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J. D. Salinger (1919-2010)

Jerome David Salinger
January 1, 1919 – January 27, 2010

                                                                    The little girl on the plane
                                                                    Who turned her doll’s head around
                                                                    To look at me.

The above poem was written by J.D. Salinger for his second-most-famous-character, Seymour Glass, who, we are told by his brother, Buddy, in Seymour—An Introduction (pp 126-7), “probably loved the classical Japanese three-line, seventeen syllable haiku as he loved no other form of poetry, and that he himself wrote—bled—haiku (almost always in English, but sometimes . . . in Japanese, German, or Italian).”

And so, one of the most intriguing characters in English literature, created by one of our best 20th century writers and stylists, is none other than a haiku poet, and a haiku bleeder. Making Salinger—no?—a downright haiku nut.

The poem was originally composed in Japanese (as readers learn in “Seymour—An Introduction” p134), on the day he committed suicide (see “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” one of Salinger’s Nine Stories), and was lovingly translated into English by none other than Buddy. The poem first appeared in Salinger’s novella, “Zooey”, published in the May 1957 issue of The New Yorker, and, in 1961, was published with “Franny” to create the double martini that is Franny and Zooey.

The poem’s focus is not the airplane, the doll, the doll’s head, or even the poet/character, but the little girl; the child. Even more so, the mind/spirit/soul of a child and what they represent: innocence, purity, emptiness, the ego-less. A kind of spiritual perfection, ultimate enlightenment and beauty—all the things they can teach us and show us, reminding us of what we once were and, perhaps, what we could be. Only to remind us, however, that to achieve this is virtually impossible.

It makes one’s head spin.

Unable to achieve this god-like (Buddha-like, Jesus-like) state of consciousness and being, Seymour (an older, more sophisticated, learned, and complex version of Holden Caulfield?) committed suicide, leaving the above “straight, classical-style haiku” behind, written in pencil, “on the desk blotter in his hotel room.”

It seems Salinger’s themes and concerns only continued from Catcher in the Rye, blooming from a field, holding in much, into a family made of glass. Haiku, it seems, presented Salinger with a kind of key, and enabled him to take his art to a whole other level.

What do you think?

This Post Has 18 Comments

  1. >Unable to achieve this god-like (Buddha-like, Jesus-like) state of consciousness and being, Seymour (an older, more sophisticated, learned, and complex version of Holden Caulfield?) committed suicide, leaving the above “straight, classical-style haiku” behind, written in pencil, “on the desk blotter in his hotel room.”

    Not unable to achieve, but unable to restore. Not state of consciousness and being, but creative state of contemplation of the World, typical to rare poets. PDFBF reminds me short story by Nabokov “Signs and symbols”, written in 1947, to which Salinger alludes in “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” in a bathroom scene.

  2. Dean,

    Nothing is really known of Salinger’s poetry, other than his interests in poetry (haiku, Rilke, Eliot, Dickinson, Chinese poetry, etc). Supposedly, in 1945, 15 of his poems were rejected by The New Yorker (according to Wikipedia). I don’t think anything is known about them though (titles, subject matter, etc.). I’m sure many would love to read them.

    In 1947, Salinger published a short story in Cosmopolitan called “The Inverted Forest,” about a famous poet named Ray Ford. Only one line of his work, from a collection called “The Cowardly Morning,” was shared in the story:

    “Not a wasteland, but a great inverted forest
    with all the foliage underground.”

    Ford was not a war poet though. The story takes place before WWII.

  3. It is interesting to see that Salinger had an attraction to haiku. My question concerns the relationship of his extensive war experience to his poetry. Throughout history people have expressed their experience of war through poetry. My collection contains 5000 volumes, some of it haiku. Can anyone tell me where I can access Salinger’;s poetry. I would like to include it in my collection. Any other comments, suggestions are also welcome.

  4. Thanks, Chris, for the link to the Charlie Rose-Adam Gopnik appreciation. Well worth seeing.

    Adam Gopnik raises the point during the talk that Hemingway gave American writers permission to be taciturn and thin-lipped, while Salinger gave American writers permission to show their hearts (I’m paraphrasing here).

    I wonder then, if Hemingway is thought to have exhibited any evidence of haiku in his writing, given that he pared everything down in a haiku-like way?

