Beyond the road that Jack built: Deborah Levy goes to San Francisco to look between the lines of Jack Kerouac's poetry

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IT IS 7am, Washington Park, San Francisco. A 70-year-old Chinese man takes off his suit jacket, takes off his watch and does his morning Tai Chi, oblivious to the stretch limousines pulling up San Francisco's heart-stopping hills. Squeaky-clean bohemians breakfast on syrupy waffles, and read newspapers full of election scandal, cures for hair loss, murder and Aids. It's a long hike up Columbus Avenue. Incense drifts out of the door of the New Age shop into the eyes of an obese woman whose T-shirt is inscribed with the words 'Thermal Cocksucker'. Further on, the graffiti on the walls shows the face of Malcolm X. Next to him is the work of 'Dave', whose child-like self-portraits and accompanying texts tattoo empty shop windows. This morning, Dave's red scrawl says: Everyday is a masterpiece.

Jack Kerouac, great story-teller of the Beat Generation, would have agreed. His last book, Pomes All Sizes, has just been published by City Lights ( pounds 6.95). Written between 1954 and 1965, this little-known manuscript has been in the safekeeping of City Lights since Kerouac's death in 1969. With an introduction by Allen Ginsberg and a painting of Kerouac by Lawrence Ferlinghetti on the cover, here are poems about Mexico and Berkeley, Tangiers and the Bowery: 'Dharma poems, hymns, songs of God, drug poems, wine poems, jail poems. Mid-Fifties road poems, epiphanies of small-town America.'

City Lights, America's first-ever paperback bookshop, is open until midnight seven days a week. Situated on the corner of Columbus Avenue near the porn parlours, it became famous for first publishing America's 'literary outlaws': Beat writers like Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and William Burroughs. When Ginsberg first read his long poem Howl at the October Six Gallery in 1955, the poet Michael McClure (nominated best-looking man in the world by Kerouac) knew 'at the deepest level that a barrier had been broken, a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America and its supporting armies and navies and academies and institutions . . .'

The Beat industry has been endlessly chronicled elsewhere, provoking the question: is there a present-day counter- culture? City Lights sells and publishes some of the most dynamic contemporary writers and artists: the poet La Loca, for example, with her Adventures On The Isle Of Adolescence - sassy, kinetic portraits of growing up poor in the USA.

I was seventeen

and wanted to see the world

My flowering was chemical

I cut my teeth on promiscuity

and medicine . . .

Confessional, furious and sexy, La Loca, who grew up in the Chicano streets of Los Angeles, evokes the 'other' America in much the same spirit as Kerouac, who 'roamed and prowled' what he called the 'real' America with his 'unreal' heart. To be Beat, he suggested, is to be weary 'with all the forms, all the conventions of the world'. Post- war lads growing up in a Cold War world: no wonder bebop and bags of marijuana seemed like 'a new world philosophy'. With his books On The Road, The Subterraneans, Doctor Sax, Lonesome Traveller, Big Sur and Desolation Angels, Kerouac tuned into an audience more thrilled with the idea of 'uncertainty, dreams, sex, drugs, love and loneliness' than with the 'decent moral values' of the white-collar suburbs. When he described the photographer Robert Frank as having 'sucked a sad poem right out of America', Kerouac was talking about himself.

The secret heroes of the Beats were Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas, the anarchist poet Kenneth Rexroth, Blake, Apollinaire, Artaud and Walt Whitman. Jack Kerouac flunked classes at Columbia to read Celine and play football. The malcontents of England were tamer - compare the ironic tone of Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim with William Burroughs's interrogation of human terror and horror in Junky, both published in 1953. Burroughs felt that the Beat movement had come 'at exactly the right time' and said, after the publication of On The Road, that there was no doubt 'we're living in a freer America as a result'.

Perhaps not quite as free for the black kids who had their brains blown out in Harlem in the 1960s, or indeed for the Beat 'chicks' described by Joyce Johnson in her memoir Minor Characters. The cover of Lonesome Traveller (Pan 1964) shows a lean dude sitting on a chair in the Rodin position, while his orange-lipsticked babe runs her pearly fingernails through his hair. It was largely a male literary community, experimenting with what Corso called 'bop prosody, surreal-real images, jumps, beats, cool measures, long rapid vowels, long long lines and the main content, soul'.

In San Francisco today there is an alleyway called Jack Kerouac Street, a direct result of the proposal by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights to rename 12 San Francisco streets after famous authors who lived and worked in the city. There is also a Mark Twain Plaza, a Dashiell Hammett Street and a Kenneth Rexroth Place. At Vesuvio's bar on the corner you can even have the Jack Kerouac cocktail: tequila, rum, orange, cranberry juice and a twist of lime. Typed beneath is Kerouac's poem from Lonesome Traveller:


before we all go to Heaven


All that hitchikin

All that railroadin

All that comin back

to America

Allen Ginsberg's introduction to Pomes All Sizes acknowledges Kerouac's influence both on his own work and the world at large: 'His ear followed the road of sound . . . My own poetry's always been modelled on Kerouac's practice of tracing his mind's thoughts and sounds directly on the page.' He quotes the poet Robert Creeley, who admired Jack's grasp of the American idiom - 'that impeccable ear that could hear patterns and make patterns in the sounds and rhythms of the language as spoken'.

