Friday, December 15, 2006

Meditations on the Western Haiku

Jack Kerouac wrote San Francisco Blues, his first published collection of poetry, in 1954. In those seventy-nine choruses, Kerouac develops what he calls his "blues poetry form"; Kerouac's title for the form is misleading--one only need compare Kerouac's blues poetry with Langston Hughes' own blues-inspired poems--for Kerouac's poems were really in the spirit of jazz, improvisations on a theme, the only limit (a limit that would famously be used in the 1951 composition of the On the Road scroll manuscript) being the size of the "small page of the breastpocket notebook in which [the SFB choruses] are written, like the form of a set number of bars in a jazz blues chorus" (PJK 453).

Readers who know Kerouac's poetry are perhaps more familiar with Kerouac's Western Haiku poems--Kerouac's love of haiku are immortalized through Ray Smith and Japhy Ryder's Matterhorn climb in 1958's Dharma Bums, as well as through the recent publication of new collections of Kerouac's verse, such as Book of Haiku (2003).

In preparation for Dr. Audrey Sprenger's cross-country Kerouac course on a train, I have begun thinking about Kerouac's poetry for the lectures I have been asked to deliver while on board. The students will be using On the Road and The Portable Jack Kerouac as their primary texts, so I have been studying the poems in the PJK. As an ardent Kerouac reader, I have only recently considered Kerouac a skilled poet (although I have always considered him a prose-poet, as Kerouac himself did, defining prose as "an endless one-line poem"), and upon consideration of the poems in the PJK's, I have come to understand why--poor selection (PJK 451).

Until the publication of Book of Haiku, which provides a reader with the full breadth of Kerouac's haiku output, including the "clinker," readers relied heavily upon editors to cull handfuls of poems from the hundreds of possible pieces. In the selection in The Portable Jack Kerouac, few of the selected haiku live up to Kerouac's more restrictive definition of a Western Haiku, which states that "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" (PJK 470)1.

For example, consider the haiku:

Nodding against
the wall, the flowers

In these three lines, Kerouac commits two instances of the act of poetic trickery known as personification--here, the flowers are capable both of nodding and of sneezing. Throughout his work, Kerouac uses "nod" in multiple ways--nodding affirmation, nodding off as in sleep, or being on the nod in junk-related parlance--so here the reader is lead to several possible interpretations, none which are indicated by the actual attitude of the flowers Kerouac perceives, nor is the action of sneezing. Both of these instances of personification prescribe a limited range of readings from which the reader may choose. Here, Kerouac (intentionally or unintentionally, it does not matter) imposes his will on the reader (to say nothing of the flowers, the things themselves).

One need look no further than "nodding" and "sneezing" to see Kerouac violate his own restrictive precepts2. Here, the dominant critical position would be to call Kerouac a poetic charlatan (although he rarely was afforded such a gentle moniker), as I have done in the past. But if one were to look at the examples Kerouac uses to preface his own haiku, and if one continues to cull Kerouac's most exemplary haikus from the collection at large, one would see a learned and capable writer of the western haiku, a poet who can capture both the spirit of the eastern haiku in the loose form Kerouac claims for western practitioners of the verseform3.

Such a selection, however, runs counter to Kerouac's belief in his own work and in contemporary poetry and prose, so the editor is left with a dilemma (if dilemma is not too strong a word to use when writing about the selection of poetry). In The Portable Jack Kerouac, Charters practices ethical scholarship by including so many obvious "clinkers" in the selection of haiku, a practice that in many ways buttresses the negative reputation Kerouac's work still engenders.

The dilemma of the contemporary Kerouac scholar rests in her or his willingness to continue this practice of comprehensive publication4. One wonders at the ramifications of honoring the dying wishes of Emily Dickinson (few would argue that the best outcome would be to have burned her papers), yet Kerouac's devotees slavishly promote the chaff alongside the wheat. I think it is time that so-called critics and intellectuals shift focus--instead of honoring Kerouac, we should be honoring literature and his contribution to it. That contribution is ample and it is profound--one hardly imagines the state of American literature had Kerouac not urged William S. Burroughs to write or helped him type and arrange Naked Lunch, had Allen Ginsberg not borrowed some key phrases from Kerouac for "Howl," had Kerouac himself not worked slavishly at his craft over decades, opening a multitude of doors that American literature is still discovering and tentatively stepping through5.

1 While these rules might not seem particularly "strict," one might compare it to his more nebulous proposition "that the 'Western Haiku' simply say a lot in three short lines in any Western language" (PJK 469).

2 Although in a sympathetic moment one might think of George Orwell's edict at the conclusion of "Politics and the English Language," when he implores writers to break rules if it will eliminate the "barbarous" (Citation forthcoming; I'm on vacation and away from my Orwell).

3 It is perhaps not coincidental that the haikus that come closest to Kerouac's own vision of the western form also adhere to the fundamental precepts of the eastern form--minimal language, unadorned ("objective," if such were possible in writing) description, a reference to the natural world, a reference to the seasons. For example:

This July evening
a large frog
On my door sill.

4 Perhaps lessons might be learned from studying this practice with respect to popular music--we would do well to ask what is ultimately gained by the release of boxed-sets of demos (as in the case of Nirvana) or re-mixed "mash ups" of iconic tracks (as in the case of the Beatles' Love). As counterpoint, however, one might look to Daniel Johnston for an example of the benefits of releasing otherwise "unrefined" tracks to the public (one imagines that Kerouac might enjoy Johnston's work, if not the high-brow renditions of his work on Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered).

5 One thinks of the "revolutionary" David Eggers, but when one looks closely, one sees the transcriptions from Visions of Cody in Eggers' fictional Real-World tape in A Heartbeaking Work of Staggering Genius (let alone the plot and development of And You Shall Know Our Velocitya as a tracing of On the Road via airplanes).

aOr whatever title the novel currently enjoys.

Kerouac, Jack. The Portable Jack Kerouac. Ann Charters, ed. New York, Penguin: 1995.

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