When I was in high school I was a massive fan of the Beat writers. A friend of mine loaned me a copy of On the Road when I was a junior and I just totally devoured it. When people tell me how much they hate this book (and they often tell me they hate this book when they hear about my long-standing love for it along with the fact that I had a cat named Jack Kerouac) I typically ask them when they read it. Because you have to read a book like this at the right time in your life. You probably shouldn’t read it if you’re older than 22 (unless you’re a very young spirited person). You just aren’t likely to have patience for it. In all honesty, it’s not very well written, I can see that now. Or not consistently well written anyhow. Parts of it shine through with so much beauty that you (and by you I mean me) will want to cry. But mostly, it’s uneven and sort of boring. It’s not groundbreaking anymore, it’s been copied and imitated and reimagined a million times over. Unless you’re looking at it with relation to its historical context it’s not really worth reading it as an adult.
However, if you’re a naive 16-year-old living in a small town with dreams of going just about anywhere else it’s a perfect book. It’s a head long dash into the unknown and it proves just how easy it can be to get out. Even if you aren’t willing to steal a car to do it. Despite the dismal beautiful ending, it still invokes a yearning that few other books I’ve read are able to express.
But I wasn’t planning to write about Kerouac today. Instead I want to talk about how the one (Kerouac) lead me to another. In my last year at university I signed up for a course titled Zen and American Culture in American Literature (arguably the best course name ever). This was an 8 week summer course and the description directly referenced the writing of Kerouac and Ginsberg ( I have a story about him too, but I’ll save it for later). Despite being a short class we covered a lot of ground. From Ezra Pound’s (there was a character (and by character I mean an issue laden creep regardless of talent)) Cantos to Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish with tons of other’s in between and after. Our final day of class was spent looking at Rothko slides and listening to Miles Davis, but that’s not the point either.
This is the point. We spent a lot of time talking about William Carlos Williams as well, seeing as he was a major influence on the authors and poets who followed him, and even acted as a mentor to Ginsberg, among others. I knew about Williams before this (I was 75% of my way through an English degree after all) but my main knowledge of him had to do with that red wheelbarrow, a poem i frankly did not get at the time, but then we read This is Just to Say and I got it. I got it like you wouldn’t believe.
The simplicity of his words, the frankness of his poetry is heartbreaking and beautiful. After reading the selected poems for this course I began my own exploration of the man’s work and I often come back to it. The Widow’s Lament in Springtime has remained of my favourite pieces of writing in the world. I’ve been thinking about it today, in fact, which has led me to look up Williams again and realise how much of his work I haven’t read. It’s funny to think that someone I consider to be a favourite also represents such a hole in my books read list. It’s time to remedy that (which happily gives me an excellent excuse to avoid cleaning my house!).