  5. “A week or so before the poem was actually written, Seymour had actually been a passenger on a commercial airplane, and my sister Boo Boo has somewhat treacherously suggested that there may have *been* a little girl with a doll aboard his plane. I myself doubt it. Not necessarily flatly, but I doubt it. And if such *was* the case—which don’t believe for a minute—I’d make a bet the child never thought to draw her friend’s attention to Seymour” (J. D. Salinger, *Seymour—An Introduction, p134)

    where does this leave us? how then is it symbolic? for what?

    earlier in the discussion, i wasn’t speaking of my own interpretation of children, or anyone else’s, any or all readers’, or how *i*, necessarily, personally feel about “them”, but of Seymour’s (maybe even of Salinger’s—children and innocence being a major theme of his work), of the character’s—or at least my interpretation of how Seymour might feel towards/about them in general (interestingly enough, Salinger’s last published work, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” was a letter written by Seymour as a child from camp to his family, the piece showing readers clearly that Seymour was never, in a sense, really a child).

    i think Lorin was onto something when she noted that the poem might have to do with Seymour’s “irresovlable problems with ‘woman’.” i think perhaps it goes deeper than that. more of a spiritual thing, if you will (though he clearly had wife problems and had written a double-haiku about a woman, not unlike his wife, his brother Buddy tells us, who comes home from a tryst only “to find a balloon on her bedspread” (“Seymour—An Introduction,” p128-9). then again, the poem is open to many different interpretations. which is precisely the point of it i think—to have a poetic opening which is ambiguous that deepens with each piece of the Glass family story. hopefully, in the coming years we’ll be given more pieces and the story will continue to unfold.

    while i did make a large generalization that needs much defense, i think most every story Salinger wrote relies in some way on making haiku (and Japanese and Chinese poetics and poetry), or at least an understanding and appreciation for it, central for both advancing his stories, and characters, as well as his themes. it’s not *the* key, or only key. just *a* key. and an important one. we should also keep in mind—and i never see this pointed out—that “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and the Glass family in general was conceived by Salinger before, if not simultaneously, as Holden/Catcher (“just a moment in time”). “A Perfect Day…” was actually published *before* The Catcher in the Rye. so, we can’t refer to these Glass stories or his interest in haiku/Japanese and Chinese poetry/poetics as appearing in his later work. it was all there from the beginning. it was *all* his “early” work. his later work we have yet to see. though, supposedly, there is much to see.

  6. The little girl on the plane
    Who turned her doll’s head around
    To look at me

    —Jerome David Salinger

    To me strangely it showed a child’s shy nature and her naiveté. Some kids, some times, are shy and would like to ‘push’ their doll, to get the attention they seek – a device that even adults use, many a time!

    My own senryu illustrates this point I’m trying to make (belonging to the same intensity of purpose), which was written based on the memory of my little girl, who is now an adult and very normal!!!

    bed time…
    she asks if her rag doll
    can stay up late

    Simply Haiku – Summer 07

    I think this haiku by Salinger is absolutely a stunner, intuitive – he’s understood a child’s psychic and this definitely lends texture and character to the verse

  7. Worth noting that Salinger quotes two haiku by Bashō in “Teddy” (from Nine Stories):

    Nothing in the voice of the cicada intimates how soon it will die

    Along this road goes no one, this autumn eve

    Both, intriguingly, presented in a one-line format (back in ’53).

    There’s also this by Issa from “Franny and Zooey,” in Blyth’s translation:

    O snail
    Climb Mount Fuji,
    But slowly, slowly!

    So Salinger knew his Blyth. He also met D. T. Suzuki. Haiku and Zen do seem to have been quite important to the late work, even, oddly, as its texture became less concrete and particularized–in contrast to the manner of “The Catcher in the Rye” and the best early stories, such as “For Esmé–with Love and Squalor”–and more digressive and diffuse. I suppose I do regret that he abandoned his genius for dialogue and sharply-etched, comic, energetic scenes. But I digress, myself.

    As for “Seymour’s” intriguing haiku–first, Scott (Metz) is surely right that the focus is the little girl. The grammar of the poem clearly supports that interpretation. I find in it a curious, disturbing mixture of shyness and alienation. Certainly, it’s a very memorable image, lent greater poignance by context–the fact that we know it’s Seymour’s death poem (jisei). To paraphrase Thompson in Citizen Kane (another study of lost innocence), it’s a piece of a puzzle, but it doesn’t necessarily “explain” anything.

