Maybe it isn’t the case for everyone, but I tend to think of poetry as being a primarily written form of communication. Spoken word poetry, while certainly enjoyable, is always risky. While the written poetic voice typically inspires a familiarity with readers, the spoken voice allows for no ambiguities: once heard, it cannot be unheard.
Have you ever seen an interview or heard a reading from an author whose voice is either off-putting or ill fitted to their work? I certainly have. Maybe it is a good thing that we don’t have recordings of any of the historical literary greats. Can you imagine our horror if Shakespeare had a high, squeaky voice? I remember when I found a recording of T.S. Eliot reading "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." It’s not that I think it bad, simply different. Eliot certainly has the type of voice I would imagine him to have, but there is little of the emotion I would expect to hear in such a poem.
Part of this comes down to cultural convention. Many of the earliest recordings of poets from this era have a similar persona. This persona almost unanimously suggests the authoritative sage, content with reading a poem rather than performing it.
In direct contrast to these types of poetry recordings stands Jack Kerouac, specifically his 1959 album Poetry for the Beat Generation. Within the first few seconds the contrast is made apparent, for Kerouac’s poetry is accompanied by some jazzy piano music played by the television personality Steve Allen.
I had read some of his works throughout high school and I was hesitant to listen to his recordings for fear of it hurting my enjoyment of the fascinating Kerouac persona. But when I finally sat down with my iPod, I was more than pleasantly surprised: I was captivated.
There is something unique about Kerouac’s voice. He is both regional and universal, both dated and modern. Most importantly, he gives life to his work. There is no monotone in Kerouac’s performance style. He finds a way to make known all his little poetic tricks: alliteration is biting, assonance abounds, and his timing is impeccable.
Kerouac is one of those rare authors whose reading voice makes me enjoy his writing voice all the more. And for me, he is representative of all his generation.
As part of the Beat Generation, Kerouac’s writing voice is obviously memorable and distinctly important in the history of American literature. I sense a kinship between my generation and Kerouac’s. For just as the Beats decided to hitchhike across America in search of both personal and national identity, we seek identity through our journeys on the World Wide Web. Inevitably, the same loneliness is there, along with the same need for answers to life’s ultimate questions.
What are the answers being given in response to the loneliness of our generation? And more importantly, what are the answers we ought to be giving?
The true answers to life’s questions are like the spoken voice of the poet: once heard, it cannot be unheard.
Jake Slaughter is an editorial intern with Relief. He will graduate this spring with a degree in English from Trinity International University.