Book of Haikus
Jack Kerouac
Penguin Books, New York (USA), 2003.
200 pages

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:

Useless, useless!
  —heavy rain driving
Into the sea

(Jack Kerouac: Book of Haikus, p. 8) the plain whimsical, bordering on the ridiculous:
The earth winked
   at me —right
In the john

(Jack Kerouac: Book of Haikus, p. 10)

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):
Peeking at the moon
 in January, Bodhisattva
Takes a secret piss

(Jack Kerouac: Book of Haikus, p. 20)

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"

(Jack Kerouac: Book of Haikus, p. 158)

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:

Haiku's sister genre, senryu, is defined as following the same form as haiku, but where the latter deals with Nature, senryu is specifically about human nature and human relationships and is often humorous. Technically, haiku contains a seasonal reference; senryu does not. Unlike the more demanding haiku, senryu can employ what Kerouac saw as "poetic trickery": simile, metaphor, and personification. That Kerouac often wrote his haiku indenting at the second line, as Blyth did for senryu, indicates his understanding of the distinction.

(Regina Weinreich, introduction to Jack Kerouac: Book of Haikus, p. XXIX)

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

(Jack Kerouac: Book of Haikus, p. 119)

Autumn nite
   —Lucien leans to Jack
on the couch.

(Jack Kerouac: Book of Haikus, p. 130)

Puddles at dusk
  —one drop

(Jack Kerouac: Book of Haikus, p. 135)

Lilacs at dusk
  —one petal

(Jack Kerouac: Book of Haikus, p. 136)

September raindrops
   from my roof—
Soon icicles

(Jack Kerouac: Book of Haikus, p. 139)

Ah, the crickets
  are screaming
at the moon

(Jack Kerouac: Book of Haikus, p. 140)

Bach through an open
 dawn window—
the birds are silent

(Jack Kerouac: Book of Haikus, p. 146)

Men and women
 Yakking beneath
the eternal Void

(Jack Kerouac: Book of Haikus, p. 154)

Two clouds kissing
   backed up to look
At each other

(Jack Kerouac: Book of Haikus, p. 165)

Entertainment Factor: 6/10
Artistic Factor: 6/10