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Volume 34.2
Summer 2003

book review

Book of Haikus
by Jack Kerouac


Reviewed by Cor van den Heuvel

Book of Haikus, by Jack Kerouac. Edited and with an introduction by Regina Weinreich (New York: Penguin Poets, 2003). xxxix+200 pages, 4.5" x 6.5", perfectbound. ISBN 0-14-200264-X. $13.00 in bookstores.Reviewed by Cor van den Heuvel

In 1955, two years before he would wake up famous after the publication of On the Road, Jack Kerouac was in California, where he met Gary Snyder for the first time and learned about haiku. In The Dharma Bums (1958) he describes that experience, calling Snyder “Japhy Ryder.” Japhy has the four-volume collection of R.H. Blyth’s translations of Japanese haiku on a shelf in his shack in Berkeley.

Kerouac read the Blyth books and was immediately taken with haiku. He and Snyder already had a common interest in Buddhism. Blyth’s relating haiku to Zen may have appealed to Kerouac. Snyder had been into Buddhism for a longer time and had been experimenting with haiku since as early as 1952, when he wrote some in his journal while firewatching on Sourdough Mountain in the Cascades. He now became Kerouac’s sensei, or mentor, helping him to understand haiku and to learn how to write his own. Their discussions and practice of haiku went on even while they were climbing mountains together in the High Sierras. Kerouac writes in The Dharma Bums that while they were climbing, he tried to come up with his own haiku spontaneously and was having little luck.

Japhy tells him, “A real haiku’s gotta be as simple as porridge and yet make you see the real thing.” He then quotes a Japanese haiku by Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902). The haiku is a translation by Blyth (though neither Japhy nor Kerouac say so):

“The sparrow hops /Along the verandah, / With wet feet.”

You see the wet footprints like a vision in your mind,” says Japhy, “and yet in those few words you also see all the rain that's been falling that day and almost smell the wet pine needles.”

Where did the wet pine needles come from? This short passage in The Dharma Bums is one of the best descriptions to appear in English of how a haiku works. It vividly demonstrates that much of what a haiku creates in a reader’s mind may not even be mentioned in the poem. Haiku create through the power of suggestion—with a simplicity so bare that the unaware reader may think there is nothing there at all. In Shiki’s haiku a reader like Snyder will see the sparrow’s wet footprints so clearly that they will materialize right in front of him—along with everything around them. He will see and smell things that aren’t actually named.

As Regina Weinreich, editor of this generous—perhaps too generous, as I will discuss later—collection of Kerouac’s haiku, points out, after Kerouac learned about haiku he continued to write and experiment with them until his death fourteen years later. His haiku were often first jotted down in the small notebooks he kept in the pocket of his checkered lumberman’s shirt, where they joined his quick sketches in prose, notes he had long been in the habit of writing to describe scenes and landscapes for later use in his novels. Weinreich also found haiku in his letters, novels, essays, journals, worksheets, and in small literary magazines. They were often embedded “in blocks of prose, scribble, and even street addresses.”

Weinreich was one of the first scholars to recognize the true value of Kerouac’s writings, placing the novelist in his rightful place as a major figure in our literary history and demonstrating that his novels when gathered together, created, as Kerouac intended, one vast work: The Legend of Duluoz. In The Spontaneous Poetics of Jack Kerouac: A Study of the Fiction (1987), she presents a detailed analysis and appraisal of the seminal novels in the series and shows how they and the rest of his books fit into the scheme of Kerouac’s grand design. (It was recently reissued by Thunder’s Mouth Press [2002] with a new foreword and with a slight change in the title: Kerouac’s Spontaneous Poetics.)

In her introduction to Book of Haikus, Weinreich shows how Kerouac went on to outdo his teacher, Gary Snyder, to become one of the pioneers of American haiku. (Snyder used his knowledge of haiku to write a different kind of poetry and to become one of America’s most important writers on nature and environmental subjects.) She points out that even before he knew about haiku, Kerouac had the sensibilities of a haiku poet. In Visions of Cody (written in 1951 and 1952, partially published in 1959), Doctor Sax (written in 1952, published in 1959), and “October in the Railroad Earth” (1952), Kerouac “evoke[s] the haiku spirit.”

