York School” movement due to her first marriage and her active role in Manhattan’s downtown literary scene from the ’70s through the ’90s, her work resists this kind of categorization and she has proven herself to be a fiercely independent artist with a distinct aesthetic vision. Notley has published over 20 books of poetry and has won various awards, including the Griffin International Poetry Prize for her collection Disobedience in 2002.
When I interviewed Alice Notley in 2007, we talked about how poetry is traditionally taught in school. I asked her how she thought it should be taught and she said, “From high school, I would have kids read a lot of different kinds of poetry and not cleanse it all. What they get is so cleansed. They should have to memorize again. You have to be educated by sound.... Poetry is about this very specific use of language that is like music, but that does more than music does.”
The best way to understand this poem is, of course, to memorize it! Can’t say I disagree.
- Read more work by Alice Notley. There are great online resources for this, like the video clip on The Griffin Poetry Prize site; a long biography, selected poems, and audio podcasts at The Poetry Foundation; historic readings at Penn Sound; and audio clips of her many readings over the years at The Buffalo Electronic Poetry Center.
- Read Ted Berrigan’s interview with Jack Kerouac in the Paris Review online archives. This will also give you a sense of both Jack Kerouac’s attitudes at the end of his life and as a bonus it also provides a window into Ted Berrigan’s expansive personality.
- Read some of Jack Kerouac’s prose and poetry. His most famous book is the novel On the Road, which made him a star when it was published in 1957. To get a sense of his role as a charismatic public “cool guy,” watch this clip of him on the The Steve Allen Show, a popular talk show of the era. You can listen to various punk and post-punk musicians (Patti Smith, the late Joe Strummer, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, and others) performing the work of Jack Kerouac. Honestly, the internet is choc-a-block with Kerouac; look for passages that you find interesting and read them out loud to really get a sense of his distinct rhythms.
- Read one of the many biographies on Kerouac or watch one of the many movie adaptations of his books, documentaries about his life, or biopics about him and his friends, most notably Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and William S. Burroughs. A lot of these movies are admittedly not great, but some of them are kind of fun and certainly the sheer number of them reflect the enduring interest in these writers as characters.
- Read poetry by Ted Berrigan and other New York School poets like Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, etc.
- If you can find a copy at your local video store, watch Ron Mann’s documentary Poetry in Motion — it’s an excellent portrait of Alice Notley’s poetic community.