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?
"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
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?
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:
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:
the mop is drying
on the rock
By saying nothing
Walking down the road with dog
---a crushed leaf
Walking down the road
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
Other Kerouac books at Amazon: