Skip to content

re:Virals 355

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 —

      the two

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

Opening comment:

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:

行く我にとゞまる汝に秋二つ
yuku ware ni / todomaru nare ni / aki futatsu

      I 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.

Radhamani Sarma:

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.


virus2

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

The Haiku Foundation reminds you that participation in our offerings assumes respectful and appropriate behavior from all parties. Please see our Code of Conduct policy.


Footnote:

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
http://ahundredgourds.com/ahg41/exposition01.html

Kerouac’s sexuality and conflicted background:

The Queer Crime That Launched the Beats
James Polchin, The Paris Review, 27 June 2019

And:

Subterranean Kerouac
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

This Post Has 19 Comments

  1. For anyone who might be interested, please see an updated version of my essay on the correct authorship of the two autumns poem at https://www.graceguts.com/essays/buson-or-shiki-two-autumns (includes new postscripts, one of which cites numerous other incorrect attributions of the poem to Buson, and even one to Basho, together with correct attributions to Shiki). Meanwhile, I don’t see any relevance of Shiki’s poem in Kerouac’s. Simply mentioning “two” isn’t enough to make even just a slight connection anything more than incidental. The old meaning of “twin” seems so extremely remote that it surely wasn’t part of Kerouac’s awareness, let alone intent. It’s fun to speculate, but let’s not stretch too far in trying to interpret haiku.

    1. Why shouldn’t we go as far as we like in speculation/commentary regarding the chosen haiku? Is that not the point of this blog feature? Comments such as this from a respected authority on haiku discourage community discourse.

      ” …It may be as long or short, academic or spontaneous, serious or silly, public or personal as you like.”

      Personally I love it when someone posts a commentary that causes me to think differently about a written passage, and I am constantly learning from the variety of viewpoints expressed in this feature.

      1. Though MDW’s tone may be a bit professorial, I tend to agree with him. Anyway, he has as much right to his perspective as anyone writing here does, and I doubt his view on this matter will discourage discourse.

        If writing about haiku, one’s experiences with a given poem and one’s speculations, etc., helps one to get into it,
        that is all to the good. But just as one might pay careful attention to instances of personal indulgence in writing haiku, and to edit or adjust where necessary, sometimes similar attention to what one says about haiku may be useful so as not to stray too far
        from the source.

        Kerouac, the evidence suggests. was a pretty spontaneous writer. I suspect that with haiku especially, the approach for him was not to think about it very much.

  2. Concerning Shiki: we know that Kerouac read Blyth’s four volume “Haiku” published 1949-1952, and that in “Dharma Bums” (1958, a year before “two sisters” appears) his character Japhy (Gary Snyder) cites, using Blyth’s translation, another haiku of Shiki’s as a prime example of “A real haiku’s gotta be as simple as porridge and yet make you see the real thing.” It seems to me likely that Kerouac was aware of Shiki’s work via Blyth including “two autumns” (translated by Blyth as ” I going, You remaining,— Two autumns”), and influenced by it. I zoomed in on the conspicuous choice of “two” rather than “twin” to describe the sisters of the same age…

    1. I’m pretty sure, too, Keith, that Kerouac was well aware of Shiki’s work via Blyth, but to me Shiki’s “two autumns” has a sense of the accepted sadness of separation. You go, I stay. (It’s a haiku I like & very much admire )
      .
      Kerouac’s “the two 18 year old sisters” seems to me to have nothing much in in common with Shiki’s “two autumns” haiku (beyond the citing of the number, ‘two’) There’s certainly not a shared mood between Kerouac’s & Shiki’s ku. There are ‘togetherness’ vs ‘separation’ themes if we wish to look at it that way, but in itself that leads nowhere for me.
      .
      (This is not to say that Kerouac did not pick up & understand the implication of emotion in Blyth’s translations of Shiki’s haiku, and use it well.)

