detail of Bob Cobbing’s Midnight Press edition of Kerouac’s ‘Old Angel Midnight’

Recently I released an episode of PoemTalk in which Clark Coolidge — who has long advocated that Jack Kerouac be taken seriously as an experimental poet, indeed a sound poet — and others joined me to discuss a few sections of Kerouac’s Old Angel Midnight. I usually try to understand general responses to new PoemTalk episodes. For this one I was especially keen. How is Kerouac viewed within the poetry community? Doubtfully, I would think. And how would fans of Kerouac’s guys-driving-fast-down-the-American-highway fictions and his quasi-Buddhistic-withdrawal-from-modern-life fictions respond to poets wanting to claim him as really much preferring babble flow and experiments in language-as-perception? Somewhat surprisingly, the response has been positive from the various PoemTalk constituencies, such as they can be discerned.

Several people wrote to tell me about their first encounters with Old Angel Midnight. Most were already aware of Coolidge’s longtime advocacy. Gilbert Adair wrote to tell me that his copy of the work was published — in a pirated edition — in 1985 by Bob Cobbing’s Midnight Press. Indeed, Midnight Press was named for the occasion. And it happened that Clark Coolidge was in England at the time of the publication; Adair and Cobbing and others invited Coolidge to the launch of the Kerouac book, and he read selections from it. (I wish someone had recorded that.) 

I would like to know the details of Cobbing’s interest in Kerouac. Of course it has to do with the sound Cobbing heard in the writing. In Cultural Revolution? The Challenge of the Arts in the 1960s (eds. Bart Moore-Gilbert and John Seed), we learn that “even ... the Jack Kerouac of Old Angel Midnight [was] a particular influence on Cobbing.” And Cobbing’s “The Jack Poem” seems at least in part about the kineticism of Kerouac’s word-noise. And here is Cobbing’s response to a question posed by W. Mark Sutherland in 2001:

WMS: Were you unfamiliar with the work of the 20th century avant-garde, Italian and Russian Futurist and Dada sound poets?

BOB: I knew nothing about all that and it was to my advantage in a way, starting completely on my own. It wasn’t until years later that I came across what other people were doing. I remember going to the ICA once and they had a performance by Bernard Heidsieck. I remember Heidsieck and Chopin but that was at the time I was working with Anna Lockwood. I certainly learned a great deal from what Heidsieck, Chopin and especially, Francois Dufrene, were doing and of course through my own reading. I was reading things like Jack Kerouac’s Old Angel Midnight, Beckett, Joyce and Gertrude Stein. A lot of inspiration came from that sort of reading and stimulated my interest in sound.

Stephen Willey’s dissertation on Cobbing refers to Cobbing’s use of Old Angel Midnight for Marvo Movie Natter (1968):

In a note that Cobbing sent to Henri Chopin on 9 November 2000 (on the invitation of Nicholas Zurbrugg, who was compiling an anthology of OU magazine) he describes his memories of the way that Marvo Movie Natter (1968) was made: ‘We each chose a passage to read, from Jack Kerouac’s Old Angel Midnight, from the daily newspaper, from a scientific article, and read simultaneously — words tending towards abstract sound.’ For the recording, these sources were read by three different speakers: Annea Lockwood, Cobbing and Jeff Keen (CD track 3). The whispered words are almost completely unintelligible, because all three whisper simultaneously and so obstruct what one another say. While words form the basis for the sounds that we hear, the predominant aural effect is of the whisper. The whisper is used in many cultures to signal secrecy and confidentiality; but in Marvo Movie Natter we cannot hear what the speakers whisper and so we are denied their intimacy.

Courtesy of Gilbert Adair, here are two images of his copy of Cobbing's edition of Kerouac.