Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly commentary feature on some of the best contemporary haiku and senryu written in English. This week’s poem, proposed by Patricia McGuire, was:Nightfall boy smashing dandelions with a stick
— Jack Kerouac
Blues and Haikus, and American Haikus, 1959
Introducing this poem, Patricia writes:
This year is Jack Kerouac’s centenary. As English Language haiku enthusiasts we have a lot to thank Jack Kerouac for. Poets writing haiku around the time that Kerouac was active, the 1950/60’s, were heavily influenced by the writings of RH Blyth in his four volume series, Haiku. In these books he introduced many a reader, including Kerouac, to the aspects of Japanese culture that contributed to the formation of haiku. Kerouac went on to develop his own ideas on haiku, saying in the Dharma Bums that, “A real haiku’s gotta be as simple as porridge and yet make you see the real thing,” quoting this poem of Shiki’s as possibly the greatest haiku of all time:The sparrow hops along the veranda, with wet feet
Whilst I agree with Kerouac’s ideal, I think as a reader you want more? You want an aha moment, else you feel cheated. In a conversation with Stanford M. Forrester, he helped me to get to my aha moment in this poem.
In the first line, the fragment, the night is falling, it’s dusk, the sun is going down. The light of the sun is going out.
In the phrase the boy is smashing dandelions. Dandelions, a spring kigo. By using that image he suggests that the days are longer and a little warmer. One single word which accentuates the simple images of the poem. Let’s look closely at the dandelions. Their flowers are like miniature suns and the boy is smashing them, putting out the light of their suns. Darkness is falling both in the fragment and the phrase. Don’t you find that a subtle but masterful touch?
The great thing about haiku is that often one haiku generates a plethora of stories. What’s your story when you read this haiku?
I don’t know about the best haiku ever written, but this poem has become one of my all-time favourite haiku. I hope you enjoy it too.
In the compilation of Kerouac’s complete haiku — see the footnote — there’s another iteration of this:Dusk - boy smashing dandelions With a stick
I’m assuming that “Nightfall”, with “boy smashing dandelions” on one line, which appeared in American Haikus, 1959 is the revision. I think “Nightfall” is the more satisfying and evocative version.
Well, dropping my cloak of social rectitude in these times of enforced sameness, boys are often like that, aren’t they? In a simple little observation, Kerouac gives us the big story – the unthinking wanton destruction of the flowers by the boy, just because he can. The vandalism. The insensitive, oblivious exercise of power. The coming of night; the immature, assertive, male destroying the day, putting out little lights one by one with his caveman tool. I’m minded of “the lamps are going out all over Europe” (Sir Edward Grey in the Foreign Office, August 1914). And right now, it’s all too easy to substitute sunflowers for dandelions and think of Ukraine. Or many another aggressive, scene of gratuitous uncaring wilful violence. In a natural moment, Jack Kerouac cuts us a great haiku that is forever topical and relevant.
Nightfall and dandelions stand out here for me.
At first sight, I felt a negative vibe with this one, with the words “smashing” and “stick”, but then, just as we think life batters us and then we realise that there’s so much waiting on the other side of our monkey mind thoughts, I found this little poem said so much more than what’s seen on the outside.
There seems to be a subtle reference to domestic abuse here. In India, in many poor families, the husband returns home drunk at nightfall and beats/abuses his wife. This was the picture that came to my mind. I could garner a deeper meaning to a childish tantrum of a young one destroying a pretty sight for not getting what he wanted, probably from his parents.
Dandelion is also a kigo word for spring. So these unsympathetic looking lines could only mean that spring is coming to a close with the harsh summer sun beating down on all and sundry.
This haiku invokes some powerful metaphoric mapping. The first word, “nightfall,” recalls our daily journey through the circadian cycle. Kerouac might have used just “night,” but adding “fall” intensifies the night & modifies, in advance, the action that follows, during which things fall. “Nightfall” also implies secrecy – this isn’t something done in daylight, & is therefore somewhat illicit. “Boy” places us in a particular location in the human life cycle & also genders the action that follows. (If he had used “girl,” we’d have a different reaction.) “Smashing” implies destruction, but since it’s immediately followed by “dandelions,” that sense of catastrophe is mitigated, since we know that the life cycle of the dandelion involves creation & destruction. Who hasn’t “smashed” dandelion puffballs? Still, “smashing” is fairly violent, as if forcing the moment. “With a stick” modifies the total image by adding a layer of intentionality to the action. The stick is a tool; this is no accident. In fact, there’s a kind of joy in the act. By smashing the dandelions, the boy takes part in the natural cycle of life, of which he is now an integral part. & yet, once the haiku moment is done, we’re left wondering: there’s only one stick but billions of dandelions.
