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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