Jack Kerouac: The poems
With the wider literary world recognising the influence of Beat Generation writers such as Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs, now is an appropriate time to assess the poetry of Jack Kerouac. This article pays particular attention to Keroac's haiku (though Kerouac insisted on using the unusual plural, haikus) and the collection ‘Book of Sketches’.
Kerouac’s influence on ‘Western’ haiku is unquestionable. The shift away from the traditional Japanese mode of haiku, which Kerouac summed up as ‘invented and developed over hundreds of years in Japan to be a complete poem in seventeen syllables and to pack in a whole vision of life in three short lines;’ to the notion of a ‘Western’ or American version of the form, is in part down to Kerouac.
Also defining the traditional haiku, Martin Lucas said: ‘We might define haiku, roughly but reasonably, as ‘A short poem in three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables respectively, usually including a season-word and a cutting-word.’ The difficulty with working with a traditionally syllabic form written in a language others than English is clear. Certain languages do not lend themselves to translating well into English with restrictive syllabic constraints. Welsh is one such language.
Kerouac worked on his haikus from 1956 through to 1966. Writing in pocket sized spiral notebooks, he often included his haikus in letters to friends. The haikus also appeared in Kerouac novels and other writings. A selection of five hundred from an archive of over a thousand were eventually gathered and edited by Kerouac scholar Regina Weinreich and published as Book of Haikus in 2003. Kerouac was keen to get his haikus published during his lifetime, approaching Lawrence Ferlinghetti of San Franciscan publishers City Lights publishers in 1961, with a view to publishing a selection of the poems.
Though Kerouac was fully aware of the haiku tradition; he was a keen reader of the seminal four volumes of haiku translated by R.H. Blythe. If we look at perhaps one of the most famous haiku ever published, Basho’s ‘Old Pond’ alongside a version by Kerouac, and another version by concrete poet Dom Sylvester Houedard, we can see Kerouac's playfulness:
The old pond;
A frog jumps in –
The sound of the water
(Basho, translated by R.H. Blythe)
The old pond,
The water jumped into
By a frog
(Jack Kerouac, 1959)
(Dom Sylvester Houedard, 1965)
In true Beat Generation style, Kerouac undertook a road trip with fellow poets Lew Welch and Albert Saijo.To ease their journey from San Francisco to New York they wrote haiku, often on the similar themes. The poems, alongside letters and various other materials, were published as Trip Trap Haiku On the Road, edited by Donald Allen. Looking again at the trio's haiku fruits we see further example of Kerouac’s playfulness:
Grain elevators on
Saturday lonely as
Lonely grain elevators
Grain elevators on
Saturday waiting for
The farmers to come home
Kerouac’s poetry output continued throughout his life, being published as snippets in novels and in texts such as Some of the Dharma.
A further collection worth considering is Kerouac’s Book of Sketches. These often long poems, were written in the spiral topped notebooks Kerouac favoured, and are contemplative, hinting at spontaneous poetics.
In 1951, Kerouac was urged by his friend Ed White to experiment with the idea of ‘Sketching’. Substituting the paintbrush for a pen, the idea was to ‘sketch with words’. Kerouac described this precisely: “A sketch is a prosec description of a scene before the eyes. Ideally, for a BOOK OF SKETCHES, one small page (of notebook size) about 100 words, so as not to ramble too much, and give an arbitrary form.” This move away from form coincides with the later playfulness of the haiku that Kerouac occupied himself with writing from 1956 onwards. Kerouac’s own notes about the process of Book of Sketches reprinted at the beginning of the book are worth quoting in full:
“Printed Exactly As They Were Written
On the Little Pages in the Notebooks
I Carried in My Breast Pocket 1952
Summer to 1954 December………….
(Not Necessarily Chronological)”
The sketches were gathered together by Kerouac from the fifteen notebooks he had filled and turned into the manuscript, eventually published in 2006. The diaristic element of these poems is obvious, yet the resistance that Kerouac received by critics regarding his poetry was vehement. When Kerouac’s poetry was anthologised in 1960 fellow poet Kenneth Rexroth, of the so-called San Francisco Renaissance, called Mexico City Blues a “naïve effrontery” that was “more pitiful than ridiculous.”
The fact Kerouac chose to not edit or redraft the work contained in Book of Sketches goes someway to highlighting the difference between this mode of writing and the haikus. Interestingly, there are overlaps between the Sketches and the Haikus:
I was a naive
Half wanting to live
Full having to work
These shorter, title pieces are sometimes located around work that conforms more to the notion of Kerouac's Sketching ideals. He makes note of this in a piece that follows ‘AMERICAN CIVILIZATION’:
Sketching is successful
but not fun – not
like making jerky
or building a fire
or writing a
Cody Pomeray in
or sketching from the mad mind itself
The metaphysical mayor
Removed from the Kerouacian / Beat idea of ‘first thought, best thought’ Kerouac’s poetry, though plentiful, was often more considered than readers may realise. This puts in mind, Frank O’Hara and his ‘I do this, I do that poems’ and the perception O’Hara really did write his 'Lunch Poems' poems during his lunch hour. Fortunately, Kerouac wrote often about his poetry in a sometimes formalised way, as poetics. In the 1970 City Lights collection Scattered Poems, Kerouac states:
“The new American poetry as typified by the SF Renaissance (which means Ginsberg, me, Rexroth, Ferlinghetti, McClure, Corso, Philip Lamantia, Philip Whalen, I guess) is a kind of new-old Zen Lunacy poetry, writing whatever comes into your head as it comes, poetry returned to its origin, in the bardic child, truly ORAL as Ferling said, instead of gray faced Academic quibbling. Poetry & prose had for long time fallen into the false hands of the false”
Often considered Kerouac’s poetry masterpiece, Mexico City Blues (New York: Grove Press, 1959), a long poem consisting of 242 ‘choruses’, Kerouac again offers a perspective on the work:
I want to be considered a jazz poet
blowing a long blues in an afternoon jam
session on Sunday. I take 242 choruses;
my ideas vary and sometimes roll from
chorus to chorus or from halfway through
a chorus to halfway into the next.”
Kerouac would use this form throughout the ‘blues’ gathered in Book of Blues. This included poems including ‘San Francisco Blues’, ‘Richmond Hill Blues’ and ‘Bowery Blues’. These poems build on Mexico City Blues, by appropriating the form with varying strands.
We don't know what the archives can bring to light regarding Kerouac’s poetry. A ‘Collected Poems’ was published in 2012 and City Lights will publish an updated version of Old Angel Midnight, his experiment in automatic writing in 2016. What is certain is that as time passes, Kerouac’s legacy as a poet will continue to improve alongside the rise in interest from the academy and wider readers.
Andrew Taylor is lecturer in Creative Writing and English at Nottingham Trent University. His debut collection of poetry Radio Mast Horizon was published by Shearsman Books in 2013. He reviews poetry regularly for New Walk, Orbis, The Journal and The Ofi Press Magazine. www.andrewtaylorpoetry.com