Inventing the American Haiku


Jack Kerouac is a name best known for his seminal work On The Road, a massively influential piece of American prose that launched the Beat Generation. Many people know Kerouac for his iconic style in prose but few outside of Kerouac superfans know him as a world-class poet. 

He wrote in many different forms such as sonnets and odes but perhaps his best contribution to poetry was his invention of the American or Western haiku. Kerouac has said, “Haiku 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”. 

Kerouac was an avid reader of iconic haiku authors such as Basho (1644-1694) and found that the syllables used in the Japanese language did not transfer well into English. He sought to redefine the haiku to fit more Western languages. “I propose that the ‘Western Haiku’ simply say a lot in three short lines…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.” 

Kerouac would go on to write thousands of haiku in his life. He included them in his novels, his correspondence, and even peppered into his novels. Their subject matter varied wildly, 

The earth winked
at me–right
In the john

compared to the more traditional haiku subject:

Leaf dropping straight
in the windless midnight:
The dream of change

Kerouac wasn’t the first American poet to write in haiku form though. William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell and other poets from the Imagist movement wrote haiku. Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” was one of the first attempts at integrating the haiku into Western canon. 

Kerouac was perhaps the most committed haiku author of them all though, composing thousands of haikus. He was a serious Buddhist and believed that crafting haiku often helped shape and sharpen his mind while cultivating a sort of American Mysticism in the manner of Thoreau. 

What makes Kerouac such an iconic haiku composer was his ability to capture images of the mundane in a beautiful way and capture single moments in a time with an appreciation of its impermanence. Some examples from Kerouac’s Book of Haikus highlighting this are, 

The windmills of
Oklahoma look
In every direction

One flower
on the cliffside
Nodding at the canyon

In Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town, he says, “I’ve come to believe that one learns to write only by writing”. This is a sentiment Kerouac himself echoes in On the Road and one that he clearly implemented in his own life. Writing dozens of haiku a day on occasion, he was always writing. I have used this tool in my own life as a way to break writer’s block, generate new ideas, or just craft beautiful poems. 

Ultimately we all owe a debt of gratitude to Jack Kerouac for his contribution to haiku as an art form and the influence he had on American poetry. 

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