Ginsberg meditates on why a major writer such as Kerouac has not been accepted by the Academy, and suggests that he is unrecognised because 'such beauty's too personal to be noticed by literature's officialdom'.

Would Lawrence Ferlinghetti, established elder of poetry and publishing, agree? With a dry growl, he shuffles up the stairs above City Lights to his office, a large airy room with bare floorboards. I put the recorder on the table and Ferlinghetti speaks at it effortlessly. I want to know why the Kerouac book is only being published now. 'We had the manuscript for 20 years. Kerouac's widow (Stella Sampas) wouldn't let us publish it. She classed us with the beatniks: she thought the Beats led Jack astray and she put City Lights and myself in that category. I had the only copy of the manuscript and she said, 'Well, Mr Ferlinghetti, please send it to me and if you want to publish, I'll consider it.' Naturally I didn't send it and I didn't make a xerox. It became a competition to see who would die first, Stella or me.'

Nancy Peters, who edited the book, is also present. She echoes Ginsberg's introduction. 'It was difficult for critics to know how to classify Kerouac as a writer. His spontaneous long lines burst out of the old formalism of the 1950s. Is it poetry? Is it prose?' Ferlinghetti interrupts her. 'In this country they want you to be just one thing. In Europe, it's different. The Surrealists were both writers and painters. Look at this.' He shows me a book of plays by the Italian performer Dario Fo, with the author's own watercolours and etchings. Ferlinghetti slaps the book. 'Yah] See?' Nancy Peters feels that in Pomes, Kerouac was a man 'trying to understand why things are the way they are. There is a kind of anguish on that search that is different from the carefree hiker of earlier days. He is beyond the road'.

We look at a photograph of Kerouac in New York, famous check shirt-sleeves rolled up. So what was 'The Silent Smiler', as Ferlinghetti describes him, actually like? 'It's a shame he drank so much and that he's not here to enjoy his fame. He couldn't handle his fame. He gave up doing poetry readings later on. He would be nervous days before a reading and brood over the work. Jack got so fat, I think he was self-conscious about looking out of shape. He was a serious person. Quiet and introverted. He couldn't live with the public image of himself. People expected him to get up and be a clown on stage.'

Robert Lowell once asked, provocatively, whether poetry should be raw or cooked. I put this to Ferlinghetti. 'Well, his (Lowell's) is cooked. In France they say bien cuit. French culture is too cooked. Eliot and Lowell were both too cooked and that's why the Beat generation had an opening. 1950s poetry was overdone. Printing presses had made poetry so silent. Beat poets changed that.'

Does he agree, then, with Kerouac's conviction that the writer's first thought is the best thought? 'Personally I think Kerouac's poetry could have stood a second thought. We turned down Mexico City Blues. I thought it could stand a lot of second thoughts.'

Ferlinghetti talks about the America that Kerouac was writing about in the 1950s and 1960s, inspired by the fiction of Thomas Wolfe. 'Y'know, Wolfe's vision of America - where the hero rides across the darkening landscape seen from a train window? Well, Kerouac saw America from a speedy car window. His America doesn't exist anymore.'

Ferlinghetti is concerned with what he calls Public Surface. 'Art has to make it on a Public Surface level. Any uneducated person should be able to get it . . . and then the surface gets deeper, becomes more complicated and subversive.' What's the opposite of Public Surface? 'Er . . . Hermetic . . . I guess. We publish populist books and also work that isn't too hot on Public Surface, work that has esoteric and beautiful language and somethin' to say. Journalism is all Public Surface.' He almost smiles, decides against it and shuffles off into the Californian sunshine with a package under his arm.

Jack Kerouac was a yearner, the solitary romantic Catholic with a 'naked endless head' of prose, making the everyday heroic. Forty years old when he wrote On The Road, the serious man had to be staged as a wild boy. Drunk and bloated on a chat show, he could have been talking about America today when he slurred, 'Met a very inneresting policeman, he said, 'I'm arresting you for decay'.' It was as if the culture could not contain a grown-up man who felt and experienced the world as he did, one who insisted: 'have no fear or shame in the dignity of your experience, language and knowledge.'

NEAL IN COURT All Neal's life has been hard And harsh People don't believe him And he's all alone Look at his bones In courthouse scenes And look at the pictures Of his railroad track And judge And have secret witnesses Against his misery ..

MEXICAN LONELINESS And I am an unhappy stranger grooking in the streets of Mexico - My friends have died on me, my lovers disappeared, my whores banned, my bed rocked and heaved by earthquake - and no holy weed to get high by candlelight and dream - only fumes of buses, dust storms, and maids peeking at me thru a hole in the door secretly drilled ..

(Photograph omitted)