RICHARD WRIGHT (1908-1960)

Ask someone who has read haiku if they can name any female Japanese haiku poets besides Chiyo. The answer you will get almost every time is a blank stare. What does that have to do with the selection for this month's poet profile? Maybe nothing, but now ask this same "someone" if they know of any Afro-American haiku poets. Did you get another blank look? I won't, though I am tempted, ask you to ask about Hispanics or other minorities. 

Many people are quite surprised when they discover that the author of books such as Native Son, Black Boy, Black Power, White Man, Listen!, American Hunger, Rite of Passage, etc. also wrote haiku poetry. It is even more startling when it is learned that he wrote over 4,000 haiku! Many haiku poets that have been writing for 20 or 30 years have not written that
many, and yet Wright accomplished that amazing feat in less than one! 

Wright was first introduced to haiku during the last year or two of his life. Haiku became the calm eye within during this stormy period marked by a series of traumatic and chaotic events. His mother Ella, who he had written of so emotionally in Black Boy and who had given him the kind of childhood in Mississippi of which he had so many fond memories, died in January, 1959. That same month, the French writer Albert Camus, who Wright
highly admired, died in an auto accident. The year before, his favorite editor and a good friend, Ed Aswell, also died. After his mother's death, Wright sold his retreat in Ailly, Normandy, moving his family off the farm from where they had lived during the previous 12 years, to England so that he could be near his close friend, "Uncle" George, who he had excitedly been making plans with for another trip to Africa in the up-coming months.
They never made the journey. George Padmore died unexpectedly in September, 1959. To add to his grief and difficulties, the British Passport Office turned down his immigration application, so he had to return with his
family to France where he had been living in self-exile. 

Wright was working during this period on a book, titled Island of Hallucination, that never got finished. The material he was gathering for this book centered around racial tensions on Army bases in Europe. The U.S. government was using counterintelligence tactics and Wright was one of the radical black expatriates being targeted. Perhaps it should also be
mentioned that this was a particularly sensitive time for the American government. France had been fighting in Vietnam for several years and was losing the war. Secret high level discussions were being conducted on possible future U.S. involvement in the case of a French withdrawal. 

Besides all this grief and tension and on the top of dwindling
finances, Wright spent 12 of the last 18 months of his life in a grueling battle recovering from amœbic dysentery. 

It was amidst the backdrop of all this grief, suffering, fear, chaos
and uncertainty that Wright was introduced to haiku in the summer of 1959 when he borrowed R. H. Blyth's four volumes of Haiku from a young South African and began his intensive research of the Japanese masters. 

By March of 1960, Wright went into high gear composing haiku. During the final months of his life, he practically lived and breathed haiku, always carrying his haiku binder with him under his arm everywhere he went. He wrote haiku in Parisian cáfes and restaurants; in Le Moulin d' Anduve, a writing community in the French countryside; but many, like Shiki, were written while he was bedridden during his period of convalescence. 

In Paris, he transferred his poems written on paper napkins
to sheets of paper and then hung them up on long metal rods and strung them across his dingy studio to examine, similar to Paul Reps' idea of hanging his haiku up on lines stretched between bamboo poles. 

Wright scrutinized his haiku in this way before choosing the personal favorites that he wanted to see published, 817 in all. This manuscript can be found among the Wright collection in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. Richard Wright died November 28, 1960, exactly 40 years ago. It was not until just a couple of years back that this manuscript finally got published. Why so long a wait? Good enough to be
hidden and tucked away in the Yale Library, but not good enough for the public to read? For whose eyes only then?

Unfortunately, at this late date, much of his work will appear to most readers as very outdated, so again, his work will continue to be ignored by most. But from a historical and cultural standpoint at least, this is neither fair nor a particularly good idea in my opinion. And what about the other 3,200 haiku, will we ever get to see some of them someday or will we have to wait for another 38 years? I have a sneaking suspicion that many of
them are as good or better than what got published. 

