Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly poem commentary feature on some of the finest haiku ever written in English. This week’s poem was
Nightfall, boy smashing dandelions with a stick. — Jack Kerouac, American Haikus (1959)
Jim Kacian identifies with that boy:
Is this a case of “plain as porridge”? It would seem so: what could be homelier than an unadorned time-of-day context (“nightfall”), and the uncerebrated actions of youth?
Often “plain as porridge” also seems “flat as pancake”, but there’s something else going on here that arrests our attention. For me this conjures the same deep anguish as Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gently into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” and, if not quite so melodiously, even more concretely. The night is the time of the other, the wolf, the dark — all of us are different in the night. Could the boy tell us why he is lopping the field of small yellow suns? At this hour? Perhaps not, but there is a justesse to it that is felt, as actor or witness.
Kerouac surprises again and again in his mastery of the genre. It is as a prolix and rebarbative writer of “fictions” that he made his name and fortune, but it is in his haiku that he comes closest to attaining that which he struggled to achieve throughout his life: the Buddha-spirit, and dissolution into the Void. It is a testament to his genius that he did so without good modeling (he had read Blyth, of course, but the normative haiku of his day were 5-7-5 nature sketches, which this poem decidedly is not), community support (this is years before there were groups or dedicated journals or conventions), or even collegial workshopping (Rexroth and Snyder may have introduced him to haiku, but one look at their work will convince that he blazed his own trail). Given how much novelty he was conjuring, we can forgive him the slight “Tarzan-speak” we find here. His ability to pare a moment to its essentials, providing a clear and memorable image and a deeply felt resonance, is simply unparalleled in haiku of his time. He was, indeed, “King of the Pops”.
As this week’s winner, Jim gets to select the next 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. And the very best will be reproduced in its entirety and take its place as part of the THF Archives. Best of all, the winning commentator gets to choose the next poem for commentary.
Anyone can participate. A new poem will appear each Friday morning. Simply put your commentary in the Contact box by the following Tuesday midnight (Eastern US Time Zone). Please use the subject header “re:Virals” so we know what we’re looking at. We look forward to seeing some of your favorite poems — and finding out why!
the daisies you paint full of philosophy — Geraldine Clinton Little, Modern Haiku 19.3 (1988)