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Essence #3 (part 2)

Essences explores the roots of the “haiku movement” in North America

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Essence #3
(part 2)

By Carmen Sterba

Carmen Sterba’s Interview with Cor van den Heuvel
〜Part 2 of 3〜

Carmen Sterba: How much were you influenced by Jack Kerouac? Was it his autobiographical novels or his haiku?

Cor van den Heuvel: At that time, I knew nothing about his haiku. I had read his “October in the Railroad Earth” in the famous second issue of The Evergreen Review, the magazine that had brought me out to San Francisco, and had been impressed by it, but it was Robert Duncan’s poetry that had attracted me most at the time. Later, I was to appreciate Kerouac more, including my coming to consider “Railroad Earth” to be one of the greatest prose poems ever written. But it was his The Dharma Bums, which describes in great detail his introduction to haiku by Snyder that became an influence on my haiku. That came later, however, after I’d been writing haiku for a number of years. The Snyder character’s emphasis on simplicity in haiku (“as simple as porridge”) helped me to make my own haiku more simple. As did the later example of John Wills’ haiku. And my conversations with him (Wills) about trying to skirt close to banality and flatness in haiku, while still revealing or suggesting the mystery and wonder to be found in the common and the ordinary. I did read Kerouac’s On the Road in 1958 at the San Francisco public library, but that does not mention haiku. Kerouac hadn’t met Snyder until after the events described in that novel. Though Bums came out in 1958, I wasn’t aware of it then, perhaps the library acquired it after I went there. I returned east before the end of the year.

As regards simplicity in haiku, when I first started trying to write haiku in 1958 and early 1959 I still had western ideas of what poetry should be like. I was still attracted to figures of speech, metaphors, and other literary tropes. Also the strange juxtapositions of surrealism were still an influence on me. You can see this in my first chapbook sun in skull which I published in 1961 where I have:

a black model-T ford
rounds the white curve
of the heron’s wing

and

night      and the horse’s eye
rolls the bony scoop
behind the soda fountain

And even in 1963, in the window-washer’s pail, where I had:

an empty wheelchair
rolls
in from the waves

and

the windshield-wipers
vanish over the horizon
Geronimo leaps to his horse

though I also had some very plain, simple haiku in those collections as well, such as

the snow

blows

down the subway

My work over the years has been moving more and more to the simplicity called for by Shiki and from him through Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac in The Dharma Bums, where Snyder (as Japhy”) quotes Shiki’s with wet feet/ the sparrow hops/ along the porch (in another translation) as a haiku that is “simple as porridge.” It’s hard to say why these simple little combinations of words have the power to move us the way they do. The best description I’ve been able to come up with over the years is the following, which is really an admission of defeat:

                     The magic of haiku defies analysis. In its very simplicity lies its greatest mystery:
                     the mystery of clear water and blue sky, of a petal’s tint and a bird’s song, of
                     sunlight and shadows.

It may interest you to know that I wrote a companion piece to the Geronimo haiku. It’s about another great native American, but is written in a contrasting, simple style:

Crazy Horse
ties up his pony’s tail
rolling thunder

Simplicity does not have to abandon depth of meaning. Tying up his horse’s tail was just part of the ceremonial decorating of himself and his horse an Indian warrior performed before he went to war. History books have quoted eyewitnesses to the events who describe Crazy Horse carrying out this act before the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

My early surrealistic pieces quoted above seem to me to be very similar to the kind of things the gendai poets in Japan have been writing for some generations now, obviously in imitation of western poetries devoted to surrealism and odd juxtapositions. And now a lot of contemporary American poets, led by the scholar Richard Gilbert, are going back to that way of writing poetry, though now in haiku. It is good for the growth of the genre for it to include various approaches to writing. Gilbert’s inspired bit of creative critical analysis that came up with seventeen types of juxtaposition for poets to play with will certainly help broaden the scope of American haiku. But I hope if scholars in this country are finally going to pay attention to American haiku, they will recognize the contributions already made to our literature by the poets who pioneered the genre in the Twentieth Century: Hackett, Virgilio, Southard, Roseliep, Spiess, and Jewell. Richard Wright, though his haiku were mostly invisible until the end of the century, and Jack Kerouac have both been recognized by the professors of academia for their contributions to American haiku. Largely because they are famous novelists. It’s time literary history recognized the poets who helped make the American haiku movement the vital force it is today.

