Online Edition: Winter 2003/2004

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Book of Haikus

Jack Kerouac

edited by Regina Weinreich

Penguin Poets ($13)

by Keith Abbott

If we talk about nothing, doesn't the talk become something? And don't we see, or think we see, the nothing through our something? What this process can achieve is a sense of space. There's this much room between the nothing we wish to address in something, this sentence, words, art, prayer. The space remains.

So, as in meditation, the eyes focus on the middle distance.

But, what if the perceiver, the artist let's say, has an acute consciousness of already existing in that middle space? Of being neither that nothing nor that something?

Jack Kerouac was such an artist, and this is why he wrote the largest body of the best haiku in the English language.

Basho put it this way: "the basis of art is change in the universe." The English is slightly misleading: there are no articles in the Japanese, no restriction on whose universe or what universe. Yours, mine, theirs. No matter.

All day long wearing
a hat that wasn't
on my head

This haiku is funny. Absentmindedness is shunyata, or empty space. A cosmic spy, it exists within our imaginary daily selves. And that's Basho's one change in this poem, so it meets his classical criteria.

Kerouac had an acute, at times almost vertiginous sense of this internal void as self. But because he was in-between, not really invested in either that nothing or that something, it was often funny to him.

Kerouac's friend, the Zen priest and poet Philip Whalen, disliked haikus, saying "Reading them is like being pecked to death." That's the genre's major failing in English. Yet Kerouac was seldom precious, despite his occasional and sometimes entertaining sentimentality, because he saw some very big pictures:

The windmills of
Oklahoma look
In every direction.

This is a superb Buddhist haiku, because the nature of a particular place is captured in it. Oklahoma has very capricious winds. The need to capture that energy, to live, to survive, depends upon recognition of that randomness. This is not a pathetic fallacy, as Kerouac's "look" doesn't really posit a person as windmill; rather, it implies the human placement of the windmill, the need to use this element of wind, and get energy any way possible. A secret desperation lurks in this haiku.

The nature of emptiness is also here: all directions are empty, and all directions are equally capable of filling with wind. As the Sutra says, "Emptiness is form, form emptiness."But humans need to use that emptiness, capture its energy for a moment, and bring up water to drink in a dry windy land.

Allen Ginsberg understood this aspect of Kerouac's art, saying "emptiness, with all its transcendental wisdom including panoramic awareness, oceanic city vastness, a humorous appreciation of minute details of the big dream, especially 'character in the bleak inhuman aloneness' is most clearly consistently set forth in the body of Kerouac's prose, poetry, and essays and so forth."

Zen consciousness is as hard and clear as a diamond, and Kerouac's spirit reflects yet embodies, as Ginsberg points out, the small with the cosmic, the human with the void. Kerouac's remarkable achievement is best found in his own selection at the start of this book, especially those written during the time when he was a serious worker in Buddhist canonical texts, in some cases translating from French sutra transcriptions. But these are quintessentially American haiku, and for that our national literature is much the better.

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

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Winter 2003/2004 Table of Contents