Beat Haiku and My Discussion with Jack Foley

The following is a presentation by San Francisco–area poet Jack Foley on Beat Generation haiku, given at a national meeting of the Haiku Society of America, held 6 December 2003, at Fort Mason in San Francisco. This essay originally appeared in his “Foley’s Books” column of Alsop Review (no longer available), and was also copied to Terebess Asia Online. It was also broadcast on KPFA radio in Berkeley on 3 March 2004. After the initial essay is follow-up correspondence, a sort of postscript, that Jack put together as a result of an extensive email discussion between Michael Dylan Welch and Jack Foley about Beat haiku and the nature of haiku itself.

Beat Haiku

      by Jack Foley

                “The beat generation knows all about haikus . . .” —Jack Kerouac

When I was asked to do a talk on the use of haiku by the Beat Generation, I immediately felt that there was one thing I didn’t want to do: I didn’t want to enter into the controversy as to whether Beat Generation haiku were “real” haiku—any more than I would want to enter into a controversy as to whether Ted Berrigan’s sonnets are “really” sonnets. It seems to me that, in both cases, what is important is that a particular form is invoked, and that the poet is insisting that, as we read his work, we must keep that form in mind. The question is not whether Berrigan or the Beat Generation poets are observing the “rules” of a particular form; the point is that such a form is relevant to the poetry they produced under its banner. Kerouac and others used what they understood of haiku as a way of entering into a new kind of American poetry.
      As many of you know, Jack Kerouac’s Book of Haikus, edited and with an introduction by Regina Weinreich, has recently been issued from Penguin. Ms. Weinreich did an excellent job with both her editing and her introduction. I’ll be quoting from some of the points she makes and from some of the Kerouac passages which she herself quotes. Her introduction begins with a wonderful little poem of Kerouac’s, “Reading Notes 1965”:

                Then I’ll invent
                The American Haiku type:
                The simple rhyming triolet:—
                Seventeen syllables?
                No, as I say, American Pops:—
                Simple 3-line poems

Kerouac even went so far as to offer a definition. This is from Some of the Dharma:

POP—American (non-Japanese) Haikus, short 3-line poems or “pomes” rhyming or non-rhyming dilineating “little Samadhis” if possible, usually of a Buddhist connotation, aiming towards enlightment. BOOK OF POPS.[1]

As the titles On the Road and Naked Lunch—and the phrase “Beat Generation”—suggest, Kerouac was good at naming things, but his attempt to re-name haiku as “American Pops” did not catch on. (His ornate, Latin-based word, “subterranean”—as in The Subterraneans—yielded to the simpler English version, “underground” and, even further, to the dreadful “alternative life style.”) Yet the name “pops” is not without interest. It suggests the way the objects named in a haiku “pop up” in front of us, demanding our attention. And it suggests as well that Kerouac regarded haiku as a popular art, though it may have been a popular art with a classical background (as in the “Boston Pops”). There is an overtone of jazz as well: the great Louis Armstrong—like other hipsters—was referred to as “Pops.” The association of an “Eastern” form such as haiku with jazz is reminiscent of Kerouac’s identification in Mexico City Blues of jazz great Charlie Parker with the Buddha. Indeed, the title of Kerouac’s LP, “Blues and Haikus,” recorded in 1959 with jazzmen Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, points in the same direction.[2] What have “blues” to do with “haikus”? What kind of connection is possible between such different modes of expression? (The name “Pop” of course also suggests “Bop.”) “The ‘Haiku,’” Kerouac explains at the beginning of his Book of Haikus,

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. 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. Here is a great Japanese Haiku that is simpler and prettier than any Haiku I could ever write in any language:

A day of quiet gladness,
Mount Fuji is veiled
In misty rain.

        (Bashō) (1644–1694)


I want to emphasize two quotations at the beginning of this talk. The first is from an interview I did with Allen Ginsberg in 1996. I had just mentioned that he had been writing haiku—poems of seventeen syllables—and calling them “American Sentences,” probably a play upon Kerouac’s title, “American Haikus.” Ginsberg answered that he wished to “make a distinction” between his work and “imitation Japanese haiku”:

It has to be adapted to an American form, and I think that it should be a simple declarative sentence-a beginning, middle, and end, subject, verb, object-otherwise, it depends on taking the attitude of the haiku and writing it in three sections, having “ing, ing, ing,” you know. Sitting at the table. Watching the sunlight coming in. Drinking coffee. Dot dot dot. It’s not a complete sentence, and it doesn’t make any sense. If you can make it into a complete sentence and it still has a spark, that’s where you see if it makes it on its own or if it depends on taking the attitude of a haiku.

The second quotation is from a book of poems written by Jack Kerouac in San Francisco in the year 1954. San Francisco Blues was, writes Kerouac, his “first book of poems . . . hinting the approach of the final blues poetry form [he] developed for the Mexico City Blues.” The lines I’m quoting are from the “35th Chorus,” and are not meant as a haiku, but they certainly have a haiku-like quality:

                The taste of worms
                Is soft & salty
                Like the sea,
                Or tears.

