Saturday 31 August 2013

Book of Haiku by Jack Kerouac; Reviewed by Kanchan Chatterjee

 ‘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’ - Jack Kerouac.

Renowned for his groundbreaking Beat Generation novel ‘On the Road’, Jack Kerouac was also a master of the haiku, the three line, seventeen syllable Japanese poetic form. Following in the tradition of Basho, Buson, Shiki, Issa and other poets, Kerouac experimented with this centuries old genre, taking it beyond strict syllable counts into what he believed was the form’s essence and called it “American Haiku”.

“Haiku’ Kerouac wrote was 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”. Finding that Western languages cannot adopt themselves to the “fluid syllabic Japanese”, he sought to redefine the genre: “I propose that the ‘Western Haiku’ simply say a lot in three short lines in any Western language”, and he wrote: Birds singing In the dark Rainy dawn Seeking visual possibilities in language, Kerouac combined his spontaneous prose with sketching. “Keep the eye steadily on the object, for haiku” - he said and wrote – The windmills of Oklahoma look In every direction Strict critics doubt whether these are haiku at all. Kerouac was well versed in the haiku books of his time, and a diligent disciplined practitioner of the genre, he also felt free, exercising a kind of poetic licence in their experimental use. Just as he will remain controversial as a prose stylist so too will his work be reevaluated and be controversial for critics of haiku.

However, he will continue to be thought as pioneer, as someone who opened up this genre. In this beautifully packaged volume, Kerouac scholar Regina Weinrech has supplemented a core haiku manuscript from Kerouac’s archives with a generous selection of the rest of his haiku, from both published and unpublished sources. The result is a compact collection of more than five hundred poems that reveal a lesser known but important side of Jack Kerouac’s literary legacy.