Jones Irwin​​​​​

Punk Haikus

In several recent short critical articles in Red Ogre Review, I have sought to explore specific poetic examples which go against the grain. In the first case, I explored the punk poetics of the Salford bard John Cooper Clarke (currently on tour again with his ‘Celebrating 50 Years in Showbiz’), in the second case I looked at a Keroauc inspired conception of ‘American haikus’ (developing the Japanese classical model). More recently, I looked at how the punk poet Jim Carroll expressed his admiration for the wordsmithery of Kurt Cobain in verse.

Having written these pieces (and taken up a new role as columnist with ROR), I got to thinking about possible connections between these three short texts and ideas. I began to wonder if there might be a way of bringing together Cooper Clarke’s Northern English performance based ribald verse with Keroauc’s attempt to extend American poetry into a more succinct (and philosophical) form, and with Carroll’s dexterity in translating Cobain’s elliptical and dark vision into a more direct poetry?

My attempts at bringing this congruence to active life (I was thinking of Jackson Pollock’s wonderfully American Action Painting canvas Convergence from 1952) started to crystallise around an emergent conception (for me at least) of the possibility of punk haikus. Although often associated with myriad art forms, the conceptualization of a ‘punk poetry’ has been neglected, insofar as ‘poetry has not been an art form associated with the punk movement’ (Hannon 2020: 1). Perhaps the etymology of ‘punk’ as a concept or word can help explain this marginalization insofar as it leads back to original linguistic meanings of ‘inferior, bad, 1896, also as a noun, ‘something worthless,’ earlier ‘rotten wood used as tinder (1680s)’ (OED). And yet already with this duality of ‘worthless’ on the one side and ‘tinder’ on the other, we have the possibilities of engendering something creative from such a supposedly low base. Other sources of the meaning derive from the US and Canada usage and from Gaelic; ‘perhaps from Delaware (Algonquian) ponk, literally “dust, powder, ashes;” but Gaelic spong “tinder” also has been suggested (compare spunk “touchwood, tinder,” 1580s’ (OED). Again, the creative semantic tension is revealing – dust, ash on the one side, ‘spunk’ or (life-giving) semen on the other.

‘Punk’ as a noun also refers back to ‘prostitute, harlot, strumpet’ as well as a ‘possible sense shift from harlot to homosexual…by 1923 “young boy, inexperienced person” (originally in show business, as in punk day, circus slang from 1930, “day when children are admitted free’ (OED). The variation across these meanings is perhaps less striking than the commonalities the attributions share; there is a constant sense of lowliness, lesser than, being naively inexperienced, also at the same time (and somewhat paradoxically) being what lies outside the norms of respectability and what might be viewed as transgressive, even dangerous to the orthodox (sometimes gendered or sexual) form. It was this sense which spawned the newer usage of the word and concept of ‘punk’ to refer to ‘punk rock’, a usage which dates from as early as 1971, ‘[a music which is] loud, fast, aggressive, and outrageous — which is attested by 1971 (in a Dave Marsh article in Creem, referring to Rudi “Question Mark” Martinez)’ (OED) and in turn this concept becomes more readily identified with the more well-known emergence of bands such as The Ramones and The Sex Pistols, across the wider popular culture and media, from 1976 onwards.

How might we think of this fertile (maybe even febrile) semantics of ‘punk’ if we think of its connection to the possibilities of the haiku form of poetry, as developed by Jack Keroauc (Kerouac 2004)? Although the word haiku is singular and plural, Kerouac uses the word or concept of ‘haikus’, which is unusual (no doubt indicating thereby his more differentiated and pluralist vision for the genre). This version centres on his invention of the conceptualization of ‘American Haikus’, drawing on the original three-line, seventeen syllable Japanese poetic form and experimenting with versions beyond strict syllable counts into what he believed was the form’s essence.

As is fitting with the Beat aesthetic of reduction of complexity towards a direct simplicity, Kerouac isn’t seeking elaborate reworkings or rethinkings here. Essentially, he is calling on a new movement of poets to ‘simply say a lot in three short lines’ (quoted Weinreich 2004: x), which perfectly tallies with the punk dictum to bring everything back to ‘three chords’ (as in The Adverts ‘Three Chord Wonders’, sometimes less even than three). In this way, the ‘American haikus’ are less contrasted with the classical form of poetry and more with an overly ostentatious modernist poetry which (for Keroauc and the Beats) has lost its connection back to everyday experience and language of human beings. In this, we might make the analogous contrast between punk rock music (in its original emergence) and the bombast of the preceding Glam Rock.

At the same time, Kerouac does want to allow for diversification and possible alternatives. In his deployment of this new genre, specific sub-forms emerge. Traditional haiku collections are organized by season or by subject. One of my own haikus captures this ‘seasonal’ aspect, or the integral connection to Nature:

Haiku #1

As the humid days
make themselves felt
the mind turns to Autumn.
(Irwin, 2023a)

Kerouac’s own usage still harks back in some ways to the original naturalist vision of the Japanese classical form but is more existential or anthropomorphic in its vision (we might say, in philosophical terms, that the haiku has now made the Kantian turn). Here, Keroauc’s version seeks to capture a subject’s essence while simultaneously pointing towards 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 also denotes a humanist dimension, and ‘canyon’ relates to an individual isolation and a kind of quintessential Kerouacean (as well as outsider American) persona. In this, it becomes a version of ‘American haikus’.

We might relate this ‘outsider’ motif to the possibilities of our renewed vision of ‘punk haikus’. With regard to Kerouac’s deployment of sub-forms, what he calls ‘pops’ are philosophical short poems while ‘beat generation haikus’ are more angry and emotionally blunt renditions. It is these sub-forms which perhaps best speak to the possibilities for short, sharp punk poems. The neo-Dadaist Jerome Rothenberg has, in a related instance, focused on examples from alternative music culture (for example, in the lyrics of Nick Cave) to argue that it is when Cave’s lyrics (Cave 2001) precisely leave the traditional line and rhyme behind that they open out onto the space of a ‘projective verse’, which places him among the experimental and avant-garde poets of his generation (and that of an earlier one, such as Rothenberg himself alongside others such as Snyder, Eshleman, etc.). Kerouac precedes Rothenberg by a decade or so, but the former’s ‘American Haikus’ vision is prescient as an example of this more radical vision of poetry and of poetics. We might also cite the song lyrics of Shane Mac Gowan here, a lyricist caught between punk and folk vision (and betwixt England and Ireland), and whose emphasis on folk tradition brings his work close to the essence of the naturalist bent even in the original classical Japanese form of haiku (whilst his punk reworking of folk lyric resonates rather with Kerouac).

As well as Cave, Rothenberg looks to the poetry of Jim Carroll. In his ‘8 Fragments For Kurt Cobain’ (Carroll 1994), Carroll poeticises the ‘muttered lyrics’ of Cobain as ‘curious phrases like ‘incognito libido’ and ‘chalk skin bending’/the words getting smaller and smaller/until separated from their music’ (Carroll 1994). ‘The words getting smaller and smaller’. We might remember Keroauc’s call on a new movement of poets to ‘simply say a lot in three short lines’ (quoted Weinreich 2004: x), which perfectly tallied with the punk dictum to bring everything back to ‘three chords’.

In a roundabout manner, I have argued in this essay for a possible conception of ‘punk haikus’ which might connect Keroauc’s renewal of the classical form to some aspects of the punk aesthetic. As noted above, despite punk’s myriad connections to various forms of art and aesthetic (film, painting, performance etc.), the possible renderings of a punk poetry have been significantly underestimated. I have argued elsewhere for a vision of punk poetics in a wider sense, as linked to the poetry of John Cooper Clarke (Irwin 2022). But what might a more specific sub-form of ‘punk haikus’ look (or sound) like? To conclude, I give three examples (of my own rendition) for this strand of poetry.

The first channels a certain Mac Gowanesque folk comic-tragedy ('#My Uncle’s Funeral Haiku’), the second and third respectively take up Kerouac’s ‘pops’ or personal-philosophical thematics, with an emphasis on place via film and Ska music (‘Coventry Haiku #2’) and on the vision of punk itself as revolutionizing the binary oppositions of traditional normativity (whilst indirectly quoting John Lydon and PIL) [‘Punk Haiku #1’].

My Uncle’s Funeral Haiku

We lower your coffin
Throw three whiskies
Into your demise

Coventry Haiku #2

Midlands David Lynch
Isabella Rossellini phone
Calling Terry Hall

Punk Haiku #1

Punk is dead
I could be wrong
I could be right


Basho (1985) On Love and Barley – Haiku of Basho. Penguin Books, London.

Carroll, Jim (1994) ‘8 Fragments For Kurt Cobain’. Louisville, KY: White Fields Press / The Literary Renaissance.

Carroll, Jim (1993) Fear of Dreaming. The Selected Poems of Jim Carroll. Penguin, New York.

Cave, Nick (2001) The Complete Lyrics 1978-2013. Penguin Books, London.

Cooper Clarke, J. (2012) Ten Years In An Open Necked Shirt. Vintage, London.

Ferriter, Cian ‘The Sick Bed of Shane Mac Gowan’. Irish Times, 23rd December 2023. Dublin, Ireland.

Hannon, J. (2020) ‘John Cooper Clarke’s Punk Poetry. Staging the Excess’. In ASAP Journal, September 2020.

Irwin, Jones (2023a) ‘#American Haiku’ in Red Ogre Review, September 2023. Lancaster, England.

Irwin, Jones ‘Evidently A Punk Poetry: On John Cooper Clarke’ in Red Ogre Review, December 2022. Lancaster, England.

Irwin, Jones ‘From Song To Poem In The Work Of Nick Cave’. The Ulu Review. November 2023.

Kerouac, Jack (2004) Book of Haikus. Edited and with an Introduction by Regina Weinreich. Enitharmon Press, London.

Rothenberg, Jerome ‘Nick Cave: Three Poems From Skeleton Tree’. Jacket 2. (accessed 08.01.24 March 2017.

Rothenberg, Jerome Eye Of Witness. A Jerome Rothenberg Reader. Edited with Heriberto Yépes. Black Widow Press, Boston, MA, USA. 2013.

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.

Yépes, Heriberto ‘Introduction: A Re-Vision of Jerome Rothenberg’s Poetry and Poetics’ in Rothenberg, Jerome Eye Of Witness. A Jerome Rothenberg Reader. Edited with Heriberto Yépes. Black Widow Press, Boston, MA, USA. 2013.

About the Author

Jones Irwin teaches philosophy and education in Dublin, Republic of Ireland. He has just started a role as resident poetry critic and columnist with Red Ogre Review and continues to publish a series of short texts on poetics with ROR.

He is currently working on a new book of haiku poems based on the concept of “American Haikus” developed originally by the Beat poet Jack Keroauc. His first chapbook, GHOST TOWN, was published by Moonstone Press, Philadelphia, in summer 2022. His second chapbook, Deep Image or a Painting by Jeffrey Dahmer, will be published by Tofu Ink Press in 2024.