(Kerouac sometimes worked his haiku into prose passages in his novels.)
      Regina Weinreich points out that “Haiku came to the West Coast poets through Gary Snyder. Inspired by D. T. Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism (1927) in the fall of 1951, Snyder spent the early ’50s traveling in Japan, studying and practicing Zen Buddhism.[3] Philip Whalen and Lew Welch became avid haiku practitioners through his influence. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Snyder, and Whalen spent time together in Berkeley in 1955 talking, drinking, and trading their own versions of . . . haiku translations.”
      As Ms. Weinreich suggests, many Beat writers—though not necessarily the ones in Venice, California, such as Stuart Perkoff—produced haiku in various circumstances. In fact, the Beats may be principally—or at least initially—responsible for the immense popularity of haiku in America. There are of course a number of reasons for this popularity, but I will mention only a few. A haiku is distinctly a form—whether or not one follows the rule about seventeen syllables. This form is by no means as simple as it may first seem, but it is probably easier to write a haiku than to write, say, a traditional English sonnet. Three lines rather than fourteen; no worry about rhyme. Nevertheless, a haiku is a definite poetic form: having written a haiku, one has written something recognizable as a poem. The poem is, however, not the kind of poem one finds very often in the English literary tradition. A haiku may be deeply felt, but it is quieter, less assertive than a sonnet or an ode: it is, as Kerouac writes, “Like the sea, / Or tears.”
      Many Beat writers, including Kerouac, were reading William Carlos Williams with great approval, and one remembers Williams’ vehement opposition to the “English” tradition in poetry and particularly to iambic pentameter, which he called in a letter to Harold Norse “the last stand” of “the Establishment.” Even a “counted,” seventeen-syllable haiku does not sound at all like iambic pentameter—but it is not quite “free verse,” either: it is a form. Williams’ not always fully lucid endorsement of what he called the “variable foot” suggests that he wished to find a “definite form” which was also—indefinite, “variable.” Haiku, particularly in its American versions, is like that: it is a form, but, “Like the sea,” it can take many shapes.[4] Nicholas Virgilio’s stunning, minimalist piece,

                out of the water . . .
                out of itself

is deeply moving, yet, from the point of view of the complex organ music of English literature, it scarcely seems a poem at all. (Another word Kerouac used to characterize his generation was furtive—secret, surreptitious, covert: there is a furtive, sotto voce quality to Virgilio’s poem—though I am not accusing him of being a Beat writer.)
      At this point, certain aspects of Beat style have been assimilated into the mainstream of American culture, but for the Beats themselves, to be was to be other. Haiku answered the need for a poetic form which was simultaneously traditional and other. R. H. Blyth’s monumental, four-volume book, Haiku, appeared at the end of the 1940s, from 1949 to 1952, at exactly the moment when the Beat movement was beginning to stir. Harold G. Henderson’s An Introduction to Haiku: An Anthology of Poems and Poets from Bashō to Shiki appeared in 1958, the same year as the appearance of Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, which featured as its hero the haiku-writing Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder: the first three letters of Japhy’s name suggest “Japanese”). Japhy, Kerouac remarks,

had a slew of orange crates all filled with beautiful scholarly books, some of them in Oriental languages, all the great sutras, comments on sutras, the complete works of D. T. Suzuki and a fine quadruple-volume of Japanese haikus.

        All discussions of the Beat Generation begin with Jack Kerouac, though they do not necessarily end with him. Kerouac’s early biographer, Ann Charters, writes that “In the six years it took Jack to publish On the Road, he wrote twelve books”:

But in 1953 after writing The Subterraneans, he entered a different phase of his life, his most melancholy period. The furious energy that had gone into Visions of Cody, Doctor Sax, October in the Railroad Earth, Maggie Cassidy and The Subterraneans found a new outlet for a time, a new absorption. It was Kerouac’s discovery of Buddhism, an enthusiasm that began early in 1954 at a time when he was feeling most lost and alone.


Kerouac was of course born a Catholic, raised a Catholic, and died a Catholic. His interest in Buddhism was a discovery of different religious images for his fundamentally constant religious feelings. He always remained a believing Catholic. It was just that, for a time, he was a self-taught student of Buddhism. He read widely and deeply in Buddhist texts, translated sutras from the French, and even wrote a biography of the Buddha. But at the root of his absorption in Buddhism was the fact that he felt it offered him direct philosophical consolation for the disappointments in his life, and, particularly, for the drawn-out agony waiting to place On the Road . . .
        Jack embraced the first law of Buddhism above all others, the statement that “All life is suffering.”
      One of the deepest gestures of American literature is the ecstatic attempt to transcend absolutely everything—and particularly to transcend that extremely problematical state of suffering, history. In an ecstatic moment of his essay, “Nature,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “Standing on the bare ground . . . all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all. . . .” In “How to Meditate,” a poem written for Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac describes his version of the meditative state:

                —lights out—
                fall, hands a-clasped, into instantaneous
                ecstasy like a shot of heroin or morphine,
                the glands inside of my brain discharging
                the good glad fluid (Holy Fluid) as
                I hap-down and hold all my body parts
                down to a deadstop trance—Healing
                all my sickness—erasing all—not
                even the shred of a “I-hope-you” or a
                Loony Balloon left in it, but the mind
                blank, serene, thoughtless. When a thought
                comes a-springing from afar with its held-
                forth figure of image, you spoof it out,
                you spuff it off, you fake it, and
                it fades, and thought never comes—and
                with joy you realize for the first time
                “Thinking’s just like not thinking—
                So I don’t have to think

As an Eastern discipline unpolluted by the West, haiku gave Kerouac an immediate connection to a power source—to the “emptiness” he felt to be at the very heart of things. “I saw heaven,” he writes in The Scripture of the Golden Eternity,

In it nothing had ever happened, the events of a million years ago were just as phantom and ungraspable as the events of now or of a million years from now, or the events of the next ten minutes. It was perfect, the golden solitude, the golden emptiness . . .