A few of his haiku were first published in Ebony in 1961, the year following his death. Several more trickled out in the following years: 1968, 1970, 1971, and 1978 in literary publications, his biography, and a book of selected writings, but his haiku have remained unknown to the majority of haiku poets. His name and work were excluded from haiku publications and anthologies. His name does not even appear in Brower's
Haiku In Western Languages

Why were there not more Black Americans and Hispanic Americans writing haiku in the past or even today for that matter? Were there and are there perhaps more poets belonging to minority groups that wrote or are writing haiku that we should all know about? Why have so few haiku on blacks and black culture been published? Is it because they aren't being written or are not part of most haiku poets' experience or simply because
the vast majority of haiku moments refer to human experiences common to all cultures, races, and religions? Is haiku perceived amongst many writers of minority groups in America as a poetic form that mainly reflects Asian and European cultures, values, and religious philosophy and is therefore not seen as a relevant part of their cultural environment and experience? Is
and was the importance of Buddhist philosophy, especially Zen, overemphasized today and in the early years of American haiku history? History, culture, and religion were an integral part of traditional Japanese haiku and that is also true of American haiku, but as we all know, America is the world's "melting pot". Does American haiku then accurately reflect the true cultural and religious diversity in America? Has the publication of American haiku in the major haiku periodicals and anthologies been a democratic representation? And what about black women who wrote haiku? At least an example or two of Alice Walker's haiku and a couple of her brief comments on haiku in haiku publications and anthologies would have helped, even a little, in bringing greater cultural diversity to American haiku (for more information please read Jane Reichhold's Chapter
Two – Tanka and Haiku Come to America in Those Women Writing Haiku. Why the exclusion? Reading American haiku, you wouldn't think that most Americans were either Christians, Catholics, or Jewish. I clearly remember reading Nick Virgilio's haiku that won the Eminent Mention Award in Modern Haiku in 1978:

Old rabbi
unrolling Torah scroll:
bitter cold

His haiku was a real eye-opener for me. How many haiku that reflect some aspect of the Jewish religion and culture have you read since then?  I suppose I have been on this theme long enough now. I don't have the answers; I only suspect and wonder. Perhaps I have opened a can of worms, but I ask the questions because I have not heard or read very much discussion on these topics and I think they should be addressed.

Let's now have a look at some of Richard Wright's haiku taken from HAIKU – This Other World, Arcade Publishing, 1998.

Keep straight down this block, 
then turn right where you will find
a peach tree blooming

Wright wrote mainly 5-7-5 haiku, deviating only a bit at times. I want the readers of this column to understand that I have neither a preference for this style nor a prejudice against it. However, that being said, it is true that Wright, like most others who have chosen to follow this discipline, could have obviously written better versions of some of his haiku if he had not been so rigid on this point. The above haiku contains 16 one-syllable words with one two-syllable word at the end! Amazing! Haiku
containing more than 13 or 14 words with a total of 17-22 syllables are extremely difficult to get accepted for publication in haiku periodicals and included in anthologies. For this reason and because of the general avoidance and criticism of the 5-7-5 form in English over the years, minimalist haiku have gained in popularity. Some excellent results have been achieved due to this shift. But now, longer haiku are written less frequently or not at all by some poets partly because they are more difficult to get published. If there are no superfluous words and assuming
there is merit, then I ask, why not accept them too? 

In Wright's haiku above, the poet knows exactly where to go and how to get there. So let's go!

Heaps of black cherries 
glittering with drops of rain
in the evening sun

I think that Wright admired Buson and Shiki. Most of Wright's haiku contain strong visual images, often colorful. The use of the words black, white, or other words like molasses and snowflakes are prominent in many of his haiku. 

More examples of his use of color:

An old winter oak: 
Once upon a time there was
a big black ogre . . .

* * * *

Creamy plum blossoms: 
Once upon a time there was
a pretty princess . . .

Buson, Issa, and other Japanese masters occasionally referred to Japanese fairy tales in their haiku, but Wright in the two haiku above, has a tale of his own to tell.

The green cockleburs 
caught in the thick wooly hair
of the black boy

* * * *

An Indian summer
heaps itself in tons of gold 
over Nigger Town

* * * *

As the sun goes down, 
a green melon splits open
and juice trickles out 

Humor is often lacking in Wright's haiku, but not in this one below:

Coming from the woods,
a bull has a lilac sprig
dangling from a horn

Occasionally Wright's haiku take place in an urban rather than a rural environment:

From this skyscraper,
all the bustling streets converge
towards the spring sea

Compare the next haiku with the one that follows by Taigi:

A freezing morning: 
I left a bit of my skin
on the broomstick

* * * * 

bamboo broom 
too cold to hold
left under the pine

Wright very occasionally uses a technique that I call a "haiku round". Simply explained, in haiku rounds the reader goes from the third line back to the first line again, going around in an unending circle, repeating the haiku as often as one wishes. Some of the Japanese haiku masters also wrote haiku rounds. It's a technique that should probably be explored more than
it has in English. Rhythm and rhyme are often employed when using this technique. 

