Megan Klein

Jack Kerouac's Haiku

Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2001

Jack Kerouac’s Haiku

The Writer

Jack Kerouac is best known as one of the Beat Poets of the 50’s. He, along with friends Allan Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Neal Cassady and others, founded the Beat literary movement, and helped label his generation as the Beat Generation. Kerouac was an eclectic—a non-conformist drifter who lived hard and wrote freely, which is evident in his famous works On The Road and The Dharma Bums.

In addition to being a novelist, Kerouac is also famous for his poetry. He was highly influential in popularizing haiku in America and the West.
Kerouac discovered haiku when he began studying Buddhism through his friend and Zen poet Gary Snyder. Just as he reformed ideas about prose with his "spontaneous writing" method, he also reformed the way that haiku was thought about. He rejected the strict, traditional 17 syllable Japanese form, but kept the three short line form. He liked the idea that something so short could say so much. In The Dharma Bums, he writes that "a real haiku’s got to be as simple as porridge and yet make you see the real thing." In his collection Scattered Poems, he gives an explanatory note explaining his take on haiku.

The "haiku" was invented and developed over hundreds of years in Japan to be a complete poem in seventeen syllables and to pack in a whole vision of life in three short lines. A "Western Haiku" need not concern itself with the seventeen syllables since Western languages cannot adapt themselves to the fluid syllabic Japanese. I propose that the "Western Haiku" simply say a lot in three short lines in any Western language. Above all, a Haiku must be very simple and free of all poetic trickery and make a little picture and yet be as airy and graceful as a Vivaldi Pastorella. (69)

Kerouac looked at haiku as a distilled form of poetry. The idea of presenting an entire image in just three lines appealed to him. It also helped him in his study of Buddhist teachings, which would become very important to him later in life.
When I encountered Kerouac’s haiku, I was surprised. For all I had known about him was that he had this intense, flowing writing style, dense and packed with meaning, yet very wordy. The thought that he could "contain" all this writing in the tiny package of haiku was what surprised me. But as I read his haiku, I discovered that it was the perfect form of poetry for Kerouac. The challenge it presented in its simplicity, as well as the freedom to let the image resonate was appealing to Kerouac. Because his other writing was so dense and imagistic, haiku was the next great literary form he challenged and reshaped for himself, and ultimately the rest of us.

The Haiku

First, I want to look at Kerouac’s haiku that appeal to me, and then I want to see if they fit his definition of haiku. That is, to see if they are "simple and free of all poetic trickery", and yet still "pack in a whole vision of life in three short lines."

Missing a kick
at the icebox door
It closed anyway.

This haiku is considered by some to be Kerouac’s best. It expressed a single moment, and there is implied irony in that moment: that the door closed anyway, despite the failed attempt by the actor in the haiku. There is much room for the imagination of the reader at the attitude of the actor: was it an act of frustration or just laziness? It is up to the individual encountering the haiku to decide. There is an element of surprise in the haiku, as well, in that the door closed on its own. As I interpret this haiku, I sense a sort of personification of the icebox; it is like a rebellious child, closing as if it wanted to, despite the wishes of the master. As far as Kerouac’s criteria, I think this haiku fits. It is simple, yet gives a glimpse of everyday life.

And the quiet cat
sitting by the post
Perceives the moon

As much as I like this haiku, I do not think that it is in essence a true haiku. I like it because of the peaceful image it gives, and simply that the subject is a cat. Again, I feel this haiku personifies the cat, in that the cat "perceives" the moon. This haiku paints a very vivid picture. So why, then, do I feel it lacks true "haikuness"? Because it falls victim to "poetic trickery". The words are just too pretty and descriptive to be simple enough for a haiku. Beginning with "and" is the first problem. Though it enters us right in the moment, it leaves us wondering what came before, and detracts from the poem. Describing the cat as "quiet" is unnecessary for a haiku- I think that it could be implied that the cat is quiet in this instance. The first line is where the problem lies, but I am torn at the usage of the word "perceives". I like it because it makes the cat more human, and therefore we can relate. How often have we perceived the moon on a clear night? But on the other hand, I can also see how it can be too much of an intellectual word to use in a simplistic poem like this. I really enjoy this verse as a poem, but I do not think it holds as a haiku.

