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Zen and the art of Beatnik haiku

by Hiroaki Sato

JACK KEROUAC: Book of Haikus, edited and with an Introduction by Regina Weinreich. Penguin USA, 2003, 240 pp., $13.00 (paper).

Jack Kerouac (1922-69), the King of the Beats, started writing haiku with the belief that this short poetic form was an avatar of Zen, and he pursued both haiku and Zen to his drunken end.

I don’t know if this is common knowledge among those who continue to be enthralled by “On the Road,” published more than 45 years ago, but it is what comes through in the generous collection of more than 700 of his haiku assembled by Regina Heinreich in “Jack Kerouac: Book of Haikus.” (Yes, as Weinreich notes, Kerouac added “s” to the word “haiku” to indicate plural, which is seldom done today.)

Among the earliest Japanese advocates of the notion that haiku embodies Zen was Mastuo Basho’s contemporary Onitsura (1661-1738). Among the most famous in recent years is Nagata Koi (1900-97). Onitsura regarded “Teizen ni shiroku saitaru tsubaki kana (In the garden blooming white are camellias)” as his signature piece. It was a response to a Zen master’s query: “What’s your haikai eye like?”

Among Koi’s haiku is “Dai-banshun doron doro doro doro doron (Great late spring muddy mud mud mud muddy).” I don’t know whether this was a response to anything.

Yet Onitsura and Koi are exceptions. The development of the haiku form has had such a tenuous linkage with Zen that most Japanese haiku practitioners today would probably be surprised to learn that in the United States the association of haiku with Zen has been pervasive. Here is, for example, how the Haiku Society of America defines the form: “An unrhymed Japanese poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived in which nature is linked to human nature.”

How has this come about?

The answer is simple: the influence of the Zen proselytizer Daisetz T. Suzuki and the Zen devotee Reginald Horace Blyth. Suzuki’s many books arguing that Japanese culture is based on Zen started appearing as early as 1927, and Blyth’s books, which simply asserted that “haiku is Zen,” began to appear in 1949. Kerouac was so devoted to their books that he was aggrieved, Weinreich tells us, when one of his Blyth’s four-volume “Haiku” went missing.

As important was Kerouac’s friend and guide in Zen, Gary Snyder, who practiced Zen and translated poems of the Chinese Zen mystic Han Shan, also known as “Cold Mountain.” Kerouac gives an account of how Snyder told him how to express himself in haiku:

“A real haiku’s gotta be as simple as porridge and yet make you see the real thing, like the greatest haiku of them all probably is the one that goes ‘The sparrow hops along the veranda, with wet feet’ (by Masaoka Shiki). You see the wet footprints like a vision in your mind, and yet in those few words you also see the rain that’s been falling that day and almost smell the wet pine needles.”

The haiku in question reads, in the original, Nure ashi de suzume no aruku roka kana — one of the 20,000 pieces that Shiki (1867-1902) wrote in his relatively short life. It is not often anthologized probably because Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959), the dictatorial inheritor of the conservative wing of the Shiki circle, did not include it when he made a selection of 2,300 of his teacher’s haiku. But Snyder was right in praising the haiku. It has the precision and immediacy associated with Zen.

In no time, Kerouac decided to call his haiku “pops,” describing them as: “POP-American (non-Japanese) Haikus, short 3-line poems or ‘pomes’ rhyming or non-rhyming delineating ‘little Samadhis’ if possible, usually of a Buddhist connotation, aiming toward enlightenment.” A tall order, whatever “enlightenment” may mean. Still, he kept reading Buddhist sutras. One of Kerouac’s pieces is endearing because Snyder mentions him in one of his poems:

My pipe unlit
beside the Diamond
Sutra — What to think?

In his poem, “Migration of Birds,” Snyder writes:

Jack Kerouac outside, behind my back
Reads the Diamond Sutra in the sun.

Early on, Kerouac also wrote:

Juju beads on
Zen manual –
My knees are cold

Here, “juju,” also called “juzu” and “zuzu,” are the Buddhist prayer beads.

Among Kerouac’s last pieces is:

Sleeping on my desk
head on the sutras
my cat

Kerouac naturally wrote haiku-esque haiku that readily recall their Japanese counterparts, such as:

Frozen
in the birdbath,
A leaf

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

“Frozen” brings to mind, for example, Yosa Buson’s “Furuike ni zori shizumite mizore kana (A straw sandal sunk in the old pond and the sleet).” As for the image of a dead fly, Murakami Kijo (1865-1938) wrote “Fuyubachi no shinidokoro naku arukikeri (A winter wasp, with no place to die, walks).”

I first came across Kerouac’s haiku in the second of the three editions of “The Haiku Anthology,” which Cor van den Heuvel has compiled. The selection of five Kerouac pieces in that Simon & Schuster book (1986) ends with one that may be called uniquely Kerouakian:

Missing a kick
at the icebox door
It closed anyway

In a somewhat different way, the following two may be equally Kerouakian.

What is Buddhism?
– A crazy little
Bird blub

Haiku, shmaiku, I can’t
understand the intention
Of reality

And, yes, porridge. He wrote one referring to it, which also reminds us of his life with his mother:

Christ on the Cross crying
– his mother missed
Her October porridge

A devoted son, Kerouac lived many of his last years with his mother, Gabrielle.