Here in India, as summer marches towards heat, I’m going backwards towards spring, its jollity, hope and renewal of spirits. This week’s theme being dandelions, this haiku veers around ease, easy play and freedom with a stick. Jack Kerouac distinctly mentions, by “Nightfall,” it is not the morning, day, or noon the boy chooses to play with dandelions; it is nightfall, slowly getting darker, so that no one will curb his freedom. The question remains, as to why, why dandelions, why smash them etc? I picture him determined to blast dandelion white fluff away from the hanging seedheads; perhaps a nice spectacle to enjoy, a sort of self assimilation, satisfying mirth and bliss. A dexterous write in which season and perfect timing, object and reason are well woven.
I feel the boy’s anger and sense of frustration as it all becomes too much, as we get tired, as emotions intensify at the end of the day. His senseless act dispels some of his feelings of helplessness. He has been experiencing the fundamental unfairness of human society: possibly school, parents, his community. He engages in a senseless act because his world lacks meaning. Maybe Jack Kerouac experienced this too. They both know the blues. Nature takes a hit for human-generated problems. I have a sense that the dandelions will survive, that the seeds will disperse and grow elsewhere.
A brilliant choice by Patricia McGuire, and somewhat surprising, since Kerouac’s haiku don’t always manifest elements she lists as essential to haiku (a seasonal reference, an aha moment, present tense). To Kerouac, haiku was more a matter of spirit than structure or content. In his prose, he had the literary courage to trust his gut and not compromise to appease the prevailing literary establishment. His haiku also exhibit an extreme freedom, though he did naturally embody the principle of using simple language to express a single moment. This one is in the present tense and has a seasonal reference (I picture the dandelions having changed from sun replicas to snow globes). But I’m wondering what would be considered the aha here (the association of nightfall with destruction, I suppose, but that seems both too obvious and too contrived to qualify as aha-ness). I’m kind of torn on this whole aha business: on the one hand, I love haiku for its transparence and immediacy—you bypass the intellect and experience the moment on a sensory/instinctual level right away. On the other hand, a good haiku makes me want to read it multiple times and ponder it for a while, and in doing so I am usually rewarded with additional connections and a deeper understanding. However, I don’t think a haiku should be a puzzle requiring intellectual effort to uncover or decode some profound insight hidden within it, or that you need to experience some sort of epiphany about a symbolic level of meaning beyond the literal images presented. In this poem I clearly see a boy smashing dandelions with a stick at nightfall and that is all the aha I need.
Mark Gilbert – a haiku still fresh and raw, but out of fashion:
My first feeling when reading this haiku from 1959 is how fresh and modern it is, yet also how it isn’t the type of poem that many haiku writers would produce today. Unlike most of Kerouac’s poetry this is not free verse but has what we would call nowadays a fragment + phrase structure. But still it is different to most haiku seen in current journals. In some ways it has not aged at all: it could be describing a scene from today (if children did not spend all their time on their mobile phones, of course). Yet as a haiku it is out of fashion.
In his prose, Jack Kerouac was not interested in fiction. He believed serious writers should write about their own lives and experiences, not tell fabricated stories, and he was against editing because it removed the spontaneity of the work. I’m sure he applied these principles to his poetry also. To me, this haiku goes against the way we are encouraged to write haiku today. It feels fresh because it seems to be describing a real scene, and the awkwardness of the image has been left for the reader to experience, which I doubt many writers — or editors — would embrace today.
I can imagine a haiku writer expecting to see a little girl picking wildflowers, not a boy slashing at weeds with a stick as if it were a machete, or smashing an object of beauty in some manifestation of maleness. This image contradicts the “meaning” of the spring/summer kigo of the flowering dandelions, of perhaps growth and regeneration. As a haiku it is giving us the opposite of the positive, life-affirming poem that we are expecting. It feels like something has gone wrong, that the writer has lost control of the “narrative”. Well, in my view he has voluntarily relinquished control. Life isn’t always as we expect. Unlike current writers, Kerouac has not tidied up this image to be more pleasing, less challenging to our expectations, less open-ended, more polished. He has remained true to the image he experienced and the way he decided to capture it when it was first written down, or typed up, in 1959.
I hope the world of haiku can continue to embrace work like this – and the process of creating it – within a wide focus.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the best commentary this week, Mark has chosen next week’s poem, which you’ll find below. We invite you to write a commentary to it. It may be as long or short, academic or spontaneous, serious or silly, public or personal as you like. We will select out-takes from the best of these, which take their place in the THF Archives. Best of all, the winning commentary’s author gets to choose the next poem.
Anyone can participate. Simply use the re:Virals commentary form below to enter your commentary on the new week’s poem (“Your text”) by the following Tuesday midnight, Eastern US Time Zone, and then press Submit to send your entry. The Submit button will not be available until Name, Email, and Place of Residence fields are filled in. We look forward to seeing your commentary and finding out about your favourite poems!
— Julie Schwerin
Stardust Haiku, issue 52, April 2021
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Thank you, Patricia.
Kerouac’s work remains fresh and engaging after sixty years. His collected haiku may be read online or downloaded here. And here’s the link to the excellent presentation on Kerouac by Stanford Forrester for Poetry Pea.