In the very first paragraph of Doctor Sax Kerouac tells himself, and us, the way to get the details of this world into words: “Describe the wrinkly tar of this sidewalk, also the iron pickets of Textile Institute, or the doorway where Lousy and you and G.J.’s always sittin and dont stop to think of words when you do stop, just stop to think of the picture better—and let your mind off yourself in this work.” This would be good advice to anyone wanting to write haiku. Be aware of the thing, picture it—don’t think about yourself or the words—and the words will come. Kerouac proves the success of this sketching approach by the many sharp pictures he creates later in the same book, which is all about his growing up in Lowell, Mass. He recreates both his boyish fantasies, sparked by movies, the radio, and comic books, and the real world of the factory town around him. It is these latter images that show his proclivity for writing haiku: such as the vignette he sees on a Lowell street one October night with “lamp lights waving and leaves flying” and the light from a corner store casting a “glow across the sidewalk with its few forlorn packing cases in front.”

This way of spontaneously putting down one’s observations may be a first step to haiku, but Kerouac realized that to get a finished haiku one often needed to rewrite. In contrast to his “spontaneous poetics” theories about how to write prose and other kinds of poetry, Kerouac in his Paris Review interview of 1968, said “haiku is best reworked and revised. . . . It has to be completely economical, no foliage and flowers and language rhythm, it has to be a simple little picture in three little lines.” He then points out that the great Japanese haiku masters might spend months on one haiku and quotes a haiku by Shiki: “In the abandoned boat, / The hail / Bounces about.”

Weinreich comments: “As lack of revision, or lack of writerly control, has been consistently used to criticize Kerouac’s work, his insistence on revision for haiku should work against the charge that his writing is mere mindless rebellion. Kerouac’s notebooks show haiku composition as a matter of discipline, as difficult to achieve as spending time in Zen meditation” (xix).
Though Weinreich says Kerouac “at times achieves a depth and richness approaching that of his [Japanese] models,” she feels his real value to American haiku is his ability to bring a new sensibility to the genre: a modern jazz and blues orientation that helped him to phrase his descriptions of both city life and nature—and his on-the-road version of the rite of passage—into a new vernacular with new rhythms. Innovations that he already had at hand from his experience writing novels. “Careful readers of Kerouac’s prose,” she writes, “recognize that within the ragged, circular, soulful cadences for which his writing is at once criticized, imitated, and revered, is the rhythmic phrasing of poetry” (x). She emphasizes that besides the hundreds of haiku he turned out, the novelist also wrote a lot of other kinds of poetry. His Book of Blues, the much praised Mexico City Blues, and the varied forms he used effectively in the poems collected in Scattered Poems and Pomes All Sizes attest to his ability as a poet. Kerouac would sometimes adapt his haiku or other poetry into prose for his novels. And parts of some of his prose sketches were reworked into haiku. The different disciplines complemented each other.
Starting by sketching vividly in prose, Kerouac was sometimes able to refine the result into the concise suggestibility necessary for haiku. (Masaoka Shiki also used sketching in prose as a source for creating his haiku.) “What Kerouac ‘got’ perhaps more than any other Beat poet working in [haiku],” writes Weinreich, “was the rendering of a subject’s essence, and the shimmering, ephemeral nature of its fleeting existence” (xvi). “Keep the eye steadily on the object, for haiku,” Kerouac wrote in his notebook (xviii).

Many of his best haiku appeared in the posthumous Scattered Poems (City Lights, 1971) and on a recording, Blues & Haikus, that he did in 1959 (he read his haiku interspersed with short solo jazz comments by saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Sims). Weinreich hears in the recording “a mix of Japanese and Western ideals.” Quoting American haiku poet and critic Tom Lynch, she says Kerouac blended “melancholy with the world-weariness of blues tradition.” Then she adds: “overall, the 1959 recording responds to a different instinct from that of the Japanese models. And yet, ‘Crossing the football field / coming home from work / The lonely business man’ and ‘The barn, swimming / in a sea / Of windblown leaves’—are well attuned to both, a fusion of traditional haiku and Western bluesy tones” (xxiv).

Until now, most readers had only the twenty-six haiku included in Scattered Poems and the few Kerouac put in some of his novels. If they were lucky enough to own a copy, they could also listen to the several dozen he read on the record. Now we can read these and hundreds more of his haiku and haiku experiments, for a total of over six hundred and fifty, in this new volume.
Most of Kerouac’s finest haiku in this book are in the title section “Book of Haikus,” a selection that Kerouac had assembled himself for publication, demonstrating that he had a pretty good idea of what were his best. He was writing about this “Book of Haikus” to Lawrence Ferlinghetti as early as November 1961 as a book “you might want” and that “If so, would collect all my haikus from notebooks and put together for a book.” He even wrote an introduction for the projected book. It was first published in his Scattered Poems to introduce “Some Western Haikus.” In it Kerouac says that in English you don’t have to write haiku in seventeen syllables. “Above all,” he writes, “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.” He quotes a haiku by Matsuo Bashô (1644–1694) as exemplifying what he means. (It is in a translation by R.H. Blyth):

A day of quiet gladness,—
Mount Fuji is veiled
In misty rain.

