The following discussion of short poems, some very short, takes its inspiration from Jack Kerouac’s concept of ‘American Haiku’. Whereas the classical concept of haiku is the three-line, seventeen syllable Japanese poetic form, Kerouac experimented with this genre, taking it beyond strict syllable counts into what he believed was the form’s essence. This American haiku (so called) was then incorporated into his correspondence, notebooks, journals, sketchbooks and readings, further blurring the lines between poetry, prose and spoken word. He even embeds haikus in lists of street addresses.
It is this looser, more dexterous, haiku form which I have sought to deploy in my own recent poems (it is part of a larger, current work-in-poetic-progress, initially conceived as a Chapbook). Although the word haiku is singular and plural, Kerouac uses the word ‘haikus’, which is unusual (no doubt indicating thereby his more differentiated and pluralist vision for the genre). I follow Kerouac in this usage.
Despite this differentiated conception, Kerouac’s definition of the renewed haiku is simple enough (quoted Weinreich 2004: x): ‘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’.
Traditional haiku collections are organized by season or by subject. In taking the classical form beyond the classical Japanese categorisation, Kerouac’s own vision for the genre is multi-layered. Specific sub-forms emerge in his deployment of the genre. What he calls ‘pops’ are philosophical short poems while ‘beat generation haikus’ are more angry and emotionally blunt renditions. His usage of the form is directed towards capturing a subject’s essence while paradoxically denoting the ephemeral nature of fleeting existence and what Weinreich refers to as the ‘sensitivity to impermanence’. This is rendered powerfully in the image (which is also part of the traditional haiku vision) of an isolated figure in a broader landscape, ‘One flower/on the cliffside/nodding at the canyon’ (quoted Weinreich 2004: xvii), this isolation being a kind of quintessential Kerouacean (as well as outsider American) persona.
Other significant features of this version of ‘American Haiku’ are the visual possibilities of poetry, which were connected to Kerouac’s own use of spontaneous or automatic prose, as well as his habit of sketching drawings alongside his writings. Of course, there is also a paradox to this link to automatism, as these short poems are extra-disciplined and it is clear that Kerouac often rewrote and revised them over a long period of time.
The same can be said more generally about his writing, including the mythic prose (On the Road etc.), which were hardly automatic works in the one sitting as mythologised but often prose works created over significant periods of temporal revision. One often finds these new fangled ‘haikus’ embedded in the longer works (including in On The Road), complicating the relation between the prose and the poetry.
With regard to the visual aspect as such, we are exhorted to ‘WRITE HAIKUS THEN PAINT THE SCENE DESCRIBING THEM’. Here, there is an interesting emergence of the distinction between describing and ‘looking’, where haikus may be more like paintings than other genres of poems in being more to do with ‘looking’ than ‘describing’. There is also the sense that haikus can themselves be ‘looked at’, that is the haiku may itself be akin to a painting or a visual object (sometimes, first and foremost before we read it or seek to understand its semantic meaning). Moreover, there is a kind of ‘purposeful cut’ (or ‘caesura’) characteristic of this form of writing, both in its classical and more ‘American’ form and this is often linked to incongruous juxtapositions which rather than being spontaneous, need to be ‘best reworked and revised’ (quoted Weinreich 2004: xix).
This emphasis on revision and on discipline with regard to this renewed form of poetics also has a spiritual dimension. This is hardly surprising in that the original Japanese form is linked intrinsically to meditation and to Zen Buddhism. Haiku composition is a matter of discipline, as difficult to achieve as spending time in Zen meditation (this also links to Kerouac’s own interest in Buddhism which was more literary than religious, as it was in the latter understanding for other related American poets of the time such as Gary Snyder).
Kerouac here found aesthetic and emotive sympathies rather than anything metaphysical: ‘Buddhism stayed a literary concern for him, not a meditative or spiritual practice as it was for Snyder and Whalen’ (Weinreich 2004: xiv). Moreover, wasn’t this reconstruction of the overarching and fundamental vision also intrinsic to his successful transformation of the ‘haiku’ (Buddhist, Japanese, classical etc.) into his own, original version of the all-new ‘American haikus’? This is also a connecting bridge between Kerouac and other avant-garde poetic schools which were emerging or which would further emerge in the next decade.
For example, it brings Kerouac closer to the Black Mountain School than his Beat contemporaries as well as proximate in spirit to the (American) urbanity of New York School poets such as Frank O’Hara, whose urbane poems nonetheless evoked also (often in their succinctness and deceptive simplicity, above all else) the conception of ‘American haikus’, which Kerouac originally envisioned.
Hail Jack Keroauc then, originator of effectively a new and very dexterous poetic form, with classical connections and inspiration but with a contemporary edge, bridging and hybridizing rural and urban, individual and collective, humorous irony and painful seriousness. And here, in August 2023, we might argue this vision can be of inspiration again to us budding (whilst aged) philosophical-poet types.
And we also continue to break its inherent rules and extend it a little, as a genre and a form – why not, dear reader? Here I include a trio of my own American haikus (or is there an Irish specific sub-category of such?), the first which obeys the seasonal reference (Haiku#1), the second which takes up Kerouac’s ‘pops’ or personal-philosophical thematics (‘Reverses’) and the third which plays with a naughty extension of the classic 3 line limit, if nothing else (‘Dublin City Blues’):
As the humid days
make themselves felt
the mind turns to Autumn
Like every man
Who takes chances
I suffer reverses
Dublin City Blues
Got up & dressed up
& went out & got paid
Then came home & got laid
in a mauve suit in the garden
we feign perfection
Because we are empty
Because feigning is a
kind of emptiness
Because it is a kind of perfection
Basho (1985) On Love and Barley – Haiku of Basho. Penguin Books, London.
Kerouac, Jack (2004) Book of Haikus. Edited and with an Introduction by Regina Weinreich. Enitharmon Press, London.
Stryk, Lucien (1985) ‘Introduction’ in Basho (1985) On Love and Barley – Haiku of Basho. Penguin Books, London.
Weinreich, Regina (2004) ‘Introduction: The Haiku Poetics of Jack Kerouac’ in Kerouac, Jack (2004) Book of Haikus. Edited and with an Introduction by Regina Weinreich. Enitharmon Press, London.