The phrase “First thought, best thought” originated with Allen Ginsberg, but Jack Kerouac popularized it in his essay Essentials of Spontaneous Prose and illustrated the approach in his epic novel “On the Road“. Popular myth holds that the original manuscript was written on a single continous sheet of paper in one amphetamine-fueled session, Kerouac claiming that “punctuation only hindered the process, and that pausing and thinking were also detrimental.”
We now know that “On the Road” experienced multiple edits before its publication years later, and that spontaneity and “purity of speech” were all part of a carefully crafted illusion.
I encounter the same dilemma as a haiku poet, and knowing that Kerouac wrote some exceptional haiku allows me to benefit from this very basic struggle: to capture an authentic image in perfect clarity.
The first part of this puzzle, the “authentic image”, hearkens back to the Zen origins of haiku and its ancestors in Japanese and Chinese poetry. In meditative practice, poetry is a by-product of emptying the mind of the trappings of life and focusing on nature and its intersection with humanity. In its purest form, a haiku begins with an observation, be it in the woods, the workplace or the subway.
The poet’s conundrum starts with an attempt to translate the authentic image into words. I’ll use an example from a recent trip to Baja California Sur, Mexico. An hour or two past sunrise, I paced around on the viewing deck of the casita we called home for the week, searching for inspiration. The first thing I noticed was the persistent sound of ocean waves crashing against the beach in El Gavilan.
each pounding wave
Easy enough, I thought. Now to bring it all home with a little juxtaposition without trying to get too “crafty”. Although secondary images abounded – expat vacation homes in various states of construction, empty lots strewn with sagebrush and trash, and the Sierra Laguna mountains to the east – none seemed to compliment my experience of the waves without overwhelming it.
I shifted gears to contemplate how the sound of the waves made me feel. The first word that came to my mind was “gentle”, so I wrote:
each pounding wave
I came up with “unrelentingly” as a modifier of “pounding” and “gentle” as a contrast, and while I’m pleased with the result as a poetic exercise, I can’t help feeling that I can do better. Despite adhering to my “first thoughts”, I’m handicapped by the limitations of language, saddled with the unenviable burden of giving voice to intangible thoughts and images. And then there’s the perennial fight between the artist of my right brain and the engineer of my left brain. My right brain searches the heavens, while my left brain searches Google.
I guess I’ll just have to keep on writing until I get it right.