At the same time, however, haiku grounded Kerouac. His Japhy Ryder says,

Walking in this country you could understand the perfect gems of haikus the Oriental poets had written, never getting drunk in the mountains or anything but just going along as fresh as children writing down what they saw without literary devices or fanciness of expression . . . A real haiku’s gotta be as simple as porridge and yet make you see the real thing, like the greatest haiku of them all probably is the one that goes “The sparrow hops along the veranda, with wet feet.” By Shiki. You see the wet footprints like a vision in your mind and yet in those few words you also see the rain that’s been falling that day and almost smell the wet pine needles.


Such “haiku moments” are powerfully epiphanic and often of considerable complexity—but they also tend to be a-historical. Kerouac remarked that “everything takes place in the present tense” and insisted that the immediacy of haiku involved “the discipline of pointing out things directly, purely, concretely, no abstractions or explanations, wham wham the true blue song of man.”
      In the “simple” form of haiku, Kerouac could find a kind of double escape from “suffering.” As he merged with the object before him (haiku as immediate description, “the real thing . . . without literary devices or fanciness of expression”), he lost the ego sense which was the major feature of his suffering—yet, as a meditative form (as in the example from Nicholas Virgilio), haiku was also capable of transcending the world, of escaping it entirely. Indeed, haiku offered Kerouac the pleasures of a religious practice blissfully free of some of the deep problems of Western spirituality. “To the Japanese mind,” writes R. H. Blyth, “there does not exist that tremendous gulf between us and God on the one hand, and animals, trees and stones on the other”:
      Haiku shows a democracy among its subjects . . . Take the following as an example. [Blyth quotes Tairo: “The frozen brush / Was burnt / In the flame of the lamp.”] The brush and the poet, all have their own “personalities”; the spirit of life is working in all of them.
      For Kerouac this “spirit of life” would surely be the Holy Ghost. Asked about his method of composition, Kerouac answered, “[I] just sit down and let it flow out of me”:

It’s a spontaneous flow that comes, and nobody could understand what I was talking about when I said you should just open up and let it come out. It’s the Holy Ghost that comes through you. You don’t have to be a Catholic to know what I mean, and you don’t have to be a Catholic for the Holy Ghost to speak through you.


For haiku, Kerouac wrote in a notebook, “Keep the eye STEADILY on the object.” “WRITE HAIKUS THEN PAINT THE SCENE DESCRIBING THEM!” Regina Weinreich points out that Kerouac “likened good haiku to good painting. The best haiku gave him ‘the sensation I get looking at a great painting by Van Gogh, it’s there & nothing you can say or do about it, except look in dismay at the power of looking.’”[5] Surprisingly for this advocate of “spontaneous flow,” Kerouac remarked in the Paris Review that “haiku is best reworked and revised.” The form is, however, nonetheless “the poetry of a New Holy Lunacy like that of ancient times (Li Po, Han Shan, Tom O Bedlam, Kit Smart, Blake) . . .”
      “It takes a powerful ego, “ remarked Eric Mottram in his introduction to The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, “to plunge without irretrievable damage into a scripture of selflessness”:

The Word which the beats of On the Road awaited did not come from the form they shaped . . . The Word of Silence in fact came from the East but not as an ancient guru. It came through the old invitation taken up from Confucius, Thoreau and Pound, “Make it New,” through direct study of the Buddhist path. That field of power vibrated for Emerson and for Whitman and still invites the young in America. Kerouac spent his mature life in that field. . . .


It is precisely this “field of power” to which Beat Generation haiku points and of which—no matter how trivial any individual example may seem—it is a visible manifestation. Haiku for Beat Generation writers was not only a poetic form but an emblem of their problematical quest for freedom. Mottram goes on to speak of Kerouac’s and others’ “refusal to be held captive by the history of the West”; Kerouac, he insists, “lived out strategies of survival for the changing self”:

How could he, a man of overflowing boundaries, live in a world of boundaries held rigid with coercion from the State and its educational agents?


In a recent article published in Threepenny Review, Michael McClure writes of Kenneth Rexroth’s “talk about The Pacific Rim”:

he told us that we were part of the West Coast and we had more in common with Japan, China, Korea, than we did with Paris and London. New Yorkers related to the capitals of Europe; we could relate otherwise and be natural with Asian religious and philosophical ideas and ways of seeing and making art. As a person of the Pacific Rim, I could experience history in a different way . . .


A description of McClure’s own haiku—like much of his work centered on the page, not limited to three lines, simultaneously playful and experimental—would require a paper as long as this one. Here are two examples, both from his book, Plum Stones: Cartoons of No Heaven:

the chunky cat’s



And this for the late Philip Whalen:

In the lion’s eye


The use of haiku allows the poet to experience poetry “in a different way.”
      But I should give the last word to Jack Kerouac. In this haiku, one of his finest, he tells of the utter futility of human endeavor—doomed from the start to fail—and yet also suggests the unending impulse to talk about that endeavor, to achieve consciousness. “The Way of Haiku arises from concentration and lack of distraction,” wrote Bashō. “Look well within yourself.” Kerouac adds,

                Useless! useless!
                —heavy rain driving
                Into the sea

More on “Beat Haiku”

Michael Dylan Welch, prominent haiku writer, haiku activist, and editor of Tundra: The Journal of the Short Poem, was unable to be present at the Haiku Society of America national meeting, held December 6, 2003 at Fort Mason in San Francisco—so I emailed him my paper on “Beat Haiku.” The following email exchange resulted. —Jack Foley

      by Michael Dylan Welch and Jack Foley


Hi Jack, Just reading your Beat Haiku essay, particularly this quotation from Ginsberg:

It has to be adapted to an American form, and I think that it should be a simple declarative sentence-a beginning, middle, and end, subject, verb, object-otherwise, it depends on taking the attitude of the haiku and writing it in three sections, having “ing, ing, ing,” you know. Sitting at the table. Watching the sunlight coming in. Drinking coffee. Dot dot dot. It’s not a complete sentence, and it doesn’t make any sense. If you can make it into a complete sentence and it still has a spark, that’s where you see if it makes it on its own or if it depends on taking the attitude of a haiku.


