Haiku is defined in Jack Myers’s The Portable Poetry Workshop as: “A Japanese lyric form composed of three lines totaling 17 syllables: 5, 7, 5 respectively.”
Well, if you ever want to understand the terminology of poetry, you can’t do much better than this book. If you want to know the definitions for anything from “enjambment” (“A line ending whose syntax carries over to the next line”) to homolochos (“A classic, stock physical-comedy character of the buffoon type”) Myers has the literary and poetical definitions for ya. But – and no offense to Mr. Myers, who is a former Texas Poet Laureate and two time NEA fellowship recipient – the definitions didn’t quite cover enough for me as I worked through one particular section in Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums.

In the scene, Ray is mountain climbing with his buddies Japhy and Morley. As they climb along they are inspired to compose haikus on the spot. Stuff like: “Talking about the literary life – the yellow aspens” – from Japhy. My first thought as I read was That’s terrible. And I’d tolerated plenty of sorta-Buddha babble from these guys up to that point.

Still, while I may have disliked “Rocks on the side of the cliff…why don’t they tumble down?” – from Ray – I appreciated Japhy’s explanation of what a haiku is: “A real haiku’s gotta be simple as porridge and yet make you see the real thing.” That definition makes a heck of a lot more sense to me than a breakdown of syllables-per-line.

And the way the characters composed these haikus is very telling about the Beat generation of writers as well.

In his 1974 essay “On the Road: Notes on Artists and Poets 1950-1965” poet Robert Creely describes his experiences as a poet during the Beat time period and it’s surprising similar to Kerouac’s life experience: “I had gone through a usual education in the East, had witnessed in shock the terrifying conclusion of humans killing one another, had wobbled back to college, married (mistakenly) in the hope of securing myself emotionally, had wandered into the woods…and I was returned without relief again and again to the initial need: a means of making articulate the world in which I and all like me did truly live.

Being able to articulate the world sounds like a pretty tall order to me – but I think, as Japhy points out in his haiku definition, that articulation doesn’t need to be complicated. Haiku is not complicated. It’s as “plain as porridge” but it is articulate. It says a lot with very little.

Japhy quotes a haiku by Shiki: “The sparrow hops along the veranda with wet feet.” He goes on to explain why that’s a great haiku: “You see the wet footprints like a vision in your mind and yet inthose few words you also see all the rain that’s been falling that day and almost smell the pine needles.” What Japhy describes is the articulation of the haiku.

Turns out, this is one of my favorite scenes in The Dharma Bums, partly because it got me thinking about poetry, which I enjoy – dry terminology and all – and partly because of the statement it makes about the Beat writers. The scene functions articulately.

The Beats didn’t worry about haiku syllabics (Kerouac doesn’t even break the haikus into lines). These guys were just experiencing the world and playing with words at the same time. Creely says in his essay: “any form, any ordering of reality so implied, had somehow to come from the very condition of the experience demanding it.” The scene articulates the idea of spontaneous, experimental composition. The haiku form within the scene is Kerouac’s example.

It’s great, layered, which I dig.

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