Editor's Note: This is the second of a three part series entitled Haiku in English. The first part deals with Amy Lowell and Imagism, and the final part deals with the haiku of the young Michael McClintock, who is the recently retired Tanka Editor of Simply Haiku. Please see Vol. 5, No. 3 (August, 2007) for the first part.
For the convenience of readers, we have retained the page numbers for this essay.
Haiku in English
by Barbara Louise Ungar
III. JACK KEROUAC AS HAIKU POET
"It's hard being born to the Dharma, now in America. We're real pioneers." —Lew Welch25
The next widespread vogue of Japanese culture in America came in the nineteen-fifties, and with it
renewed interest in the haiku. Whereas in the earlier part of the century it
was Japanese crafts that were admired, in the fifties it was Japanese religion
and philosophy that influenced American culture. A parallel may be drawn to the
haiku written by American poets. Where the Imagists emphasized the technique of
haiku, yet misunderstood the motivation behind it, it was precisely this
so-called Zen-aspect of haiku that attracted Beat Generation poets. Cor van den
Heuvel in his introduction to The Haiku Anthology asserts that the new
interest in Japanese culture and the new focus of this interest grew "out
of increased contacts with Japan through the Occupation, and a spiritual thirst
for religious and artistic fulfillment."26 The Beat poets, in
their hunger for spiritual fulfillment which they found lacking in American
twentieth-century life, rebelled against established literary convention, and
turned to the Orient, among other foreign cultures, for inspiration.
Jack Kerouac, well known for his novels which capture the spirit of his era, and who
created the term "Beat Generation," was one of the first dissatisfied
writers who discovered the new wealth of the East. He became deeply interested
in Buddhism, and consequently experimented with haiku. Van den Heuvel says that
he "probably came closer than any of the Beat poets to its essence. But it
remained a footnote to his work."27 While Kerouac never considered
himself a poet (novels came first in his writing) he has left behind some
excellent haiku, which have been largely overlooked in the critical work on
him. I would like to take a close look at these haiku here.
Kerouac once told Ted Berrigan that he was a serious Buddhist, not a Zen Buddhist.28
By this he meant that he was concerned with the essence of Buddhist thought
rather than with any particular sect, dogma, or scholarly knowledge about
Buddhism. He sought first-hand intuitive understanding that allowed him to
create his own individual creed, a curious blend of Buddhism
and his Catholic heritage. In an interview in 1968 Kerouac reiterates the experiential nature of his interest in Buddhism, stating that "the part of Zen that influenced me is the part contained in the
Kerouac was the product of a piously Catholic, hard-working, lower middle-class French-Canadian family.
His life was a generally unhappy one. He remained dependent on his mother all
of his life: his three marriages were short-lived and mostly unsuccessful. He
never made much money; close friends were few and far between. Often confused,
outwardly aimless, he made a series of cross-country trips by hitchhiking,
driving, hopping freight trains and riding Greyhound buses. He never seemed to
find the happiness he was looking for on the other side of the country, but
there was temporary solace in motion itself. He kept moving. His novels are
semi-fictionalized accounts of his running, and the running of his friends.
They are based in truth yet romanticized to a high degree.
He seems to have spent much of his life in fantasizing his own heroism. First he was to be a great athlete, but an injury spoiled his college football career and he dropped out to join the
military. Dreams of becoming a great soldier ended abruptly when he was unable
to cope with the rigid discipline of the army and was discharged. Then the
dream was to be a great writer:
although he may have succeeded in writing The Great American Novel of the
nineteen-fifties, recognition of success came too late. After most of his
novels were written he was still undiscovered, still having trouble finding a
publisher, and not making ends meet. It was during this difficult time in his
life that he discovered Buddhism, and his last great fantasy: to become a
Dharma Bum, a Zen-lunatic.
It was at this time that he wrote the few haiku we have. He became acquainted with Gary Snyder in
California, and discussed Buddhism and poetry with him. Oriental philosophy and
religion were just coming into vogue on the West Coast. Kerouac and friends
created the Dharma Bum fantasy: born in the wrong time, they were really
Zen-lunatics adrift in an alien culture. This dream ultimately failed him, too.
