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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & Owner
Ray Rasmussen, General Editor

Volume 13, Number 2, June 2019
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Richard S. Straw
Cary, North Carolina, USA

"Hauntedness-of-Mind": A Mini-Lesson from Jack Kerouac

             A scene
should be selected by
the writer, for haunted-
ness-of-mind interest.
If you're not haunted
by something, as by a
dream, a vision, or
a memory, which are
        involuntary, you're not
interested or even involved.

What Jack Kerouac says here (1) applies indirectly to the writing of haiku and haibun, not just directly to his method of writing free verse and fiction. That's probably because he was at heart a practicing haiku poet and a haibunist of epic proportions, especially in the first half of Desolation Angels, an autobiographical novel published in 1965 but written partly from a journal that he kept in 1956 atop Desolation Peak in the Skagit Valley of northwest Washington while he was working as a fire lookout. The novel's second half is titled "Passing Through," which is "a metaphor for traveling and, later, a metaphor for life itself," according to Regina Weinreich. (2) This half of the novel was written in 1961 and continues the narration after he descends from the mountain and goes to Mexico, Tangiers, France, London, and back to America. Kerouac eventually finished at sea level in 1969 at the age of 47 in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Kerouac's seemingly off-handed "hauntedness-of-mind" reminder to himself (a glimpse into, not a last word on, his guiding principles) was written a few years before he spent 63 solitary summer days and nights on a mountaintop, unlike Han Shan the Tang poet, who at least had Shih Te, his sidekick friend, for company. The reminder appears at the end of a two-page set of prosaic, on-the-run jottings in a section titled "1954 Richmond Hill Sketch on Van Wyck Boulevard." After describing the "Faultless Fuel Oil" building as a "bleakness...lost in a void it cant [sic] understand...[with] a neat Tao of its own," Kerouac concludes that "this scene is of no interest to me. & is only an example." (3)

The lesson to be gleaned from these two sketched sentences composed in a breast pocket notebook from 1954 is that an effective haiku or haibun first has to focus on a single, deeply felt, haunting experience. After that, and honestly only after that, should the mechanics of writing come into play, such as, in haiku, using 10 to 12 syllables (without fixating on minimalism), striving to employ plain yet musical language (not pidgin English), including a seasonal word (even if it's just the name of the season or the month), and presenting at least one or two sensory images. When lived experience melds with honed craft, the resulting creation, whether poem, prose, or both, survives in an eternal now that can be reread and interpreted and relived multiple times with immediate enjoyment, as long as readers are awake, too, and alert to the stimulus or alarms in the work itself.

That's what Jack Kerouac accomplished in a number of his more traditional, Buddhist-based haiku, such as the ones he wrote atop Desolation Peak, as well as in his more experimental poems he liked to call "pops": (4)

Debris on the lake
    —my soul
Is upset

The taste
    of rain—
Why kneel?

Aurora Borealis
    over Hozomeen—
The void is stiller

Aurora Borealis
    over Mount Hozomeen—
The world is eternal

Thunder in the mountains—
    the iron
Of my mother's love

Mist before the peak
    — the dream
Goes on

Reflected upsidedown
    in the sunset lake, pines,
Pointing to infinity

The red paper
    waves for the breeze
— the breeze

Likewise, writing a haibun, if the writing is triggered by a haunting experience, is less like performing an exercise with one's imagination, as in writing fiction, and more like drafting a spiritual memoir or an autobiographical fragment describing actual events in a heightened and focused way, which appears to be what Kerouac was doing in the first half of Desolation Angels.

Writing our haibun, if focused on experiences that must be told, can help us discover some meaning in the past, in particular, our family histories and relationships, providing shared parts of a universal story through our personal journeys. We shouldn't want to challenge readers with puzzles they can't decipher. Rather, we should challenge ourselves to tell stories of our ongoing struggles to understand and become reconciled with events we've lived through and faced, thereby helping others come to terms with similar events they've experienced and have yet to recognize. We may even help ourselves as we face an uncertain future.


Desolation Peak Lookout with Mt. Hozomeen in the background.

This photograph was taken on July 14, 2009, by Pete Hoffman and is available in the Wikimedia Public Domain Commons.

Notes:

1. In Book of Sketches, edited by George Condo (New York: Penguin Books, 2006, p. 65).
2. For an analysis of Desolation Angels, see pp. 89-118 of Regina Weinreich's The Spontaneous Poetics of Jack Kerouac: A Study of the Fiction (New York: Marlowe & Company, 1995).
3. In Book of Sketches, pp. 63-65.
4. See, especially, pp. 81-104 in Book of Haikus, edited by Regina Weinreich (New York: Penguin Books, 2003). Also, for Kerouac's definition and practice of "western haikus" and haiku prose, see Weinreich's introduction to Book of Haikus (pp. ix-xxxvii), his Scattered Poems (San Francisco: City Lights, 1989, pp. 69-70), and Barbara Ungar's chapter on Kerouac's haiku in her 1978 Stanford Honors Essay in Humanities XXI titled Haiku in English (pp. 21-32), which is available in the Simply Haiku Archives.



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