      One thing that Ginsberg seems to have seriously misunderstood about haiku (and I base this on much more than just the above statement) is that haiku in Japanese (and now other languages) has TWO parts. It’s emphatically NOT a sentence, even in Japanese. The most important aspect of a haiku is not form or the season word or nature or objectivity. Rather, what’s most important is the pause/juxtaposition of the poem’s two parts. This caesura is indicated in traditional Japanese haiku with a “kireji” or “cutting word” (a participle such as “ya,” “kana,” and so on), not having any specific meaning, but roughly equivalent to punctuation marks we might use in our poetry. Without this two-part structure, so leading haiku theorists in Japan strongly maintain, a poem is generally not a haiku. Thus Ginsberg’s perspective, no matter how intractable he might have been on the subject, simply lacks sufficient understanding. Ginsberg is right that haiku needs to be adapted to an American form, but for him to say it should be a simple declarative sentence indicates a misunderstanding of haiku in Japanese. Ginsberg is also right in complaining about too much gerund usage in some English-language haiku. But this is not the fault of avoiding the “single sentence” structure, and it is also something that skilled haiku poets know how to avoid (or rather, control, for having one gerund in a haiku now and then is not a problem). For Ginsberg to claim that haiku “doesn’t make any sense” if it’s “not a complete sentence” is an unfortunate discreditation of Japanese haiku, for haiku in Japanese are not complete sentences either! This is not to say that what Ginsberg created under the rubric of “American sentences” is without merit. They are sometimes entirely pithy and effective as poetry or as engaging writing. But their relationship to haiku is minimal at best, in my opinion, or at least predicated on a serious misunderstanding of haiku. Of course you do not present Ginsberg’s comment as something you either endorse or disclaim, but why, then, do you quote it? In any event, what I’ve just written is likely to be a common reaction from the haiku folks you meet at the HSA meeting, even if they might not voice this reaction. [Jack Foley’s note: people spoke to me extensively after the presentation: no one voiced that reaction.] Any thoughts? Michael


You write, “One thing that Ginsberg seems to have seriously misunderstood about haiku (and I base this on much more than just the above statement) is that haiku in Japanese. . . .”
      Ginsberg is specifically saying that one should avoid the Japanese attitude. Note that I begin the quotation with “Ginsberg answered that he wished to “make a distinction” between his work and “imitation Japanese haiku.” He is claiming to use haiku not as a form in itself but as the basis of a new American form—which is why he doesn’t call these poems haiku but “American sentences.” I quote it because it seems an interesting development of Kerouac’s thinking—we can see immediately, at the beginning of the essay, where Kerouac’s thinking leads. (Kerouac’s “American Haiku” becomes Ginsberg’s “American Sentences”—the word haiku is avoided altogether—and the to me quite interesting insistence on making the poem into a sentence.) Ginsberg wrote something closer to “imitation Japanese haiku” in his collection Mostly Sitting Haiku.
Have you read anything more of the essay? Jack


Hmmm. Maybe we needn’t get into this too deeply, but here’s a quick response. I think it’s fine for Ginsberg to have made a distinction between his work and imitation Japanese haiku. But what, then, is all the work in Cor van den Heuvel’s anthology? The best haiku in the American haiku scene left behind the “imitation Japanese” problem decades ago. Newbies still imitate with some regularity, but that’s something they need to work through. Mostly Sitting Haiku, in my opinion, contains mostly poor haiku attempts, whether imitation or not. Imitation is a problem, to be sure, but it seems he’s rejected more than just imitation. Moreover, the basic two-part structure that one can put in a poem such as haiku is not a “Japanese attitude.” It’s a common juxtapositional technique present in other art, east and west, and a simple example is the montage or cutting techniques in film—in a movie, going from one cut to another can imply action or emotion or other things. It’s a sort of compression that a good haiku achieves regularly. Painting, too, often juxtaposes elements to create tension and energy and meaning. What’s lacking in Ginsberg’s statement is a clearer understanding of the necessary two-part structure of haiku (in Japanese or English). I have no serious quarrel with what Ginsberg created. However, if he was saying that his “American sentences” were a replacement for haiku in English (presuming that haiku using the two-part structure couldn’t be done in English?), then that’s what’s misguided in his statement. If he’s not saying that, then his statement may have value in how his “American sentences” are an outgrowth (stepping in a new direction, becoming less related to haiku in English) of Kerouac’s statement. What Ginsberg was wise to know was that his “American sentences” definitely weren’t haiku. However, it also seems that he rejected haiku—throwing the baby out with the bath water in the process of rejecting imitation (rejecting it is a good thing) while not embracing the many good things about haiku—things that are possible in English.
Perhaps an arbiter on this matter is that the Haiku Society of America has existed since 1968. There’s no “American Sentences Society.” What does that say? Cheers, Michael

P.S. An afterthought: Those who write haiku seriously in the West are not writing “imitation” Japanese haiku. For more information about what I believe they are writing, have you seen my essay, “Becoming a Haiku Poet”?


