James Millikin Scholar Honors Project
Dr. Randy Brooks
Millikin University

Emily Evans
Millikin '05

Basho, Issa, Kerouac & Snyder
On the Road Haiku

Emily Evans


For the traveler – everything has a connection: the world becomes a scrapbook of memories and new experiences overlapping, which only increases the haiku writer’s ability to take a simple moment and understand the many inherent layers of meaning.

The four poets I chose for my project were natural travelers. They were restless to travel, and as Makoto Ueda states in his book, “Matsuo Basho,” that upon returning from a long period of travel, “Basho began preparing for the next journey almost immediately. It was as if the god of travel were beckoning him. Obsessed with the charms of a traveler’s life, he now wanted to go beyond his previous journeys; he wanted to be a truer wanderer than ever before”. Kerouac is also an example. Imagine Kerouac not on the road! The image seems impossible. Basho, Issa, Kerouac, and Snyder would have been terribly stifled if they were forced to remain at home. Their creative impetus was in travel itself.

Travel has the ability to open our eyes, increase our sense of observation, and capacity for awareness. Just yesterday I walked a different way home – the path took me along back-yard vegetable gardens, colorful clotheslines blowing in the wind, and exposed the beautiful vulnerability of peeling paint and open back-gates. And I would have missed all of this if I had not traveled a different path.

Upon hearing the title “On the Road,” or the name Jack Kerouac, many different images or ideas arise in one’s mind, some of which may include 1950’s America, vagabond living, drugs, jazz, or beatniks. However, not many people will hear these words and think of haiku poetry, Buddhism, or the significance of travel to the writer’s process.

Research surrounding Jack Kerouac’s life is endless: people have analyzed his novels, emulated his literary style, built websites, and devoted their lives to living his lifestyle. Yet research regarding his significant contribution to modern haiku, his relationships with traditional Japanese poets, and the effects travel had on this poetry have been left out of the barrage of scholarship.

Last year, in 2003, Regina Weinreich edited and compiled, for the first time, a book of Jack Kerouac’s haiku, entitled “Book of Haikus”. In her introduction she outlines Kerouac’s aesthetic and its many connections to “the Japanese artists Matsuo Basho (1644 – 1694) and Kobayashi Issa (1716 – 1784) as he read them in R.H. Blyth’s "Haiku’” (Weinreich, xxi – xxii). She also presented evidence that “Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen spent time together in Berkeley in 1955 talking, drinking, and trading their own versions of Blyth’s haiku translations” (Weinreich, xiv).

I should mention here that all of the Japanese haiku included in this project were taken from the Blyth translations. The problem of choosing translations arose early in my research, as so many scholars have translated the work of Basho and Issa. Upon discussing the predicament with Dr. Brooks, we decided, for consistency’s sake, to consult only Blyth. How a haiku is translated accounts for a huge part of the interpretation. With just one or two words placed differently the whole haiku can change meaning. I wanted to avoid this confusion, and liked the idea that the sources I used for my project were the same sources Kerouac and Snyder read while lounging in the back- yard of Allen Ginsberg’s Berkeley cottage.

Back to Weinreich’s edition of Kerouac’s haikus – she continued to guide her reader through Kerouac’s connection to Buddhism. After presenting a connection between two of the most important pre-modern Japanese Basho and Issa, to two of the most significant Beat poets, Kerouac and Snyder, she missed one important aspect – she did not fully explain their connections or influences upon each other. What are these four poets grouped together? Why do their haiku intersect, and what do they contribute to each other? More important, why have I chosen these four poets as the center of my JMS Project?

Each poet pushed the boundaries of haiku in his time, for example: Matsuo Basho is credited “as the greatest contributor to the development of haiku literature, bringing the haiku form to maturity and establishing it as a major literary genre” (Ueda, 9). Before Basho, haiku was a very serious art form that applied formal language and rich allusions into t tight structure. The first step Basho took in developing haiku began with the practice of sabi. Sabi is a feeling of solitude, or being alone in the universe. With this perspective, Basho began to use his solitary experiences, especially with nature and travel, as a way to reach sabi through haiku.

A second development came later in Basho’s life when he began to lighten his haiku. He started practicing a different aesthetic called karumi, which focuses on freedom and spontaneity. With Basho’s movement toward lightness, he inspired many haiku poets to follow him, and this is where the paths of Issa, Kerouac, and Snyder all intersect. All four poets write with a sense of karumi that enhanced theur style. For example, Kerouac is known to have always kept a pocket notebook with him, ready at any moment to write a spontaneous haiku. Therefore, Basho is the cornerstone poet of my project, and it is through his development of the haiku style that the four poets meet.

The second pre-modern Japanese haiku poet to enter this project of Kobayashi Issa. Issa is considered one of the three pillar poets of traditional Japanese haiku, along with Basho and Buson. Issa followed “the Basho tradition,” and practiced writing haiku “in a plain, direct style steeped in a broth of Zen” (Hamill, xi) while managing to push the very boundaries placed by Basho. Issa challenged Basho’s transcendence of time and space, and wrote haiku from a personal human viewpoint (Ueda, 4) born from his life of suffering. Issa’s mother died when he was young, his stepmother abused him, and all this children died before their second birthday, yet he writes with an intense Buddhist compassion for all life – human, insect and animal. In addition, his haiku idiom evolved to include more vernacular language and local slang that Basho (Hass, 147). His compassion and accessibility consequently expanded the haiku genre from appreciation in the elite class to the enjoyment of the middle class as well.

Issa’s playful humanness set the stage for Kerouac’s arrival 150 years later. Here is an example of their haiku, placed in relationship to one another.


     The cow comes
Moo! Moo!
     Out of the mist.

(Blyth, x)


     Looking up at the stars,
feeling sad,
     Going “tsk tsk tsk”

(Weinreich, 17)

From the example above, we can see how Kerouac overlaps Issa’s almost-silly, childish style. Kerouac also finds a connection to Basho as he made a large contribution to haiku, much in the way that Basho did. While Basho defined a traditional haiku style, Kerouac defined an American haiku style. He jotted his ideas for this new style in his Reading Notes of 1965:

“Then I’ll invent

The American Haiku type:
The simple rhyming triolet: --

Seventeen syllables?
No, as I say, America Pops: --
Simple 3-line poems”

(Weinreich, ix).

And with Kerouac’s simple statement, approaches to American haiku changed. Just as Basho raised the haiku’s status, re-invigorated the genre, and created new challenges, Kerouac’s new style gave poets a new freedom they had not previously enjoyed. His openeness of form discarded the strict 5-7-5 syllabic metering, thus transforming haiku into a much more accessible genre.

It is not to say that Kerouac changed or discarded Basho’s traditions entirely, it is actually quite the opposite. Kerouac followed a path of Buddhism, and “immersed himself in Zen study,” finding inspiration in the early Japanese workd of Basho and Issa, and Asvaghosha’s The Life of Buddha (Weinreich, xiii). Kerouac found this Buddhist path through the guidance of his good friend Gary Snyder, where our fourth and last poet enters the project.

Snyder was inspired by D.T. Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism (1927) and spent the early 1950’s traveling in Japan practicing Zen Buddhism (Weinreich, xiii). Upon his return to the United States, he became a mentor figure to Kerouac, and the two young poets spent time mountain climbing together, “engaging in a sharing of poetry, observation of nature, and speculation of haiku practice” (Weinreich, xx). These experiences would become the foundation for Kerouac’s novel, The Dharma Bums, in which he chronicled Snyder as the “nature boy / Zen mystic / poet” hero. He is a prolific writer, writing not just haiku, but long-form poetry, prose, and essays, and is recognized “as one of America’s preeminent nature and environmental writers” (Philips, 30).

In 2004 Snyder was awarded the prestigious Masaoka Shiki International Haiku Grand Prize. The award, held in the name of Shiki, a Japanese poet who has been penned the founder of modern haiku, “recognizes the most outstanding achievement and creative development by modern haiku poets world-wide,” (http://www.ecf.or.jp/shiki_haiku/ detailsl_e.html). The award hopes to raise awareness of haiku and support the international development of the form. It is rare for an American to receive this honor, therefore Snyder’s work within this project creates a special connection between Japanese and American poets.