And I hope there will always be some American haiku poets who will continue to write in the simple sketching style of Shiki. For it is that example that inspired American haiku poets to bring a new kind of simplicity to our country’s literature. A suggestive simplicity which, in the best works of Wills, Michael McClintock, Marlene Mountain, Gary Hotham, Anita Virgil, Alan Pizzarelli, Alexis Rotella, and others, allows words to create an ontological thrust that presents an image you can reach out and touch. Only William Carlos Williams, among the poets who came before haiku, was able to match the re-creating of existence through words with the immediacy and presence later attained in their haiku by these American haiku masters.

Does Cor’s work from sun in skull and the window-washer’s pail remind you of contemporary Japanese work (gendai) and/or surrealistic English-language haiku?

Cor groups Hackett, Virgilio, Southhard, Roseliep, Spiess, and Jewell as ELH pioneers. Do you agree with his choices or not? Who would you add and why?

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Essences began as a column written by Carmen Sterba in the North American Post in Seattle, WA, a bilingual newspaper in Japanese and English. Its purpose is to go back to the roots of the “haiku movement” in North America: the major poets, the individual styles of haiku, the books, the journals and conferences as they evolved from the sixties and seventies onwards. This will be a short version, so feel free to add information and comments as we go along.

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. I’m not tha much off a online reader too be hknest but you
    sites really nice, keep it up! I’ll go ahead and bookmark your
    wedbsite too cme back in the future. Many thanks

  2. Kris, your haiku, tanka & gogyohka all have a really good vibe. It’s exciting to connect with new poets from a younger generation.

    I was delighted to see Quicksilver start up with Laura
    Sherman. One of the most important facets of The Haiku Foundation must be to reach out to new poets.

  3. Carmen,
    Thanks for asking. I’m not on Liam’s blog, but I have a tumblr blog that feeds from my twitter account, and then I weed out the useless stuff & put in line breaks.
    http://klindbeck.tumblr.com/

    I’m almost as much of a beginner as Laura Sherman . . . been writing haiku on twitter since December 2008, and now a lot of gogyohka too (they are free form tanka, more or less, http://gogyohka.ning.com/ developed recently in Japan by Enta Kusakabe).

  4. Paul, that’s a good choice. There must me others who deserve to be in this expanding list:

    Hackett, Virgilio, Southhard, Roseliep, Spiess, and Jewell, Elizabeth Searle Lamb, Cor van den Heuvel
    and . . .

    In my column in The North American Post, I have written or plan to write about all of the above, except Southard and Jewell, who I personally do not know as well, and added Anita Virgil.

  5. Hi Carmen,

    To your second question, I would consider adding to Cor’s list: Elizabeth Searle Lamb, and, Cor himself.

    – Paul

    1. Tom D’Evelyn recently wrote, “So the “pop” of this kind of haiku is truly pop and no less interesting for that, to be honest,” on Second Position on THF Blog. I immediately thought how Kerouac called his haiku “pops,” but that was more because of their briefness, I imagine. That was probably considered hip.

      When we go to an Open Mike event, haiku poets could introduce their haiku as “pops” and have a friend play a trombone or a base for accompaniment.

      Thanks, Kris, for sharing the video. Kerouac’s “pops” with visuals used the same music as a vintage Kerouac reading. The vibe was similar, too.
      I looked at Liam’s Blog, too. Do you have a page on his blog?

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