The neighing horses 
are causing echoing neighs
in neighboring barns

Here's an example of a "haiku round" by Taigi:

the mountain roses:
green, yellow, green
yellow and green

another by Buson:

rising & falling 
all day the spring sea
rising & falling

Wright occasionally deals with socioeconomic issues in his haiku:

The Christmas season: 
a whore is painting her lips
larger than they are


Remember Basho's "Traveler" haiku?

First winter shower;
you can just call me
a traveler now 

Wright's circumstances were quite different:

Their watching faces,
as I walk the autumn road 
make me a traveler

Here's a good haiku on an ecological theme:

With the forest trees cut, 
the lake lies naked and lost
in the bare hills

Compare the next haiku with one by Alexis Rotella that follows:

In a dank basement 
a rotting sack of barley
swells with sprouting grain

* * * *

a bag of barley bursts 
onto the floor:
winter moon

* * * *

Standing in the snow, 
a horse shifts his heavy haunch
slowly to the right

Compare the above haiku with Timothy Russell's 1999 Shiki Salon Grand Prize winner: 

the egret shifts from stillness
to stillness

The question mark is not often used in American haiku. Making a quick check, I found it used only once in over 700 haiku in The Haiku Anthology edited by Cor van den Heuvel for example. Pablo Neruda, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, invented a new poetic form in the last book he wrote before he died which might be considered a special type of Hispanic haiku. The book published the year after his death, The Book Of Questions, contains verses in two-line stanzas written as questions with a cutting word often at the end of the first. Haiku are usually open-ended, especially at the end. The open-ended question can be more effective than perhaps many haiku poets realize. Wright uses the question more than just a few times in his haiku. Here are a couple of examples:

That frozen star there, 
or this one on the water, – 
Which is more distant?

Here's one with a double question:

Why did this spring wood 
grow so silent when I came?
What was happening?

One of the most memorable and most quoted examples of the use of the question in Japanese haiku is Basho's:

Autumn deepens . . .
What does my neighbor do
to survive?

Compare Wright's haiku with one that follows it by the world famous Argentine poet, Jorge Luis Borges:

A balmy spring wind 
reminding me of something
I cannot recall

* * * *

The afternoon and the mountains
have told me something,
but now it's lost . . .

Julia, Richard Wright's daughter, was reading through the haiku manuscript in her father's study in Paris just after the funeral and upon coming across the haiku below, she exclaimed, "This is Daddy!" 

Burning out its time 
and timing its own burning
one lonely candle

I would like to close, if I may, with a postscript of four haiku of my own and four by Mexican poets on Afro-Americans:

playing hide-and-seek
a little black boy crouching
behind the snowman

(Ithaca, NY)

* * * * 

coming out of the shadows,
a beautiful black woman 
steps into the moonlight

(Atlanta, GA)

* * * *

long rows of shacks
on the other side of the tracks:

(Puerto Barrios, Guatemala)

* * * * 

filling sand bags under the hot sun
soul brothers singing 
soul music

(Dong Ha, Quang Tri, Vietnam)

* * * * 

the flowing tears
of the black prostitute,
clear – like mine!

(José Juan Tablada – 1922)

* * * *


A jazz band jamming . . . 
African masks on all the walls
some ivory, some ebony

(José Juan Tablada – 1922)

* * * *

A painful song
of Negroes and guitars:
the blues, the blues, the blues

(Rafael Lozano – 1921)

* * * *


Under the full moon:
whites to the right,
blacks to the left . . .

(Efrain Huerta – 1949)

All translations from the Japanese and Spanish by Ty Hadman

Column Copyright © Ty Hadman 2000.
Page Copyright © AHA Books 2000.

Read past Poet Profiles:
Helen Chenoweth.
Paul Reps
Beatrice Brissman Jane Andrew Evelyn Tooley Hunt Ana Takseena Roberta Stewart Magnus Mack Homestead Steve Thompson Viola Provenzano, Mentor Addicks, Harvey Hess, Mary Truth Fowler. Alan Pizzarelli, Ana Barton, Margaret G. Robinson, Mary Dragonetti:

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