Haibun Today

A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Editor
Volume 4, Number 4, December 2010

Mark Smith
Keyser, West Virginia, USA

Hidden Visions: Embedded Haiku in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums

Since Jack Kerouac’s untimely death in October of 1969, much critical scholarship has focused on “The King of the Beats” as being a novelist either ahead of his time, in a post-modern sense, or as novelist whose works could have greatly benefited from editorial scrutiny. From biographies, letters, journals, and videos, Kerouac continually made references to poetry, whether it was in the form of spontaneity of craft or referencing a few of the “great masters.” His body of work does include poetic output: in particular, Mexico City Blues and San Francisco Blues. In these works, the process of poetic experimentation was in play. This experimentation also poured over into his composition of haiku as well. Kerouac developed the “Western” haiku or what he would later call “Pops.” Allen Ginsberg, a friend and fellow poet, once remarked that Kerouac was constantly “think(ing) in haikus, every time he (wrote) anything,” which was directly related to his self-immersion in Buddhism (Writer’s at Work 318). During the height of Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose” experimentation, he penned The Dharma Bums (1958), a novel about his time spent hiking and talking Buddhism with the poet Gary Snyder. From this work emerges haiku created out of spontaneous experimentation, which stay true to what Kerouac defined as the poetic form’s purpose. These hidden visions embedded in the prose of The Dharma Bums not only justify Kerouac’s statement that haiku exist in novels, but that they also add another dimension to the Westernization of haiku and the ever-expanding experimentation with the novel.

The idea of haiku being embedded in Kerouac’s prose seems to have emerged from two different sources. The first is several lines from a letter Kerouac wrote to poet-friend Philip Whalen on January 16, 1956. The lines are as follows:

Haiku is nice, but it’s small, I mean, there are a million haikus in one good prose work and a million haikus in the Great Emily Dickinson—that rhyme even! (Selected Letters 542)

This letter, in context, is a tirade against literary critics and fellow friends who immersed themselves in “that idiot Gertrude Stein and that special other idiot...Miller, Hemingway.” The author almost pleads with Whalen to read “the real writers,” listed among them Balzac, Han Shan, Homer and Omar Khayyam. Although personally revealing about Kerouac’s inability to be published and his struggle with getting people to understand his form of Buddhism, the letter is also revealing in that it puts forth an interesting and complex literary marriage between prose and haiku. It can also be deduced that Kerouac was looking for haiku in the prose and poetic works that he was reading at the time. The novelist-poet had spawned an idea that was never fully developed or explained by him or others.

The second source for the idea of embedded haiku can be found in Allen Ginsberg’s November 12, 1958 review of The Dharma Bums in The Village Voice:

The sentences are shorter…almost as if he were writing a book of a thousand haikus…Dharma Bums winds up with a great series of perfectly connected associations in visionary haikus (Book of Haikus XXIV)

The poet goes on to write that these “visionary haikus” in prose form are like “two images set side by side that make a flash in the mind.” It can be suggested that Ginsberg’s definition of “visionary haikus” suggests that the embedded poems were not reflective of the traditional Japanese style (a 5-7-5 structure, the inclusion of a seasonal element, and no narrative conventions).

However, since Ginsberg was heavily influenced by Kerouac’s spontaneous prose style (see the introduction to Howl) he could easily understand and appreciate the hybridization of poetry and prose. Ginsberg seems to have been able to draw a clear line of demarcation between the two genres, but Kerouac, it can be suggested, did not see a difference between the two. As is the case with the first source, no more development of the subject was made.

In her introduction to Book of Haikus, Regina Weinreich addresses the complex conglomeration of haiku having a presence in prose and also begins developing the idea into a more understandable context. Weinreich terms the prose and poetry mix, or “visionary haikus,” found in The Dharma Bums, as “prose haiku” or the “prose transformation of the haiku,” which echoed the “manner in which he wrote haiku in his journals” (XXV). According to the anthologist, Kerouac stayed within either the two-line or three-line form and was delving into either “Western” or “Pop” haiku. Kerouac defined these form offshoots as three-line poems devoid of purposeful poetic trickery, yet being able to evoke vivid images in the reader’s mind. He also argued that English was rough and limited a Westerner the ability to write haiku in its purest form. Weinreich begins developing the embedded haiku idea when she mentions that Kerouac was well-versed in the haiku books of the day, and over time became a “disciplined practitioner of the genre,” which made him feel “free, exercising a kind of poetic license in their experimental use,” not only in the creation of two or three-line visions, but also in prose. Despite the hybridization found in The Dharma Bums, Weinreich contends that Kerouac tried to stay true to the rigorous rules and the essence of the Japanese poetic form. Ultimately, however, she concludes that Kerouac viewed the haiku as a “loose designation, a springboard to dive from, one he could use freely to his own artistic ends” (XXXIII).