Under Snyder's encouragement, he spent one summer alone as a fire-lookout on
Desolation Mountain, hoping to find tranquility and wisdom alone with nature.
But he became bored and lonely rather than enlightened. His Buddhism was
largely an attempt to come to peace with the life described in his prose: his
haiku express his attempts to transcend it. They were not enough. Kerouac
turned more and more to drinking. He made one desperate attempt to find
enlightenment in nature and solitude at Lawrence Ferlinghetti's cabin in Big
Sur, but this experiment ended disastrously in a drinking binge and delirium
tremens. Although he had finally been discovered, grown famous and wealthy, it
came too late. He derived no joy from it. Cut off from his old friends,
drinking heavily, writing little, he finished off his life in the East living
with his mother until her death,
and died himself a few years later.
Let us turn to Kerouac's haiku. He was familiar with the Japanese masters and had a good understanding of the form. In his Explanatory Note to Some Western Haikus he also proposed a way to
write haiku in Western languages:
The "Haiku" was invented and developed over hundreds of years in Japan to
be a complete poem in seventeen syllables and to pack in a whole vision of life
in three short lines. A "Western Haiku" need not concern itself with
the seventeen syllables since Western languages cannot adapt themselves to the
fluid syllabic Japanese. I propose that "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. Here is a great Japanese Haiku that is
simpler and prettier than any Haiku I could ever write in any language:—
A day of quiet gladness,—
Mount Fuji is veiled
in misty rain.
He also quotes the following haiku by Issa and Buson:
She has put the child to sleep,
And now washes the clothes;
The summer moon.
Nesetsukeshi ko no
sentaku ya natsu
The nightingale is singing,
Its small mouth
Kerouac shows here a fine understanding of and appreciation for the haiku. He seems to have been born
with some of the mind-set of a haiku poet. Although he was no scholar, he read
extensively in Buddhist literature that had been translated into French, took
copious notes, and tried to put what he learned into practice. To him the most
important tenet of Buddhism was, Life is Suffering. He strove to attain a
peaceful acceptance of that suffering. If he did not succeed, we can see
nonetheless in his haiku an extreme sensitivity
to the weak: a deep sympathy for children, animals, growing things, the unfortunate.
Some of his haiku have a quality of tenderness and sadness mixed with
earthiness and humor that brings Issa to mind. For example:
Shall I say no?
Its back legs
This is quite similar to a haiku by Issa, which Kerouac may have been familiar with, although I doubt it
is a direct borrowing:
the fly! He wrings his hands!
He wrings his feet!
yare utsu na
hae ga te wo suru
ashi wo suru
Or this haiku, which both Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder envied greatly: these two
were much more accomplished poets than Kerouac, but neither had the utterly
simple vision and feeling to write
In my medicine cabinet
the winter fly
has died of old age.
In these two haiku, Kerouac identifies immediately and directly with the fly; they have the ring of
true feeling. If we think back now to Amy Lowell's haiku, differences are
readily apparent. Kerouac's speech is utterly plain; Lowell's, frequently,
strings of adjectives. His writing is simple, without mannerism or exoticism.
Most importantly, Kerouac experiences directly while Lowell describes from a spectator's
viewpoint. If we remember the poem describing the black beetle spotted with
white, then compare it with these poems by Kerouac, the shift in view is
obvious: Kerouac writes from almost inside the fly, Lowell from six feet above
her beetle. Or again, this poem by Lowell:
The paper carp
At the end of its long bamboo pole
Takes the wind into its mouth
And emits it at its tail.
So is man
Forever swallowing the wind.
Lowell paints an image of a colorful object which catches her interest, then
encapsulates a meaning to place beside it. She remains outside of the experience,
judging. Kerouac writes haiku about the most unlikely subjects, such as dead
flies, and enters into them completely. When he says that the fly has died of
old age, he subtly reminds us that we are all mortal. It is by his interest
in, and sympathy for, the fly as another living creature, that this message
comes across. He does not need to say, "So is man, forever dying in
It is this ability of Kerouac's to experience directly, to enter the essence of an
object or a moment, which makes his poems haikus whereas Lowell's are not.