    Thanks for posting this tribute, Scott. It makes a nice tie-in between elh and the larger currents of Am lit.

  8. Thought-provoking essay. I tend to fall on the side of malevolence and the idea that Salinger used the haiku form as a device to advance his harrowing story. I in no way entertain the idea of children as enlightened, intrinsically benevolent or innocent.

  9. ‘Salinger used haiku . . .to provide a key to understanding these characters and the stories.’ David

    Yes, that sounds about right to me,David.

    I was taken by a quote of Salinger’s given in a recent newspaper article that reported his death. In relation to the ‘sequel’ to ‘Catcher in the Rye’, Salinger said: ‘”There’s no more to Holden Caulfield. Read the book again. It’s all there. Holden Caulfield is only a frozen moment in time.”

    In my reading of:

    The little girl on the plane
    Who turned her doll’s head around
    to look at me

    the disturbing power lies in the ambiguity in L2. Do we have here a little girl who seems, to the ‘me’ of the verse, to have a sweet, doll-like head who turns around to look or do we have a little girl who literally turns a doll’s head around (by screwing the neck around 180 degrees) so that it faces ‘me’? It is not possible to dismiss either image, so the alternate images create an unresolvable tension. There is no escape, either, since the ‘narrator’ is stuck in a plane seat behind this little girl/ staring doll with her head turned around the wrong way. The situation is unpleasantly claustrophobic, even nightmarish.

    Shamefacedly, I admit to having read nothing of Salinger’s but ‘Catcher’, but with this haiku as foreshadow, my guess would be that the character had irresolvable problems with ‘woman’.


  10. I wrote an essay, “J. D. Salinger and Haiku,” that’s in Frogpond XXIX:2 (you can also find it in RMA 2006). I feel that there are two points about haiku in his work. First, haiku was important to principal characters (both Seymour and Buddy, as you show). Second, haiku performed a key function (foreshadow and more) in the plot of certain stories (Franny and Zooey and the short story “Teddy”). That is, Salinger used haiku not only to add texture to his characters but also to provide a key to understanding these characters and the stories.

  11. Scott, I too felt a sense of malevolence or violence here…perhaps it’s an echo of the haiku I’ve seen referring to the headless doll???? To me, I see no “Christ-like” innocence in having to use a vehicle to “look”…I sense a feeling of fear …
    My own feeling about Christ is to banish fear and to see clearly what is true and find the beauty of that truth. But I don’t wish to get into a religious discussion here…just put that out so you’d understand why I felt as I did.

  12. The diverse meanings that can be ascribed to so short a poem always fascinate me.

    Rather than childlike innocence, I experienced a sense of chilling malevolence from this scene. Perhaps that’s what Seymour (“see more”?) felt, and responded to, as well.

    On the other hand, maybe I’ve just seen the movie Magic once too often. (Which is to say once.)

  13. I don’t believe there’s a Salinger biographer or scholar alive who would agree with the statement
    that “Haiku, it seems, presented Salinger with a kind of key, and enabled him to take his art to a whole other level.”

    I don’t see anything snide in my first comment or in this followup.

    Bill C

  14. The question of “levels” achieved by various arts is part of the conversation about form rather than a snide comment about the “level” achieved by the novel as opposed to the haiku, yes? Let’s say a novel and a poem/haiku deal with a universal theme — say, time. The “purity” of the act of attention (which includes a focus on this theme) is relative to the forms. Novels may say many things about time, a poem/haiku may itself be an “event” in/out of time. The haiku form isolates the event, deals with it on a “level” of participation rather than many-sided reflection as in a more “complex” form. It’s just one of the paradoxes of art that what a short poem offers can seem “higher” in some important ways than what a longer form, say novel, offers. No doubt there are various judgements hidden in these “prejudices” but there are also truths. Anyway, forms talk to one another and we should follow their lead.

  15. “Haiku, it seems, presented Salinger with a kind of key, and enabled him to take his art to a whole other level.”

    You’d have to do a lot more research to prove or reasonably undergird the assertion that haiku “…enabled him [Salinger] to take his art to a whole other level.”

    Bill C

  16. Just learned of the Salinger haiku connection from Henry Allen op-ed in Washington Post, then googled here.

  17. Scott, this is a powerful insight, powerfully presented. I’ll leave the scholarly responses to those more qualified, but I wanted to tell you that your tribute to Salinger *and* to the wonder of haiku will follow me for a very long time. Thank you!


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