Weinreich is correct in her findings. Kerouac was too experimental to be tied down by literary rules. His “visionary haiku” presented in prose form in The Dharma Bums may not be “true” haiku. In fact, it has been suggested by other scholars and writers that these “prose poems” are more reminiscent of other Japanese poetic forms like tanka, renku, or haibun. In dutiful respect to scholarship, these suggestions of realized or unrealized mastery of other haiku-like forms are important and help to begin the clearing of the murky water surrounding Kerouac’s incessant experimentation with prose and poetry. In Weinreich’s case, the selection of sentences from the final chapter of The Dharma Bums in her introduction to Book of Haikus is indeed the most meaningful example of “prose haiku”:

The storm went away as swiftly as it came and the late afternoon sparkle blinded me. Late afternoon, my mop drying on the rock. Late afternoon, my bare cold back as I stood above a snowfield digging shovelsful into a pail. Late afternoon, it was I not the void that changed

She also provides an important manuscript finding when it is revealed that Kerouac had these “late afternoon” sequences written out in three-line format in manuscripts he envisioned would later be published as haiku collections. This sheds light on the fact that Kerouac found it necessary to use or embed haiku into the prose of The Dharma Bums as a means of not only staying true to his artistic experimentation, but also seeing the value in adding to and extracting pieces from poetry and prose manuscripts to create visions that were once hidden by prose and needed to stand alone as haiku for the sake of clarity, or vice versa.

To further understand that haiku exist in The Dharma Bums, and that they also add another dimension to the Westernization of haiku and the ever-expanding experimentation with the novel, it is important to put Kerouac’s method into practice, if only in a speculative and hypothetical way, since preserving the integrity of the novel’s text is only fair to Kerouac. Upon a close reading, it can be gleaned that more “Western” or “Pop” haiku are present, rather than tanka, renku, or haibun. These embedded haiku “pack the punch” of each sentence’s narrative string. They work as bridges to visions beyond the sentences’ original meanings. In other words, sentences where haiku are present create a double meaning: the sentences used as logical, forward progressions of the novel’s plot and also the sentences acting as “springboards” to create associative visions, in haiku-like form, beyond the general narrative movement of the work. It is as if two autobiographical stories are being told simultaneously: one being the occurrences in the external world (hiking, yabyum, eating in restaurants, hitchhiking, participating in wild parties) and the other being occurrences captured in a literal or remembered meditative state of observation. This idea is reinforced by Kerouac; in particular, during the interview he did with Ted Berrigan of The Paris Review. Aram Saroyan and Duncan McNaughton accompanied Berrigan and after posing a question to Kerouac about the function of spontaneous prose, Kerouac replied, “In prose you make the paragraph. Every paragraph is a poem” (Writer’s at Work 376). Later on in the question and answer session, Saroyan references something Kerouac wrote at the back of “The Grove Anthology” where “you (Kerouac) let the line go a little longer to fill it up with secret images.” Kerouac responded later that a sentence that is brief with a “sudden jump of thought in it is a kind of haiku” (379).

Before extracting selected haiku or haiku-like poems from the text of The Dharma Bums, it will prove useful to provide Kerouac’s own definitions and descriptions of haiku. Sources such as Some of the Dharma, Kerouac’s explanatory note at the beginning of Book of Haikus, Some Western Haikus, and a letter to Gary Snyder in May of 1956 shed light on Kerouac’s view and purpose of the haiku and his attempt to Westernize the form. In Some of the Dharma, a notebook of Buddhist thoughts, poems, sutras, and other writings intended to be used by Allen Ginsberg as an introduction to the religion, Kerouac, in Book Eight, under the title Editorial Explanations of Various Techniques of the Duluoz Legend, defines the Western haiku form he coined as “Pop”:

American (non-Japanese) haikus, short 3-line poems or “pomes” rhyming or non-rhyming delineating “little Sanadhis” if possible, usually of a Buddhist connotation, aimed toward enlightenment (342)

Here, Kerouac has stripped the traditional Japanese haiku form to its barest minimum; that is to say, only the vision or captured moment in time is left. Additionally, the idea of a rhyming haiku, which he probably saw in some English translations of haiku anthologies, was a new idea. As experimental and interesting as the rhyming haiku is, it is still viewed as “unacceptable” or not preserving the proposed essence of the form as set down by Japanese masters.

