The Taste of Rain – American Haiku by Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac,  born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac, (1922 –1969) was an American novelist and poet. Born March 12, 1922, in Lowell, Massachusetts, he was the son of Leo Kerouac, a printer, and Gabrielle Levesque, a factory worker. He did not speak English until he was five years old, using instead a combination of French and English used by the many French-Canadians who settled in New England.  At the age of eleven he began writing novels and made-up accounts of horse races, football games, and baseball games. He received a football scholarship to Columbia University in New York City and arrived there in 1940 where he began to pursue an interest in literature and studied, in particular,  the style of writer Thomas Wolfe (1900–1938). In 1941 Kerouac had an argument with Columbia’s football coach and left school.

Kerouac worked briefly at a gas station and as a sports reporter for a newspaper in Lowell. In 1943 he joined the Navy, but he was honorably discharged after six months. He spent the war years working as a merchant seaman and hanging around Columbia with such writers as  William Burroughs (1914–1997) and Allen Ginsburg (1926–1997). He wrote two novels during this time, The Sea Is My Brother and And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks, with Burroughs.

In 1947 Neal Cassady visited New York and asked Kerouac to give him writing lessons. When Cassady returned to Denver, Colorado, Kerouac followed. After a brief time in Denver, Kerouac wandered into California, beginning a four-year period of travel throughout the West. When not on the road, he was in New York working on his novel The Town and The City, (1950).  Kerouac then began to experiment with a more natural writing style. In April, 1951, Kerouac threaded a huge roll of paper into his typewriter and wrote the single 175,000-word paragraph that became On The Road. The more than 100-foot scroll was written in three weeks but was not published for seven years. Sal and Neal, the main characters, scoff at established values and live by a romantic code born out off the West. They are described as “performing our one noble function of the time, move.” In between writing On The Road and its publication, Kerouac took many road trips, became depressed and addicted to drugs and alcohol, and did his most ambitious writing.  When On The Road was published in 1957, Kerouac became instantly famous, a spokesman for the “Beat Generation”, young people in the 1950s and 1960s who scorned middle-class values. His classic book became the bible of the countercultural generation.  Thematically, his work covers topics such as Catholic spirituality, promiscuity, Buddhism, drugs, poverty, and travel. He became an underground celebrity and, with other beats, a progenitor of the hippie movement, although he remained antagonistic toward some of its politically radical elements.

He frequently appeared drunk, and interviews with him usually turned into arguments. In 1958 he wrote The Dharma Bums, a follow-up to On The Road. He then stopped writing for four years. By 1960 he was an alcoholic and had suffered a nervous breakdown. On October 21st, 1969, at the age of 47, while watching the Galloping Gourmet on television, with a pad in his lap and pen in his hand, Jack Kerouac began to hemorrhage and died hours later, a classic alcoholic’s death. He became a mythic figure, his writings directly influencing artists such as the Doors, Lenny Bruce and Bob Dylan.  Since his death, his literary reputation has grown, and several previously unseen works have been published. All of his books are in print today, including his poetry.
He is buried with the rest of his family near Lowell. His grave has been a site of pilgrimage for decades. Mourners leave cigarettes and joints, as well as dollar shots with a sip inside, should he wake up thirsty. Poets impale poems on the pens that wrote them, which are planted in the dirt like a stockade fence to protect the flat, original plaque. The grave received a new headstone in 2014, a waist-high granite slab inscribed with his signature, and his line, “The Road is Life”. The original flat headstone (see image above) remains just in front of the new one, six stones up and three stones deep.

 

 

AMERICAN HAIKU

The so-called “Beat Poets” were attracted to Oriental modes of perception and of poetry. The one poet I find most interesting in this group is Gary Snyder, but he was not attached to the haiku form. Allen Ginsberg created many haiku, most of them risible. He did manage to create his own American version of the haiku – a monostich form he called American Sentences. If haiku involved seventeen syllables down the page, he reasoned, American Sentences would be seventeen syllables across the page. It was his attempt, successful at times, to “Americanize” a Japanese form. Like (rough) English approximations of the haiku, American Sentences work closely with concision of line and sharpness of detail.  Unlike its literary predecessor, however, it is compressed into a single line of poetry and often included a reference to a month and year (or alternatively, a location) rather than a season. Some of his more interesting examples are posted on the monostich page of this blog.