Snyder also was the connection in which the poetry in this project realized its potential as social art. In his collection On Bread and Poetry, Snyder says about poetry,

“The exciting thing about readings, and one of the reasons that really turned us on about 1956 when we started reading poetry aloud around San Francisco, was that it reminded everybody that the excitement of poetry is a communal, social human thing, and that poems aren’t meant to be read in the quiet of your little room all by yourself with a dictionary at hand, but are something to be excitedly enjoyed in a group, and be turned on by.”

After reading this, I reflected on how necessary the listener is for a haiku to come to life, and decided I wanted a social aspect to my project. I wanted to share haiku with others, give feedback, and bounce ideas. Finally, Snyder is a necessary link to Basho, Issa and Kerouac for many reasons: his Buddhist training, deep connection with nature, and influential haiku work.

It was also important to me to compare and explore each poet’s haiku in regard to one of the group’s most significant similarities: travel. Each of the four poets lived unconventionally for his time, as evidenced through their extensive travels. For Basho and Issa, not many people were wandering around Japan on foot in the 1600-1700s. For Kerouac and Snyder, most Americans in the 1950s were moving to the suburbs, starting families, and creating careers. These poets left their traditions behind, saw things the world for themselves, and lived vagabond lives.

Each experienced cultural ramifications for their travels. In Japan today, Basho and Issa’s travels have become significant cultural icons, and people still take literary expeditions to travel to the same path they once did. Kerouac was seen as an outcast that didn’t fit in with society’s ideal. He hated the idea of getting stuck in suburbia and traveled to remain free. Snyder traveled for a similar reason, mostly to escape from the constructs of man, by reaching a pure, untouched place in nature.

We should keep in mind that only today these traveling poets are seen as heroic, whereas during their lives traveling was a challenge, and was, in some cases, looked down upon. This study is an important contribution to haiku scholarship as the relationship between the four poets, their travels, and the effect on their haiku has never been studied in this capacity before.

Therefore, to present the comparisons in an accessible way, I have chosen to use Basho’s idea of a haiku contest, “in which poems were paired in rivalry” (Ueda, 147). By pairing haiku from each of the four poets, I will be able to see how each haiku is different, yet similar, and begin to see the relationships between them. The differences in each poets’ haiku style will lend to interesting comparisons, as well as provide examples to explore how travel affected their haiku aesthetic, and provide a foundation for me as I start on a journey of acquiring my own haiku process.

Basho & Issa

      A cloud of cherry-blossoms;
The temple bell,--
      Is it Ueno, is it Asakusa?

      Departing wild geese,
How many times have you seen
      The smoke of Mount Asama?

There could not be a more perfect pair of haiku to begin “On the Road Haiku”. As Basho stops walking to listen to a quiet far-off temple bell, and as Issa squints toward the sky, these images fill them with memories of home. While traveling, far away from their familiarities, they transcend time and space for a moment to remember a different life they once led.

In attempting to understand what Basho and Issa felt at the moment they wrote these haiku, it is imperative that we have some knowledge of the places they mention. Ueno is not to be confused with Basho’s birthplace of Ueno, rather he is referring to the section of Toyko that is famous for its 1000 cherry trees. Asakusa is also a section of Toyko, famous for the Sensoji Temple built in 645. If Basho were living today he might find it slightly ironic that a double-decker bus runs between Ueno and Asakusa for tourists’ convenience.

Issa, seeing geese departing toward the direction of his home, ask them about Mount Asama, an active volcano in the province of Shinano. Mount Asama erupted in 1783, when Issa was twenty-one years old, killing 1,151 people. It is still active today, as the most recent eruption occurred on September 1, 2004.

The images of cherry blossoms, a temple bell, and smoke carry a greater depth when given a layer of attachment and memory to a place. We can also consider why these images resonated so strongly with Basho and Issa. What jolted them out of their traveling into a realm of sadness and recollection? The dialogue between the haiku begins with Basho’s cherry blossoms, which is significant in many ways.

For the Japanese, when the cherry blossoms bloom in April it is a time for celebration. It is custom to wander under the blossoming trees or picnic with friends and family. Because the cherry tree only blooms for a short period, cherry blossoms in Japanese poetry have the association of detachment and the ephemeral nature of human life. Therefore, the festivals are a time to enjoy the present moment as well as reminisce with friends and family on fond memories.

This brings us to an interesting question regarding Zen and Basho’s haiku. A tenet of Zen that Basho certainly practiced was that of living in the present moment. When one gives over their regrets of the past, worries about the future, and their anticipations for the next moment, they are freed from burden and can keenly observe and relish the life around them. Why, then, in the first haiku does Basho use his energy to ponder the past? Robert Aitken, in his book “A Zen Wave,” explains that when the cherry blossoms bloom it is the time for memories, as how family reunions are a time for memories. However, “breakfast is a time for porridge and fruit,” just as cleaning the dishes is a time for cleaning the dishes.

Travel, like the cherry blossom festival, is a time to enjoy the moment, while also reflecting on the past. The very nature of travel is one of constant newness juxtaposed with old experiences at which a deeper understanding of one’s surroundings is realized. It only seems natural that Basho and Issa used the haiku form to capture these moments when the two worlds met. However, when these two realities are constantly intersecting, can one ever be purely detached?

Basho wrote while judging a haiku contest that “a poet should detach himself from his passion and submerge himself within an objective scene.” However, he contradicted himself in his travel journal, “Narrow Road to the Interior,” upon seeing the Taga Castle built in 724 at Ichikawa Village. He wrote, “[The monument] returned us to memories from a thousand years before. Such a moment is the reason for a pilgrimage: infirmities forgotten, the ancients remembered, joyous tears trembled in my eyes.”

Does this not prove that traveling – that all pilgrimages, in fact, are monuments to one’s ancestors and memories, and are therefore not an exercise in detachment at all - rather a bond of deeper attachment with all living creatures?

With the nature of traveling examined, let us analyze the relationship between the haiku. Structurally, they are very similar. Both begin with the presentation of an image in nature. Issa goes further to interact with the geese, creating an accessible relationship with them, asking, “How many times have you seen / The smoke of Mount Asama?” This dialogue between Issa and the animals is very characteristic of his style. Issa wrote hundreds of haiku addressed to animals and insects, which gives evidence to his humility and compassion for all forms of life. Another example of his humble dialogue between insects is apparent in this haiku:

      What a pity
You should fondly follow me,

Issa bashfully says to the butterfly, “why are you wasting your time following me? I am of no importance.” Similarly, Issa respects the regality of the geese, and with his question seems to expect a response, or the chance to send a message with them to drop, floating, over his hometown.

Secondly, both haiku end with a question. To pose a question is rare in traditional Japanese haiku, as it usually brings an “I” into the situation. With this pair of haiku, the question leaves the poem open - the poets could be sad, and have let their minds wander with curiosities, wondering about the places of their past. While traveling, Gary Snyder felt a similar pull between past and present in this poem:

For Gary Holthaus

At White River Roadhouse in the Yukon
A bell rings in the late night:
A lone car on the Alaska highway
Hoping to buy gas at the shut roadhouse.

For a traveler sleeping in a little room
The bell ring is a temple in Japan,
In dream I put on robes and sandals
Chant sutras in the chilly Buddha-hall.

Ten thousand miles of White Spruce taiga.
The roadhouse master wakes to the night bell
Enters the dark of ice and stars,
To sell the car some gas.

Just as Basho heard a temple bell and traveled in his mind to Asakusa, Snyder’s subconscious took him to Japan, thereby creating a layer of experiences overlapping in the Alaskan wilderness. And finally, keeping with Snyder’s travels in Alaska, here is an adaptation of Basho and Issa’s haiku pair.

aquarium belugas
performing tricks
do you miss Tyonek?

I wrote this upon seeing the belugas in the Chicago aquarium. The experience awoke a memory of observing wild belugas traveling in pods near the fishing village of Tyonek, in Alaska’s South Central waters. The belugas swim in with high tide to catch salmon in shallow waters, and then breathing, spouting mists, race back out with the tide. Standing in a crowd at the aquarium, my heart wrenched to see them swim circles in their cage. I thought about how the belugas must miss their native home, just as Basho and Issa did, when asking the cherry blossoms and geese.

Issa & Kerouac

      My hut at night;
The cricket
      Is rummaging about.