      1. I’ve come to play the devil’s advocate, just for the fun of it.

        Kerouac’s “the two 18 year old sisters” seems to me to have nothing much in in common with Shiki’s “two autumns” haiku (beyond the citing of the number, ‘two’) There’s certainly not a shared mood between Kerouac’s & Shiki’s ku. There are ‘togetherness’ vs ‘separation’ themes if we wish to look at it that way, but in itself that leads nowhere for me. – Lorin Ford

        I think there is a case to be made in reference to the “two autumns” haiku, specifically the use of the word “two” instead of “twin”. Assume that the two sisters that Kerouac referenced in his haiku

        Spring evening —

        the two

        Eighteen year old sisters

        — Jack Kerouac
        Blues and Haikus, 1959

        were indeed 18 year old twins. Then consider one of the original meanings of twin: In Middle English, the verb earlier and typically meant “to part, part with, separate from, estrange,” etc. (c. 1200), on the notion of making two what was one. One could also assume that at 18 years old that the twin sisters who had up to this point in their lives been inseparable, would each go on to live their lives separately, as adults. This would jive with the kigo spring evening – the end of the spring day corresponding to the end of youth. With this reading I can make a case for an allusion to Shiki’s haiku:

        I go,
        you stay;
        two autumns

        1. “One could also assume that at 18 years old that the twin sisters who had up to this point in their lives been inseparable, would each go on to live their lives separately, as adults. This would jive with the kigo spring evening – the end of the spring day corresponding to the end of youth. With this reading I can make a case for an allusion to Shiki’s haiku:

          I go,
          you stay;
          two autumns”
          .
          🙂 OK, princess and Devil’s Advocate, yes, I acknowledge the various “dreaming room” interpretations readers make, but the end of a spring day isn’t the end of spring, it’s the beginning of a spring evening, filled with the scent of flowers and fresh things. To me, a spring evening isn’t suggestive of the end of youth. When do we, as readers, leave the poem and make up our own story? Or to what extent do readers do this?

          I doubt that Kerouac, with his long French ancestry followed by Canadian French ancestry studied up on old and middle English etymology. ‘Twine’ ( a common ball of twine we have around the house or garden shed) comes from ‘twin’ too, in that case the joining of two threads to make one stronger thread. But he doesn’t use the word “twins” and with good reason, I think. He sees the two girls as individuals, and “twins” can often be associated with sameness.

          Of course the two 18 year old sisters ( identical twins, fraternal twins or not twins at all but two girls, one or both adopted or one or both with different fathers or mothers… any of these are sisters) may & probably will go their separate ways in the future but I don’t find that in the haiku.This haiku is a ‘now’ poem. Here are the two same-age sisters, come of age at 18 and out together on a spring evening. This isn’t Shakespeare (“shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?….”), it’s Kerouac, but it’s possible there’s a comparison of the two 18 year old sisters with a spring evening.
          .
          And the mood: joyful, intensely so , compared with the Shiki haiku. Yes, the “spring evening” girls are together and Shiki and his friend are parting and will have two different “autumns” so there can be an argument that Kerouac was influenced by the Shiki ku, but it’s not even close to honkadori, imho. (Also there are 3 people in the Kerouac ku: the two sisters and the delighted observer himself.)

          1. “When do we, as readers, leave the poem and make up our own story? Or to what extent do readers do this?” — Lorin Ford

            An interesting question almost always in this feature. The more open a verse is to different interpretations, the more ambiguous, the more readers there are, the more interpretations there are likely to be as they try to connect their experience with the poem. I find the different reactions and thoughts of different readers interesting, and they contribute a good deal to one’s pleasure and understanding. Who’s to say who’s “right” or “wrong,” Lorin?

            As to “spring evening”, in a tiny verse where each word carries weight I see two words here, one carrying the sense of youth and new beginnings, the other a time of transition at the end of a day. Others’ reactions may vary.