Jack Kerouac also attempted to “Americanise” the haiku form. He became acquainted with Gary Snyder in California, and discussed Buddhism and poetry with him. He was interested in Buddhism, and experimented with haiku which he called ‘pops,‘ a genre he defined as ‘‘short 3-line pomes.”  His haiku remain fundamentally American –

The windmills
of Oklahoma look
in every direction.

He offered his own definition of the American Haiku: The American Haiku is not exactly the Japanese Haiku. The Japanese Haiku is strictly disciplined to seventeen syllables but since the language structure is different I don’t think American Haikus (short three-line poems intended to be completely packed with Void of Whole) should worry about syllables because American speech is something again…bursting to pop…. 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 and yet be as airy and graceful as a Vivaldi Pastorella.  A large selection of his haiku is available on the Terebess Asia Online site. Cor van den Heuval, editor of The Haiku Anthology: Haiku and Senryu in English has said of Kerouac and the haiku that he probably came closer than any of the Beat poets to its essence. But it remained a footnote to his work. I tend to agree. I have included a baker’s dozen of these brief poems of which more than half are concerned with rain, hence the title of this post.

 

American Haiku by Jack Kerouac

The taste
of rain
– Why kneel?

***

The bottom of my shoes
are clean
from walking in the rain.

***

Snap your finger
stop the world –
rain falls harder.

***

After the shower
among the drenched roses
the bird thrashing in the bath.

***

Early morning gentle rain,
two big bumblebees
Humming at their work

***

Birds singing
in the dark
—Rainy dawn.

***

The rain has filled
the birdbath
Again, almost

***

Useless, useless,
the heavy rain
Driving into the sea.

***

The little worm
lowers itself from the roof
By a self shat thread

***

Nightfall,
boy smashing dandelions
with a stick.

***

frozen
in the birdbath
A leaf

***

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

***

Missing a kick
at the icebox door
It closed anyway.

 

LINKS

A large selection of Kerouac haiku.

The Terebess Asia Online (TAO) page on the haiku of Jack Kerouac.

Review of Book of Haiku by Jack Kerouac

New York Times appreciation of Jack Kerouac’s haiku.

27 poems by Jack Kerouac.

More poems on the All Poetry site.

A Jack Kerouac website.

Paris Review interview – with Ted Berrigan & others, June 1967.

 

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Flushed Words – Brief Poems by Sir John Harington

Sir John Harington  (1560 – 1612) of Kelston was an English courtier, author and translator popularly known as the inventor of the flush toilet. Harington’s father enriched the family by marrying an illegitimate daughter of King Henry VIII; his second wife, and John’s mother, was a gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber of Queen Elizabeth I, who stood as godmother for John. The young man was educated at Eton, Cambridge, and Lincoln’s Inn, London. He became a prominent member of Queen Elizabeth I’s court, and was known as her “saucy Godson”. But because of his poetry and other writings, he fell in and out of favour with the Queen. For translating and circulating among the ladies a wanton tale from the 16th-century Italian poet Ariosto, he was banished from court until he should translate the whole of Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso. As it is 38,736 lines long, one of the longest poems in European literature, Queen Elizabeth thought she was rid of him. Much to everyone’s surprise, he returned in 1591 with the entire epic translated into English. He was praised, first for completing the task, and then for the quality of his translation which is still read and still popular today. As he complied with the queen’s command, he was back in good standing in the royal court.

Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603. During what would prove to be the her last Christmas, he tried to lighten her increasingly frequent moods of melancholy by reading her some of his comic verses. The Queen thanked him for his efforts but said sadly: “When thou dost feel creeping time at thy gate, these fooleries shall please thee less – I am past relish for such matters.”  She was succeeded by James VI of Scotland who claimed the English throne as James I of England. Harington was not as successful in the court of her successor. His cousin, Sir Griffin Markham, had become involved in 1603 in two plots to kidnap or depose James I. This led to his being arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death. His execution was waived in return for a massive fine of £4000 and exile. Markham left for exile in Europe and his cousin, Sir John Harington was stuck with paying his fine. He could not pay the fine without selling his own property, which he did not want to do. He escaped custody in October of 1603, but James I had already created him a Knight of the Bath in recognition of his loyalty to the English throne, and also transferred all of cousin Markham’s property to him, so Harington once again managed to stay out of trouble. He  later became the tutor to Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, the older son of King James and Anne of Denmark.