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

It is here that Issa and Jack Kerouac expose a sensitivity unsurpassed by any other pair in the collection. We see Issa first, alone at night in his tiny hut. Perhaps he is meditating in the middle of the room, allowing his senses to absorb the life around him. Completely silent, he is stirred by the almost imperceptible sound of the cricket wandering about in the straw roof, exploring dusty corners, or trotting along in the tea cabinet. In Japanese poetry, a singing cricket is meant to bring good luck for the owner of the house. We can almost see a slow smile move across Issa’s face as he is surely comforted by the cricket’s company.

On the other hand, Kerouac experiences a pale melancholy upon discovering the fly has died in his medicine cabinet. It is not certain when Kerouac found the poor fly, but it is possible he too was ill, and upon opening the medicine cabinet for an aspirin found the silent fly. After Kerouac was finished in the bathroom, one must wonder what finally happened to the fly. Did he pick it up gently with his fingers and transport it outside, or drop it in the toilet? Or did he leave it there, peacefully, to be a constant symbol and reminder of our impermanence?

To Issa and Kerouac, these tiny creatures were much more to them than just insects. They were friends and teachers. We can begin to see how they created this relationship by the word choices they made. The cricket and the fly were not merely “a cricket” and “a fly,” they were The cricket and The fly. To Issa and Kerouac they were special – they might as well have been the only cricket and the only fly in the world. By referring to them as “the,” the insects became old friends to the poets – someone whom they were familiar with.

For example, when Issa hears the cricket in his house there is no hostility or animosity in his tone for him to “get out!” – rather Issa implies a warm greeting to his household companion. And how interesting that Issa should choose “rummaging” instead of “walking about”. “Rummaging” suggests the cricket is searching for something with a disciplined technique. Not only is he walking about, but he is engaged in discovery, exploration, and adventure. What a contrast to quiet Issa, meditating in stillness on the floor!

Similarly, the fly was a friend to Kerouac, and by stating it was of “old age” he subtly implied it had lived with him for quite some time. Kerouac was welcoming to the fly and allowed him space in his cabinet. Perhaps he checked on the health of his old, constant, hopeful friend every night upon brushing his teeth. Here, we realize the deeper connection Kerouac had with this humble creature and its death weighs upon us with much greater sadness. Kerouac has lost a friend, and his grief resonates throughout the last line of the haiku, lingering with us for while.

In addition, Kerouac borrowed a traditional Japanese technique of using a seasonal word to place the haiku in a context and convey a sense of scene for the reader. By using the word “winter” to describe the fly, as opposed to a simple “old fly,” we are filled with images of bare trees, an enveloping blanket of white, and the feel of a cold draft seeping through an old window. Here is an example of one such seasonal haiku from Basho:

      Along this road
Goes no one,
      This autumn eve.

By using the seasonal word “autumn,” Basho was able to create a detailed scene while maintaining brevity of language.

Kerouac made one last word choice, whether deliberate or not, that greatly contributed to the sensitivity of the poem. Pretend for a moment that his fly lived in a bread-box:

In my bread-box
      the winter fly
Has died of old age

The feel of the haiku has completely changed – where it once was ironic, slightly humorous, and sad, it now feels flat and trite. Clearly, this haiku needs no editing, for each line seamlessly builds upon the next to create a complex layered relationship within a beautifully simple frame.

The poignancy of these haiku swell from yet another layer. On the surface they seem to be impersonal poems written about insects, but looking deeper they parallel the personal lives of Issa and Kerouac. This parallel begins with Issa, who had the extraordinary ability to imagine the events of his life through the eyes of the smallest creatures. He wrote hundreds of haiku about flies, fleas, crickets, butterflies, grasshoppers, dragonflies, bedbugs, and even lice. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that Issa is famous for insect haiku. This haiku, taken from “Year of My Life,” a book of collected haiku and journal entries written by Issa, gives evidence to his unconditional love for all creatures:

At this home
Where I live quietly,
Even the flies
Have a small family.

However, Issa did not organically fall into his style – in fact, he began studying haiku under a curriculum of Basho’s aestheics. Although Basho had only died 70 years earlier, his haiku teachings were already harkened throughout Japan as the new haiku style. Issa didn’t agree with Basho’s detached transcendence and began to craft a style based on the beauty, suffering, and humor present in humanity.

In writing from a cricket’s point of view, Issa humbled himself, realizing that each person’s world is different, and each deserves to be recognized. In the above haiku, Issa essentially becomes a cricket. His mind is so attune to the cricket’s life, he seems to join him, rummaging about. At this point it could be said that Issa has detached himself from humanity, yet he simultaneously arrives at the realization of humanity’s very essence – the unity of all creatures.

For Kerouac, on the other hand, his haiku parallels his personal experiences with death. The haiku’s somber tone and sense of impermanence echoes with Kerouac’s sadness for his older brother, Gerard, who died when Jack was only four. Gerard’s death had a huge impact on young Kerouac, and it was from then on that he felt Gerard was his guardian angel. Twenty years later, Kerouac’s father will die of stomach cancer, and five years before his own death, his sister Caroline will die suddenly of a heart attack while on a long distance phone call with her ex-husband.

Understanding Kerouac’s life brings an intensity to the haiku that is only present on the deepest of levels. This haiku, included in Kerouac’s “Some of the Dharma,” suggests Kerouac’s coming to terms with death, that he reached feeling of respect and peace about it.

      Pondering on death,
    with or without wine,
brings enlightenment—

Finally, upon analyzing the relationship between the pair of haiku, Issa’s influence on Kerouac is clearly apparent. As individual poets they were very similar: both lived most of their life in poverty, and were constantly mourning the death of loved ones. These experiences directly shaped their perception of the world, and it is their haiku that reflect their ability to innately see the suffering in all life, while maintaining a tone of irony and down-to-earth humanity.

An adaptation of their haiku that encompasses a similar compassion, humor, and humanity might read:

why hello cockroach!
jump aboard this paper
i'll carry you safely outside

Kerouac & Basho

In back of the Supermarket,
      in the parking lot weeds,
Purple flowers

      The white chrysanthemum;
Not a speck of dust
      To meet the eye

Only Jack Kerouac could capture such beauty and compassion amidst a weed-trodden supermarket parking lot. I see him walking through the neglected back-lot, passing by scattered cardboard boxes, floating plastic grocery bags, cigarette butts left over from employee smoke-breaks, and maybe even some beer bottles and broken glass. The sunlight is harsh, and makes everything seem sharper.

He walks alone towards home, or maybe back to his camp for the night. While weaving through some parked semi trucks, clutching his bag of groceries: cans of pork and beans, a loaf of whole wheat bread, milk, and sweet wine, he notices, growing out of the concrete, a clump of tiny purple flowers. Silently stooping to take a closer look, he begins to feel a sense of hope, of humility, and above all, of beauty in chaos. Similarly, yet in a completely different manner, only Basho could capture a chrysanthemum in such a pristine setting. The un-speckled white of the chrysanthemum resonates with a radiating light. Basho’s haiku, so beautiful, pure, and delicate, creates a sense of shunyta, a realm pure void, that is experienced only on the deepest human level. Perhaps the shunyta arises from this being one of Basho’s last haiku. He wrote it in Osaka while on a journey, in 1694, during the last month of his life.

Although his health was declining, and he was certain death was looming, Basho decided to embark upon one final journey to Western Japan. He wished to see his hometown of Ueno one last time, as well as to teach his students in Kyoto and Osaka his new approach to haiku: karumi.

Karumi would be Basho’s last stylistic phase of haiku, and upon leaving his students in Edo for the last time, he imparted this explanation: “The style I have in mind these days is a light one, one that gives the impression of looking at a shallow river with a sandy bed.” It can be theorized that Basho’s entire life had been the development karumi, a development of lightness, wordlessness, to finally achieve a haiku of pure essence.

Basho’s inspiration for his chrysanthemum haiku came from a visit he made to the chrysanthemum festival in Nara. Nara was the first Buddhist capital in Japan , therefore how appropriate that in Japanese poetry the chrysanthemum is a symbol for the imperial house of Japan. Basho borrowed the second line, “Not a speck of dust,” from a poem written by Saigyo (1118 – 1190), which follows:

A clear mirror
with just a speck of dust—
yet the eyes have caught it, the world
having become what it is.

