Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2002

Joe Kramp

Joe's Haiku



Zen Aesthetics in the Haiku of
Randy Brooks and Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac and Randy Brooks have written haiku that exemplify the Zen experience. Their poems exemplify some or all of the 6 principles of Zen (according to Eric Amann’s The Wordless Poem: A study of Zen in Haiku): wordless, suchness, nothing special, seasonal word/element, selfless, and oneness.

In the following comparisons I hope to show the reader how their haiku is similar in its relation to Zen. However, I also hope to show that the means through which this was done was in finding different moments that stuck out in the minds of each poet. Therefore, the reader will see both the poets’ similarities in their use of Zen principles, but also the different choice of moments that were special to the different poets.

Nothing Special

at the mailbox
the postman’s dust
passes him

Brooks, School's Out, p.28

No telegram today
only more leaves

Kerouac, American Haiku, 1959

These poems are both very similar in that they are showing what is not special. There does not seem to be anything grand at all in these. In a society that spends virtually all its time trying to transcend itself with pop music, movies, erotic sex, and so on…these poets are trying to bring a dose of what is real back. As Eric Amann wrote in The Wordless Poem: A Study of Zen in Haiku, "the haiku poet does not seek out rare and precious moments of life." I think the tendency of human beings to seek out those rare and precious moments of life leads to discontentedness and instability. In other words, we seek out constantly what we don’t have. What these poets are doing in a poem like this is telling us that we do have what we need and we can be content. These poems bring great peace of mind.

Brooks’ postman is special and unique by the dust that surrounds him and the wind that uplifts his spirit. Kerouac has absolutely no anticipation here. Kerouac is content with watching the leaves fall. Here is a similar Kerouac poem:


Missing a kick
at the icebox door
It closed anyway.

Kerouac, Scattered Poems, 71


she couldn’t forgive
what she couldn’t forgive
grave sunken in

Brooks, School's Out, p.73

snap your finger
stop the world—
rain falls harder

Kerouac, American Haiku, 1959

These poems exemplify suchness. In Dr. Randy Brooks’s poems there is a tie to the past and a sense of legacy that is continuing. These two poems by Brooks and Kerouac give the reader a sense of what it means to be a mortal and to have very little control over anything in our life; despite how desperately we would like to think otherwise. Yet, in suchness, there is something to thrive in a being happy with these finite characteristics humans have.

The woman in Brooks’ poem simply could not forgive despite her desire too and now there is rest in the last line.

Kerouac’s poem seems to encompass so much passing time I feel like I went from age 13 to age 50 from the first to last line. In the beginning we test our abilities in our desire to be god like. We snap our fingers in anticipation of the fulfillment of our own selfish desires. Yet, just as we do that the rain falls harder on us and we are forced to accept our limits as finite beings. These growing experiences are things we should be happy about and rejoice in our growth and understanding of the mystery of our life. Instead of wishing we could be something else (like the person in Kerouac’s poem), our acceptance of life and the way things are gives us joy.


snowblind on the range:
homesteader feels
the barbwire home

Brooks, School's Out, p.5

Crossing the football field
coming home from work—
the lonely businessman.

Kerouac, American Haiku, 1959

Amman wrote, "Nietzsche has warned human beings that words can be illusory, that they give the impression that we have discovered something when we have only named it, that the existence of a word guarantees the existence of what it stands for: ‘Through words and concepts we are continually tempted to think of things as being simpler than they are, as separated from another, as indivisible, each existing in and for itself.’" For this reason haiku attempts to be brief and, through a process of atonement, show the interconnectedness of life and the reality of it.The words are not used to win an argument but to show what is real.

Brooks’ background of living on the Kansas flatland has given him insight into the life of the homesteader. Kerouac’s portrait of the lonely businessman shows the routine and depth of the simplistic black and white war waged on the football field and in American life that he has despised and rebelled against the majority of his life. Still, while different moments are important to both men their writing styles are linked to the Zen principle of wordlessness.


snow halfway up
all the windows . . .
the cat in heat

Brooks, School's Out, p.70

The summer chair
rocking by itself
In the blizzard

Kerouac, Scattered Poems, p.74

pinetree trimmings—
mating luna moths
fumble to the ground

Brooks, School's Out, p.35

Juju beads on the
Zen manual:
My knees are cold.

Kerouac, Scattered Poems, p.73

I consider the principle of oneness to be encompassing of all the haiku I have read by both these authors. There is nothing separate from the world to the self. Self and nature must exist in the same sphere just the same way our true life can be discovered in the service we give to other living things rather than to ourselves.

In the study of the world, students desire to separate religion from philosophy and English from economics. However, in the study of history, students must consider all aspects of life in one sphere. The world becomes decompartmentalized. This is the act of oneness in Zen and haiku poetry.


farmyard girl’s
apron full of eggs . . .
a curl dangles loose

Brooks, School's Out, p.32

Evening coming—
the office girl
Unloosening her scarf.

Kerouac, Scattered Poems, p.72

In both of these poet’s writings, they are champions of those considered little people. There is no talk of the fancy model walking down the runway, but instead the farmyard girl or the office girl performing dutiful tasks before the end of the day when the girl dangles loose or the scarf is unloosened and all order falls away. There is a beauty of the balance between order and freedom in the haiku’s of Brooks and Kerouac. These poems have nothing to do with Brooks or Kerouac. These poems do not feed the ego of the author. Therefore, they are completely selfless, as the authors became lost in the service to the world around them. The authors found joy in the world around them and in that act they became apart of the world. The journey to selfhood involves the discovery and contribution to the world around oneself.

Seasonal Element

toes dangle in the lake . . .
watermelon juice
drips off his chin

Brooks, School's Out, p.37

The bottoms of my shoes
are wet
from walking in the rain

Kerouac, Scattered Poems, p.74

These haiku, among others by these authors, show the seasonal elements and the changes humans go through in the cycle of the year. The season becomes the background for the rest of the poem to interact with. Brooks does not use one word or phrase to show that he is writing about summertime. Instead, he uses objects such as a watermelon and toes dangling in a lake to evoke the feeling of summertime. Kerouac’s poem has squeaky and wet shoes from the rain though we do not know if it is spring, summer, or fall rain. The seasons are contrasted with the dripping of the juice and the wet shoes that have squeaked their last as you leave them on the mat to dry.

In conclusion, the choice of moments between Brooks and Kerouac are very different. Brooks is writing a message that appears very optimistic and playful, while the poetry of Kerouac appears to have a message of depression. Despite Kerouac’s call for a deeper meaning to life than what the lonely businessman goes through every day, he seems to have found another type of lonely and depressing life. Kerouac’s interpretation of life as suffering and his loss of control of the world lead to his loss of control in himself. He cares not for how much he drinks and while continually appealing to standards (what people should and should not do), he refuses to recognize any kind of standard.

Brooks’ haiku epitomizes the true flourishing and happiness that Zen offers. His haiku is non-judgmental, compassionate, impartial, non-discriminatory, optimistic, and joyous. The significance with both authors work shows how our lives need to slow down to where we work on one thing at a time and refuse to get caught on working on multiple tasks and losing control of ourselves. This oneness, or peace of mind, is found in not trying to control the world (as Kerouac says) but to instead control the way we interpret the world. Brooks and Kerouac are calling for an internal act of self realization that changes one’s outlook on the world-that outlook can be whatever the person decides.

—Joe Kramp

©2002 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors