Erratic Speeds – a Poem

Note – this poem was originally written several years ago as a contribution to a small poetry group interested in the work and style of Jack Kerouac and other Beat poets. While I can’t pretend to be a Beat poet, this poem is my own attempt to pay tribute to the kind of stream-of-consciousness style Jack and others of his genre were renowned for.

If you’ve ever heard him read a poem, you know that Jack Kerouac took great artistic liberties with grammar, meter, and punctuation, in part because he was more of a performance poet than what is sometimes called a “paper poet.”

Jack had a unique voice, and he always read his poems in his gentle but unwavering baritone New England accent that seemed made of equal parts hard-boiled New Yorker, Jazz musician, and Maine fisherman.

Jack was a big believer in creating a verbal tempo that drew the listener into the moment and refused to let their attention rest until he was done. He was heavily influenced by jazz and by the powers of tempo and rhythm. But while listening to him is a joy, reading his poetry is sometimes a chore. To get the most out of it the reader has to almost read Jack’s poetry aloud while doing their best Kerouac impression.

But what can appear as a grammatical wreck on the page was written that way intentionally for the purpose of the listening audience. Line breaks, punctuation, meter – these were all elements of experimentation for Jack; playthings more than stylistic rules of writing. For Jack, language was not about rules but about how words, when put together in certain ways, can make you feel. So his poetry was written to be performed out loud, in front of listeners, where the nuances of tempo and accent can infuse the work and bring it to life in a way words on paper can rarely match.

It’s hard to do that in writing, and because of that, some will find the bizarre structure of this piece difficult to digest. I suppose it would be better if Jack read it aloud, and it was his voice more than his written word that I had in my head when I wrote it. So with this unusual piece I’ve tried to capture a small sense of Jack’s freestyle expression, his playfulness with words and phrases, and of what one critic called his “linguistic gymnastics.” I hope you enjoy it.


By Marc Gilson

Down drops the eccentric December night
On top of coppers
armed with might-makes-right night sticks of rage
On top of poppers
armed with highs perched precariously lower than low
And all under the spell of silent hexes, hunting fixes, fixing taxes.

Hookers stand by the pole, wasting away in the rainy dank of their years
No one to see their makeup,
no one to pay for the thrill,
no one to wipe off the smeared streaks of spent affections and black op love.
“Money, honey?” Smiles, winks, swish-swish, flash.
“No money? Get on wit’ cha! Go!”

Feet slap the pavement wet, oily walkway, soaking cold
Splash comes by the traffic, low pitched slow, humming fast past
No faces through the windshields, just hands glowing on top of steering wheels
The hands are the only thing human about the things;
that and the erratic speeds.

Walkers leave their breath, hanging in the air,
Cold pranic clouds and locomotive puffs
They glide by the warm windows of
Pennys, Macys,
Five-N-Dime, Saks

Those hunched and darkened shoppers,
dutifully parting with wages,
paying the sages,
opening accounts,
to charge against life the balance of hope
and payola.

Inside, past the glass, a heaven of spenders,
credit lenders, electric blenders, parcel post pickup,
gifts for the dearest strangers in their lives
Where scented mists float to entice,
Escalators, so no need to climb a stair, plastic people show you what to wear,
and the broke break deeper into bondage.

Throughout the crushing atmosphere,
a wailing, infantile awareness, crying,
“This isn’t working! This means nothing!”
And listeners are few.
Most ears aim backward at the jingle of change which isn’t change at all,
but all the same.

Just like a broken down metered poem
that started off in synch with the regular Beats.
In the morning, out among the ragers, wagers, middle-agers,
no one stands in one place alone for more than a moment.
Line by line they find their chaos and release their hopes for order to the void,
and breathe their way down 5th  Avenue.

Traffic sizzles.
On one corner is a man with the answers telling them,
but they won’t hear.
He’s telling them plain and straight and true,
but no one has ears for the truth.
He says to them,

“Think your world! Think it safe! Think it real! Think it high and holy and open!”
And they walk past in their wool without blinking as if watching for a dime on the sidewalk.
All in a rush. It’s always rush hour.
They think he’s crazy. The truth would set them free.
But then they’d all be crazy, like him. He looks like he’s in pain in the rain.
Who needs it? Who can hear him anyway?

Sylvia Plath said “This is the city where men are mended.”
And she meant the hospital that steams in the cold and draws the cooling blood.
Cuts and charges.
And what healing happens is a miracle. But not as fantastic as the machines –
Machines that do unknowable things to the insides of men seeking mending.
Machines with buttons and electrical comments in code.

Some machines line the hallways.
Other machines stand upright and wear white as though innocent.
Some wear glasses.
And drink tea.
Or smoke cigarettes.
In the basement they put the empties.

Later on in the night,
when the blanketing clouds filter
the blinding glare and siren blare,
mercifully shading the sunlight from the eyes of those unprepared for joy,
someone offers me a cigarette
and advice to,

“Stay out of the po-leeces way.
They be on some crack-down
high up on those badges.
You best duck and suck it up,
and a little past ten
is when they hunt.”

My smoke merges with the infinite gray surrounding
As if it had a life of its own
As if it were finally finding its

Pouring through the evening wire
comes news of some high-flyer
with sights on my rights.
Talking like the grand judge of what I say and what I do.
He’s off again in his cab.
To home

To cable tv, and bourbon sips,
and skin flicks ashes in some woman’s face to face
with the splitting atomic headache
to watch the game and dowse the pain.
I feel sorry for him. Feel sorry for him with me.
Come on.

So late and nothing else to do.
I take my Kerouac black slouch hat
and stumble through another hour
Recall some pool hall, beer stained shirt,
Pinball bells
and a poem or two.

Then I take my energy, whatever was left anyway,
and shove it up the spine of the street.
Starting with the southern regions
where the urge is consuming
and assuming all is the same
it’s best to keep to yourself.

I get through the powers of creation and compassion and truth.
Finally into intuition and sit there fishin’ for my youth.
Nothing in the stream makes me want to move beyond that place
So I reel through the knowledge of the universe and thumb through
Akashic records looking for my name, or the name of someone I know.
But then, I know them all anyway. Different faces, voices. races, choices of me.

Above, at daybreak, the crows start to soar.
They’ve been in the city too long.
Way too long.
I can tell by their tattered feathers and ugly manners.
That and their
erratic speeds.

(© 2008 Learning Fire Publishing)

(Click here to read my essay about the life and work of Jack Kerouac)



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