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The haiku of beatnik superstar Jack Kerouac

Many people are familiar with Jack Kerouac's shining opus, On The Road, the story Kerouac's years as a Beatnik hitchhiker thumbing it across the United States with Neal Cassidy in the 1940's. It's an ecstatic celebration of America, of youth and freedom, comparable in many ways to Walt Whitman's classic Leaves of Grass. How many undergraduate sophmores, newly self-aware, have not thumbed the pages of Kerouac's tender memoir and longed to take to the open road with a backpack and eyes full of dreams?

Less widely read as his prose masterpieces, Kerouac was also author of over a dozen volumes of poems, and narrated several audio recordings of his poetry. His 1958 novel The Dharma Bums is credited as being “the opening salvo of an indigenous American Buddhism,” and the influence of newly-imported Far Eastern poetic forms on Kerouac's poetry is evident. His published poetry includes several wonderful volumes of haiku, some of them collected from his notebooks and published posthumously.

The rain has filled

     the birdbath

Again, almost

(Kerouac, Book of Haikus)

The 1950's and 1960's were a fascinating time for American poetry (indeed, American culture), a time during which poetic form, like the wider structure of social norms, began to break down, and poets began experimenting with unconventional, even heretical new forms. It was, perhaps, the most fertile era for creative self-expression in American history, and Kerouac's writings stand poised on the cusp of the new universe that opened out from the Beat Generation.

The traditional haiku form was influential not only on Kerouac but widely throughout American poetry. In many ways, I think American poetry passionately embraced the haiku, made it part of itself, and transformed the spirit of haiku into something beautiful and new, something free, organic and unbounded. I don't mean the form, but its spirit: the spirit of subtle suggestion, of things left unsaid; a certain poetic sensibility, a crispness to a poem's conclusion that rings out like a bell on frigid winter air – or the splash! of a frog jumping into an ancient pond.

Kerouac was a true American original, a pioneer of poetic frontiers, and his haiku serve as shining examples of the era in which he lived -- shimmering poems like stars scattered across the sky, seen through the wonder-filled eyes of a young dreamer standing on a remote roadside, waiting for his next ride.


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