Straining at the padlock
the garage doors
At noon

Again, as Kerouac uses "straining" to suggest the doors are prisoners, held against their will, personification is used. In contrast with the last haiku, I feel this one is a true haiku, because of the simple language and vivid picture it presents. I like this haiku because of the simplicity and the personified doors. This haiku can also be looked at as a symbol of something greater than just the image presented- a symbol of daily encounters with what is trying to hold us back, our "padlocks" so to speak. The haiku is just a glimpse at this struggle; we never see the end. The audience is left to consider whether the doors finally broke free, or gave up after their long struggle, parallel to the daily struggles we encounter.

Evening coming—
the office girl
Unloosing her scarf.

This haiku displays an everyday occurrence- a routine in the day of the girl. The haiku is simple and describes one action of the girl. I like it because I can see it- the girl is walking home from her office job on the busy city streets, unloosing her scarf because the workday is over. Maybe she has a date, or maybe she is thinking of what to fix for dinner. From these three lines, I can see the entire life of this girl. It might not be what Kerouac thought when he wrote it; he might have just seen this girl on the street and thought nothing more of her after writing this, but this haiku really speaks to me. I can really put myself in the haiku, and yet I can still appreciate the singleness of the action in the haiku. This is a multi-layered haiku, and I enjoy it because of those layers.

In the sun
the butterfly wings
Like a church window

I think what is interesting about this haiku is the wording of "butterfly wings". Kerouac does not give the butterfly possession of its wings; instead, they are just objects unto themselves, which I think works really well in this haiku for the comparison. Or, he could be talking about many different butterflies, flying all at once, their wings making the stained-glasslike appearance. Either way, the unique wording of "butterfly wings" sets this haiku apart. By objectifying the wings, I begin to wonder who those wings belong to, and therefore who should get credit for their beauty. The obvious answer is alluded to in the last line- God, in the reference to church windows. The butterfly did nothing to create those beautiful wings, the Creator did. Normally, I do not like poetry or haiku with church or religious reference, for personal reasons, but I like this haiku despite that for two reasons.

First, I can appreciate the beauty and artistry of "church" windows merely for their artistic value, not religious. And second, understanding that Kerouac let Buddhist teachings influence his religion, I can see that this haiku might have been symbolic of his two faiths coming together. The nature image (Buddhism) compared with the church image (Catholic) shows how one can influence the other, and vice versa. This poem seems like a way for Kerouac to begin to meld his two religions together. He was a fervent Catholic, despite his lifestyle, though he later tempered his Catholicism with Buddhism. Though simple on the surface, this haiku has a lot going on with it, and is most definitely a true haiku, when compared to Kerouac’s definition.

The moon had
a cat’s mustache
For a second

I decided to close with this haiku because it is a fun one. I have cats, and am a self-proclaimed "cat person". I was delighted to learn in my research that Kerouac was also a fan of cats. I even came across a picture of him holding a cat, and the caption read "Jack and beloved cat". In his final novel, Big Sur, chronicling his final breakdown, one pivotal moment is when he learns that his cat Tyke has died. This makes me feel somehow connected to Kerouac, and so I can understand where he is coming from with this 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. This one deals with a more playful cat than the contemplative one in the former. 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 this is a haiku that can be most appreciated by "cat people". And again, I like the wording. The moon remains the focus, although the main actor is the cat, and he personifies (or "catifies"?) the moon by giving it a mustache.


I thoroughly enjoyed researching and analyzing the haiku of Jack Kerouac. I did not know much about him when I began, aside from what I had gleaned from pop culture, but I really enjoy his haiku, and I want to read more of his work. There was a line from his haibun in the Haiku Handbook that has stuck with me ever since I read it "and the sunsets are mad orange fools…" This is what first attracted me to his work in haiku, and I have not been disappointed.

His work in haiku was experimental and groundbreaking, and that it has lasted so long to continue to be published in anthologies today is a testament to the brilliance of the work. In looking at these haiku, I realized that there is so much more in these three lines than what first appears, and I think this will help me in my haiku writing.

Kerouac never set out to do what he did. He did not grow up with the dream to change the face of literature. He just lived his life, and did what he wanted to do. Though his life was not ideal, and the choices he made many would disagree with, he still remains one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, and his intense words will live on with us for centuries to come, like the works of Basho and Buson.

—Megan Klein


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