Painting with Words: Haiku & Senryu

I thought I knew American haiku, the three-lined poem(s): five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables. But after reading, Book of Haikus by Jack Kerouac, I found an angle on it I didn't know I was missing.

In the early 1950s, Gary Snyder traveled to Japan and brought back Zen Buddhism and haiku to "West Coast  poets" that included Kerouac. R.H. Blyth's first English translations of haiku in a book dating from 1949 were a source of conversation and inspiration for all. In Japanese, haiku came in word clusters or sounds of 5-7-5, but the form could not be preserved when translated into English. Attracted to the essence of the poems and trying to improve on them, Kerouac kept a series of small notepads in his pocket from 1956 to 1966 in order to write his own kind of haiku wherever he went. He thought that they would look best printed three or four to a page with an abstract brush painting to accompany them, and although this small-format book has four haiku to a page and no brushwork, it does contain facsimiles notebook pages that show his process.

Traditional haiku often refers to the season, not necessarily by name, but by what is blooming, or what is found in nature: frogs, strawberries, rain, leaves. It leaves a big space for the reader to fill between what is first presented and the last word(s). If you read too fast, it might seem random or nonsensical. Take it out under a tree and think about it again.

Here are a few traditional haiku from the book edited and with verse translations by Robert Hass, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa. Japanese versions have indents, so the English mimics its form.

    The oak tree:

not interested
    in cherry blossoms.
(Basho, p. 17)

     They end their flight

one by one—
     crows at dusk
(Buson, p. 89)

     One human being,
one fly,
     in a large room.
 (Issa, p. 167)

Kerouac tried to emulate those three master poets. A few of Kerouac's that caught my eye (and he often writes about his cats):

The white cat
      is green in the tree shadow
Like Gaugin's horse
(p. 116)

Full moon in the trees
     —across the street,
the jail
(p. 113)

The summer chair
     rocking by itself
In the blizzard
(p. 36)
A story can move forward when Kerouac writes and revises one haiku as shown on pages 134-135:

Walking down the road with a dog
—a crushed leaf

Walking with the dog on the road
—a crooked leaf

Walking down the road
with dog—
a crushed snake

Walking down the road/a crushed snake.
Red trees—

Red trees–
the dog tears at
an old itch.

In addition to working with nature like traditional Japanese haiku, Kerouac also wrote haiku that referred to people and that was philosophical, what he called "pops," or American haiku. Haiku that refers to humans are usually called senryu. It may be hard to tell haiku and senryu apart, particularly when people are part of natureKerouac also declared that American haiku should have no more than three words per line (although if you start counting up his lines you see he used one to five words). But we are all free to make up our own forms, aren't we?

Examples of Kerouac's pops:

Concatenation!—the bicycle
     pulls the wagon
Because the rope is tied
(p. 73)

Bird was gone
     and distance grew
immensely white
(p. 94)

The link between the bicycle and the wagon could not happen without a person creating it: tying the rope. Distance, as a concept, does not exist without someone being there to observe it: the link between the bird and the absence of the bird. The two pops are both active picture-makers. 

An unlikely senryu (although it is called a haiku in the book) is found in Chapter 11 of Ian Fleming's 1964 James Bond novel, You Only Live Twice: 

You only live twice:
Once when you are born
And once when you look death in the face 

Although it still paints a picture as it is, what might be added to the last line is "and live." The ending refers to turning one's life around, rebounding from death or another's death. The novel was the last book Fleming completed before his own death, several months after it was published. In the novel "Bond's" poem is referred to as a "failed" haiku. The picture is a bit blurry.

You can find some nice haiku and senryu online in the Haiku Society of America's journal Frogpond.

A big story is presented in these tiny poems. An action. A desire. A longing. A philosophy.


iNd!@nA said…
Kerouac and haiku? i had no idea
am grateful for enlightenment