Jack Kerouac – “Mexico City Blues” (1959)

October 19, 2009 at 11:45 pm (Jack Kerouac, Kenneth Rexroth, Poetry & Literature, Reviews & Articles, The Beats)

This review of Kerouac’s book of poems, was written by Beat mentor Kenneth Rexroth and was printed in the New York Times Book Review, Nov. 29, 1959…


In the last three years Jack Kerouac has favored us with his observations about hitchhiking, riding freights and driving other people’s fast cars across country. It would seem he did these things poorly and that doing them frightened him severely. Next, he gave us his ideas about jazz and Negroes, two subjects about which he knew less than nothing; in fact, he knew them in reverse. In this reader’s opinion, his opinions about Negroes are shared only by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Jazz, he seems to believe, is throbbing drums and screaming horns, pandemonium in the jungle night over a pot of missionary fricassee. Now, in this book of poems, he has turned to Buddhism and dope with similar results.

Somebody once said of Mr. Kerouac that he was a Columbia freshman who went to a party in the Village twenty years ago and got lost. How true. The naïve effrontery of this book is more pitiful than ridiculous. Mr. Kerouac’s Buddhism is a dime-store incense burner, glowing and glowering sinisterly in the dark corner of a Beatnik pad and just thrilling the wits out of bad little girls.

He sums it up a couple of times: “Neither life / nor death — neither existence / nor nonexistence — but the central / lapse and absence of them both / (in Love’s Holy Void Abode).” This is lucid, possibly quoted from somebody else. At its best it is considerably below the Occult Ancient East as presented on the New York Library steps, in Chicago’s Bughouse Square, or to the eager girls on that circuit immortalized by the late Helen Hokinson.

As for dope, there are a lot of words in capitals, like “A BANG OF M,” and observations like “The only cure for / morphine poisoning / is more morphine,” and a liberal use of words like “fix” and “joypop” and a brief biochemical dissertation on “goofballs.” But I think the best poem in the book is the one which ends, “And I am only an Apache / Smoking Hashi / In old Cabashy / By the Lamp.” This poem begins, “I keep falling in love / with my mother, / I don’t want to hurt her / — Of all people to hurt.”

It’s all there, the terrifyingly skillful use of verse, the broad knowledge of life, the profound judgments, the almost unbearable sense of reality. I’ve always wondered what ever happened to those waxwork figures in the old rubber-neck dives in Chinatown. Now we know; one of them at least writes books.

Kenneth Rexroth

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