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The Beat Generation embraced
Jack Kerouac's American Haiku
By Claire Ledoyen
All the insects ceased
Of the moon
-28, Desolation Pops, Kerouac
It’s Autumn of 1953 - a disillusioned, heartbroken Jack Kerouac shuffles into a public library wearing his notorious bedroom slippers looking for a literary escape. He just produced The Subterraneans, and about a year and half ago, penned his deliciously frenzied and bestselling work On The Road on a 3-week Benzedrine binge. The gloomy writer now comes upon Asvaghosha’s “The Life of Buddha”, and thus begins the period of his life that brought an influx of his own special kind of haiku.
“I propose that the ‘Western Haiku” simply say a lot in three short lines in any Western language. Above all, a Haiku must be very simple and free of all poetic trickery and make a little picture and yet be as airy and graceful as a Vivaldi Pastorella.” –Kerouac, Scattered Poems
Although I did see that quote on every other internet page I clicked on while getting into the gritty details of this assignment, its wide use is not without reason. Fortunately I had a high poetic form with rules and masterful expectations to live up to for reference after reading up on the history and form of classical Japanese haiku; just to have something with which to compare the ideas and ‘essence’-finding of the English haiku Jack Kerouac penned from around 1953 to 1966. Kerouac’s haiku are known for being “reworked and revised” constantly, unlike his other work. He tried to capture the essence of a thought, subject, or moment with his “Pops”, especially through an exemplary awareness of line breaks, or caesurae; and according to editor Regina Weinrich (Book of Haiku), the Kerouac image of a single thing in an open space.
Arguments on both sides come up when discussing whether the Beat king’s English haiku could actually be considered haiku or not. Many people categorize them as Senryū, which is like a slightly funnier, more human thought and emotion-centered sibling of the haiku. Though any argument can be backed up, I think you have to look at Kerouac’s haiku as something beyond a Western attempt at any kind of the traditional Japanese art form. He strived to pen the essence of subjects through the essence of the form, and that’s what Japanese Haiku does after all of its rules and rigorous disciple and study. In fact, Kerouac studied Buddhism fairly vigorously, albeit dismissing Zen Buddhism, so basic Eastern philosophies provided a backbone to his work (especially the Noble truth of All Life is Suffering); plus, the Japanese “5/7/5” syllable pattern doesn’t translate from its original, fluid language into English and so his use of shorter lines effectively performs the same function as its traditional Japanese counterpart – relaying enormous meaning through few words put together simply. Here are examples of classic Senryū and Haiku next to Kerouac’s, selected from his “Book of Haikus” edited by Regina Weinrich, make your own comparisons -
when I catch,
my own son
-Senryū Karai, father of Senryū form
Autumn nite -
my mother cuts her throat
Moonlight slants through
the vast bamboo grove:
A cuckoo cries
-Basho, haiku master
Crossing the football field
coming home from work
the lonely businessman
In both occasions, Kerouac’s haiku can go toe-to-toe with the masters’ in evocation of a simple, striking feeling and/or image, and he called them American Haikus for a reason – though no one in the US can see Mount Fuji out of any of their windows, the Beat king’s reoccurring image of Midwest plains interestingly gives a feeling of solitude and vastness similar to one a reader would experience from a Japanese haiku about an enormous bamboo grove (and I mean, I’ve seen some pretty vast corn fields, so…), the mountains (which we have too), forests (which we also have), or the ocean (if I need to say more, here’s another one of Jack’s more masterful American Haiku: “Useless! Useless!/- heavy rain driving/into the sea”).
The majority of Kerouac’s collected haiku were found in his famous pocket notebooks, small notepads he carried in the pocket of his shirts for quick access at any moment, and in letters to his friends such as Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg. Snyder, a Zen Buddhist himself, is portrayed as Japhy Ryder in Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, written in a kind of haiku-prose dissimilar to his other novels in its short, simple sentences. In fact, The Dharma Bums was loosely based, among other things, Jack’s stay as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the summer of 1956. From this experience came a collection of American Haikus called Desolation Pops (“POP-American haikus, short 3-line poems rhyming or non-rhyming…usually a Buddhist connotation, aiming towards enlightenment.” –Kerouac, Some of the Dharma). Though there are more philosophical and aesthetically beautiful pieces in the Desolation Pops manuscript, I love number 19 –
An old T-shirt
Like many of the other Pops, it personally gives me a remarkable rush of sensory stimulation with an incredible six words. There is something to be said in crafting such simple yet striking moments and scenes such as the Kerouac managed to create.
There is a large number of Jack Kerouac’s America Haikus floating around his body of work. The best place to get started is definitely “Book of Haikus”, mentioned earlier, edited by Regina Weinrich. If, like me, you crave even more of Kerouac’s nontraditional haiku check out any of his letters and notebooks especially from 1953-1960, and he also did a record called “Blues and Haikus” in ~’58-59 with saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Sims which I would love to get my hands on oh man if you have one at a reasonable price I’ll buy it and I don’t even have a record player -
Anyway, there are also two posthumously published works called Scattered Poems, which has a stand-out section of 26 haikus in the back and Trip-Trap: Haiku along the road from San Francisco to New York, written in ’53 and published in 1973 featuring Kerouac with Lew Welch and Allen Saigo on a trip to Long Island from California and back.
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