Richard Wright Day, 2012
Today is the day to celebrate the life of Richard Wright, September 4, 1908 to November 28, 1960. And I think of this day as a day to specifically focus on Wright’s contribution to English language Haiku and from there to English syllabic verse in general.
Wright’s accomplishments cannot be overstated. In his collection of 817 Haiku, selected from over 4,000 he wrote in the last 18 months of his life, published posthumously in 1998, Wright singlehandedly affirmed and established the efficacy of a syllabic approach to Haiku. Wright accomplished this not by writing theoretical essays about the nature of the English and Japanese languages, or by issuing prosodic guidelines. Wright accomplished this simply by composing a body of haiku that are so excellent that they make their own case.
What Wright accomplished was to compose Haiku in such a manner that they read as if Haiku were native to the English language instead of a borrowed form. Instead of subjecting English to odd and uncomfortable rules of syntactic deletion (the approach of Haiku minimalism), Wright’s Haiku are full-bodied English; a flowing natural English.
Here is #495 from his collection:
Through the church window,
Into the holy water,
A dry leaf flutters.
Notice the naturalness of the phrasing. The Haiku consists of a single sentence, broken into three, grammatically succinct, parts. The setting is a church. At first we are looking at (up at?) a window, perhaps a stained glass window. Then there is the added detail of the place of the holy water, probably somewhere near the altar. The season is depicted by the phrase ‘dry leaf’. The only motion in the Haiku is the drifting, or fluttering of the leaf from the open window into the water. Did the leaf make a sound? Is there the sound of wind coming through the window? Is there anyone in the church? The motion of the leaf leaves me with an impression of background stillness which is implied rather than stated, and, perhaps, prayer. This is a quiet, contemplative, Haiku. There is a sense of holiness permeating the moment and a sense of unity is suggested between the human and natural worlds; a kind of benediction.
The Haiku follows the 5-7-5 syllabic contours of classic Haiku. Notice also the understated rhyme between lines 2 and 3; water/flutters. Wright doesn’t often use rhyme. On the other hand Wright doesn’t exclude rhyme when it appears naturally as in this Haiku.
There is another aspect of this Haiku which I think gives it a sense of unity: each line contains four words. And these four words are distributed such that each line contains a single article; lines 1 and 2 use ‘the’, and line 3 uses ‘a’. Notice also how each line ends with a two syllable word and that all of these words are trochees, giving an overall rhythmic unity to the poem.
Lines 1 and 2 each begin with a preposition of motion; ‘through’ and ‘into’. And line 3 concludes with a verb, ‘flutters’. This gives the Haiku the sense of drift, motion, against the background of the still church.
It is this kind of crafting that I find so admirable in Wright’s Haiku. Fine craftsmanship united with focused imagery are what makes Wright’s Haiku so attractive and memorable. I have learned so much from Wright’s work. Wright has shown us all the way to a truly English language Haiku; an approach which is completely at home with the English language.
It is a pleasure to set aside this day to offer my gratitude and thanks.