You write, “Perhaps an arbiter on this matter is that the Haiku Society of America has existed since 1968. There’s no “American Sentences Society.” What does that say?”
Frankly, almost nothing.
      As far as I can tell, your argument here is with Ginsberg—go to it. But it really has very little to do with my paper. Ginsberg does seem to be criticizing haiku written by Americans—not the Japanese versions. The Japanese don’t write “-ing -ing -ing.”
      As I suggest at the beginning of my paper, a similar argument to yours could be made about the sonnet as used by Ted Berrigan or Robert Duncan—both of whom wrote “free verse” sonnets. Do Berrigan and Duncan observe the two-part structure of the sonnet (usually divided into 8 lines and then 6)? What about rhyme—which they ignore for the most part. As far as I know, no one—not even the formalists—is making such an argument. I don’t want to enter into the question of whether Ginsberg’s (or anybody’s) haiku are really haiku—any more than I would want to enter into the question of whether various poets’ villanelles are really villanelles or sonnets sonnets or triolets triolets. I don’t feel the need to do that. My paper is about the meaning of the form to the Beats—not about whether they were reproducing the form accurately.
It does seem to me interesting that the kind of formalist concern you evidence vis-a-vis haiku isn’t one that shows up (in other poets) very much vis-a-vis other forms. It is after all part of the legacy of Modernism that an insistence on exact form should be diminished, not increased. (Not abolished: diminished. Cf. Pound’s “Villanelle: The Psychological Hour.” There’s been plenty of criticism of Pound, but I don’t think any of it has complained that “Villanelle: The Psychological Hour” isn’t really a villanelle.)
      You asked me about differences between haiku poets and poets in general. Possibly one of the differences is the need to make the kind of argument you’re making. (In saying this, I’m assuming that you’re representative of haiku poets—an assumption which you seem to share.)
      Ginsberg’s passage will, at any rate, be read aloud when I present my paper. I’ll let you know what reaction it gets—if any. Jack


If Ginsberg thinks that Americans included too many gerunds in their haiku, well, then he probably wasn’t reading enough good haiku. Honestly, I think that’s the problem. Why react to the failings of the less-than-competent? The Japanese language, as I understand it, enables them to write without needing a first-person actor in the poem (if they choose to do so), and I don’t think they need gerunds to try to get around self-reference. They include personal pronouns (nothing wrong with that), but I understand that the “no -ing” idea isn’t relevant to haiku in Japanese because there’s no equivalent in Japanese. A poor translator is just as likely to include too many “-ing” words in a poem as an American haiku poet might. Do you think Americans write too many “-ing” haiku? Sure, gerunds exist in some American haiku, but not all of them are bad. I don’t think anyone is promoting as “good” haiku any poems that have two or more “-ing” words in them, and only rarely do they favor a poem that has one! I honestly believe that Ginsberg was criticizing not the best of American haiku, nor even the standards for general goodness, but was criticizing the worst of American haiku, or at least work that fell below good standards. Anyway, yes, I’m criticizing Ginsberg, not your paper at all, which I like very much. Meanwhile, regarding the “similar argument” concerning the “free-verse” sonnet (Berrigan, Duncan, and maybe you could include Cummings, too, with some of his variations), and relating that to haiku, I actually think there’s a significant difference that makes that attempted parallel invalid. Traditional sonnets have a long history and set patterns—in English. Though of course originally Italian, there is a long-established form in English. Haiku, though, is compounded by being formal in Japanese (in traditional haiku only—there are plenty of nonformal haiku in Japan!). The language differences make the formal requirement of 5-7-5 essentially irrelevant in English, despite it being taught that way by some people. This is old news, and something that even the Japanese have recognized in high-profile declarations regarding international haiku. They have emphasized the value of the two-part juxtapositional structure more than anything else—more, even, than season words. I guess the question is, do we consider Berrigan and Duncan sonnets to be sonnets or not? They’re certainly in the context of sonnets. And the poem itself always matters more than whatever form it might or might not use (which is why I can value Ginsberg’s poems that he calls “American sentences,” without regard to whether they’re haiku or not). But in contrast, free-form or organic haiku are not merely “in the context of haiku.” Rather, they are the center of serious haiku in English, with 5-7-5 versions generally being the province of pseudo-haiku (honku, spam-ku, sci-fi haiku, etc.), and on the fringe of what is recognized as necessary for the poem to be a haiku by the best haiku poets/translators/critics/scholars. Getting back to Ginsberg for a moment. In The Source, which I think we’ve talked about, he is shown near the end of the film walking about 42nd Street, taking photos of haiku up on the old theater marquees. The haiku were by many prominent haiku poets who were members of the Haiku Society of America. He knew Alan Pizzarelli and Bill Higginson and a few other good haiku poets who had haiku there, though I don’t know if he knew whose poems he was photographing, as the names were not included on the marquees. But he admired that work, I’m fairly certain. (I would wonder why he was taking those photos, if not!) I maintain, though, that there’s a disconnect in what he criticized about haiku in English and what the best haiku in English routinely accomplish without being imitative of Japanese and without over-”-ing”-ing. You say this: “You asked me about differences between haiku poets and poets in general. Possibly one of the differences is the need to make the kind of argument you’re making.” I think the reason for this is that I as a haiku poet see a disconnect in the way some people perceive haiku in English, and I don’t understand why they don’t see the disconnect. There’s the camp that teaches that haiku’s a 5-7-5 form in English, something long-ago debunked and dismissed by numerous poets and scholars and critics (though the public and most teachers typically seem blissfully unaware of this). This camp typically has little further knowledge of haiku (season words, controlling objectivity/subjectivity, two-part juxtaposition/pause, etc.). Then there’s the camp of serious people like Ginsberg or Kerouac—serious writers. Kerouac had it right in his understanding, though in practice his freewheeling unedited style led to many weak poems—short poems that perhaps accomplished something regardless of whether they were haiku or not. He also was open to playing with things—creating “pops” and other variations, probably knowing full well how they departed from haiku. But it seems that Kerouac did know how to get haiku right when he wanted to, and he did so with some frequency (as did Richard Wright, though his work has its own problems). Ginsberg nearly never got haiku right. He too played with poems, creating “American sentences” and other variations, but I would say that where Kerouac played, he did it in the context of knowing “real” haiku better, but that Ginsberg didn’t. It is extremely easy to dismiss (as haiku) nearly everything Ginsburg wrote that could be thought of as being in that ballpark. There are clear haiku strategies that Ginsberg over and over exhibits either an ignorance of or a deliberate dismissal of. In either case, his lack of understanding or lack of sufficient mastery of these strategies makes his comments on haiku suspect. Will be interested to hear what reaction there is to your reading of the Ginsberg quotation, if any. Hopefully, people will be more focused on the rest of the essay, and quite likely most of the people there haven’t studied Ginsberg’s haiku and comments about haiku that much. In the book of essays that Lee Gurga and I are doing for an academic publisher, we have considered two very detailed essays on Ginsberg’s haiku, so that’s part of the context I’m speaking from. All for now, Michael


