various artists

Kerouac--kicks joy darkness
(a spoken word tribute with music)


In Their Own Voices

IF THIS WERE 1930, the newspaper you are reading would have a poetry page. You would read it after dinner, and then you would pick up a magazine, and there you would find more poems, and this would not be weird. Americans had more time to give to pokey, ruminative writing, because nothing was on television, literally, and also because they still liked poetry.

Today, the road less traveled is the one that has rest stops for poetry. Chances are, if you haven't been in college lately, you haven't read a poem. Poetry has been driven underground, back to where Jack Kerouac and the Beat poets found it in the 1950s. The Beats understood that modern folks liked vivid, noisy things, and so they wrote poems as bright and boozy as car crashes, and they enjoyed the last popular hurrah of poetry. When it was over, they turned things over to the next generation of poets: rock stars.

So it seems fitting that the latest Kerouac tribute be a collection of readings set to music. kicks joy darkness is 25 Kerouac "pomes" performed mostly by rock musicians and a few old poets. Everyone you would expect to be here is, from Michael Stipe and Patti Smith to Thurston Moore and Maggie Estep. The literary guests are unpredictable only in that they have lived long enough to honor their friend here. There's Lawrence Ferlinghetti, William S. Burroughs, and the late Allen Ginsberg, reminding us, in Kerouac's often painful words, what an inspirational and infectiously sad place this fashionable writer's community was.

Kerouac has long been admired by musicians. Bob Dylan honored him in film, and Sonic Youth, 10,000 Maniacs, Weezer, Jawbreaker, and countless others invoke him in song. Kerouac's freewheeling life and lyricism appealed to a generation of songwriters who eschewed the sweet pop rhyme to write words that stung with realism, even if those words would be buried below the grind of guitars. The best moments of this tribute are when the rock stars hush their feedback to hear the poems, something that these days only rap artists understand well. Lydia Lunch's performance of "Bowery Blues" is chillingly lecherous, and the lecherous Steven Tyler gives a stunningly innocent reading of "Dream: Us kids swim off a gray pier... ," stepping away from his own cod-pieced persona to tell this story. Pop lyrics work well generally because they sound good and they don't mean much. A poem read without affectation sounds just as good; the old-fashioned comfort of hearing a story read aloud, of hearing it unfold, is a fair trade for melody, especially when the story is deep and surprising. And Kerouac's are.

Kerouac isn't the only cool dead poet. Rhino's impressive tribute to a century of recorded poetry, In Their Own Voices, has music too; the music of iambic pentameter and a patchwork of changing voices. This whopping four-CD set includes Kerouac and his Beat cohorts, but it is the earlier voices reciting in your living room that beg awe. Who would have thought that you can hear Walt Whitman read "America" in his own rusty voice? But here he is, recorded in 1890 by Thomas Edison. Gentle Williams Carlos Williams reads "The Red Wheelbarrow"; Langston Hughes, in a BBC recording of "Mulatto," vibrates with anger; and Sylvia Plath, reading "Daddy," sounds just as you'd expect her to--frail and haunted. Hearing Kerouac himself reading "American Haikus," Dylan Thomas reading "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," and James Wright reading "A Blessing" is enough to make anyone listening shut up.

But thanks to the Beats, poetry no longer needs to be read in silence. Ferlinghetti designed his poems to accompany jazz, the music a complement, not a distraction. By the fourth volume of Rhino's chronology of poets, music is everywhere. Michael Harper honors John Coltrane, Leonard Cohen is Leonard Cohen, and Juan Phillipe Herrara and Joy Harjo flavor their words with music. And it makes sense this way. Because this is how we listen to poetry now, screened through music--though sometimes the music just calls attention to how good the best poetry can sound. (Amy Weivoda)

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