Ever Hard Mercurian Haiku

In the silent void
He proposed to her.
Bloodthirsty, “Destroy” she said.

Haiku as a Paradigm for Modernism

In a well-rehearsed chapter of literary history, haiku and Japanese aesthetics entered into English-speaking literary culture largely though the efforts of the Imagists, particulary Ezra Pound. Pound found both chinese and Japanese poetry deeply congenial. Haiku overlaps with many of the essential principles of what would come to be known as High Modernist poetics : economy, intensity, reliance on the image, clarity, the use of juxtaposition, and a minimum of discursive commentary. Though the appeal of haiku per se soon faded, its effects remained arresting, particularly its use of unadorned image, juxtaposition, and openness or reliance on implication. Three of the most discussed American poems of the twentieth century all owe and obvious debt to the form : Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” (1916), Wallace Stevens’ “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (1923), and William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” (1923). Pound’s is the closest to a classical haiku ; Steven’ is characteristically oblique ; Williams’ is as direct as can be, emphasizing the self-sufficient suchness of being, particularly the mutually arising matrix of ordinary being – chickens, rainwater, a wheelbarrow. The opening line “So much depends upon” might be the invisible superscript of many oustanding haiku-poems, and not haiku poems alone, in English.

Haiku as Beat Phenomenon

After the High Modernists’ forays into the form, a hiatus ensued until after World War II, when one of the first Westerners to study Zen, the British writer, R.H. Blyth, published his four volume Haiku, an anthology of classic Japanese work (Haiku). He provided the models that inspired the Beats in the 1950s. Kenneth Rexroth, the convener of the amous inaugural Beat poetry reading at Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955, also played a role in introducing the Beats to Japanese poetry. Although Jack Kerouax is noted for his novels, he was deeply involved in haiku as a way of focusing, composing over a thousand of them. In terms of enlarging haiku awareness, it was Kerouac’s fictional character, Japhy Rider, modeled after Gary Snyder, in the Dharma Bums, who did as much as anyone. Though Kerouac largely ignores the 5-7-5 syllabic requirement, his haiku followed the lead of Blyth in sticking to three lines, a practice that has the virtue of indicating pauses and syntactic relations.

A Companion to Poetic Genre, Erik Martiny, 2011, p 361

Gary Snyder, Alan Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac represent the second important stage of the Americain reception of haiku which centered on the so-called Beat Movement of the fifties. In reaction to the cerebral academic poetry that dominated this period, their haiku and other poetry focused upon the emotional vivdness of the subjectively felt present moment. Snyder applied oriental aesthetics to produce poems that evoke the beauty and wildness of nature. Ginsberg used orientals modes and a Romantic sensibility to create Blake-like poems on nature, love, and social criticism and haiku reflecting the unrefined nature of the Beat Movement. Kerouac wrote fiction that explored his own melding of Christian and Buddhist spirituality and strong haiku that breached the moodiness of classical Japanese haiku. In a passage from one of his novels, Kerouac’s narrator muses over the Japanese haiku poets who, according to him, grasp experience like children “without literary device or fanciness of expression”. Then, to continue these thoughts of the narraor, a character in the novel who is modeled on Gary Snyder begins to discuss haiku : “A real haiku’s gotta be as simple as porridge and yet make you see the real thing…” Although unsophisticated, these explanations of haiku consider the two major elements of haiku composition : a subjective receptivity to external reality, here described as the emotional spontaneity of children, and an objective presentation of natural images that connect you with the “real thing”.

Haiku Moment: An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku, Bruce Ross, 1993, p XVIII

Albert Saijo

Trip Trap (1972) is a collection of haiku by Albert Saijo, Jack Kerouac and Lew Welch. The poems describe a road trip from California to New York taken by the three men in 1959, and invoke Gary Snyder, who was then in Japan, as a kind of guiding spirit. Saijo and Welch first met Kerouac in California November 1959, when Welch offered to drive Kerouac to Northport, New York in his Willys Jeepster, nicknamed “Willy”. As they travelled, the trio composed spontaneous collaborative poems. On arriving in New York, they visited Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky‘s apartment, then spent the night at Kerouac’s mother’s house in Northport before returning west. Saijo and Kerouac became friends, bound by a shared wanderlust and appreciation of Zen Buddhism, cool jazz and alcohol. Saijo later was a minor character in Kerouac’s Big Sur, in which he takes the name “George Baso” and in Kerouac’s depiction of the 1959 drive is described as “the little Japanese Zen master hepcat sitting crosslegged in the back of Dave’s [Lew’s] jeepster”.


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