Echoing similar and contradictory sentiments in his explanatory note to Book of Haikus, Some Western Haikus, Kerouac explains the “Western Haiku” and its requirements:

A “Western Haiku” need not concern itself with the seventeen syllables since Western languages cannot adapt themselves to the fluid syllabic Japanese. I propose that the “Western Haiku” simply say a lot in three short lines in any Western language. 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 (Portable 469-470)

In this explanation, Kerouac continues to deemphasize the traditional elements of haiku. However, there is emphasis placed on simplicity, the limitation of Western language, and the idea of not using “poetic trickery.” Simplicity is consistent with his definition of “Pops.” The limitation of Western languages being integrated into the strict Japanese form is also consistent. The contradiction arises when he writes that haiku should be “free of all poetic trickery.”  As stated in the definition of “Pops,” the poetic “trickery” of rhyme is acceptable, and it can be gleaned that it was encouraged since Kerouac was so influenced by Blues and Jazz singers. Again, rhyme becomes the questionable characteristic in the Westernization of haiku.

A final source for Kerouac’s thought on haiku comes from a letter he wrote to Gary Snyder in May of 1956 while in Mill Valley, California. The beginning of the correspondence has all of the tone and spirit that would later be placed in The Dharma Bums. It also expresses Kerouac’s reverence of Oriental poets, like Han Shan, shunning alcohol and tobacco, going to the top of a mountain, and “sketching” the visions before them.

I’ve been reading spring haiku and I am really humbled now before the spectacle of the magnificent men forsaking alcohol and tobacco to just watch cows in the hazy moon and make it off what there is there, the objective beautiful sad ungraspable world as it is (Selected Letters 582).

From this reference, Kerouac echoes Buddhist thought, reinforces the notion that haiku should be “objective,” and that experimenting with prose and poetic forms is the only way a writer can attempt to grasp and make sense of the “sad ungraspable world” in which he lives.

Despite some contradictions in definition related to the haiku, Kerouac, whether it be in prose or poetry, was cognizant of maintaining the essence of the haiku. In order to extract haiku or haiku-like poems from The Dharma Bums that fit the author’s definitions and characteristics, experimentation and tinkering with the existing text must be deemed acceptable by the reader. Since evidence shows that Kerouac transformed haiku into prose and vice versa, and that he was overtly experimental in his work, it is rationally acceptable for this essayist to extract the “visionary haikus” of The Dharma Bums, in haiku or haiku-like form, that maybe Kerouac would have liked. The ultimate purpose of this extraction is to show that Kerouac used the form as a means of not only creating double meanings in his sentences, but also as a means of using the haiku as a vehicle by which a narrative can progress. All extractions preserve the exact language as found in the original prose text. Also, no signatures like commas or hyphens have been used since Kerouac would have been particular about the placement of such conventions. Furthermore, the haiku will appear in the format provided in Weinreich’s Book of Haikus (capitalized letters at the beginning of lines and indented second lines; indented second lines vary between capitalization and lower case; however, capitalization will be used). The ten selected extractions were chosen based on Kerouac’s ideas and definitions of haiku, as explained previously. The chosen text is from Penguin’s 1986 edition of The Dharma Bums, and page numbers follow each selection.

Embedded Haiku

The old tree
Brooded over me silently
A living thing (35)

From rock to rock
Up up just the flash
Of his boot bottoms (83)

Looking around
At birds not yet
Summer fat (141)

Across the evening valley
The old mule went
With his heart broken (188)

I staggered up
The hill
Greeted by birds (199)

Pines reflected
Upsidedown in the lake
Pointing to infinity (236)

All the insects ceased
In honor
Of the moon (237)

Late afternoon
My mop drying
On the rock (241)

Late afternoon
My bare back
Cold (241)

Birds flew
Over the shack
Rejoicing (243)

Instead of evaluating these tweaked moments in time in the vein of interpretation, it is more valuable to look at them as the small, “secret images” that Kerouac included in his long prose sentences, as referenced by Saroyan during The Paris Review interview. For this scrutinizing of the text, the haiku The old tree, I staggered up, and Birds flew will be used as examples of how the “secret images” work to create a duality in the prose of The Dharma Bums. It is a dualism where the external and internal worlds Kerouac experienced coexist to create double meaning. The first meaning being the use of sentences to forward the progression of the narrative (what happened). The second meaning being found in the captured moments of the “secret images” sections of the sentences.

The old tree haiku appears in The Dharma Bums as a single sentence. In context of the plot, Kerouac (Ray Smith) and Allen Ginsberg (Alvah Goldbook) are speaking outside of Gary Snyder’s (Japhy Ryder) house, under the author’s chosen pine, after Kerouac’s first experience with yabyum. More than likely disappointed that he did not participate fully (as a part of his dedication to Buddhism he vowed a state of celibacy), Kerouac takes a defensive stance with Ginsberg and argues that the poet has a negative view of the world that will ultimately lead to self-destruction. He attempts to convince Ginsberg that dedicated meditation and celibacy are the paths to a “true” and pure way of living. After Ginsberg leaves, Kerouac reflects on the idea that he is not “I” and prays to God or Tathagata that he might one day be able to explain with clarity his way of thinking, writing, and living. Then, Kerouac uses the embedded haiku to create a transition between the external and internal worlds. The sentence or haiku itself depicts a dualism between the external world (the pine tree) and the internal world (a reflection of the tree as a living thing). In this sentence or embedded haiku, the “secret image” becomes satori (revelation) that Kerouac is in conflict with influences of the outer and inner forces working on his life.