Kerouac depends on inspiration, in Basho's sense of the word, and the clearest
possible rendering of this inspiration, to create his haiku. He is not
concerned with any technique in the writing, but at times seems to use instinctively
certain techniques of the Japanese haiku poets. For example, there is internal
comparison in the following haiku, whether Kerouac intended it or not:
the office girl
unloosing her scarf
Here all of night's wildness, mystery and vastness is at once contained in a girl's small gesture
of letting loose her hair, and contrasted to the tameness of the life of an
ordinary office girl. There is also a sense of her participation in night: she
is human, she experiences night coming, responds to it, and so is part of it.
This poem captures beautifully one easily overlooked moment of the day as it
Whether Kerouac knew of the ki-go convention or not, he sometimes uses seasonal
references to create moods, as he uses the time of day in the poem above. The
uncanny effect of this haiku depends upon the season words:
The summer chair
rocking by itself
In the blizzard
In the first two lines he creates a seemingly peaceful scene: a rocking chair on a porch, probably a
summer evening, a breeze and gentle movement. This picture is shattered in the
third line, transmitting the full force and fury of the blizzard. Although
Kerouac states no emotions, we tend to identify with the chair. It rocks by
itself, and seems to be alive in a sense. It suffers as we do from the
vicissitudes of nature.
Kerouac frequently endows inanimate objects with a life of their own.
The next lighthearted poem is about the way in which seemingly inanimate objects are part of the flow of the entire universe. It says that if we human beings think that we alone are responsible for phenomena
in this world, we may be surprised.
Missing a kick
at the icebox door
It closed anyway.
This poem may perhaps more properly be called senryu than haiku. Senryu have the
same form as haiku, but they are lighter, often humorous, and have to do with
human nature rather than nature in total. This senryu is a humorous look at
the vanity of all striving, given the inevitability of things. Here is a haiku
which deals with the same subject, but in a more serious vein.
the heavy rain
Driving into the sea.
The weary wisdom expressed in this haiku is reminiscent of Ecclesiastes as well as Basho.
On one of Kerouac's many cross-country driving trips, this one
with two friends, Albert Saijo and Lew Welch, the three collaborated to write a
book called TRIP TRAP: Haiku along the Road from San Francisco to New York
1959. Although I hesitate to call it haibun, and although it is not a very
polished piece, it is nevertheless fascinating to compare this slim book to
Basho's Oku no Hosomichi, or Narrow Roads to the Deep North. Both
are poetic diaries written in a mixture of haiku and expository prose, relating
the course of a journey. Basho and Kerouac have some similarities: both
rejected the standard values of their societies for a wandering life of poverty
and a mystical-religious awareness. Their similarities in temperament and
situation show through the obvious outer differences in the cultures through
which the two wandered. Basho traveled by foot or horse through rural areas
carrying a stick and cotton bag, covering 1500 miles in 160 days. Kerouac
hopped freights, hitch-hiked, took Greyhound buses or, in this case, drove
non-stop across industrialized America, cross-continent in a few short days.
What they had in common was a desire for the process of motion itself, and a
special awareness, which Lew Welch describes in his introductory piece to TRIP
TRAP as an awareness of
The little magic ways of this planet going on mostly unnoticed by all us worried
humans. But on this trip we noticed and knew and were calmed by it.31
Here is one effective haiku from TRIP TRAP which
illustrates that extra-sensitivity:
A herd of browsing
One calf runs
It could scarcely be simpler, and yet it expresses exactly the way things are. Many of the haiku in TRIP
TRAP have a uniquely American feeling about them, like the one above,
created by the use of place names, the naming of animals or plants, the sense
of travel across huge expanses of open land. Kerouac uses places in the United
States to create a mood much as Japanese haiku poets use season words or
references to well-known shrines, towns, mountains, etc.
