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 Ann Smith, was:
Spring evening —
Eighteen year old sisters
— Jack Kerouac
Blues and Haikus, 1959
Introducing this poem, Ann writes:
I was 5 when this was written. Using the same amazing arithmetic skills I worked out that these sisters must be twins. Then I googled and discovered that it is possible to have non-twin biological siblings less than 9 months apart. Either by getting pregnant within a few weeks of the first child’s birth or by getting pregnant within 3 months and having the child early.
Anyway I am looking forward to reading what others make of these intriguing lines
Another fine haiku by Kerouac to revisit in this, his centenary year. In so few carefully chosen words, a feast of associations and thought.
First reading it as a whole, I see a male poet with a sex drive having springtime thoughts about two young women. When this was published (but maybe not when it was written) Kerouac was 37. I’m immediately struck that Kerouac has described the sisters of the same age as “the two” and not as “the twin” sisters. This suggests that they are in some way different. Perhaps which of them to go for, or even both… I picture a quizzical eyebrow raised, and a slightly lascivious smile. But I believe there are far deeper layers to this.
Next, the conscious choice of “two” brings the thought that these sisters who have spent their childhood together, are now on the threshold of adulthood and their separate lives. Spring conveys the fertile promise of adventure; evening the closing of one period and transition to another — between the clear familiarities of childhood days and the more obscure uncertainties of an adult future. The “two” suggests their different futures at this threshold age. This seems to follow in line of descent from Shiki’s very famous haiku:
yuku ware ni / todomaru nare ni / aki futatsuI go, you stay; two autumns
(tr. Hass. Sometimes attributed to Buson, probably incorrectly – see footnote)
These layers might be enough, and more than enough, for an excellent haiku and honkadori. Yet there may be more. Kerouac was conflicted about sexuality. Thrice married, and raised a Catholic, he acclaimed heterosexuality; but there is evidence also of homosexual attractions that he tried to repudiate. I offer some reading in the footnote.
I am left wondering whether one of the “two sisters” he is contemplating may be for him the other side of the sexual coin, or at least a hint of conflicting temptations and choices when he himself was eighteen or nineteen, some of them forbidden in those times. We don’t know whether Kerouac had any or all of the above thoughts consciously or unconsciously, when he wrote the haiku. It may be that I have read them all in. He said that everything he wrote was true. But truth can be present in so many forms, perhaps disguised, and sometimes hard to explain. Which is where poetry may come in.
Seasons govern man’s life, and literature and his way of living and moods, and even modes of costume and apparel. Of the seasons, Spring beckons and begins with a note of fresh leafage and bloom, auguring a fresh start and prosperity.
Jack Kerouac begins this senryu with “ Spring evening —-” leaving scope to imagine a delectable expansion of this term; a pleasant evening, cool vibrant air, buds and flowers, fresh aromas… who would not choose to be in this ambience? In the second line, ”the two” makes us wonder who are these two; the answer lies in the third line, “Eighteen year old sisters.” The teen age is a very difficult, dangerous, tricky, time, drawing us into a mesh of chaos or ambition, prospective furthering of life or perhaps doom. These teenage sisters could be indulging in an affair perhaps; or in their respective individual worlds of loves, exchanging talks, endearing looks and conversation.
For some reason this quotation comes to mind: “in the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.” — Margaret Atwood.
Amoolya Kamalnath — a haiku with mystery:
To understand this week’s haiku and its poet, I dug into the poet’s life history. I gathered that Jack Kerouac, an American novelist and poet with a Canadian French background, started writing when he was eleven years old and was known as a beat generation author for his opposing views of his times. He experimented with haiku which he called ‘pops’, a genre he defined as “short 3-line pomes”. His cheeky playful attempts were largely considered “American haiku” given the loose use of the syllable – and are very much zen-like in prose, humorous, and deeply thought-provoking. He said, “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.” (Jack Kerouac’s 20 best haikus by Tammy Moir) (The Taste of Rain – American Haiku by Jack Kerouac — briefpoems). And I find all of this in this poem of his: “spring evening – the two eighteen year old sisters.” It is zen-like in prose, humorous and deeply thought-provoking, yet simple and devoid of any poetic trickery, making the little picture and being graceful at the same time.
Spring is all about new beginnings and transformations. Spring and “springtime” refer to the season, and also to ideas of rebirth, rejuvenation, renewal, resurrection and regrowth. During early spring, the axis of the Earth is increasing its tilt relative to the Sun, and the length of daylight rapidly increases for the relevant hemisphere. The hemisphere begins to warm significantly, causing new plant growth to “spring forth,” giving the season its name.
Given all these, it could mean simply that Kerouac was giving us an imagery of an evening in the spring season where there were present two eighteen-year-old girls (18 meaning coming of age), who were sisters, and maybe they were looking to find their mates. The two sisters have transformed into beautiful young adults in this spring season just like how the little buds taking shelter in the mother plants all these months blossom into beautiful flowers on the arrival of spring. The evening part of the day also refers to the maturing of the girls unlike the morning when they are young and fresh. Two sisters are giving company to each other until they each find company for themselves in the opposite sex, just what a young adult longs for. There’s so much that could be envisaged in this poem like the sisters might be sitting in their green garden drinking their tea on this particular spring evening and discussing something very interesting. The scene of the lush greenery along with the very many flowers in full bloom is very appealing to one’s mind and it conjures up many more images.
Nelly Lewis Lambert writes, “Sometimes nature succeeds in inspiring an almost surrealist burst of ecstasy for Kerouac, but Kerouac again inverts the formula; the ecstasy is not expressed through delight in nature but through delight in something manmade. At times he uses its conventions with elegance, subtly embedding a seasonal clue within a tender or sensual image of everyday life. Kerouac’s use of the haiku form keeps the original core of brief, deep images of nature expressed in three short lines. Nature is a not a metaphor in Kerouac’s haiku, but an encounter — even a clash. In his imitations of the Japanese model, Kerouac produces humour by reversing the direction of the metaphor: human experience is no longer compared to something beautiful in nature; rather, nature interferes with or is pitted against man-made entities. Occasionally, he personifies nature, though his human vantage point, as a viewer in a car passing by along the American highway. He believed in order, tenderness and piety”. (Jack Kerouac’s American Haiku in Humour in America by Nelly Lewis Lambert).
All this reading up about Jack Kerouac prompted me to try to write like him, pitting nature against the manmade…
A thank you note to Ann Smith for her careful selection of this haiku and grateful to Keith Evetts for this highly captivating feature.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Amoolya 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. Out-takes from the best of these take their place in the THF Archives. Best of all, the chosen commentary’s author gets to pick 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!
after the storm
I would like to be a leaf
for a while
— Eufemia Griffo
Failed Haiku vol 7 issue 77, April 2022
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Attribution of “two autumns”:
Buson or Shiki: The Confusing Authorship of the “Two Autumns” Poem
Michael Dylan Welch, A Hundred Gourds 4:1, December 2014
Kerouac’s sexuality and conflicted background:
The Queer Crime That Launched the Beats
James Polchin, The Paris Review, 27 June 2019
The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac
Ellis Amburn, St. Martin’s Press 2000
Chapter one: The agonized cock of the matter
(Ellis Amburn was Kerouac’s last editor. The “agonized cock” was Kerouac’s phrase.)
And a thoughtful review of “Subterranean Kerouac” that is a useful corrective of Amburn:
Morris Dickstein, New York Times books, 9 August 1998