You ask, “Do you think Americans write too many ‘-ing’ haiku?”
Actually, I have no idea. I do think that trying out the idea that a haiku should be a complete sentence is an interesting one. There are certainly plenty of ing ing ing haiku—as you say, good and bad ones. Kerouac wrote some. G’s American sentences—unlike his earlier haiku—are 17 syllables, so that’s an issue in this work as well. I think Ginsberg was aware that his remarks might make some people angry.
      I don’t think the sonnet parallel is invalid. All your arguments proceed from a notion of form which exists prior to any individual poem and which can be used as a way of judging such poems. It’s just that people evidently feel less strongly about the form, sonnet, than you do about the form, haiku. Which Cummings poems were you thinking about? He usually sticks fairly close to a traditional form when he uses one—as does Dylan Thomas. Both these poets vary the form to some degree, but not really in a radical way. Peyton Houston, on the other hand, is certainly experimenting with the form of a sonnet—but Robert M. Bender and Charles L. Squier, the editors of The Sonnet: An Anthology, saw no problem in including his work in their book.
      Something about Kerouac’s work which interests me is his reading haiku to jazz accompaniment. I strongly dislike the habit of haiku writers of reading their poems twice so that people will “get” them. I get it I get it. In fact, I suspect, most audience members could (if they tried) immediately recite the haiku back to the speaker word for word: we’ve just heard it. I think that practice of reading the poem twice proceeds from a quite false idea of the nature of people’s attention—and makes for a very boring reading. Kerouac doesn’t do that at all—yet the poems come across quite well.


Yes, Cummings’ sonnets are not nearly as radical a departure as some people think they are. But they are by far the most common single type of “form” poem he wrote. I once read somewhere about the percentage of sonnets relative to the rest of his published work, and it think it may have been something like 30 or 40 percent. He obviously extended the form to suit his own needs, and the form seems malleable enough to accommodate that extension. Perhaps haiku is also similarly malleable (I would like to hope so). But there is a point with sonnets and with haiku where the poem is no longer either a sonnet or a haiku. Because the two-part juxtapositional structure is so fundamental to the haiku, I believe that Ginsberg’s concept of “American sentences” goes too far—to be considered haiku. Another relevant question is whether the extension or variation of the sonnet is done in the context of deep knowledge of the traditional sonnet (in Cummings’ case) or out of ignorance. I fear that too many of the variations and extensions of haiku are done out of ignorance rather than knowledge—and maybe not ignorance of haiku in Japanese (though there’s lots of that!), but at least ignorance of haiku in English. (I suspect the editors of The Sonnet: An Anthology were interested in showing the range of the sonnet’s possibilities, maybe even allowing poems beyond the range, for the sake of providing a broad context, just as Cor van den Heuvel’s haiku anthology, especially the second edition, included concrete/visual “haiku” as well as the occasional tanka.) Yes, I too have had a growing dislike of reading haiku twice, and generally don’t do that myself. You want people to get the poem (no matter how short or long), of course, but that just means that you as the reader have to get and maintain the audience’s attention. Or the poem should do so. Reading the poem twice is a cop-out. If an espresso machine goes off, I don’t mind re-reading a poem, but that’s different. If you have a chance, go to the haiku reading that’s planned for December 11th [2003] at the Asian Art Museum (with shakuhachi accompaniment). One of the readers will be Ebba Story, who I think is a very fine reader of haiku. I don’t know what her plan will be, but I hope she’ll stick to reading each haiku just once, as I’ve seen her mostly do in the past. An interesting variation on reading the haiku twice is something I’ve seen Steve Sanfield do. He’ll read a poem, pause about the length it took him to read the poem, and then, sometimes, he will repeat just one line of the poem, maybe two. It can be very effective if done judiciously—and not too often. Reading the poem just once, if done well, is generally better, though, I agree. When Kerouac reads a poem just once in his recordings, though, that’s different, because his was a recorded performance. I don’t know of any professionally recorded performances of haiku (on CD or tape) where the poems are ever read twice.


