Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Haiku Commentary 1 -- Richard Wright's Opening Haiku

Haiku Commentary: Richard Wright Haiku 1

Richard Wright’s collection opens with this Haiku:

I am nobody:
A red sinking autumn sun
Took my name away.

This type of Haiku is both introspective and objective/descriptive.  I think of this type of Haiku as porous.  By ‘porous’ I mean that the interior awareness and the awareness of one’s surroundings are depicted as flowing through each other, rather than separated one from the other.  In such a Haiku the poet is not simply observing and reporting the world of nature.  Nor is the poet simply indulging in subjective mental states.  In a way subjective experience becomes a part of the landscape and assumes a status equal with the natural world.

The Haiku is divided into two parts.  The first part is Line 1: “I am nobody”, a simple declarative sentence.  Though L1 is a sentence, Wright concludes it with a colon which allows the reader to connect the following lines to L1. 

The second part consists of lines 2 and 3: A red sinking autumn sun/Took my name away.  This is also a complete sentence, which Wright ends with an actual period, as he does with most of his Haiku.  I think of the part 2 as a kind of explanation, or elaboration, for the statement of L1.

In terms of structure this Haiku is fairly traditional.  The two-part structure is often viewed as the norm for traditional Haiku.  In addition, the use of a colon at the end of L1 serves a function similar to a classic kireji in Japanese.  Also, there is the explicit seasonal reference of ‘autumn’.  The subjectivity and expression of feeling in the opening line is somewhat unusual; but there are precedents.  And the personification of nature, of having a sunset ‘take away’, also has precedents.  And finally, this Haiku follows the traditional syllabic structure of 5-7-5.  On the whole, then, I think of this Haiku as fairly ‘classical’ in that it sticks with most of the traditional markers of Haiku poetry.

The Haiku has many resonances with each part re-enforcing and reinterpreting the other parts.  The ‘nobody’ of L1 resonates with the ‘sinking sun’, which will soon disappear from view, just as a ‘nobody’ is gone from view.  The season is autumn and autumn is the time of withering, growing colder, of plants withdrawing and disappearing into the earth, of insects being silenced by the cold, of birds migrating elsewhere.  ‘Nobody’, ‘sinking’, ‘autumn’ are all of a common ‘scent’; I’m using ‘scent’ in the way Basho described.  I mean that all these words have a kind of common essence.  This is furthered in L3 with the verb ‘took away’; another type of ‘sinking’, or being ‘nobody’.  In L3 a name is taken away while in L2 the autumn season is taking away the plant and animal worlds and the sun is also disappearing from view.  The whole world, in a sense, is becoming ‘nobody’, or returning to a more primal, unformed, state; a state prior to name and form.

On the level of feeling and emotion, I think it possible to think of L2 and 3 as metaphors describing what it feels like to be nobody.  Or, one can reverse this and think of the view of a setting autumn sun as giving rise to the feeling that I am ‘nobody’. 

From another perspective, this Haiku reminds me of what it is like, at times, when in the presence of nature I realize my own smallness, my own insignificance.  Most people have had this kind of experience in nature at one time or another.  It is a sense of being but a spark in the vastness of space and time.  This experience is often not negative.  Often there is a sense of falling away of individual identity and a greater identification with the vastness of the cosmos instead.  Such an experience of being ‘nobody’ can be a kind of exaltation.  It can be a step towards the Divine.

On a personal level, I wonder when I read this if these images of being ‘nobody’, of ‘setting suns’, of ‘autumn’, of ‘taking away’ might relate to the time of Wright’s life.  Wright composed Haiku during the last eighteen months of his life.  He was often sick during these last years.  He had lost a great deal; his mother had died, friends had passed, he was in self-imposed exile in France and had, in a profound sense, lost his country.  Was he sensing in this first Haiku his own mortality in an intimate way? 

I think Line 3 perhaps suggests this.  One’s name is taken away at one’s passing.  Even if some people remember you for a time, you won’t be able to respond.  And eventually everyone is forgotten; one’s name is taken away.

Again, though, I sense an uplifting aspect to this loss of name.  Notice how it is the ‘red sinking autumn sun’ which has taken his name away.  It isn’t someone in his life that is taking away his name; it is Wright’s experience with this vista.  I think this is what Wright meant by Haiku being ‘This Other World’, the subtitle of his collection.  In this other world, this world of seasons and sunsets, one does not have a name.  One’s name is a human artifact.  But the human world is not the cosmos.  When we shift our attention from the human realm to the cosmos at large we lose our name because the human world sinks into the background.

When I go on a solo retreat I sometimes have this experience.  This sense of opening up to the cosmos, to its presence and its beauty, is difficult to achieve in society because I become wrapped up in the everyday tasks of being a human being.  Consequently I forget about the vastness of the cosmos as a whole.  When I am on a solo retreat, and I have removed myself from constant interaction with other human beings, I can remember this larger dimension of existence.  I, and many others, find this experience to be deeply healing.  I think something similar is going on in this Haiku; a release of self-concern, a release of human-centeredness, and a simultaneous turning to the rhythms and beauty of the cosmos, an awakening to ‘This Other World’.

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