Sir John Harington  fell ill in May 1612 and died on 20 November 1612, at the age of 52, soon after the death of his pupil Henry Frederick who died of typhoid fever at the age of 18.  He was buried in Kelston.

 

FLUSHED TURDS

Sir John Harington has become historically associated with the invention of Britain’s first flushing toilet. It involved flushing with water from a cistern and utilised a stopper that prevented smells from rising from the storage below. He called it the Ajax (i.e., a “jakes“,  being an old slang word for toilet; the American slang term “john” is thought by some to be a reference to its inventor). He installed one at his manor in Kelston. In 1596, Harington wrote a book called A New Discourse upon a Stale Subject: The Metamorphosis of Ajax about his invention.He published it under the pseudonym of Misacmos (translated as hater of filthiness). This was the pseudonym he also used for his epigrams. (See FLUSHED WORDS below). The book made political allusions to the Earl of Leicester that angered the Queen. It was a coded attack on the stercus or excrement that was poisoning society with torture and state-sponsored “libels” against his relatives Thomas Markham and Ralph Sheldon. According to his biographer, D. H. Craig, “readers were to be repelled initially by all the talk of urine and ordure but then reminded that vice (however painted and perfumed) was a far more serious offense against moral sensibilities.” Filled with characters drawn from family and friends along with veiled representations of his enemies, the work also makes common use of biblical characters and classical writers. Many considered the whole subject a breach of common decency, and Harington had difficulty finding a printer. Eventually, Richard Field agreed to serve as the publisher, and it was released in 1596. After publication, Harington was banished from the court. The Queen’s mixed feelings for him may have been the only thing that saved him from being tried at Star Chamber. The work itself enjoyed considerable popularity on its publication.

Eventually Queen Elizabeth forgave him, and visited his house at Kelston in 1592. Harrington proudly showed off his new invention, and the Queen herself tried it out. She was so impressed it seems, that she ordered one for herself,  installing Harington’s “water closet” in Richmond Palace, making it the first indoor plumbing of its type. Her enthusiasm did not last. She may not have been impressed by Harington’s invention, but then, like other rich people, she did not have to empty her own close-stool.

Before his invention, the public was used to the chamber pot. These were usually emptied from an upstairs window into the street below, and in
France, the cry ‘gardez-l’eau‘ gave warning to the people below to take evasive action. This phrase may have been the origin of the English nickname for the toilet, the ‘loo’. Wealthy households might have a close-stool, which had a padded seat with a metal or porcelain container beneath it. But it still had to be emptied. Harington’s  water-closet had a pan with an opening at the bottom, sealed with a leather -faced valve. A system of handles, levers and weights poured in water from a cistern, and opened the valve. There was a picture of it in his book (see the image on the right) and he proclaimed that it ‘would make unsavoury Places sweet, noisome Places wholesome and filthy Places cleanly’. His flush toilet did not catch on and serious improvement of toilets in England had to wait for the 18th century and the coming of the S-bend.

 

 

FLUSHED WORDS

Sir John Harington’s family were old friends of Queen Elizabeth and the queen was Harington’s godmother. She seems to have been fond of him, but he was often in trouble for circulating lewd verses and translations among the court ladies. His attempt at a translation of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso caused his banishment from Queen Elizabeth’s court for some years. Angered by its racy content, the Queen told Harington that he was to leave and not return until he had translated the entire poem. She chose this punishment rather than actually banishing him, but she considered the task so difficult that it was assumed Harington would not bother to comply. He, however, chose to follow through with the request and completed the translation in 1591. That translation received great praise, and is still read by English speakers today. The more than 30,000 lines of Orlando Furioso took at least five years to compose and set to print.