To complete the historical context of this haiku, Basho paid a visit to one of his students, Shiba Sono, a few days after attending the festival. It is the hypothesis of some of his interpreters that this haiku was a gift to Sono for her simple hospitality, “pure heart and elegant taste”. Others, however, prefer to read the haiku with no attachment to Sono, rather to simply enjoy the unsentimental essence of the chrysanthemum.

In reference to the haiku’s implicit detachment, it seems fitting that Basho composed it while on a journey. For Basho, traveling was a time to detach himself from humanly desires and to be constantly moving towards a close observation of the human relationship with nature. He once stated, “Follow nature, return to nature, be nature.” As his keen observation of the chrysanthemum is evidence, Basho was successful in reaching a detachment, and returning to nature.

However, there are times when Basho’s detachment begins to feel a little “stuffy,” when he describes a beauty too austere, impossibly perfect, or even overwhelming. His white chrysanthemum feels uptight and so clean one would be punished upon touching it. In contrast, Kerouac finds his beauty in imperfection, in the slightly off-kilter man-made environment of cement and garbage. By this virtue, Kerouac’s haiku is more human and thereby more accessible.

It is possible that Kerouac wrote this haiku while journeying. It is important to note that his motives for traveling were very different from Basho’s. At a time when America was suburbanizing, creating identical cars and television sets by the millions, Kerouac traveled in protest. He didn’t fit into the American dream of owning a house, keeping up with the Jonses’, and working 40 hours a week. His was the life of the vagabond romantic – hitchhiking and sleeping under the stars. It is comical to picture Kerouac, in a thick flannel shirt and dirty jeans in the supermarket, alongside neatly ironed suburbia housewives purchasing TV dinners and the latest copy of Good Housekeeping.

His haiku effortlessly communicates all of these feelings to us by creating a contextual place for our visions. In contrast, Basho’s haiku seems to float in air, leaving wide open space. When analyzing the haiku, we should note each poet’s choice regarding specificity. Basho specifies the white flower as a chrysanthemum, to increase the strength of the haiku’s image. On the other hand, Kerouac plainly states “purple flowers”. See how the haiku would change if written:

In back of the Supermarket,
in the parking lot weeds,
Purple petunias

By specifying the kind of flower the haiku’s feeling seems slightly stifled, or closed off. Readers would be forced to ask themselves, “What does a petunia look like?” instead of allowing their mind to create a flower of their own, whether it be irises, pansies, violets, lupine, or lilac. By leaving the flowers anonymous, there is a greater sense of appreciation and compassion for their tiny, unexpected beauty unimpressed by what kind of flower they are. This unconditional compassion for all living creatures stems directly from Buddhists tenets, and it is Kerouac himself that states in his novel “The Dharma Bums,” “compassion is the heart of Buddhism.”

Kerouac is a master of remaining optimistic regardless of what dingy vagabond situation he finds himself in. For him, there is always some embedded beauty, some romantic notion to be found in the most unexpected places. For an appropriate example we can look again to “The Dharma Bums,” where Kerouac describes his entrance into Mexicali.

“I crossed the flats and narrow board bridge over the yellow water and over to the poor adobe district of Mexicali where the Mexico gaiety as ever charmed me, and I ate a delicious tin bowl of garbanzo soup with pieces of cabeza (head) and cebolla (onion) raw, having cashed a quarter at the border gate for three paper pesos and a big pile of huge pennies. While eating at the little mud street counter I dug the street, the people. the poor bitch dogs, the cantinas, the whores, the music, men goofing in the narrow road wrestling, and out on the sidewalk some little children gathered like before a movie house and I though ‘Oh all Mexicali on some Saturday afternoon! Thank you O Lord for returning me my zest for life, for Thy ever-recurring form in Thy Womb of Exuberant Fertility.’ All my tears weren’t in vain. It’ll all work out finally.”

Even in the saddest, poorest of times Kerouac can sit in the mud, with only twenty-five cents worth of pesos, and appreciate everything from the pregnant dogs heavy with milk, to the whores, to the innocent children in the street. He is truly living in the moment, and like the parking lot flowers, discovering beauty in everything. In keeping with Kerouac’s sense of imperfect beauty, an adaptation combining his haiku with Basho’s could read:

a white chrysanthemum
in Memere’s vase
wilting – a little

In the above haiku pair, Basho and Kerouac engage in a dialogue using similar situations to convey a sense of purity and beauty. Although both poets travel different paths to arrive at the essence of their experience, both haiku reverberate with a simple elegance.

Snyder & Evans

I will think of you       pines from this mountain
as you shelter people in the Valley
years to come

our front yard tree
watches me
go in and out

I must admit snipping Snyders’s haiku from a longer poem entitled, “For Philip Zenshin Whalen d. 26 June 2003”. Snyder and Whalen were long-time friends, first meeting each other as college roommates at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Their third roommate was Lew Welch, who was also a contributing poet in the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. The three friends began studying Buddhism and poetry together, and their influences upon each other are great.

The above haiku is the closing stanza of the poem, which is a technique Snyder borrows from the Japanese poetic form, haibun. When writing haibun, a rich narrative paragraph is presented and from the images in the prose a haiku emerges to finish the piece. Haibun and haiku have played an important part in Snyder’s poetic influences, as you will find little haiku stanzas scattered throughout many of Snyder’s poems.

For Philip Zenshin Whalen
d. 26 June 2003

(and for 33 pine trees)

Load of logs on
chains cinched down and double-checked
the truck heads slowly up the hill

I bow namaste and farewell
these ponderosa pine
whose air and rain and sun we shared

for thirty years,
struck by beetles      needles
turning rusty brown,
and moving on.

--decking, shelving, siding,
stringers, studs, and joists,

I will think of you      pines from this mountain
as you shelter people in the Valley
years to come

Snyder grew up in the Pacific Northwest and worked many years logging pine forests. Logging is a recurring theme in his poetry, and something that has deeply influenced his belief of the Earth being a single organism. When placed in the context of the longer poem this haiku begins to form layers of meaning as Snyder begins to see the life cycle of the trees.

I picture Snyder at dawn, standing by a loaded truck after a day’s hard work. I can see him meticulously observing each patient, calm long pine trunk, thinking of them as old friends of which he has shared sun, wind, rain and shelter. His haiku could be a little prayer, muttered to the trees right before the truck began to trudge away. His goodbye becomes more poignant upon realizing that as Snyder was observing these fresh, raw trunks he could see their future – of lumber, supportive roof joints, outdoor decks, and sturdy wooden doors.

Even though he brings in the human element by mentioning “the people in the Valley”, the haiku is not overpowered by ego, and is still about the trees. In fact, the pines become a sturdy mother figure to the people in the Valley. Snyder gives the trees a personality by using the words “this mountain” to specify their importance as well as give them a sense of home. The trees are not from any old place – they are from this mountain that Snyder has grown so familiar with. Snyder has watched the trees grow throughout their lifecycle: possibly as seedlings into strong trees, and through every season of death and rebirth. There is a sadness in this haiku, as Snyder seems to be addressing 33 of his close friends upon their departure, with a symbolic reference of the passing of the trees to the passing of Philip Whalen.

As Snyder’s pine trunks are transported down into the Valley, my haiku finds its place. As the pine trees are made into lumber, the lumber is made into a house, which I am sheltered in. The cycle begins again as I notice a patient and calm tree outside my window, a guardian angel of sorts, a friend like Snyder’s, looking over me. The tree stands by as I busily rush into my house and rush back out. It seems that the author may have taken the tree for granted, or not even noticed it because she was so busy.

However, the haiku maintains a meditative quality about it, with the tree being wise and trusting, contrasting the little ant world of mine. As Snyder’s haiku acts as a prayer for the pines, the second haiku could be a thank you to the front yard tree for giving its shade, sound of breeze in leaves, and constant presence.

The relationship between these haiku is one of time passing. The story begins with Snyder’s trees being taken to the lumber mill, which connects to the house present in the second haiku, and then finishes with a vision of another tree, acting in a similar guardian angel way as Snyder’s trees did. Each haiku paint a clear picture of trees with different personalities. They emanate collaboration with nature and are evidence of a continuous life cycle. With the reminder of a constant life cycle the haiku also embody a message of passage through time, of impermanence, and respect for the Earth’s movements.

