Monday, October 28, 2013

Dark Wings of Night: Jack Kerouac's "Blues and Haikus" and His View of Haiku Composition

A real haiku’s gotta be as simple as porridge and yet make you see the real thing
-- Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums, p.59


In the spring of 1958, Jack Kerouac was invited by Bob Thiele to make a poetry album for the Beat Generation. Accompanied by his friends, tenor saxmen Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, Kerouac made Blues and Haikus, a mixture of jazz and poetry. According to Bruce Eder, it was a “stunning duet between speaker and saxmen, working spontaneously in this peculiar mix of jazz and voice, in which the saxmen [did] get their solo spots around Kerouac's work”.

The opening number is a 10-minute piece called “American Haikus.” It features Kerouac’s “expressive recitation of a series of poems punctuated by the improvisational saxophone playing of Cohn and Sims.”


The most amazing thing about Jack Kerouac is his magic voice, which sounds exactly like his works. It is capable of the most astounding and disconcerting changes in no time flat. It dictates everything.

-- Ted Berrigan, poet and staff writer at the Paris Review


Now, Listen to Jack kerouac reading "American Haikus"


Below are some of his haiku I like:

In my medicine cabinet
the winter fly
has died of old age

Evening coming --
the office girl
unloosing her scarf

The summer chair
rocking by itself
In the blizzard

Missing a kick
at the icebox door
It closed anyway.

Useless, useless,
the heavy rain
Driving into the sea.

The windmills of
Oklahoma look
in every direction

Straining at the padlock
the garage doors
At noon

And the following haiku is my favorite:

Empty baseball field --
A robin,
Hops along the bench

L1 sets the context, seasonal, thematic and emotive, while allusive Ls 2 &3 make a shift in theme and imagery, thus establishing a contrasting relationship with their preceding line through Kerouac’s skillful use of the zoom-in technique. This contrasting relationship fully embodies the “principle of internal comparison,” which is well articulated by Harold G. Henderson in his study of Japanese haiku (p. 18); therefore, it  gains added poignancy. On the contrary, without establishing any sort of comparisons/contrasts, Shiki’s haiku below is a merely factual description of a scene.

The sparrow hops
Along the verandah,
With wet feet

Kerouac’s two-axis, cinematic haiku is beautifully crafted and serves well as a starting point for many thoughts and emotions (for more information about Shiki's haiku and Kerouac’s view of it, see my "To the lighthouse" post, titled "The Model for All Haiku!?").


Reading Japanese haiku through the lens of R. H. Blyth, Jack Kerouac familiarized himself with the form, but in "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.


Below is a relevant excerpt from Jack Kerouac’s Paris Review Interview about his view of haiku composition:

INTERVIEWER (Ted Berrigan)

You have said that haiku is not written spontaneously but is reworked and revised. Is this true of all your poetry? Why must the method for writing poetry differ from that of prose?

KEROUAC

No, first; 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 that's the way the old masters did it, spending months on three little lines and coming up, say, with:

In the abandoned boat,
The hail
Bounces about.

That's Shiki. But as for my regular English verse, I knocked it off fast like the prose, using, get this, the size of the notebook page for the form and length of the poem, just as a musician has to get out, a jazz musician, his statement within a certain number of bars, within one chorus, which spills over into the next, but he has to stop where the chorus page stops. And finally, too, in poetry you can be completely free to say anything you want, you don't have to tell a story, you can use secret puns, that's why I always say, when writing prose, “No time for poetry now, get your plain tale.”

INTERVIEWER

How do you write haiku?

KEROUAC

Haiku? You want to hear haiku? You see you got to compress into three short lines a great big story. First you start with a haiku situation—so you see a leaf, as I told her the other night, falling on the back of a sparrow during a great big October wind storm. A big leaf falls on the back of a little sparrow. How you going to compress that into three lines? Now in Japanese you got to compress it into seventeen syllables. We don't have to do that in American—or English—because we don't have the same syllabic bullshit that your Japanese language has. So you say: “Little sparrow”—you don't have to say little—everybody knows a sparrow is little because they fall so you say”

Sparrow
with big leaf on its back—
windstorm

No good, don't work, I reject it.

A little sparrow
when an autumn leaf suddenly sticks to its back
from the wind.

Hah, that does it. No, it's a little bit too long. See? It's already a little bit too long, Berrigan, you know what I mean?

INTERVIEWER

Seems like there's an extra word or something, like when. How about leaving out when? Say:

A sparrow
an autumn leaf suddenly sticks to its back --
from the wind!

KEROUAC

Hey, that's all right. I think when was the extra word. You got the right idea there, O'Hara! “A sparrow, an autumn leaf suddenly”—we don't have to say suddenly do we?

A sparrow
an autumn leaf sticks to its back --
from the wind!

[Kerouac writes final version into a spiral notebook.]

INTERVIEWER

Suddenly is absolutely the kind of word we don't need there. When you publish that will you give me a footnote saying you asked me a couple of questions?

KEROUAC

[writes] Berrigan noticed. Right?

INTERVIEWER

Do you write poetry very much? Do you write other poetry besides haiku?

KEROUAC

It's hard to write haiku. I write long silly Indian poems. You want to hear my long silly Indian poem?

INTERVIEWER

How has Zen influenced your work?

KEROUAC

What's really influenced my work is the Mahayana Buddhism, the original Buddhism of Gautama ´Sàkyamuni, the Buddha himself, of the India of old . . . Zen is what's left of his Buddhism, or Bodhi, after its passing into China and then into Japan. The part of Zen that's influenced my writing is the Zen contained in the haiku, like I said, the three-line, seventeen-syllable poems written hundreds of years ago by guys like Basho[WITH FLAT LINE ON TOP PLEASE!!], Issa, Shiki, and there've been recent masters. A sentence that's short and sweet with a sudden jump of thought in it 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. But my serious Buddhism, that of ancient India, has influenced that part in my writing that you might call religious, or fervent, or pious, almost as much as Catholicism has. Original Buddhism referred to continual conscious compassion, brotherhood, the dana paramita (meaning the perfection of charity), don't step on the bug, all that, humility, mendicancy, the sweet sorrowful face of the Buddha (who was of Aryan origin by the way, I mean of Persian warrior caste, and not Oriental as pictured) . . . in original Buddhism no young kid coming to a monastery was warned that “Here we bury them alive.” He was simply given soft encouragement to meditate and be kind. The beginning of Zen was when Buddha, however, assembled all the monks together to announce a sermon and choose the first patriarch of the Mahayana church: instead of speaking, he simply held up a flower. Everybody was flabbergasted except Ka´syapiya [FLAT THINGIES OVER FIRST A AND I], who smiled. Kásyapiya [DITTO!!] was appointed the first patriarch. This idea appealed to the Chinese, like the sixth patriarch Hui-Neng who said, “From the beginning nothing ever was,” and wanted to tear up the records of Buddha's sayings as kept in the sutras; sutras are “threads of discourse.” In a way, then, Zen is a gentle but goofy form of heresy, though there must be some real kindly old monks somewhere and we've heard about the nutty ones. I haven't been to Japan. Your Maha Roshi Yoshi is simply a disciple of all this and not the founder of anything new at all, of course. On The Johnny Carson Show he didn't even mention Buddha's name. Maybe his Buddha is Mia.

1 comment:

  1. In "Explanatory Note to Some Western Haikus," Jack Kerouac uses the following haiku by Japanese masters to explore the beauty of the form:

    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.

    -- Basho

    She has put the child to sleep,
    And now washes the clothes;
    The summer moon.

    -- Issa


    The nightingale is singing,
    Its small mouth
    Open.

    -- Buson

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