Well, I heard them initially on the radio (on KPFA!) so it was essentially the same as a live performance. I couldn’t play the record again.


In a formal live performance, especially with music, I don’t know of any haiku writer who reads his or her haiku twice. By “formal” I don’t mean your garden variety bookstore or coffeeshop poetry reading, but a setting where there’s a stage and proscenium. I don’t know the full history of Kerouac’s “Haikus and Blues,” but it seems carefully orchestrated, even if the music might have been improvised. Anyway, I too wish haiku writers wouldn’t read their poems twice. The only time I usually do that is if I’m in a group setting and my saying that I’d prefer to read each poem just once would seem to be an impolite judgment on others reading twice. Anyway, I wouldn’t use a recording as a model for what to do in an informal reading, because the situations are different (this is what I could hear someone saying in defense of reading twice).


I wasn’t advocating using a recording as a model. My point was that I heard the haiku Kerouac spoke only once—and they communicated fine! But I think we’re more or less agreed on this one.
I added the following footnote to my paper:

James Broughton’s delightful, sometimes hilarious “high kukus”—written under the influence of Alan Watts as well as various substances (“high kukus”)—are still another special case:

They keep cutting me off, said the Whisker, but that will never stop me.

There’s nothing I like better, said the Sun, than throwing some light on the subject.



I have a copy of Broughton’s High-kukus. They are lots of fun, often irreverent in a Bukowski sort of way, if I’m remembering them rightly. But are they haiku? Given my understanding on what haiku typically require tonally and subjectwise (in Japan and here), I’d say no. The Broughton examples you shared are merely brief witticisms. Are you familiar with the term “zappai”? It is an umbrella term for poems that are more of the pseudo-haiku variety, and I think it’s the best term to apply to some of Broughton’s “haiku”—and some of Kerouac’s “pops,” too. You can read an essay by Lee Gurga on haiku aesthetics that talks about zappai at [no longer available; instead, see]. The problem with the notion of haiku by many Western mainstream poets is that they see only one of numerous requirements for the genre (whether 5-7-5 if they think that’s relevant, or even just pithiness and brevity), and follow just that “rule” in thinking they have written a haiku. But there’s much more to it than that. If one wrote a sonnet without the “turn” in it (especially if written without knowledge that sonnets usually have such a turn), it would be a “lesser” sonnet (though it might be a perfectly good poem). Same with haiku. So much of what is trotted out as haiku (Paul Muldoon has a bunch in Hay, for example) lacks most of the necessities for what makes the poem a haiku—in English and Japanese. Ginsberg’s “American sentences” are a prime example, insofar as he intends them as a replacement for haiku in English. Kerouac’s “pops” are a further example, though much of his other work does reach or approach a fuller haiku sensibility. Broughton’s work (if I may generalize about them without going back to reread them to be certain) also lack many of the requirements for haiku, and thus I would say they are not haiku—though they are often fun and witty, as well as brief. They are merely masquerading as haiku. Some may be senryu. But most, I would say, if anything, are zappai.


You write, “But there’s much more to it than that. If one wrote a sonnet without the ‘turn’ in it (especially if written without knowledge that sonnets usually have such a turn), it would be a ‘lesser’ sonnet (though it might be a perfectly good poem). Same with haiku.”
It interests me that no one makes that argument about sonnets. I agree that it’s parallel to what you say about haiku.
As for Broughton, the very title suggests the playfulness of the production. They are indeed far from any sort of classical haiku—yet without haiku Broughton’s poems would never have existed. Whether or not they actually “are” haiku—you make some good arguments in this area—haiku remains RELEVANT to them: i.e., one can’t dismiss the idea of haiku when one considers the poems. They’re like Berrigan’s sonnets: they have a REFERENCE to a form even if they are not full examples of the form. There are, incidentally, sonnets whose main “turn” comes at the end, with the couplet—not after the first eight lines. Frost’s “Design” would be one: the whole poem shifts at that last line, “If design govern in a thing so small.”


what shall we name it? baby or bathwater?
answer: we’re dealing only with words . . .


Eva hated her name. She hated it because it suggested the mother of mankind and all the dreadful history instituted by the mother of mankind. She hated it because backwards it was “ave,”which meant hello. She also hated all derivatives of the name such as “Evelyn” or “Ava.” When asked why she didn’t change her name, she said, “I can’t change it, it’s my name. Even if I changed it, I’d still be Eva wouldn’t I.”
One day she met a man named George who had always hated his name. He decided he would rather be called Adam, a name which, to him, radiated both myth and history. At first Eva was horrified: to meet someone named Adam seemed the height of a historical joke played upon her by fate. Adamo me fecit, she thought. Then she began to be interested. She thought perhaps it was her fate to be joined to some Adam or other. She didn’t know that Adam was really George. They began seeing each other and eventually fell in love and got married. She took his name.
Their first child was named Mary, but Mary hated the name and called herself “Azalia,” for a flower she had always favored. She named her first child “Azalia,” too, but Azalia decided that Francine was a much more interesting name and that she wished to be a Francine, not an Azalia. Francine had a middle name, Rose, and she liked that but hated it when people called her “Rosy” so she changed her name to “Thorn.” Marla thought her name was too feminine and changed it to Sami with only one m and an i. Amelia liked her name because it seemed old fashioned—it reminded her of quilts and old books—but she fumed when people called her Amy, which was an altogether different name. Harry thought his name too British and changed it to the more Irish Michael. John soon became Jack. Everett had to explain that his first name was really a last name, so he changed his name to Fred. Maurice thought his name was too French and re-dubbed himself “Big John.” Harriet wished to have a name which was entirely female and not a derivative of a male name so she became Virginia. Elizabeth was Eliza to her friends but Lizzy to the people who only thought they knew her but didn’t. Manny said his name was too much like an Al Jolson song; his friends agreed, so they called him “Al.” You can call me almost anything, said Carl, so long as you don’t call me late to dinner. Call me a cab, said Peter. You’re a cab, said Violet. I’m BAD, explained Alphonso.



