My View of Richard Wright’s Place in English Language Haiku
Today is Richard Wright Day. This year the day also happens to be Thanksgiving Day. (For those reading this blog who are not from the U.S., Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday where families and friends gather together to celebrate by having a feast; often turkey is the centerpiece of the feast. Stores are closed, for the most part, on this day; although that is being whittled away under the pressure of commercialism. This national holiday has a variable date. It is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, so it is unusual that it would coincide with the other remembrances that are falling on this day.)
In addition, today is also Hanukkah, a Jewish festival of lights. Like the national holiday, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah has a variable date in terms of the standard solar calendar we all use. That is because the date of Hanukkah is based on the lunar/solar Jewish calendar. So it is very unusual that both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah would fall on the same day.
And finally, on this day some Japanese honor the haiku poet Basho.
So it seems to me to be a particularly auspicious day to consider Richard Wright, his haiku, and what he contributed, and continues to contribute to that genre, and to poetry in general. Wright died in France in 1960 on this day; that would make it 53 years ago. As is now well-known, during the last 18 months of his life, Wright took to the craft of Haiku, composing something like 4,000. From this large collection Wright culled 817, but it took more than thirty years before Wright’s collection was published.
Since the publication of his book Haiku: This Other World, in 1998, Wright’s reputation as a poet has steadily increased. Numerous articles have appeared analyzing various aspects of his haiku; entire books devoted to the subject have been published and others are awaiting publication. His haiku have been frequently anthologized, not only in genre specific anthologies of ELH, but also in anthologies of 20th century poetry and anthologies of English language poetry in general. Teachers of haiku in Japan have, at times, used Wright’s haiku to illustrate an approach to ELH taken by some poets in the English speaking world. It is true that there have also been some critical essays. This is to be expected, even encouraged. Given the wide range of approaches to haiku among ELH practitioners it would be strange if there were not some criticism. Still, in general it appears to me that the appreciation for Wright’s output has steadily increased with time. It is my view that it will continue to do so.
For me the primary gift that Wright offers ELH is a merging of the English language poetry tradition with the form and esthetic of the Japanese haiku. Wright accomplished this in a manner that is so lucid and with such ease that if someone were to read Wright’s haiku who was unaware of its Japanese origins, I think such a reader would draw the conclusion that haiku is a native English language form. There is no sense of stress or strain; Wright appears to be completely at ease within the confines and structural demands of syllabic haiku.
I’d like to illustrate my point with some examples. Consider Wright’s use of rhyme. About sixty out of the 817 use rhyme; that’s about 7% of the haiku in the collection, a modest amount. Sometimes the rhyme is explicit, sometimes slant. Here are some examples:
Holding too much rain,
The tulip stoops and spills it,
Then straightens again.
Here lines 1 and 3 rhyme. The strength of the rhyme depends partly on the dialect of English spoken; in some dialects ‘again’ is a complete rhyme to ‘rain’, and in some dialects it will be slightly off. But in either case it will be heard, I think, as the closing semi-vowel ‘n’ is distinctly audible. The effect of the rhyme is pleasing without being overstated.
A layer of snow
Is pulling the mountains nearer,
Making them smaller
Here it is lines 2 and 3 that rhyme. Again the rhyme is understated, using the ‘er’ sound. Both of the closing words for lines 2 and 3 are also two syllables and there is also a resonance to the word ‘layer’ in line 1. I have noticed that Wright seems to favor this ‘er’ rhyme; it shows up in a number of his haiku (see 486 and 495). The ‘er’ sound is one of those closing sounds that has a gentle effect, one that is grasped by the ear, but does not have that definiteness, or heaviness, that mark rhymes that are more strongly felt, such as ‘light/night/bright’, or ‘dream/stream/scheme’. Perhaps this is because most words that end with an ‘er’ sound are trochees and, it seems to me, that Wright favors this kind of rhythm, though there are exceptions to that as we shall see.
One last example of rhyme:
One crow on a limb;
Another goes to join him,
Then both fly away.
Here lines 1 and 2 have a strong rhyme; limb/him. Each line ends in an iamb, giving the haiku an overall rhythmic unity.
In these examples of rhyme, Wright has thoroughly integrated the traditional use of end-rhyme in English language verse into the haiku form. The merging is done skillfully; the rhymes don’t sound like slogans, ads, or nursery rhymes. They have the effect of clarifying the syllabic form and providing a moderate sense of rhythmic pulse; like a bar-line in music.
Wright also effectively uses traditional techniques such as metaphor, simile and personification.
As still as death is,
Under a circling buzzard,
An autumn village.
Here we have an example of simile. The stillness of the village is compared to the stillness of death. This is tied seasonally to autumn, when things are dying. The image is further deepened by the appearance of the buzzard. Though the buzzard is moving, it is moving in a circle, rather than going to a specific location. This hovering is in itself a kind of stillness. Death, buzzards, autumn; the haiku is united by an abundance of yin imagery which creates a seamless presentation. So even though the haiku is in two parts, those two parts being deliberately compared to each other, they are energetically united. This brings the two parts into an unstated, and subtle, unity. This is really an excellent example of using a western poetic technique and uniting it with the energetics of yin and yang upon which Japanese haiku is grounded. And it is done effortlessly, with no sense of self-consciousness or cleverness.
Over spring mountains
A star ends the paragraph
Of a thunderstorm.
This is a wonderful metaphor that links the world of writing with the world of astronomy; that is to say the human and celestial worlds are intertwined in this haiku. I think it also refers to the common habit humans have of talking about the weather. Weather events are ‘paragraphs’ in our conversation. But because the weather is ever changing, any specific event is simply a paragraph in the overall saga of the weather. Just as a paragraph in a book, no matter how interesting, is just part of a longer story. The linkage to a star points to a domain that transcends all of these changes in a gentle way, by pointing to the source of beauty.
Personification is a feature used frequently in Wright’s collection. Personification in this collection is the attribution of human motives to non-human things. These can be living things such as animals and plants, or they can be inanimate objects as well.
Have forced every cloud fleece
Out of the hot sky.
Here the sunflowers are described as ‘fierce’, a descriptor normally reserved for a type of human action. In addition, the haiku depicts a causal link between ‘fierce sunflowers’ and the hot, cloudless sky, as if the sunflowers were responsible for the way the sky looks. This kind of paradoxical causation is also a frequent feature of Wright’s haiku. What is being described here is a kind of resonance, or a causal synchronicity, rather than a billiard ball type of causation. Yet this kind of causation does operate in our lives; we feel it, we sense it, but it is difficult to articulate. Wright’s ability to uncover these kinds of relationships is one of the treasures of his collection.
In the autumn air,
Distant mountains are dreaming
Of autumns to come.
The idea of nature dreaming is encountered now and then in poetry. Wright picks up on this theme. There is a shift in time in this haiku that makes it attractive to me. The shift is from the sense of the season’s flow from a human perspective, to the sense of the season’s flow from the perspective of a mountain. Mountains have a longer perspective; this autumn is just one of many autumns, countless autumns. This time-shift is gracefully shown in this haiku through the use of personification.
Did somebody call?
Looking over my shoulder:
Massive spring mountains.
This haiku has received critical acclaim from reviewers for its mysterious tone and moving effect. I believe the effectiveness of this haiku is due in no small part to its use of personification; the sense we have all felt, at times, of nature actually speaking to us.
Personification, in my opinion, isn’t just a technique in Wright’s haiku. Personification depicts a world in which awareness and consciousness permeate the cosmos. From this perspective it is legitimate to attribute to things, both animate and inanimate, psychological states, motivations, and prehensions. Wright’s haiku remind me, in many ways, of Whitehead’s view found in Process and Reality. I’m not suggesting that Wright studied Whitehead or that he was a ‘process poet’; but I do find the world view of these two remarkably similar. That view is that awareness is not an add-on to existence but rather is an inherent factor that is found everywhere, not just in human beings.
There are more examples I could quote showing, for example, how Wright uses metrics, alliteration, allusion, synecdoche, and anaphora, among other devices. Wright also constructs his haiku using different techniques including; the single sentence, the pivot, the juxtaposition, and the list. All of these are used skillfully.
All of this points to the great gift of Wright’s work: the integration of the western poetic heritage into the haiku form. This is the great lesson I have slowly learned, and continue to learn, from studying Richard Wright’s haiku: that it is possible to welcome the western poetic tradition with open arms. At times I feel that some western haiku poets have almost an adversarial relationship to the western tradition. In a way this is understandable; if you are attracted to a non-western poetic tradition, it makes sense that you would question the western poetic tradition, or aspects of it, in order to access the non-western tradition. If you were completely satisfied with the western tradition it is doubtful you would look outside of that context. So I can understand the impulse as at times I have shared it.
Yet, ultimately, I think that Wright’s approach is more fruitful. Wright’s approach is one that builds upon the past in a constructive way. That is why, I think, that Wright’s haiku are so effective; because they resonate deeply with the heritage of verse with which we are all already familiar. Yet, at the same time, transforms that heritage by placing it in a new context. It is an amazing achievement.