A Few Comments Regarding “The Other World of Richard Wright: Perspectives on His Haiku”
I have been reading a collection of critical essays on the Haiku of Richard Wright. The collection is titled, “The Other World of Richard Wright: Perspectives on His Haiku”. It is edited by Jianqing Zheng, a Wright scholar who is the chair of English at Mississippi Valley State University.
In this post I am going to make a few general observations rather than comments on specific essays in the collection. I hope to have time to make specific comments later.
The essays are informative about the life of Richard Wright and the history of how Wright came to compose Haiku during his last years. You learn a lot about how that happened and the processes Wright engaged with in order to enter into the world of Haiku. There is also intriguing information about the editorial process Wright used to cull the 4,000 Haiku he composed down to the 817 for publication. For example, I found out that Wright originally categorized the Haiku in accordance with a system proposed by Blyth. Later Wright thought better of this scheme and reorganized his Haiku into the series we presently have. I found this intriguing and it raised questions in my mind as to what criteria Wright used to finally place his Haiku in the order that they currently have.
For the most part the essays are biographical and sociological. I mean that the essays focus on the biographical circumstances of Wright’s life and his interactions with society at large. There seem to be two main views. The first view is that with Haiku, Wright freed himself from the world of political engagement and at the end of his life entered into a larger context, particularly the context of the natural world. The second view is that the Haiku of Wright are an extension of the political focus that his previous works embodied; but the Haiku are more subtle, at times almost coded in what they are communicating. Personally, I don’t find the two views mutually exclusive, though I tend, for the most part, to favor the first view, the view of Wright entering into a larger context with his Haiku.
For me, though, there was a dearth of appreciation for Wright as a poet. I wanted to find discussions of how Wright used metaphor, personification, alliteration, etc., in his Haiku. In my opinion Wright uses these poetic devices to great effect and I had hoped there might be something about these aspects of his Haiku in the collection; but there is not a lot that is focused on these aspects. It's not completely absent, but it doesn't seem to be a primary focus.
And what about Wright’s use of rhythm and meter? I have discovered, for example, that some of the Haiku use meter effectively; for example in the Haiku where the concluding words for all three lines are trochees. And there are other rhythmic devices Wright uses to good effect.
I would also like to see an examination of Wright’s approach to lineation. My observation has been that there is almost always a consistency between line and grammatical unit and I think that is one of the reasons that his Haiku are so effective. I think this is significant because free verse at the time Wright was working on his Haiku was moving towards a more arbitrary lineation, particularly among the beat poets. But Wright doesn't seem to have been touched by these developments.
In addition, I think there is insufficient appreciation for the contribution Wright has made to English syllabic verse. “This Other World” may be the most significant collection of English syllabic verse published in English thus far. I realize that could be a controversial statement and that there are other contenders; for example Marianne Moore’s collected verse would be a candidate.
My reasons for making the suggestion regarding Wright and syllabic verse are first, this is a collection of English syllabic verse in a specific form. My observation has been that in cultures which have a tradition of syllabic poetry, the syllabic tradition is centered on a few specific forms, or even a single form. For example, in Japan, Tanka is the central syllabic form for Japanese poetry. Great Japanese poets are, for the most part, Tanka poets (Basho, of course, would be a significant exception). In Welsh poetry, the Englyn occupies a similar place. In China, the rhymed quatrain has this function. And the Rubai serves this purpose in Persia/Iran.
Previous to Wright, English language poets who have written syllabically, such as Marianne Moore, have not centered their efforts on a specific form. I think this is one of the reasons why a syllabic approach to poetry in English has had difficulty taking root. Moore, and others, were strongly influenced by certain codes of modernism and one of the consequences of this is that each poem is supposed to have its own form. Moore, in spite of her many talents, did not establish a syllabic form that other poets can base their own poetry on. But Wright did exactly that. In my opinion this makes “This Other World” a breakthrough for syllabic verse in English.