In response, a haiku that sums up the trees’ personalities, acceptance of death, and patience could be:

at the gas station
the $5 firewood
patiently waiting


Basho & Kerouac

      A paulownia leaf has fallen:
Will you not come to me
      In my loneliness?

Hitch hiked a thousand
      miles and brought
You wine

Basho begins this pair with the stillness of a leaf falling and settling, thereby creating a somber autumn mood. Basho specifies the leaf as a Paulownia leaf, adding considerable depth to the poem, as the Paulownia is known for its huge heart-shaped leaves. The tree is native to China, and can grow in very poor soil. Basho is relating himself to the tree - his lonely heart has sunk with the impending autumn. He then asks, pleads, even begs for a visitor. Who more is more fitting to answer his desperate cry than Jack Kerouac?

With Kerouac's haiku the pair began to communicate to each other: one calls, and the other responds. It seems like Basho's haiku was a telegram, and upon recieving it Kerouac quickly packed a modest bag and grabbed a bottle of special occasion wine. The wine resonates for us, making it the focal point of the haiku. It is treated like a delicacy, with the utmost care, espeically considering you can't carry much with you when traveling by thumb.

I see this pair ending with Kerouac arriving at Basho's small hut. The two poets finally meet, sit on straw mats, and pour glasses of wine.

from a long journey
the lighthouse beacon


Basho & Snyder

      The autumn full moon:
All night long
      I paced round the lake.

Tired, quit climbing at a small pond
      made camp, slept on a slab
            til the moon rose

Basho and Snyder echo each other in this pair. Both poets are struck by the moon's beauty and either kept awake, or like Snyder, awoken by her light. The gap between the poets closes when we realize they are looking at the same moon. Reading this pair, I see the images of Basho walking in circles, and Snyder gently stirring in sleep simultaneously occurring across time.

The haiku share a resonant energy - was it the moon that woke Snyder, or could it have been Basho? Because both poets are alone, the haiku have a sense of sabi - of being completely content and one with nature. While Basho paces, and Snyder gazes up from his small slab, what are their thoughts?

late for the movie
pulled over to watch
the moon rise

Basho & Basho

      The year draws to its close;
But I am still wearing
      My kasa and straw sandals.

      Ill on a journey;
My dreams wander
      Over a withered moor.

This pair of haiku by Basho embodies his life as a wandering poet. In the first poem Basho describes the coming of the New Year, bringing to mind celebrations and festivity. But for Basho, he is still traveling. I like this haiku for its loyalty and consistency. For Basho, traveling came as natural as for a wave to break against the shore. In my mind, Basho will always be traveling, living a simple life. We strikingly begin to see this simplicity when Basho describes his meek attire: a kasa (a pointed straw hat) and simple straw sandals. His modesty paired with rich New Years celebrations is what gives this haiku a sense of sadness, or content, lonely sabi.

Paired with his death poem, we see in a deeper light that Basho truly is an eternal travevler. Even his mind will continue wandering after his body is gone. Ando, one of Basho’s critics , suggests that just as illness is restrictive, dreams are free, possibly highlighting Basho’s last phase of teaching: the lightness of karumi. Ironically enough, Basho worked his whole life to detach himself and open up to emptiness, however the writing of haiku became his last attachment. Upon writing this poem, from his deathbed, Basho said,

I know this is no occasion for writing a hokku, as I am faced with death. Yet poetry has been on my mind all through my life, which is now more than fifty years long. Whenever I sleep I dream of hurrying along the road under the morning clouds or in the evening haze, and whenever I awaken I am startled at the sound of a mountain stream or the cry of a wild bird. Buddha taught that all this was sinful attachment, and now I realize I am guilty of it. I wish I could forget all the haikai that I was involved with during my lifetime.

With this quote we begin to see the internal struggles that plagued Basho throughout his life, making his death poem all the more somber.

returning my suitcase
to the closet –
still packed

Basho & Evans

      The banana-plant in the autumn storm,
Rain dripping in the tub, -
      Listening that night.

windy night
winter branches
clink my window

Both Basho and Evans are alone, and quiet, at home. The lulling sounds of mother nature encroach on the night in a comforting, friendly way. Basho’s choice of “the banana-plant” is a good one, as in Japanese the banana-plant is called basho. Basho’s students began calling him Basho, after ‘one who lives in the banana-tree hut’. In those days the baths were outside, and the catching of rain is a reminder of the elements outdoors, contrasted with the peace inside the hut. The clink of the winter trees is more a gentle tap on the shoulder of the house than an eerie scratching.

The sounds both poets induce are very important to the pair. A communication, a musical call and response occurs between the two. The poets are very attentive to detail, giving us the sense that not much is distracting them from enjoying a quiet, cozy night. The season words help the reader to place the poems in context: the late autumn is humid, causing rain showers to dump their moisture, whereas contrastingly, Evans’s winter is cold and dry. My favorite part about this pair is that in both haiku, a warm glow seems to emanate from their hut and house, fading out into the wet and cold night.

the soft thud
of loosely packed snowballs
hitting my window

Issa & Basho

      "I'm alone," I said.
He wrote it down in the register;
      How chilly the autumn night!

      O'er wearied,
And seeking a lodging for the night,--
      These wistaria flowers!

Issa begins this pair while inquiring about a night’s stay at an inn. I can see him, alone, dressed modestly n a robe and sandals, and possibly carrying a small bag. When the innkeeper asks how many will need a room, and Issa states the obvious, “I’m alone”. The fact that the innkeeper asked Issa and deliberately marked in his register “one,” holds a tint of mockery. The innkeeper’s crude question further reinforces and reminds Issa of his loneliness, and it is then he feels how chilly the autumn night has become.

Basho too is tired from journeying and stops at a lodge. According to Makoto Ueda’s source, “Basho and His Interpreters,” Basho wrote this haiku in the spring of 1688 while traveling in the province of Yamato . Hori suggests that “Basho’s exhaustion is not just physical. Mingled with it are the loneliness of travel, sadness at spring’s departure, and the nostalgia of a man who had spent the day touring through the province of Yamato, which abounded in historical sties” . Then, like Issa, at the peak of his weariness he notices, as if for the time, the beauty of the wistaria flowers.

Wistaria flowers hang from vines that can grow 25 feet tall. The flowers droop and “begin to bloom at the top. When it becomes time for the bottom part to be in full bloom, the flowers at the top of the plume have already faded in color and started to fall” . The wistaria’s transitional growth is much like that of traveling – of leaving a trail of oneself behind, while continually growing with each new destination.

What astounds me the most about this pair is Issa and Basho’s keen sense of observation and their ability to always be in the moment, living, alive – even at their weakest. Is this not the goal of every haiku poet?

A table for one--
she asks again,
Yes, just one.


Issa & Snyder

      Winter seclusion;
Listening, that evening,
      To the rain in the mountain.

On the night mountain canyon wall road
construction lights flash
we wait til the other lane comes through

one empty bus

Deep within the wilderness, on a mountainside, Issa and Snyder contrast the sounds of nature and man. For Issa, quiet and alone in a hut, he hears the far off sound of rain falling softly. The rain, just as Basho’s banana-tree drips, seems comforting, just to know that something outside his hut exists. This pair highlights how Issa and Snyder are quite like each other. Snyder could have easily written this haiku, harkening memories from a summer spent on Sourdough Peak in the Cascade Mountains as a fire lookout. He had similar experiences while listening and observing nature, meditating, writing, and hiking.

But Snyder’s haiku comes from another important part of his life – his years spent logging in the Pacific Northwest. Snyder’s soft rain comes in the form of loud and repetitive construction beeps emanating from heavy equipment. With lights flashing, and the destruction of nature, his experience contrasts Issa’s. yet has a similar essence. Both poets are waiting, Issa possibly sitting in meditation, and Snyder stopping his work as an empty bus drives by. The empty bus demonstrates how desolate Snyder is in nature, with no one around. However, the destruction of man is still apparent.

This pair encompasses hundreds of years of history. Man living in nature, the Industrial Revolution, and the destruction of our home. Issa and Snyder communicate perfectly man’s modern paradox.

at night
the glacier creaks
--he checks his cell phone


Issa & Issa

      The autumn storm;
A prostitute shack,
      At 24 cents a time.