As for the I staggered up haiku, it appears in the section of Snyder’s farewell party before his leaving for Japan to study Buddhism. In the novel, where Snyder’s departure is mentioned, Kerouac broods over the “loss” of his “Zen Lunatic” friend that taught him so much about “The Way.” Similar to The old tree, this haiku is placed in a paragraph where the author has the realization again that “what we thought to be this and that, ain’t this and that at all?” The sentence with the “secret images” (embedded haiku) follows: “I staggered up the hill, greeted by birds, and looked at all the huddled sleeping figures on the floor.” In this vision, Kerouac uses the haiku as a transitional introduction to what he later describes as “the strange ghosts” who are with him on the “silly little adventure of earth”. Again, the forces of the external and internal are at play. The external is evident in the “sleeping figures” (friends on the floor in sleeping bags) who blindly suffer because they are ignorant of the teaching of the Buddha. The internal is revealed in the greeting.  Kerouac’s “real” friends, the birds and animals, who embody the simple way of Buddhist living, aid him in returning to his intent to live with a purpose. This sentence is a prime example of the author using haiku and prose simultaneously in order to create a double narrative or meaning in The Dharma Bums.

The last extraction, Birds flew, comes from the final chapter of the novel when Kerouac leaves Desolation Peak, where he served as a Forest Service lookout for several months. Kerouac is delighted when news comes over the radio that all lookouts are asked to “come down.” In his revelry, the author writes that the “vision of the freedom of eternity” would be his forever. The prose takes on a vigorous tone as Kerouac describes a chipmunk, hills, rocks, and a butterfly. Then, the sentence comes: “Birds flew over the shack rejoicing; they had a mile-long patch of sweet blueberries all the way down to Lightning Gorge.” Here, we have a rejoicing in the fact that hunger will be tamed soon. On a literal level, the birds’ hunger. On another level, Kerouac’s hunger to return to civilization. Like I staggered up, the haiku begins the sentence again. However, in this case, the second half of the sentence only plays the role of furthering the description of movement. The embedded haiku is the most important aspect of this sentence because it becomes symbolic of an achieved harmony between man and nature, a shared satori or moment of enlightenment where the internal and the external are experiencing “rejoicing” simultaneously. This extraction is one of the most revealing in The Dharma Bums because it captures, in a moment in time, everything that was attempting to be achieved by Kerouac during his adventures with Gary Snyder. A majority of the scenes in the novel take place in Snyder’s “shack” or Kerouac’s “shack” on Desolation Peak and “rejoicing” was the ultimate goal; that is to say, “rejoicing” in the pursuit of and eventual realization of enlightenment.

So, what does this literary “experiment” (by Kerouac and the essayist) reveal about the Westernization of the haiku and the ever-expanding experimentation with the novel? As for the haiku, Kerouac, in characteristic fashion, broke away from literary tradition in order to show that nothing is permanent, whether it is relationships, friends, satoris, or poetic forms. In order to achieve his ultimate expression, the author had to experiment; his busy mind fueled by alcohol, marijuana, Benzedrine, and also Buddhist thought would not make room for the strict conventions of any given form. Kerouac knew that the haiku would last and he felt it extremely imperative that it be tinkered with in order to fit into the literary voices of America. Of course, this tinkering was not limited, obviously, to American poets writing haiku. The embedded haiku or the “secret images” in Kerouac’s prose, especially in The Dharma Bums, reflects a fluid conglomeration of genre that was needed in the novel at that time. They represent an early attempt at what would later be termed “post­modern,” but more specifically, in Kerouac’s eyes, the novel being one long narrative poem where double meanings of the external and internal worlds could be recorded. As Kerouac wrote in his list Belief & Technique for Modern Prose, “Something that you feel will find its own form” (Portable 483).

Works Cited

Charters, Ann. Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, 1940-1956. New York: Penguin, 1995.

-----. The Portable Jack Kerouac. New York: Penguin, 1995.

Kerouac, Jack. Book of Haikus. Ed. Regina Weinreich. New York: Penguin, 2003.

Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Kerouac, Jack. Some of the Dharma. New York: Penguin, 1999.

Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. 3rd Series. Ed. Alfred Kazin. New York: Viking, 1967.

Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, 4th Series. Ed. George Plimpton. New York: Viking, 1976.

First published in Jack Magazine V2, N3 (2003).


Current Contents about archives resources search submissions current