The windmills of
in every direction
The name Oklahoma conjures up vast plains and stretches of awesome emptiness. A very effective internal
comparison is created by adding the sentinel windmills to this lonely expanse.
These tiny points of stillness amidst sweeping movement create a feeling of
solitude and melancholy. Saying that the windmills "look" seems to
bring a dead landscape to life. Or again,
The trees, already
bent in the windless
Here the same internal comparison between the plains and small discrete objects lost in the vastness
works as in the haiku above. This haiku has more empathy than the first
somehow, for trees are living and suffer and become bent as humans are.
Moreover, there is a larger sense of nature doing its work, unseen by any human
eye, unaffected by any human laws of causality. We see that the trees are
"already bent" without the logical causal connection to wind. Trees
do not bend because of the wind—it makes as much sense to say that the
wind blows because the trees bend. Kerouac here expresses his own sort of
mysterious karma according to which things happen just as they do, as in the
icebox senryu quoted above. His individual adaptation of Buddhist acceptance
is explained in a section of TRIP TRAP called RED MONK'S COMMENTARY:
It's all arranged to come out even
If only people weren't so hincty
They try to make it work
to someone's advantage
The haiku I have quoted so far are some of the most coherent and tra- ditional pieces in
the book. They are not fully representative. As Kerouac stated later,
A sentence that's short and sweet with a sudden jump of thought is a kind of haiku, and there's a lot of freedom and fun in surprising yourself with that; let the mind willy-nilly jump from the branch to the bird.32
The simple element of fun cannot be overlooked in many of
Kerouac's haiku. He delighted in the a-logicality of Zen, and some of the poems
can be seen as attempts at koan. These are a sort of puzzle aimed at
stopping the intellet short, at which point the irrational or intuitive mind
takes over and breaks through to a different sort of understanding. For
example, with tongue planted firmly in cheek:
I have dissolved
under my tongue
(and then say no
A good example of Kerouac and friends playing with haiku may be seen in this short series.
First we have,
Grain elevators on
Saturday lonely as
This is too simple a simile, so Lew Welch tries to
improve upon it, keeping the comparison, which is a rather original and
Lonely grain elevators
This version is still too obvious. It compares two things, making a statement which
ends at the end of the poem and does not expand. Kerouac, not satisfied,
Grain elevators on
Saturday waiting for
the farmers to come home
Kerouac eliminates the unnecessary adjective "lonely" and replaces it with a pun on an
English cliche of a lonely wife waiting for her man to return. This version not
only creates the feeling of loneliness more subtly, but also gives the haiku a
low-key sort of humor. The underlying comparison of the grain elevator to a
human situation, rather than to another inanimate object, startles and sets off
The playfulness frequently gets carried away, sometimes to nonsense, sometimes to crudeness. For example, the Oklahoma haiku quoted above is part of a short sequence which degenerates as follows:
The windmills of
In every direction
Radio antennas in
Texas are hard to see,
Said the cow
When a cow is puking
A cow is resting in Nebraska
This is hardly great poetry, by any definition. It must be remembered that the book
is attempting to capture the spontaneity and directness of the haiku as they
were created on the road, and therefore many fragments and incoherent remarks
have been thrown in, such as,
"Hey look, a
"The road's been
red a long time"
Albert Saijo justifies this sort of inclusion in A NOTE ON THE TEXT:
The whole piece has the random quality of Brownian movement. It has the space of the hypnogogic state between waking and sleeping. It is offhand. It is a curiosity. It has a middle, but no beginning or end. It
is neither interesting nor uninteresting, but it holds our attention somehow,
for it appears to have an art after all, the fathomless art of random speech
overheard through the course of a day.33
In comparison with Basho's poetic diary, which is a highly polished work of art, Kerouac's
verse is simply not that serious. Haiku was not a way of life to him, it was
not a complete art form, yet it was one which he loved. And there is method in his madness, if
we look hard enough. What appealed to the Beats most about Zen and haiku was
their a-logicality, earthiness, humor, and childlike simplicity. These are the
elements that come out most forcefully in their writing, as is true of TRIP
TRAP. They aim for energy and life in their work rather than any criterion
of stylistic beauty or elegance. And they are not afraid to shock, if it will
startle the reader into new and fresh perception.