      Chrysanthemum flowers;
And wafted along also,
      The smell of urine.

I chose to pair these haiku to highlight Issa’s ability to write beautiful, honest haiku about taboo issues. Issa is grouped with Basho and Buson as one of the three pillars of Japanese haiku poetry, but often seen as the lesser of the three. This is due partially because of the risks he took to write on unaccepted subjects of his time. For this very reason I greatly respect Issa, and feel that this pair reveals his very core of humanity.

The haiku engage in a relationship balanced by purity and filth. I see these haiku occurring in a slum, or amid the shambles of a run-down town. Issa increases the intensity of the first haiku with the word “shack”. We begin to see women standing outside a tiny, falling-apart, rotting structure in the rain. As the smell of urine wafts along, our senses are engaged and we begin to travel to Issa’s slum.

When the chrysanthemum flowers enter a glimmer of beauty flashes – could it be that a clump of flowers grows by the shack? With the pure white flowers, the women’s beauty begins to emerge, even among the dirt they live in. Issa makes a comment about the inherent beauty of all things, a sentiment that Kerouac will come to echo in his haiku.
The form of the two haiku is also similar. Issa begins with a descriptive line, setting a place and image for the reader, ending with a semi-colon. The second line links us the last resonate line, which is ended with a period. The twin forms help create a consistency between the haiku which lends itself to even a deeper connection and relationship.

The lake at night;
little moons floating
-- used condoms

Issa & Evans

      The flying butterfly :
I feel myself
      A creature of dust.

today i feel
as empty
as an open bowl

Sometimes I think about the six billion people in the world and I feel very small. Just as Issa was struck by the butterfly’s beauty, he began to feel insufficient and tiny. With so much beauty, Issa felt humbled. What makes Issa’s thoughts even more poignant is the idea that the butterfly is unaware of its own beauty, rather is living its life content and unburdened with such worries. Issa looks to the butterfly and wishes he was more like it, unattached and free. With his respect of the butterfly Issa is connected to the organism of the Earth.

With the second haiku, a similar feeling is expressed. The emptiness felt is not one of sadness, rather it is a feeling like the butterfly’s, of being open and un-distracted. I wrote this haiku in the morning, when thoughts are fresh and untainted. I felt like a bowl, ready for the day to fill me, being completely open to whatever it held in store. Jack Kerouac described this feeling of emptiness in The Dharma Bums when he stated, “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form and we’re here forever in one form or another which is empty.” Both haiku share a feeling humility, emptiness, and open detachment that Buddhism seeks to find.

pouring hot water
over green tea leaves
watching them expand

Kerouac & Issa

I don't care--
      the low yellow
Moon loves me

      Just simply alive,
Both of us, I
      And the poppy.

I see Kerouac drunk, sitting on his porch, gazing at the low yellow moon. I wonder what has just happened. Why doesn’t he care, why does he feel alone? Yet I am happy I will never know – his haiku is appropriate for days of defeat, when things seem all wrong. I have memorized this haiku and mumble it from time to time, it is the perfect simple reminder that life goes on, that someone, even the moon is still there, and will continue to rise, loyally.

Issa seems to need a similar reminder. He looks at the poppy and feels a connection. Both are impermanent creatures, yet both are “just simply living”. They share a sense of relief, of being together in a suffering world. Just like Kerouac’s comforting moon, Issa finds the poppy. In nature both poets have found reassurance, a feeling that everything will be okay.

a big red dot
the map says

Kerouac & Snyder

The flies on the porch
      and the fog on the peaks
Are so sad

sitting in the sun in the doorway
picking my teeth with a broomstraw
listenin to the buzz of the flies.

This pair exposes the contrast between Kerouac and Snyder’s natural energy. The haiku are both about being at home, and taking a moment to slow down, yet the emotions they reveal are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Kerouac steps out of his hut in the mountains, possibly while he was spending a summer as a fire lookout, and saw the world veiled in grey. His haiku is steeped in impermanence, suffering, and cold drizzle. The fog seems to chill his bones and he gazes at the mountain listening to the meek fly’s buzz with sadness.

Snyder, on the other hand, is sitting on the porch in a rocking chair, with the sun on his face. He looks at the world with optimism, seeing the potential and beauty in all things. I like the slow mellow feeling in the haiku. It seems that time has stopped, and the barrier between man and nature has dissolved. Kerouac is like fog, dissipating, and traveling slow. Snyder blends in with the flies, his unobtrusive peace allowing nature to move around him.

The pair overlaps when we realize that Kerouac and Snyder might as well have been on the same porch, listening to same flies, yet with such different thoughts.

spring nights on the porch
watching him play the mandolin,
growing sad


Kerouac & Kerouac

Wednesday blah
      blah blah --
My mind hurts

Alpine fir with
      snowcap't background--
It doesn't matter

I will venture to say that this pair is the most enlightened of all the pairs in this project. Kerouac’s display of brutal realism, simplicity, and honesty flirts with a revelation on the meaning of life. I respect his confidence, and at times nonsense, exhibited in these haiku, which both push the boundaries of modern haiku. The first haiku was inspired, no doubt, by the last paragraph of The Dharma Bums when Kerouac is walking down from spending a summer on Desolation Peak:

And in keeping with Japhy’s habit of always getting down on one knee and delivering a little prayer to the camp we left, to the one in the Sierra, and the others in Marin, and the little prayer of gratitude he had delivered to Sean’s shack the day he sailed away, as I was hiking down the mountain with my pack I turned and knelt on the trail and said “Thank you, shack.” Then I added “Blah,” with a little grin, because I knew that shack and that mountain would understand what that meant, and turned and went on down the trail back to this world.

Kerouac abandons all pretentious notions to explain his thoughts to the mountain, rather accepts its understanding. I enjoy this haiku because the “deep analysis” is that you shouldn’t be bothered wasting your time analyzing haiku!

The second haiku acknowledges that no one knows anything. He begins the haiku in a sentimental nature-y tone, only to brilliantly twist the last line, poking a feeling of mockery at his reader. If this were Basho’s haiku, he would end it on a transcendent note, filling the room with silent awe. But Kerouac doesn’t care – he is beyond stuffy academia, realizing that if he will be gone in one hundred years, if that alpine fir will be chopped down, and the snow melted, then indeed, nothing of this life matters. Therefore, if you take one piece of advice from Kerouac, be it to not take life so seriously.

two years of research
turning it in
-- for a grade


Kerouac & Evans

A quiet moment--
      low lamp, low logs--
Just cooking the stew

slowly preparing tea
night falls --

Dr. Brooks once said when teaching students about mindfulness and focused thinking, “if you are doing the dishes – do the dishes!” It is human nature to continually have our minds reeling in different directions, therefore a quiet moment with space for nothing else is quite rare, yet somehow this haiku pair seems to capture it well. Kerouac is focused on his stew just as Evans is concentrated purely on the process of preparing tea. A quote from “Zen Art for Meditation” advises:

To be totally absorbed in what we’re doing is to use our powers and faculties at their maximum efficiency. As we divert our thrust by standing aside and viewing ourselves in action, to that degree fo we lessen our capability and enjoyment. Wondering if we’re doing the right things or the thing right, at the same time that we’re going our thing, inevitably detracts from the doing. There is a time to think about acting and a time to act. They are not the same.

Both actions, preparing stew and tea, are used as a meditation for each poet. Their minds are calm, and all other distractions are filtered out. It is here that we feel the most balanced and at peace. This mindfulness, or keen sense of awareness, is the root of haiku art. It is in this observant, open sense of mind that haiku organically emerge to us as connections form and realizations are made.

