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Book of Haikus
Penguin Books, New York (USA), 2003.
As it tends to be the case with Jack Kerouac, the book is wildly irregular. In this case, however, it is partly to blame on the editor, Regina Weinreich, who pretty much gathered all of Kerouac's haikus on this volume in spite of the warnings by some peers (she admits that much in the introduction) that the quality of the poems from his manuscripts was quite disparate. Thus, we go from the almost sublime (and definitely closest to the ultimate intention of this form of poetry) of the following poem:
...to the plain whimsical, bordering on the ridiculous:Useless, useless! —heavy rain driving Into the sea
And, of course, Kerouac being Kerouac, and this being a book on haikus, there had to be a half-ass poem supposedly inspired by Buddhism (although, as it tends to happen with plenty of other "buddhist" things written by members of the Beat Generation, one always gets the feeling that it is never nothing more than a very superficial approach to the spiritual teachings of that tradition):The earth winked at me —right In the john
Peeking at the moon in January, Bodhisattva Takes a secret piss
In spite of it all, the book is quite good. It does offer a nice selection of poems that, overall, fit into the general description of what a haiku is, although in an obviously Westernized form. And this is perhaps one of Kerouac's best achievements (i.e., contributing, with other members of his generation, to the transmission of this form of poetry to a completely different cultural background, transplanting it and modernizing it).
Towards the end, there is even an homage of sorts to Basho:
"The old pond, yes! —the water jumped into By a frog"
The volume begins with a good introduction by the editor, who tells us about the importance of the haiku in Kerouac's work, where does it fit, and also teaches us the basics about this genre. Among other things, we learn the differences between haiku and senryu:
In any case, many of the poems included in this volume are not haikus in the traditional sense of the term. Kerouac himself referred to them as pops, indicating his intention to write something different and new, although definitely inspired by the traditional haiku form. It seems clear that Kerouac was experimenting when writing most of these. The flash-like nature of the haiku, the sudden "englightenment" (in the sense of a sudden communion with the impermanence of things), the short, edgy and revealing thoughts are all there, but the form is quite modern, irreverent even. As long as one does not have an almost dogmatic admiration for the tradition, Kerouac's haikus are fine. Some of them are truly inspiring, while others are obviously fickle and capricious. Like I said, the overall quality is quite inconsistent.
On the sidewalk A dead baby bird For the ants
Autumn nite —Lucien leans to Jack on the couch.
Puddles at dusk —one drop fell
Lilacs at dusk —one petal fell
September raindrops from my roof— Soon icicles
Ah, the crickets are screaming at the moon
Bach through an open dawn window— the birds are silent
Men and women Yakking beneath the eternal Void
Two clouds kissing backed up to look At each other
Entertainment Factor: 6/10