The title section appears first in the book. It contains a little over 200 haiku, and includes most, if not all, of the haiku used in Blues & Haikus and Scattered Poems. The remaining 400 or more haiku in the other five sections of Book of Haikus were taken from various periods of Kerouac’s writing life. Many of these are parodies or jokes, playful, but often trivial, things he wrote while he was drunk or just fooling around with his sister’s young kids. He called these, and other unserious haiku, “pops.” (Though Kerouac used the word haikus, he knew haiku in Japanese was its own plural. He and several of the other Beats, including Allen Ginsberg, used “haikus” to reflect that they were creating a Western adaptation of the form.)

Among the “pops” are such haiku atrocities as: “Why’d I open my eyes? / because / I wanted to” and “Blubbery dubbery / the chipmunk’s / In the grass.” He even wrote some from the point of view of his cat, probably while he was drunk: “If I go out now, / my paws / will get wet.” Though the latter may be of psychological interest to admirers of Kerouac, the first two along with a hundred or more like them could have easily been dropped.

In her acknowledgments Weinreich says that several American haiku poets she consulted had advised her to delete more of the failed experiments: “these poets advised me, best to throw away the clinkers. Even a superb haiku poet will write hundreds before a single good one surfaces. Best not to show Kerouac at his worst.” She finally decided to “[choose] many against their sound counsel”—that “Kerouac’s haiku are an invaluable record of his language. Readers deserve to see them and like them as they will.”

The biggest problem with doing that is that it gives ammunition to Kerouac’s detractors, who may jump on the “clinkers” as representative of his haiku. If we judge him by the poems he chose for his original “Book of Haikus,” we find enough outstanding haiku to place Kerouac not only among the pioneers of American haiku, but to give him an honored place as the creator of some of the best American haiku to have been written in the first half-century of its existence. He would have been even greater if he had had other haiku writers to test his experiments on—to get feedback on his attempts at haiku. Though he wrote a blurb for a haiku collection by another pioneer of American haiku, James Hackett, in 1968, there seems to have been no further exchange between the two poets. Ginsberg tried his hand at haiku occasionally, but he and Kerouac discussed their work in that genre only rarely and probably not in much detail—though whenever asked, Ginsberg had the highest praise for Kerouac’s haiku. Snyder, except for his initial mentoring of Kerouac in the mid-fifties, went—as mentioned above—in a different direction with his poetry. When Kerouac did get together with others and try to write haiku, as in Trip Trap (1959), the results were less than impressive, largely because the emphasis was on just joking around.

Kerouac was not as isolated from other writers of haiku as another famous haiku-writing novelist, Richard Wright, whose selected haiku were published in 1998. The author of Native Son and Black Boy, who died in 1960 while in exile in France, wrote about four thousand haiku during the last year and a half of his life. Wright’s haiku do not rise to the heights of Kerouac’s best, largely because he wrote them in a style imitative of the Japanese masters and in three lines of seventeen syllables (five-seven-five). Kerouac was more innovative, employing a more distinctly American style and writing in three lines with no set syllable count. The latter practice he took from Blyth whose three-line translations are in a concise free verse. American haiku are usually more successful when the poet lets the content dictate the form—while working to achieve simplicity and concision. That’s how Kerouac approached the genre.
Kerouac may not have achieved the sustained mastery of haiku that was later demonstrated by such major figures in American haiku as Nick Virgilio, John Wills, Marlene Mountain, or Alan Pizzarelli, but the unique style he brought to haiku and his pioneering adaptation of the genre into English, will—along with the several dozen fine to exceptional haiku he did leave us—assure him a prominent place in American haiku’s hall of fame.

Among his best haiku are such well-known pieces as the winter fly in the medicine cabinet, the kick at the icebox door, and the office girl unloosing her scarf—all from Scattered Poems—and from Blues & Haikus the already quoted lonely businessman crossing the football field and this salute to our national pastime:

Empty baseball field
—A robin,
Hops along the bench

In this new collection we can add a good number of outstanding haiku we have probably not had the chance to see or hear before, including these two:

All the wash
on the line
Advanced one foot

The housecats, amazed
at something new,
Looking in the same direction

The image of those cats, heads all turned in the same direction, catches Kerouac, too, doing what he did best: noticing the magical moments in our ordinary, everyday lives, and capturing them in words.



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