I’m much enamored of this clip where Jack Kerouac appears on Steve Allen’s show on network television. This happened in 1959 when there was only triune TV culture in America —and less than that, there were often only two sides to things. Allen is going to open here by taking the side that Kerouac was an authentic writer of merit. The other side? Kerouac was a tiresome imposter best able to fool young people, who of course didn’t know any better.
Nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old. I think of Walt Whitman. I even think of old Walt Whitman the father we never found. I think of Walt. Whitman.
At around two and a half minutes into the clip, Allen and Kerouac have this interchange:
Allen starts it by asking “Who else writes poetic type prose, Thomas Wolfe I guess…”
“Walt Whitman” Kerouac quickly responds.
“Uh, huh.” Allen laughs, perhaps thinking Kerouac was making ironic reference to the criticism that free verse was really prose not deserving of being called poetry.
“His Specimen Days…” Kerouac then repeats this for emphasis. He really wants to get a plug in — not for his book, but for this lesser-known Whitman book.
“Oh, I thought you were putting me on there. All right, we’ll look into that.” Allen says.
This is all prelude, what follows is Kerouac reading to a jazz combo backing with Allen apparently playing live on piano and meshing well. You may or may not like that sort of thing, but if you’ve stuck around here, you probably at least tolerate it. Me? It gets me, every time I view it, when Kerouac comes to the part where he reads “In Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out…” Kerouac, the East Coast guy who traveled back and forth to the West Coast, had some notice, some feelings of that state in-between* that was not either/or. It’s a coincidence, but Iowa is where I would have been in 1959, not necessarily crying — or not, for sure, not. I’d be looking then at those night stars from Iowa ground, the sky that Kerouac says he can see in New Jersey, remembering his Iowa nights.
So, as that filmed interchange left off promising to do in 1959, let’s look into Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days. Today’s piece is Whitman, looking at his ground, his water, his skies, on a hot summer day in a section of his book titled “A July Afternoon by the Pond.” Here’s a link to the full text on which I based my performance. One can easily see what Kerouac drew from Specimen Days. Whitman’s consciousness is free-flowing** and seems informal, off the cuff. Yet it takes care to catalog a lot of the moment it’s describing at length. There’s no legendary telegraph paper roll, but Whitman does roll on without pause or paragraph. Spontaneous Bop Prosody before its time? Close enough.
I’ll leave you with one more light by which you can read or listen to this piece. Whitman wrote and collected Specimen Days while he was dealing with the aftereffects of a stroke. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been working on a theme of infirmities recently. That infirmity is not indicated in “A July Afternoon by the Pond,” but Whitman, in his convalescence, prescribed for himself a heavy dosage of nature observation. A young person could have seen this pond, but the man who included this piece in his late-career book, was an older man. The eternity the Whitman here sees in the natural world is not the eternity of innumerable afternoons to come as it might be for a young person, but instead the observation of age and infirmity, that of an ongoing nature that will be there after he’s gone, mysterious and as yet unsolved. I love Whitman’s final two words here: “Who knows?” He doesn’t expect you to solve it either, only to share the mystery with him.
You can hear my performance*** of “A July Afternoon by the Pond” either of two ways. There’s a player gadget embedded below for some of you. But some ways of reading this blog will not show it, and so I also provide this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab window to play it.
*One summarized view of Kerouac’s vision of Iowa is collected at this blog link.
**More so than my performance includes, for reasons of length and production schedules. I had one musical track down when I recorded my performance of Whitman’s words, and found that I had to rush the text too much to get it all in. Rather than re-record the musical foundation or damage the groove of the words, I ended up editing Whitman’s text on the fly, leaving out some of the digressions.
***As it happens, in the end I didn’t use the musical track that caused me to trim back some of Whitman’s digressions. What you will hear is a two-part improvisation (based on the chord structure of the excluded track) that I recorded to respond to my reading of the words, much as Steve Allen needed to respond to Kerouac in the video clip above. The two instruments are a hollow-body electric guitar and the distinctive voice of my Fender Squier Bass VI, an electric bass that includes two higher pitched strings above the usual four for a bass, giving it access to a baritone guitar range here. Using that facility, there are some high F notes in this piece, played on this bass, that are not available (other than as harmonics) on a conventional bass.