In The Dharma Bums, Kerouac describes a moment while mountain climbing with Snyder, when they have stopped for the night and Snyder is cooking stew. It is possible that this is the moment from which the haiku emerged.
At dusk Japhy lit a good big fire and started supper. We were very tired and happy. He made a soup that night that I shall never forget and was really the best soup I’d eaten since I was a lionized young author in New York eating lunch at the Chambord or in Henri Cru’s kitchen. This was nothing but a couple of envelopes of dried pea soup thrown into a pot of water with fried bacon, fat and all, and stirred till boiling. It was rich, real pea taste, with that smoky bacon and bacon fat, just the thing to drink in the cold gathering darkness by a sparkling fire. Also while pooking about he’d found puffballs, natural mushrooms, not the umbrella type, just round grapefruit-size puffs of white firm meat, and these he sliced and fried in bacon fat and we had them on the side with fried rice. It was a great supper. We washed the dishes in the gurgling creek. The roaring bonfire kept the mosquitoes away. A new moon peeked down through the pine boughs. We rolled out our sleeping bags in the meadow grass and went to bed early, bone weary. Kerouac is so happy in this passage. It is obvious there is nowhere he would rather be. His haiku echoes that sentiment: enjoying the silent company of Snyder, watching the fire, listening to the logs crack, and caring for the stew.

Evans’s haiku comes from a similar moment of happiness, spent in complete concentration. The haiku materialized while partaking in a winter Japanese Tea Ceremony. The tea ceremony is a precise tradition, and a meticulous art. Each utensil and step in brewing the green tea is intensely focused. The spoon is cleaned with a cloth slowly, the green tea leaves are stirred in a particular way, etc. The ceremony has a way of calming the participants and creating a deep respect for the art of the tea, as well as the others drinking tea with you.

Upon entering a tea room all distracting material possessions must be removed, including jewelry and watches. Therefore the participants defer any judgments and focus purely on the process of preparing and drinking the tea. Because the ceremony was in the winter, the sun was setting at about five in the afternoon. Upon exiting the tea house, I noticed for the first time that darkness had fallen.

Again from The Dharma Bums, Kerouac writes of a similar time when Snyder prepared tea while the two poets rested from climbing Matterhorn Mountain.

Japhy got out the tea, Chinese tea, and sprinkled some in a tin pot, and had the fire going meanwhile, a small one to begin with, the sun was still on us, and stuck a long stick tight down under a few big rocks and made himself something to hang the teapot on and pretty soon the water was boiling and he poured it out steaming into the tin pot and we had cups of tea with out tin cups. I myself’d gotten the water from the stream, which was cold and pure like snow and the crystal-lidded eyes of heaven. Therefore, the tea was by far the most pure and thirstquenching tea I ever drank in all my life, it made you want to drink more and more, it actually quenched your thirst and or course it swam around hot in your belly. ‘Now you understand the Oriental passion for tea,’ said Japhy. ‘The first sip is joy the second is gladness, the third is serenity, the fourth is madness, the fifth is ecstasy.’

children cutting paper
faces open with joy
a snowflake

Snyder & Basho

The rim of panties rides
      high on the hip
      under cotton dresses,
    summer, bending down.

      The first snow,
Just enough to bend
      The leaves of the daffodils

Much of Snyder’s writing is influenced by his belief in the Gaia Hypothesis. Gaia is the Greek Earth goddess, similar to the western Mother Nature. The Hypothesis suggests that the Earth is still alive, and is one singular organism. Each creature impacts the organism with its decisions, and therefore we are all connected. In Snyder’s haiku, he is writing about his wife, who had just given birth to their first son, Kai. In the summer, under her thin dress, Snyder notices the subtle line of her panties along her hips. I like this haiku because of it’s subtle sensuality, and that Snyder must have been observing his wife closely to notice such a small, beautiful, imperfect detail.

We see the seasons pass, and it is Basho’s haiku, observing the gentle snowfall bending the stems of daffodils, that compliments Snyder perfectly. The Gaia Hypothesis blends the two haiku. Snyder’s wife, with her legs bending, are in essence, the daffodils bending. The two creatures share an inherent sensuality that is heightened only when the haiku are placed in relation.

dewy spring morning
she moves a pink rose
slow to her face


Snyder & Issa

eight years: San Francisco, the
beaches, the mountains,

      The moon and flowers:
Forty nine years
      Walking about wasting time

This pair fills the cornerstone of my project. Snyder and Issa’s haiku comment on the nature of travel in regards to their poetic aesthetic. As Snyder begins, “eight years: San Francisco” and ends with “Japan” he sums up his travels with a pebble drop. The pebble falls deep into a lake, just as deep as this haiku. During any travel the traveler is changed, and when Snyder reflects on his eight years, it is possible that he can hardly recognize the person that stood at the edge of the Pacific Ocean so long ago. As he crossed beaches and mountains his perceptions and understandings widened, thereby opening a feeling of greater connection with the Earth.

This haiku is actually a stanza taken from the long-form poem “Parting with Claude Dalenberg”.

Parting with Claude Dalenberg

Why don’t we get drunk
            sit all night facing the moon
  “opening our hearts”
            as men did long ago?

last night was full moon, but
                        too cloudy.

one bottle of sake
            soon gone.
at lunchtime today you stopped by
your ship sails from Kobe at six.

eight years: San Francisco, the
beaches, the mountains,

Quiet talk and slow easy pace.
with your rucksack to India,
Europe, return

ease of the world, the light

as though we might
somewhere be
            parting again.

Claude Dalenberg is an American Zen teacher that Snyder met with while in Japan. Dalenberg also knew Kerouac, as evidenced by his inclusion of a character in The Dharma Bums based off Dalenberg named Bud Duchendorf . When we put Snyder’s haiku in its original context, the meaning deepens and changes. Now, not only does the haiku comment on the transitions one undergoes while traveling, but also travel’s effect on friendships. Snyder describes a farewell celebration of drinking sake and staying up late. The haiku has a sense of closure to it; a complete cyclical rotation in time.

Issa, reflecting on his travels too, sums them up as a waste of time. Issa’s tonal intent is unclear – this haiku could be taken in a humorous or serious light. I would like to think that Issa is joking, but did he truly feel that he wasted his life? Maybe he has begun to compare himself to others: those with families and businesses, who have created tangible success to account for their lives. Certainly amid his wanderings Issa must have felt restless and reckless; it is certain there were times when he lost sight of his goals.

Could this be why he began the haiku with “the moon and flowers”? Did he see them as his constant travel partners? Did they inspire him? Could they have possibly been the wanderers the haiku is referring to? Nevertheless, Snyder and Issa’ s haiku undoubtedly honor their travels as having had a very significant impact on their lives.

the st. louis airport
how different it looked
four years ago

Snyder & Kerouac

leaning in the doorway whistling
      a chipmunk popped out

The little sparrow
      on my eave drainpipe
Is looking around

Out of my peripheral vision I often am distracted with the quick movement of a squirrel or bird scurrying along the overhang of the roof or bounding through a tree. In this haiku pair Snyder and Kerouac are greeted with the spontaneous arrival of a small animal, curious about the human situation they have found themselves in. The chipmunk and sparrow exhibit a child-like innocence about them: their faces alert, asking themselves, “who is that whistling?” The interaction and wordless communication between the poets and animals is one of respect, and co-existence in the world.

The haiku are quite similar, with only slivers of distinction. Snyder’s haiku incorporates sound, whereas Kerouac is silent, as to enjoy watching the sparrow, in hopes to distract or scare him away. The pair comments, yet again, on the connection and relationship of humans and nature, and the importance of observing the small beauties we are given everyday.

home from the store
circling the block,
waiting for moose to move


Snyder & Snyder

This morning:
      floating face down in the water bucket
    a drowned mouse.

Catching grasshoppers for bait
attaching them live to the hook
            --I get used to it

.Both of these haiku by Snyder comment on the impermanence of life. In the first haiku the language is very matter-of-fact. I picture Snyder leaving his mountain hut to begin the morning chores and upon checking the rain-water bucket discovers the floating mouse. At first read this haiku has a gross, even creepy feeling about it. I cringed when I first thought of the dead mouse contaminating the water, and thought about what a terrible way to start the day. But the more I re-read it, the more the mouse’s death felt natural and inevitable, and the haiku’s tone shifted from being painful to becoming comfortable.