Seymour Krim explains this effect in his introduction to one of Kerouac's novels, Desolation Angels:
One should therefore first regard the insane playfulness, deliberate infantilism, nutty haikus, naked stripteases, freeform chants and literary war dances of the Beats as a tremendous lift of conscience,
a much-needed release against an authoritarian inhibiting-and-punishing
intellectual climate... ,34
The authority that tlie Beats were rebelling
against in their joyous lunatic outbursts was represented by figures such as
Pound and Eliot, Imagists and Post-Imagists who were overwhelmingly concerned
with painstaking technique and scholarly knowledge of literature, with
erudition and discipline. Both sides of this conflict borrowed from the East,
and from haiku, but with opposite results. Kerouac sings his defiance out in
the introduction to his Scattered Poems:
The new American poetry as typified by the SF
Renaissance (which means Ginsberg, me, Rexroth, Ferlinghetti, McClure, Corso,
Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Philip Whalen, I guess) is a kind of new-old Zen
Lunacy poetry, writing whatever comes into your head as it comes, poetry
returned to its origin, in the bardic child, truly ORAL as Ferlinghetti said,
instead of gray faced Academic quibbling. Poetry & prose had for a long
time fallen into the false hands of the false. These new pure poets confess
forth for the sheer joy of
confession. They are CHILDREN. They are also childlike
graybeard Homers singing in the street. They SING, they SWING. It is diametrically
opposed to the Eliot shot, who so dismally advises his dreary negative rules
like the objective correlative, etc. which is just a lot of constipation and
ultimately emasculation of the pure masculine urge to freely sing. In spite of the dry rules he set down his
poetry is itself sublime. I could say lots more but aint got time or sense.
But SF is the poetry of a new Holy Lunacy like that of ancient times (Li Po,
Hanshan, Tom O Bedlam, Kit Smart, Blake) yet it also has that mental discipline
typified by the haiku (Basho, Buson), that is, the discipline of pointing out
things directly, purely, concretely, no abstractions or explanations, wham wham
the true blue song of man.35
It may be surmised from
Kerouac's rebellion against academia that he had little concern for literary
theory or criticism. Yet in 1968 he consented to an interview with Ted Berrigan
for the Paris Review in which he talks freely about the art of writing.
He says that he writes prose spontaneously and without revision in order to
give to the reader the true workings of his snind. "I spent my entire
youth writing slowly with revisions and endless re-hashing speculation and
deleting and got so I was writing one sentence a day and the sentence had no
FEELING. Goddamn it, FEELING is what I like in art, not CRAFTINESS and the
hiding of feelings."36 Kerouac wrote his novels by attaching a
roll of teletype paper to his typewriter so that he would not have to stop to
change sheets, then letting loose at eighty or ninety words per minute. He
would not revise a syllable, outside of editorial changes dictated by a
publisher. In the interview he reveals that the reason he wrote in this way was
an expression of his times. Speaking of himself and Neal Cassady, the hero of On
The Road, he says, "we both got the secret of LINGO in telling a tale
and figured that was the only way to express the speed and tension and ecstatic
tomfoolery of the age. . , ."37
When writing haiku, however, he made an exception to this practice.
Haiku is best reworked and revised. I know, I tried. 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. At least thats the way the
old masters did it, spending months on three little lines and coming up say,
In the abandoned boat
We can infer that haiku was very special to
Kerouac, especially as he wrote his "regular English verse" in the
same manner as his prose, rapidly and without revision. His prose and verse
were meant to express his age, with its "speed and tension and ecstatic
tomfoolery," and so were written in a rush as he lived in a rush. His
haiku were meant to express that part of him which wanted to escape that age,
which wanted to find release from the eternal coming and going in some kind of
Buddhist repose. His haiku describe the rare moments when Kerouac found inner
peace, when he stopped running long enough to look and feel deeply the nature
of this tragic, fleeting world. But this peace never lasted, his enlightenment
never came, and haiku remained a secondary art form to him.