It took him over ten years to compose and circulate more than four hundred epigrams, organised into four books, a brief selection of which I have included below. The influence of Martial is evident. Not only has he translated the Latin poet (see the Brief Poems post on Martial) but some of the poems below are virtual copies of Martial originals. During his lifetime, the Epigrams, written under his pseudonym, ‘Misacmos’, meaning ‘a hater of filthiness’, had the widest manuscript circulation among his contemporaries. Copies of individual epigrams or groups of them, evidently circulated within the Court, within the Inns of Court, and elsewhere, and they were frequently recopied in 17th-century miscellanies. Harington made numerous revisions when preparing fair copies of large numbers of epigrams from his ‘scatterd papers’, and it was revised versions that were posthumously published in 1615 and 1618. Some eighty or more epigrams found in his own manuscript collections were not published until the twentieth century. I have taken some limited liberties with the text and modernised the spelling.

 

Brief Poems by Sir John Harington

Against writers that carp at other men’s books 

The readers, and the hearers like my books,
But yet some writers cannot them digest.
But what care I? For when I make a feast,
I would my guests should praise it, not the cooks.

***

Of writing with a double meaning 

A certain man was to a judge complaining,
How one had written with a double meaning.
Fool, said the judge, no man deserveth trouble,
For double meaning, so he deal not double.

***

The author, of his own fortune 

Take fortune as it falls, as one adviseth:
Yet Heywood bids me take it as it riseth:
And while I think to do as both do teach,
It falls and riseth quite beside my reach.

***

Misacmos against his book

The writer and the matter well might meet,
Were he as eloquent, as it is sweet.

***

To Faustus 

Faustus finds fault, my epigrams are short,
Because to read them, he doth make some sport:
I thank thee, Faustus, though thou judgest wrong,
Ere long I’ll make thee swear they be too long.

***

Of mis-conceiving

Ladies you blame my verses of scurrility,
While with the double sense you were deceived.
Now you confess them free from incivility,
Take heed henceforth you be not misconceived.

***

Of plain dealing

My writings oft displease you: what’s the matter?
You love not to hear truth, nor I to flatter.

***

Against Itis a poet

Itis with leaden sword doth wound my Muse,
Itis whose Muse in uncouth terms doth swagger,
What should I wish Itis for this abuse,
But to his leaden sword, a wooden dagger.

***

Of reversing an error 

I did you wrong, at least you did suppose,
For taxing certain faults of yours in prose:
But now I have the same in rhyme rehearsed,
My error, nay your error is reversed.

***

To an ill reader

The verses, Sextus, thou dost read, are mine;
But with bad reading thou wilt make them thine.

 

In lectorem inuidum 

Who reads our verse, with visage sour and grim,
I wish him envy me, none envy him.

****

Of treason 

Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason?
For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.

***

A rule to play

Lay down your stake at play, lay down your passion:
A greedy gamester still hath some mis-hap.
To chafe at luck proceeds of foolish fashion.
No man throws still the dice in fortune’s lap.

***

Of a fair shrew 

Faire, rich, and young? How rare is her perfection,
Were it not mingled with one foul infection?
I mean, so proud a heart, so cursed a tongue,
As makes her seem, nor faire, nor rich, nor young.

***

Of Cinna 

Five years hath Cinna studied Genesis,
And knows not yet what in Principio is ;
And grieved that he is gravelled thus, he skips,
O’er all the Bible, to th’ Apocalypse.

***

Of Friendship 

New friends are no friends; how can that be true?
The oldest friends that are, were sometimes new.

***

Of Fortune

Fortune, men say, doth give too much to many:
But yet she never gave enough to any.

***

In Philautum

Your verses please your reader oft, you vaunt it:
If you your self do read them oft, I grant it.

***

To an old bachelor 

You praise all women: well, let you alone,
Who speaks so well of all, think well of none.

***

Of Sextus’ s wit 

To have good wit is Sextus thought by many;
But sure he hides it all; he shows not any.

***

Of Lynus

Poor Lynus ‘plains that I of late forget him,
And says he’ll be my guest if I will let him.
But I so liked him last time I met him
That he be sure do all I can to let him.

 

LINKS

Full text of Letters and Epigrams of Sir John Harington, together with Prayse of Private Life.

An account of Sir John Harington and his invention on the Toilet Guru site.

The Wikipedia page on Sir John Harington.

Biographical details on the NNDB site.

Further biographical details by Gerard Kilroy.

Even further biographical details on the Your Dictionary site.