Don Kerr’s Autodidactic, his fifth collection, also works with a pun in its title. Kerr claims that all of the poems were written while driving. The title, then, refers to the poetic insights gained while travelling: Kerr is a “didact” of the road.
Some of the insights do, indeed, have a didactic edge, owing chiefly to “clinchers” which too tidily arrive from material seen through the car window. No. 24, for example, evokes the intrusion of “three hundred thousand dollar / summer homes” into the natural world of osprey and trout at a “wrinkling lake” “on the roof of the world.” It is the automobile, of course, which allows such development to occur, and so the poem ends by warning us that “the car can kill / whatever it takes us to.” More successful are the poems with greater personal force, the family poems, especially those about his father (No. 1: “my father waited for the train to pass” and No. 6: he pencilled sums in the margins of newspapers”), and the small town poems that document both a time and a place with a dramatic tone (for example, No. 14: “lemme tell you about my neighborhood” and No. 38: “for years after it was over”).
All of the poems are unpunctuated free verse, except for a few upper case letters, and what this strategy loses in terms of occasional inconvenience in syntax and sense, it makes up for in the appropriateness of head long fragments and phrases. No doubt, being “on” or “going down” the road invites such a poetic, although neither tone nor temper anywhere resembles Kerouac’s. The title poem, which ends the volume, explains it this way: “I learned the pleasure of speed / of conquering towns / unzipping the world / what it was like / to live again in my own country / on the road again.” And in No. 13 he uses a synaesthetic travelling image to announce his poetics: “the sound I want is the sound / the un makes on my page / at 70 miles per hour.”
The penultimate long poem, “Hot Spot,” achieves both a speed and energy that are not apparent in the earlier pieces. Written in a jazzy, linguistically playful way, the poem is part riff on prairie heat, part lusty tribute to “that woman” who will “be the death of [him],” part environment expose (“from parkland to prairie desert / and we’re all in the greenhouse now”), and part cheeky tribute to regional dignity: “off the course and in the regional dignity: “off the course and in the rough / we’re where nobody drops in / for a look and that really / pisses me off / pay attention world / we’re the hot spot.”