The so-called San Francisco Renaissance
has long subsided, and the poets Kerouac named as its members are
well-established, not to say Establishment, poets. Ginsberg, Snyder, and
Ferlinghetti have their reputations and their places in the history of American
poetry. Kerouac, however, is remembered only for his wonderfully lively
rendering of the nineteen-fifties in America in his novels, especially On
The Road, and he is credited with naming the Beat Generation. His poetry,
including his haiku, is largely forgotten. However, in an interview with Alien
Ginsberg in The Paris Review in 1966, when asked what's happening in
poetry now, Ginsberg replies that he thinks that Kerouac is still the best poet
in America. The interviewer, skeptical, asks; "You don't mean Kerouac's prose?," and Ginsberg responds,
No, I'm talking about just
a pure poet... he has the one sign of being a great poet, which is he's the
only one in the United States who knows how to write haikus. The only one who's
written any good haikus. And everybody's been writing haikus. There are all
these dreary haikus written by people who think for weeks trying to
write a haiku, and finally come up with some dull little thing or something.
Whereas Kerouac thinks in haikus, every time he writes anything—talks that way
and thinks that way. So it's just natural for him. It's something Snyder
noticed. Snyder has to labor for years in a Zen monastery to produce one haiku
about shitting off a log! And actually does get one or two good ones. Snyder
was always astounded by Kerouac's facility ... at noticing winter flies dying
of old age in his medicine chest. Medicine cabinet. "In my medicine
cabinet/the winter flies/died of old age." ...
Those are as far as I can see the only real American haikus. So the haiku is the most
difficult test. He's the only master of the haiku.39
30. Jack Kerouac, Scattered Poems (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1971), p. 69.
31. Jack Kerouac, TRIP TRAP, p. 18.
32. The Paris Review, 43 (1968), 85.
33. Jack Kerouac, TRIP TRAP, p, 12.
34. Jack Kerouac, Desolation Angels, ed. with Intro. by Seymour Krim (New York: Coward-McCann, 1965), p. xi.
35. Jack Kerouac, Scattered Poems, Introduction.
36. The Paris Review, 43 (1968), 65.
37. Ibid., p. 66.
38. Ibid., p. 74.
39. Interview with Alien Ginsberg, The Paris Review, 37 (Winter, 1966), 52-53.
40. Van den Heuvel, The Haiku Anthology, p. 256.
41. Ibid., p. 270.
42. Ibid., p. 261.
43. Ibid., p. 63.
44. Virginia Brady Young, review of Light Run, Haiku Magazine, V: 2 (Summer, 1971), 37.
45. Yasuda, loc. cit.
46. Elizabeth Searle Lamb, review of Man With No race. Modem Haiku, 3 (1974),44.
47. Miner, Japanese Poetic Diaries, p. 19.
48. Michael McClintock, "The Tyranny of Form," Modern Haiku, II: 1 (Winter, 1970), 28.
Editor's Note: The final part of this series will appear in Vol. 6, No. 1 (February, 2008).
Barbara Louise Ungar won the 2006 Gival Press Poetry Award for her collection entitled The Origin of the Milky Way, forthcoming in fall 2007. She is the author of Thrift (WordTech Editions, 2005), which was a finalist for the May Swenson Poetry Award and the Tupelo Prize, among many others, and a chapbook Sequel (Finishing Line Press, 2004), which won honorable mention in chapbook competitions at the Center for Book Arts, ByLine Press, and Finishing Line Press, which published it in 2004 as part of the New Women's Voices series. Her poems have appeared in Salmagundi, The Minnesota Review, The Cream City Review, The Literary Review, and many other publications. She is also the author of a chapbook, Neoclassical Barbra (Angel Fish Press, 1998) and Haiku In English (Stanford Humanities Honors Essay XXI).
Born in Worcester, Massachusetts and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, she has traveled around the world, and earned degrees from Stanford University, City College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. An associate professor of English at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York, she lives in Saratoga Springs with her young son Izaak.