Wright made a choice to write syllabically at a time when English language verse was focused on a free verse approach. Wright chose a ‘third way’ of composing English language poetry. His poetry is neither metrical in the traditional sense (though, I think he does use meter at times), nor is it free verse. I am intrigued by this choice. It is the kind of choice an ‘outsider’ would make. Someone more connected to what was going on in American poetry would, I suspect, have opted for a free verse approach. I say this because American Haiku poets in general were systematically incorporating into their Haiku the norms of free verse at the time Wright was composing his Haiku and I think if Wright had been connected to American Haiku he would have been influenced by this. On the other hand, Wright didn’t fall back onto traditional western metrics. Instead he found his own voice, and his own approach (a syllabic approach) and in doing so demonstrated the efficacy of a syllabic approach for English language poetry.
A second reason I suggest that Wright holds special significance for syllabic verse in English is that Wright demonstrates how natural lines of 5 and 7 syllables are for the English language. In general, it is easier to compose syllabically in odd-numbered lines because odd-numbered lines tend to undermine the tendency to fall back into iambics. It is, of course, possible to compose syllabically in even-numbered lines; think of the Crapsey Cinquain which consists entirely of even-numbered lines. But Wright’s focus on odd-numbered lines, and the way he makes them sound completely natural, broadens the basis for a syllabic approach to English syllabic poetry. I think his usage is a real breakthrough in this regard.
It is true that there were others composing syllabic Haiku at that time; for example James Hackett has produced a significant body of work. But Hackett’s influence and presence seems to be largely confined to the world of Haiku and his place in that world appears to be problematic. In addition, the range of subject matter in Hackett’s Haiku is, in my opinion, more restricted than what one finds in the Haiku of Richard Wright. Several reviewers, such as Higginson, remarked approvingly on the wide-ranging nature of Wright’s Haiku. And I feel that because of this Wright’s Haiku have a broader appeal and a greater impact than others who were writing syllabic Haiku at that time.
I don’t want to overstate what I am saying; there are some essays that comment on Wright as a poet. In particular Zheng’s essay, “Nature, the South, and Spain in Haiku: This Other World” contains insightful observations. For example, on page 160 Zheng comments on this Haiku, 501, by Wright:
Autumn moonlight is
Deepening the emptiness
Of a country road.
Zheng comments, “The beauty of this haiku is that it uses the technique of narrowing focus that starts with a contrast between the sky and the earth: the wide-angle lens on the autumn moonlight switches to a close-up of an empty or down-hearted country road.” This is followed up by noting how Wright was influenced by blues, and how Wright incorporates some of the imagery often found in blues. This is a good example of the kind of analysis I would like to see more of; that is to say more about Wright’s poetic craft.
For the most part, with some exceptions, the essays in Zheng’s collection are embedded in the contemporary post-modernist view of what constitutes literary criticism. For this movement the real meaning of a poem is always either political, autobiographical, or psychological. I think this is why there is a relative absence of a discussion of the specific poetic features that make Wright’s Haiku so effective. And post-modernism has an aversion to anything which hints at transcendence and I suspect that this aversion to transcendence is one reason why some essays in the collection want to turn Wright’s Haiku into coded political observations. In addition, Wright lead a very interesting life; so it makes sense that those interested in Wright would want to weave Wright’s biography into discussions about his Haiku. And, like I said at the beginning, I did learn much about the creative process that drew Wright to the Haiku form. Still, I would like to have had more essays about the specific achievements of Wright as a poet. Perhaps there will be room for such essays in a second collection.
Overall, though, I have found the essays well worth the time. It is a valuable collection. I even found Lee Gurga’s highly contentious and critical essay, “Richard Wright’s Place in American Haiku” a good read in the sense that Gurga is an articulate spokesman for a certain point of view and it is a view shared by a significant portion of Haiku enthusiasts. Personally, I disagree with Gurga’s stance, and I plan to say more on that in a separate post, but I appreciate Gurga’s clarity and willingness to engage in a discussion regarding Wright and his Haiku. So overall, this is a book well worth reading. In particular, if you are attracted to Wright as a poet, or want to learn how Wright came to Haiku so late in his life, this book will be richly rewarding.
The Other World of Richard Wright:
Perspectives on His Haiku
Edited by Jainqing Zheng
University Press of Mississippi