On poems that “have a REFERENCE to a form even if they are not full examples of the form”: You once wrote to me that these sorts of poems (that I might not call “haiku”) do at least make an “allusion” to the form, or that some poems (I think we were talking about Michael McClure’s haiku) are offered with the haiku genre as a reference point—in other words, here are some poems, and the reader might want to think about haiku in approaching them. Actually, I wonder if the notion of haiku is used by some poets as a way to “excuse” short poems? Does that make sense? In other words, if a poet offers a short poem, whether it’s really a haiku or not, perhaps labeling it as a haiku or associating it with haiku is an attempt to “justify” the shortness because the shortness of a haiku is respected (whereas shortness in other poetry might not be). If so, this is a complement to haiku. As for sonnets, I’ve always understood that the turn can come just before the last two lines (Shakespeare has plenty of those) as well as after the first eight lines.


“Design” turns on the very last line. Does that make it a “lesser” sonnet?


In answer to your riddle:     +

                A rose
by any other name is
still a rose.
The map is
not the thing.
The name is
not the thing.
In the beginning was
the word,
and the word
was God.
By naming the animals
in the Garden of Eden,
Adam and Eve
asserted dominance
over them.
You can decide to call
a cupcake a billboard,
but no one
will understand you.
Haiku is a word
for a genre of poetry
whose popular perception
does not match
its literary reality.
What is called haiku
may or may not
be a haiku,
but he who calls it
a haiku
may feel
that he has dominion
over what he has written
because he has given it
a name.
The Tao that can be
is not
the true


[1] In his article, “Samadhi,” Michael Comans writes, “The word Samadhi became a part of the vocabulary of a number of Western intellectuals toward the end of the 1930s and from there filtered down into the general lexicon . . . [T]he technical meaning of Samadhi [is] a meditative absorption or enstasis”: Samadhi has two stages, samprajana-samadhi, or an enstasis where there is still object-consciousness, and asamprajata-samadhi or nirbija-samadhi, where there is no longer any object-consciousness . . . The point to be noted about yoga is that its whole soteriology is based upon the suppression of mental fluctuations so as to pass firstly into samprajana-samadhi and from there, thrugh the complete suppression of all mental fluctuations, into asamprajata-samadhi, in which the Self remains solely in and as itself without being hidden by external, conditioning factors imposed by the mind . . . Duality, such as the fundamental distinction between subject and object, is obliterated in deep sleep and in Samadhi, as well as in other conditions such as fainting, but duality is only temporarily obliterated for it reappears when one awakes from sleep or regains consciousness after fainting, and it also reappears when the yoga arises from Samadhi. In The Way of Zen, Alan J. Watts writes,


This nonduality of the mind, in which it is no longer divided against itself, is samadhi, and because of the disappearance of that fruitless threshing around of the mind to grasp itself, samadhi is a state of profound peace. This is not the stillness of total inactivity, for, once the mind returns to its natural state, samadhi persists at all times, in “walking, standing, sitting, and lying.” But, from the earliest times, Buddhism has especially emphasized the practice of recollectedness and contemplation while sitting.

 [2] Kerouac’s readings of haiku point towards another issue. Many haiku writers read their poems twice so that people will “get” them. I find myself wanting to respond, “I get it, I get it.” In fact, I suspect, most audience members could immediately recite the haiku back to the speaker word for word: we’ve just heard it. I think the practice of reading the poem twice proceeds from a quite false idea of the nature of people’s attention—and makes for a very boring reading. Kerouac doesn’t do that at all, yet the poems come across quite well.

[3] Kenneth Rexroth’s opinion of Zen monasteries was recorded by Lew Welch:


“Shit, Snyder,

you know what

they do in

those monasteries

—you’ll come back

with your asshole


the size

of a wagon


said Rexroth


See Jack Kerouac, Albert Saijo, Lew Welch, Trip Trap: Haiku on the Road.

[4] James Broughton’s delightful, sometimes hilarious “high kukus”—written under the influence of Alan Watts as well as various substances (“high kukus”)—are still another special case:


They keep cutting me off,

said the Whisker,

but that will never stop me.




There’s nothing I like better,

said the Sun,

than throwing some light on the subject.

[5] The quotation suggests that Kerouac is thinking more specifically of Van Gogh than he is of “good painting” as such. Van Gogh is famous for his capacity to render the is-ness of his subjects, the sense of presence. Cf. Martin Heidegger’s discussion of Van Gogh in “The Origin of the Work of Art”: “To know means to have seen, in the widest sense of seeing, which means to apprehend what is present, as such. For Greek thought the nature of knowing consists in aletheia, that is, in the uncovering of beings.” Cf. also William Carlos Williams’ “red wheelbarrow” poem and Pound’s notion of “Imagism,” both of which contribute to the interest in haiku.