  3. I’ve enjoyed reading the comments:
    — Ann’s forensic approach which uncovers the possibility of two sisters who were not together in utero (a variation of which might be that both sisters or either sister may have been adopted).
    .
    — Keith’s opening comment, with it’s interpretations and comparison with Shiki’s ‘two autumns’ haiku.
    .
    — Radhamani’s exploration of the happenings and moods that “spring evening” evokes, and how these affect our reading of “two 18 year old sisters”, and interpretations of what these sisters might be they may be doing or going through in their lives.
    .
    — Amoolya’s in depth research and scholarly interpretations of what” spring evening” might mean and novelistic exploration of what the “two 18 year old sisters” are doing and experiencing in their inner and outer lives. (An expansion based, I imagine, on Dennis Garrison’s idea of the ‘cut’ in haiku creating “dreaming room” for the reader, each reader, which is fine if “dreaming room” interpretation doesn’t resemble the results of a Rorschach test in which everyone’s differing interpretations are acceptable ) I agree with Amoolya’s observation of 18 years signifying the legal ‘coming of age’. (In Australia, 18 year olds may get a driving licence, for instance. )
    .
    I’m not convinced by the idea that Kerouac, in this haiku or “pop” or elsewhere, is “pitting nature against the manmade… ” (quotation from Nelly Lewis Lambert, in the final part of Amoolya’s essay)
    .
    Let’s see what Kerouac himself has written about American Haiku, which he distinguishes from Japanese haiku:
    .
    “”The American Haiku is not exactly the Japanese Haiku. The Japanese Haiku is strictly disciplined to seventeen syllables but since the language structure is different I don’t think American Haikus (short three-line poems intended
    to be completely packed with Void of Whole) should worry about syllables because American speech is something again… bursting to pop.” – Jack Kerouac
    .
    “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
    .
    “Then I’ll invent
    The American Haiku type
    The simple rhyming triolet:–
    Seventeen syllables?
    No, as I say, American Pops:–
    Simple 3-line poems” – Jack Kerouac – Reading Notes, 1965

    https://terebess.hu/english/haiku/Kerouac-Haikus.pdf
    .
    I like this haiku but I don’t feel I need to compare it with Shiki’s “two autumns” or to consider it as a kind of honkadori to that. The girls have come of age, are, as the saying goes, “in the bloom of youth”. They are out together (perhaps even at a beat poetry reading!) in the evening and probably excited about that. The 18 year old sisters, to me, simply vibe with an evening in spring. Yes, in a sense there are two “spring evenings”, the literal one and the comparative ‘season’ of the two sisters.
    .
    I like this haiku best when I hear it, read or spoken, by Karouac: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJdxJ5llh5A
    (On there, this haiku/ pop is at about this ku begins at about 6: 33 . And one gets to study the different looks on the faces of Kerouac and his cat while listening to Kerouac’s reading. 🙂 )

    There doesn’t seem to be anything at all lecherous in Kerouac’s voice. To me, this haiku / ‘pop’ fills the bill he states , it’s “simple and free of all poetic trickery and it and make(s) a little picture and yet be (is) … airy and graceful …”
    .
    The “fourth line”? Yes, we can’t deny the context that gives.

  4. This poem is an enigmatic juxtaposition of two concepts: a “spring evening” and “two eighteen-year-old sisters,” which produces some fascinating and unexpected cross-mapping of ideas which are well-articulated by the responders.

    But take away Kerouac’s name from this poem and what do you have? As an experiment, try attributing the poem to someone else. Assume, for instance, that you found the poem in a book of translated 19th century Japanese haiku, or in a contemporary anthology of eastern European poetry, or a guide to Buddhist practice. Or assume that was written by a woman. How would those reimaginings shape the way you interpret the poem?

    I’m not arguing for context-free reading, just wondering how much attention we need to pay to the writer himself.

    1. Would you say the same about the Shiki haiku, two autumns, Matt? I think some knowledge of the writer adds further layers; but the haiku has to be able to stand on its own feet. There is, for me sufficient depth in the Kerouac to stand both anonymously on its own and as a different, expanding, slant on the Shiki. But yes, sometimes even in the most current haiku one wonders whether the poet’s name has gotten it more attention that it might otherwise have attracted.

      1. Keith
        I would say the same thing about the Shiki haiku, which I had never seen before today: I would have been unaware of any allusion on Kerouac’s part had you not mentioned it. I agree with Lorin that a comparison with the Kerouac poem is interesting, but unnecessary. The overlapping metaphoric maps of “spring evening” and “two eighteen year old sisters” carry the day independent of any allusion.

  5. Dear Amoolya kamalnath,
    My congratulations for being this week’s winner. Appreciate your first person narration on Jack Kerouac, for us to know about him more; the following is
    so vividly informative…
    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.”

  6. Dear Keith Evetts, Greetings, Thanking you immensely for weekly selections,
    inspiring always. Literature abounds here in these wonderful writes, Once again,
    delighted by these educative feature.

Comments are closed.

Back To Top