Marshall Deerfield’s Travel by Haiku, Volumes 6-10, Far Out on the Road with Friends, Reviewed by Thomas Dorsett

Travel by Haiku, Volumes 6-10, Far Out on the Road with Friends, Compiled by Marshall Deerfield

This little book is a compilation of haiku written by various authors, during a series of road trips. It is literally a little book: it measures six by five inches, pocket- snd haiku-sized; easy to carry around, easy to lose. The book contains over a hundred haiku-like poems, accompanied by a prose diary of the trips. It is meant, I think, to be a vademecum, and may well occasionally prove to be such among members of a certain generation who share the authors’ mindset.

It is an account of three road-trips, one to West Texas, two to various places in the western United States, including national parks. Reactions to the glories of nature and the glories of friendship were recorded in short haiku-like verse. I say haiku-like, because it is virtually impossible to write haiku the way Japanese do and did: a poem of three lines, the first and last of which contain five syllables, while the second contains seven. These constraints do not work well in English, a language the poetry of which likes to link its images with descriptive examples of heightened speech. For instance, Whitman’s immortal lines beginning with, “A child said What is the grass?…” To illustrate Whitman’s grass-related passages in a haiku is a tall order, but I will try, for illustrative purposes only:

Tenderly will I use you,
curling grass, hieroglyph,

Note that Whitman’s sequence begins with, “A child said What is the grass?, fetching it to me with full hands;” we Westerners like to include the observer in the observation; the Japanese tend to let the images speak for themselves.       

The purpose of poetry, however, Japanese or English, is to evoke an experience of aesthetic pleasure in the reader. Using this criterion to judge, I’m sorry to say that most of the haiku in this book fall short, at least for this reader. There are few lines in this book that Whitman would be proud of; at least that’s my opinion.

The young people during their respective journeys obviously had a good time. I vicariously celebrate the fun they had. Being adventurous, creative, gregarious and young goes a very long way—no staring at cell phones here. I’m pleased that they had a good time, replete with memorable experiences; the book is a testimony to their ecstatic reactions to nature.

The Kerouac-like prose that accompanies the poems includes many adventures. For instance, in a town on the U.S. Mexican border they are told at a bar, “I guess you two really brought the party.” (A party at that troubled border—those were the days!) They sweat in sweat lodges out West, welcomed by native Americans; above all, they have meaningful (to them at least) encounters with the wonders of nature, such as those evinced by our great national parks.

The prose is invaluable for anchoring the poems to specific locations. Some of it is quite good. An example:

Back to California, land of my favorite sunsets, after two months on the road and five months away. Last time I left this place, the whole sky lit up like it was on fire with the blood red color of the southwest sand reflecting off the white mountains of Joshua tree, turning them purple. Now, upon my return at the very point of the road, the sun greets me in the very same way and a two-mile long train rides by giving it some solar reception.


There’s a reason they call this God’s country. It is not just because a loony group of Bible-thumpers decided to move in sometime in the last century. It’s that the gods still live here, alive and well. Sacred places where the Saliah, Kootenai, and Blackfeet celebrated their ancestors for thousands of years. The only place where all of its natural predators are still healthy, undisturbed by humans.

Sometimes the prose is purple as well, and gives the impression of having been written by a wacked-out hippie on weed transported from the sixties:

Reunite with the Snake Priestess and Plains Drifter…Play a show at a place…with a bunch of moon goddesses and powerful spirits. Read lines about the muse and riff on that time I howled at the full moon in San Francisco. Everyone talks in transdimensional linguistics and at a certain point we reach new wavelengths. They make a human sacrifice of me and cut my still-beating heart out…

At one point the authors are confronted by forests destroyed by pine bark beetles. Not a hint of this desolation, correctly attributed to climate change, enters the mood of the corresponding poems, which, like all the poems in the book, are relentlessly upbeat. The authors are too young and too high on life to temper overwhelming light with shadow.

The best haiku, I think, are completely concrete and simultaneously completely symbolic. A good example is this wonderful haiku by the great Japanese poet, Basho:

On a cold winter morning
I sit by myself
Eating tough strips of dried salmon.

Not even the saddest poems of Sylvia Plath come close to the desolation evinced by this poem; Basho, without a trace of self-pity, achieves this with a poem of three lines!

My favorite haiku in the book are those that come closest to the Japanese ideal:

Bird wheels around sky
car circles around highway
ALL are desert prey

sleeping black dogs lie
in cool Terralingua shade
the café radio plays

how can a man obsess
about rhino horns
when stalactites exist?

patchwork clouds of fog
houses nestled on a hill
peaceful bay morning

sailed on a ferry today
watched Mount Rainier
grow larger by the sea

Note: in the above examples, I leave out the odd versification and strange uses of bold type.

In one section, haiku were written while a notebook was passed around the car for each passenger to write a line. This was no doubt an innovative and entertaining pastime for them. Most of these compilations, however, to put it mildly, don’t work. An example:

Order of the Snake Priestess
magic in the redwoods
Sacred Bums
posing as clowns.

Another, chosen arbitrarily:

Douglas firs lifting

Waves stimulate
At peace with motion

Haiku on steroids—not very Japanese.

Travel By Haiku contains many poems of variable quality, some of which should please most readers. All in all, an interesting book, at the very least, worth skimming through while, perhaps, consuming a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, in the company of friends.

© Marshall Deerfield and Thomas Dorsett

Marshall Deerfield is Marshall James Kavanaugh in poetic form. His travels take him to places only the subconscious can sometimes understand. When he’s not on the road, he can usually found in the Philadelphia area with his two cats, building large TV installations.

Examples of Thomas Dorsett‘s poetry have appeared in over 500 literary journals, including ConfrontationSouthern Poetry ReviewNorth Carolina ReviewThe Texas ReviewPoem, and California Quarterly. He is the author of a number of collections as well. In addition to being a poet, a translator, and an essayist, he also has been a medical doctor for many years.

Back to Main Loch Raven Review Site