Megan Klein

Jack Kerouac and George Swede

Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2001

Megan Klein

Megan's Essay on
Jack Kerouac

A Comparison: Jack and George

Jack Kerouac made a name for himself as one of the Beat Poets in the 50’s and 60’s, an American pop culture icon. He influenced a whole generation and literary genre, introducing the method of "spontaneous writing." He changed ideas about what was literature, and how to write. He was also influential in bringing haiku to the West. While studying Buddhism, he discovered this Japanese form of poetry, and immediately took to it. He interpreted the haiku form for the west, creating a new form of haiku different from traditional Japanese haiku, calling it "Western haiku." This type of haiku was not restricted to seventeen syllables, or explicitly tied to nature. Kerouac though that haiku should "simply say a lot in three short lines." Kerouac experimented with haiku in its infancy in the West, laying the groundwork for future work with the genre.

One of the authors working in this genre today is Canadian George Swede. Though he does not have the acclaim Kerouac did, he is still a leading figure in contemporary haiku. He has won numerous awards for his work as a haiku author, and also works diligently as an editor for other collections of haiku. He also is reinventing the haiku as Kerouac did, expanding and condensing it as creatively needed. He feels haiku does not need to be three lines, "it can have one, two, four or more." His criteria is that haiku must be in the present tense "which creates a sense of the here-and-now that characterizes all genuine haiku."

I wanted to compare Kerouac to a contemporary author. Though Kerouac might be considered as contemporary, I wanted an author who was writing now. Haiku was in its infancy in America and Canada when Kerouac experimented, and has come so far since then. There are one line haiku, concrete haiku that literally create a picture out of words, as well as three line haiku. The subject matter covered in haiku is also being changed. Once it was nature and the essense of the moment, but now there is less nature in some authors work, and more controversial topics being explored. The formula of haiku is still being experimented with, and the question that Kerouac wondered, "what is haiku?" is still asked. Because it is a continually changing genre, I felt that comparing an author of today to an author of the past could show how much or how little things in haiku have changed.

To compare these two authors, I used matched pair excercises. This puts similarly themed haiku from each other together side-by-side, followed by a comparative analysis. I first picked five haiku of Kerouac that I liked because I was more familiar with his work than with Swede’s. I also had a small pool of Kerouac’s work to draw from, and I thought it would be easier to find similar haiku to Kerouac’s in Swede’s work because I had more of Swede’s work. I anticipated that I would find just enough similar haiku in Swede’s work for the five haiku I had picked from Kerouac. I was very surprised to discover that I found much more similar themed haiku than expected. Going through Almost Unseen, I would read a haiku that reminded me of a Kerouac haiku that I had not originally selected. I ended up with a long list of comprable haiku. I had a difficult time limiting my matched pair selections, but I think I picked the best representatives of each authors work.

Catfish fighting for his life,
and winning,
Splashing us all.

Kerouac, 72, Scattered Poems

windless summer day
the gentle tug of the current
on the fishing pole

Swede, 22, Almost Unseen

These two haiku both have the same initial effect on me--they remind me of my father, an avid fisherman. Countless hours of my childhood were spent on a the boat with Dad baiting my hook and teaching me to cast. Both sides of fishing are captured in these two haiku. Kerouac pictures the moment of excitement, the ultimate of fishing, when the big one is on the line. Swede depicts the more common experience- the wait. I think I can relate more to Swede’s haiku than Kerouac’s.

I said my dad was an avid fisherman, I never said anything about his skill! Swede’s haiku is relaxed and the focus is not really on the fishing. This is my kind of fishing—line in the water, nothing happening, not paying much attention. Kerouac’s haiku is full of action--my dad’s kind of fishing, which really tests his knowledge of being a fisherman. Swede’s haiku also has an element of humor in it—instead of a fish tugging at the line, it is the current, nothing more. Kerouac, while still showing fun and excitement, also brings in the reality of fishing, describing the catfish as "fighting for his life." I think the ironic thing in these two poems is that the wait comes after the fight, meaning that Swede came later in haiku, after Kerouac.

In my medicine cabinet,
the winter fly
Has died of old age.

Kerouac, 74, Scattered Poems

first frost
only a dead fly
     in the mailbox

Swede, 106, Almost Unseen

These two haiku have the same subject—discovery of a dead fly. Swede brings humor into the haiku, while Kerouac’s is more somber. Swede’s haiku focuses on the disappointment of not receiving any mail, while Kerouac’s is focused on the death of the fly. We know that flies have a short lifespan, so this fly could not have been in there long. But realizing the short life of a fly reminds me that life is also short for us. Swede’s haiku is ironic; hoping for some mail, a dead fly is found instead. This haiku is not as deep as Kerouac’s, but I can still relate to it. I know the feeling of an empty mailbox. I can relate literally to Swede, but figuratively to Kerouac.

The moon had
a cat’s mustache
For a second

Kerouac, 74, Scattered Poems

      wind change
the tumbleweed now chases
       the kitten

Swede, 27, Almost Unseen

I really like these two haiku because the subject is the mischievous nature of cats. I am a "cat person," though I hate to use that term. From reading their collections of haiku, I would say the same for Kerouac and Swede. I know that Kerouac had a "beloved cat," as one caption read underneath a picture in a biography. I do not know that much about Swede, but there are numerous examples in his work about cats, and all are written in a playful tone, showing a true understanding and appreciation of cats. Here is a perfect example. Swede’s haiku shows a vivid picture of a playful kitten. The predator has become the prey. Though it has been a while since my cats have been kittens, I can still see the image in this haiku, and see how Swede appreciates the playful nature of cats.

Kerouac does the same thing, even incorporating some humor in his haiku. Knowing that cats are curious and nocturnal creatures, it comes as no surprise that the two haiku I came across in Kerouac’s work also dealt with nighttime and the moon. I can see the moment: on the edge of sleep, while looking out the window at the full moon, the sleepless cat intercedes the line of vision, and the moon is mustached by the curious whiskers. I think these are haiku that can be most appreciated by "cat people."

Straining at the padlock,
the garage doors
At noon

Kerouac, 73, Scattered Poems

sudden frost
a clothesline shirt
is hugging itself

Swede, 34, Almost Unseen

I chose these two haiku to compare because they both have the element of personification in them to their inanimate subjects. In Kerouac’s haiku, the garage doors are straining to be free of a padlock, while the shirt is hugging itself in the cold. Both can be read with out the personification, just as a common everyday occurrence. But I think that a lot is added with the personification. I think that it helps us relate to the haiku. I see the garage doors of Kerouac’s haiku as a metaphor for the struggles we go through everyday, our "padlocks." I do not know if this is what Kerouac intended when he wrote, but that is what I get from it. Again, I can read much deeper into Kerouac than Swede. With Swede, I see the personification used as humor—the shirt is cold, so it is hugging itself. I like the image it gives more than Kerouac, but I like the meaning in Kerouac’s more than Swede.

Looking at these two authors, I was amazed to find such similar subject matter. This shows me that while a lot has changed in the haiku genre in the years between Kerouac and Swede, a lot has remained the same. The genre has widely expanded, but the same subjects still appear, as I have shown with the haiku comparisons. Both authors have different styles. Swede uses more humor in his work, while I find deeper meaning in Kerouac’s work. I enjoy both authors work, but for these different reasons.

—Megan Klein


©2001 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors