Go Pop!: Kerouac’s ‘American Haikus’
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 (Weinreich x-xi).
In this statement, Kerouac cites an example of a traditional Japanese haiku that is “prettier than any…I could ever write in any language” (xi). This example set to the left is by Basho (16440-1696), and for comparison set right is Kerouac’s:
A day of quiet gladness, — Frozen
In misty rain a leaf
These poems are interesting when read together because the English translation of Basho’s poem does not comply with the seventeen syllable convention of haiku, but like Kerouac’s it certainly “says a lot” in the three lines. Both poems could be seen in terms of a quick moment from life, a snapshot, one silent moment recorded and preserved by the poet; but there is something more than quick imagery. If we dig just below the surface, we see two poems greatly intertwined with deeper metaphysical concerns and questions. In Basho’s poem there is a sense of great mystery when the poet is confronted with the sublime. He is filled with the highest levels of contentment simply from being able to bear witness to the grandeur of nature. The same amazement and unbridled ecstasy is present in Kerouac’s poem, except in this case his image is working in a microcosm of a single event which extends its meaning outward into the macrocosm of man’s greatest spiritual questions. The leaf that is being preserved in the birdbath is clearly dead as it has fallen from the tree. It also operates on the level of a metaphor for the human soul, leading the reader to question the nature of their own. That is to say, if there is such a thing as a soul, what becomes of it when death overtakes the body? Does the soul continue on in Heaven, do we attain Nirvana or is it held in some type of limbo like the leaf in the frozen birdbath?
enlightenment” (Weinreich 59). Here are two haikus that can be read in relation to the “pop”, the first begins with the ‘Buddhist connotation’, but enlightenment is deferred when the sense and awareness of the body enters Kerouac’s mind. The second becomes quite literally the pop itself.
Time keeps running out THE LIGHT BULB
On my brow, from playing STOPPED READING
Later in his life he denounced his
mystic/ascetic Buddhist self and returned to the more stringent and pious
Catholicism of his childhood. I would like to argue that these haiku can be read
in the context of the Zen “pop”, but it should not be overlooked that they
have something in common with the Catholic epiphany, a sudden realization or
manifestation of the presence of God and the glory of Christ. Kerouac writes:
Shall I break God’s commandment? Christ on the Cross crying
Little fly --his mother missed
Rubbing its back legs Her October porridge
The first haiku finds a man in the midst of a spiritual dilemma--should he kill the fly even though God says not to kill? It seems that the sudden movement of the fly triggers feelings of compassion for his fellow creature, and an awareness of its sentience. The second Haiku is more mysterious, but we do receive a direct reference to Christ, and a manifestation of his human suffering juxtaposed with his mother’s human concerns of missing her porridge. However, this is also the moment of spiritual transition, Christ’s martyrdom—the ultimate act of compassion toward humanity. It can be inferred that Kerouac not only had a deep belief in Catholicism, but in fact wished to live his life more in accord to Christ’s actions. Perhaps in contemplation his own life compared to Christ’s he wrote:
Walking on water wasn’t
Built in a day
This Haiku is quite witty and also notable because it represents a trend in modern haiku toward poems that do not conform to the “three line rule”.
Stony Brook, NY 2003.
Giroux, Joan. The Haiku Form. Rutland, VT:
Charles E. Tuttle Co. 1974.
Kerouac, Jack. Book of Haikus. New
York: Penguin. 2003. pp 5, 62, 64, 109, 196, 173.
“Pop! The Jack Kerouac Haiku Page”. Amy’s Hodgepodge. 29 Nov. 2002. 6 Jul. 2003.
Van Den Heuvel, Cor. “Preface to the Second Edition”. The Haiku Anthology.
Weinreich, Regina. “Introduction: The Haiku Poetics of Jack Kerouac.” Introduction.
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