Book of Haikus

by Jack Kerouac

edited and with introduction by Regina Weinreich

Its great to read haiku books and see the poems of other poets, but what I love even more is hearing about the poetic life of other haiku poets. For this reason, the twenty-nine page introduction by Regina Weinreich was one of my favorite parts of this book. For those of us who came late to haiku, its difficult to imagine the situation in the 1950s and 1960s when Blyth almost single-handedly introduced the English-speaking world to haiku. Beat poets like Kerouac, Ginsberg, Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder, were at the forefront of deciding what to do with Blyth's interpretation. Where should the lines be drawn?

Kerouac writes:

"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 . . ."
After introducing us to Kerouac's way of thinking about haiku, Weinrich then tells us about his method of composition. Kerouac carried tiny bound notebooks in his shirt pocket where he could readily put to paper any haiku he found in his vicinity as he went about life.

Weinrich's own knowledge of haiku was supplemented, she tells us in the Acknowledgements, by advice from Cor van den Heuvel (whose interest in haiku began after reading The Darma Bums), Lee Gurga, and Alan Pizzarelli. She admits to ignoring their advice in several instances and including in the collection haiku that her advisers considered "clinkers" in order to show a more well-rounded picture of Kerouac's haiku practice.

I haven't counted the haiku, but I would estimate there are more than 700 poems included in the collection. There can be no mistake that Kerouac didn't agree with the 17 syllable counting rule! His poems show great variety in line-length, and he isn't hesitant to use two lines if it seems right. Some of my favorites in the collection include one of the shortest, and also one of the longer:

    in the birdbath
A leaf

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

Many of the poems express his varying levels of experimenting with Buddhism, such as:

My pipe unlit
  beside the Diamond
Sutra - what to think?

Shall I break God's commandment?
  Little fly
Rubbing its back legs

At a more serious moment in 1956, he spent sixty-three days on Desolation Peak, meditating, reading, and thinking about Buddhism. In his collected haiku were found 72 typed and numbered haiku from that experience, included in one chapter of this collection. Among them, his fascination with Buddhism was evident, but not exclusive:

late afternoon--
the mop is drying
on the rock

I called--Dipankara
  instructed me
By saying nothing

Perhaps the reader will be disappointed that every poem is not a brilliant haiku. But I enjoyed this book for being able to experience the creative moment of peeking into another poet's notebooks. At times this is especially apparent, as we see poems repeated with variations, such as:

Walking down the road with dog
---a crushed leaf
Walking down the road
with dog---
a crushed snake

Is this a tremendous book of haiku? No. But it has a significant place in the history of the development of English language haiku, and it paints a clear picture of Jack Kerouac's involvement in that movement, and his personal commitment to haiku.

Book of Haikus by Jack Kerouac. Edited by Regina Weinreich. Penguin USA, 2003. ISBN: 014200264X. 240 pages, 0.76 x 6.14 x 4.90 inches. This book may be ordered from Amazon.com

May 21, 2003

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