The second haiku exposes Snyder’s sensitivity toward death. Following previous comments on Snyder’s belief in the Gaia Hypothesis, and remaining consistent with his extensive Buddhist studies, he naturally has an impulse to respect all life. However, he realizes the inevitable impermanence that every creature shares. Just as the first haiku began to feel comfortable about death, Snyder began to shed his guilt for killing the grasshoppers. However, there is a lingering sense of his face wincing every time he pierces its body with the hook, which could only be made up with Snyder’s impeccable sense of humor and the sly finishing grin of “—I get used to it”.

salmon fishing:
stringing them through the gills
to bleed to death



Standing at the end of my project, looking up at the mountain I have just traversed and miles of trail I have just traveled, my journey with each of the four poets stops here, and only I can continue onwards. While studying each poet closely over the past two years, while learning of their lives, while reading their haiku and travel journals, each one has taught me many things about the art of haiku.

It was Basho who taught the lightness of karumi, and to always strive for detachment. It was Issa, while caring for every creature, connected with the suffering of humanity through acts of compassion. It was Kerouac who saw beauty in every situation, and taught me about spontaneity. It was Snyder who wrote about the organism of the Earth, and the impermanence that connects us all.

But together, they taught me about the effect travel has on one’s haiku aesthetic. In the first haiku pair, Basho yearns for Asakusa and Ueno, and Issa remembers Mount Asama. The poets begin to reach a realization of appreciation for their home. By traveling away from what they have become so comfortable with, they were able to see their lives from a different angle. Upon returning, their perspectives and understandings had opened to a larger picture, and home, although the same old home, had grown in depth and layers, as it finally had a context within the world.

Snyder writes many of his poems centered around the idea of his home. For example, his poem “The Bath” from his book “Turtle Island” describes the ritual of bathing with his sons and his wife in their outdoor steam room. The sensual imagery is juxtaposed with observations of nature, lending a blended inspiration: his travels connected full-circle to his family. If Snyder had not spent years studying in Japan, or sailing as a Merchant Marine he might not have appreciated the simple act of bathing with his family to the extent that he did.

Traveling, as I have found, and as the four poets give evidence, also provides a reason to write. While I was in San Francisco at the City Lights Bookstore, I sat on the back alleyway, fittingly named “Jack Kerouac Alley” and ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch. All of a sudden a myriad of images were filling my mind – an old Japanese lady was walking along the alley pushing a cart, pigeons were flitting about from nests made in the roof beams of the bookstore and shitting on the sidewalk, the sun was warm on my face, my vision glared as tourists walked by with paper Starbucks cups.

I pulled a notebook from my backpack, and spontaneously, in-between bites, I scribbled down fragments of images and haiku as they came. All of a sudden, while sitting on the curb in a disgusting urine-reeking alleyway, everything was beautiful. Everything had meaning, connection, and I felt like peace was possible. Basho must have had similar feelings while walking across Japan visiting famous temples, lakes, and graves: standing at the site of history, filled with haiku. If you always stay at home, that new feeling, the flood of images, the overwhelming need to jot down every detail, comes knocking rarely, maybe never at all.

Travel also lends itself to writing in that it breaks you away from your regular schedule; it loses your worries, and finally gives you the freedom to write. At home there are a plethora of distractions: dishes to clean, phone calls to take, e-mail to check, bills to pay, laundry to do, etc. But while traveling, every day is a new situation – you are forced to think on your feet, remain flexible, and explore new things. The very process of travel pulls ideas out of you, and gives you time to focus on them, whether it is like Basho and Issa, muttering haiku while walking along mountain paths, like Kerouac, hooting spontaneous drunk haiku from the backseat while roaring across the plains of America in the midnight darkness, or like Snyder arising early, and while pulling on leather gloves and logging boots, opens himself to the tug of a gentle haiku.

I once had a teacher who explained wealth as a pile of stories and anecdotes. He lived for making new experiences, and was always ready for an adventure. His wealth came from traveling, in acquiring these experiences that gave him the ability and wisdom to understand many different perspectives. For example, when Kerouac describes eating garbanzo bean soup in a border town of Mexico, he is creating an memory that will always be attached to any mention of Mexico or garbanzo beans for the rest of his life. For example, if he sees a bag of beans at the grocery store his mind will flash that memory through his subconscious, and he will feel, on some level, a greater sense of relativity to the world.

A similar experience occurred when I was in Australia. I immediately fell in love with the many different kinds of eucalyptus trees. After it rained, the air had a spicy, musky scent to it as the eucalyptus oils released. I spent one day alone hiking through a huge grove of eucalyptus, and that memory, with everything attached to it: the smells, the look of the leaves, the feel of the breeze, comes whizzing back through my mind when something triggers it, even something as simple as testing eucalyptus lotion in the shopping mall.

For the traveler – everything has a connection: the world becomes a scrapbook of memories and new experiences overlapping, which only increases the haiku writer’s ability to take a simple moment and understand the many inherent layers of meaning.

The four poets I chose for my project were natural travelers. They were restless to travel, and as Makoto Ueda states in his book, “Matsuo Basho,” that upon returning from a long period of travel, “Basho began preparing for the next journey almost immediately. It was as if the god of travel were beckoning him. Obsessed with the charms of a traveler’s life, he now wanted to go beyond his previous journeys; he wanted to be a truer wanderer than ever before”. Kerouac is also an example. Imagine Kerouac not on the road! The image seems impossible. Basho, Issa, Kerouac, and Snyder would have been terribly stifled if they were forced to remain at home. Their creative impetus was in travel itself.

Travel has the ability to open our eyes, increase our sense of observation, and capacity for awareness. Just yesterday I walked a different way home – the path took me along back-yard vegetable gardens, colorful clotheslines blowing in the wind, and exposed the beautiful vulnerability of peeling paint and open back-gates. And I would have missed all of this if I had not traveled a different path.


A cloud of cherry-blossoms; | Haiku | R. H. Blyth | 600
A paulownia leaf has fallen: | Haiku | R. H. Blyth | 71
A quiet moment— | Book of Haikus | Kerouac | 47
Alpine fir with | Book of Haikus | Kerouac |102
Catching grasshoppers for bait | Danger on Peaks | Snyder | 35
Chrysanthemum flowers; | Haiku | R. H. Blyth | 1129
Departing wild geese, | Haiku | R. H. Blyth | 1055
eight years: San Francisco, the | Left Out in the Rain | “Parting
with Claude Dalenberg” | Snyder | 95
Hitch hiked a thousand | Book of Haikus | Kerouac | 96
I don't care— | Book of Haikus | Kerouac |136
I will think of you pines from this mountain | Danger On Peaks |
“For Philip Zenshin Whalen d. 26 June 2002” | Snyder | 73
Ill on a journey; | Haiku | R. H. Blyth | 1228
"I'm alone," I said. | Haiku | R. H. Blyth | 1152
In back of the Supermarket, | Book of Haikus | Kerouac |18
In my medicine cabinet | Book of Haikus | Kerouac | 12
Just simply alive, | Haiku | R. H. Blyth | 1001
leaning in the doorway whistling | Earth House Hold | Snyder | 7
My hut at night; | Haiku | R. H. Blyth | 1069
O'er wearied, | Haiku | R. H. Blyth | 627
On the night mountain canyon wall road | Danger on Peaks | Snyder | 84
our front yard tree | Journal | Decatur, IL | October 2004
sitting in the sun in the doorway | Earth House Hold | Snyder | 8
slowly preparing tea | Japan House Newsletter | Decatur, IL |
December 2004
The autumn full moon : | Haiku | R. H. Blyth | 294
The autumn storm; | Haiku | R. H. Blyth | 308
The banana-plant in the autumn storm | Haiku | R. H. Blyth | 330
The first snow, | Haiku | R. H. Blyth | 83
The flies on the porch | Book of Haikus | Kerouac | 43
The flying butterfly : | Haiku | R. H. Blyth | 550
The little sparrow | Book of Haikus | Kerouac | 3
The moon and flowers: | Haiku | R. H. Blyth | 336
The rim of panties rides | Regarding Wave | Snyder | 75
The white chrysanthemum; | Haiku | R. H. Blyth | 146
The year draws to its close; | Haiku | R. H. Blyth | 171
This morning: | Earth House Hold | Snyder | 4
Tired, quit climbing at a small pond | Danger on Peaks | Snyder | 36
today i feel | Journal | Decatur, IL | October 2004
Wednesday blah | Book of Haikus | Kerouac | 90
windy night, | Journal | Decatur, IL | December 2004
Winter seclusion; | Haiku | R. H. Blyth | 1248


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©2004 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors