Thursday, November 28, 2013

Richard Wright Day for 2013: My View of Richard Wright's Place in English Language Haiku

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. 


Fierce sunflowers
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.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Fibonacci Day for 2013

Good Morning:

I've been extra busy at work so my posting pace has slowed down.  But I wanted to take a moment to celebrate the Fibonacci.  I celebrate the Fibonacci syllabic form on November 23rd because when written in numbers it is 11/23.  These are the syllabic count for the first four lines of a Fibonacci: 1-1-2-3.  Continuing, the form is 1-1-2-3-5-8-13, etc.

Take a moment to go visit the Fib Review.  Or take a moment to pen a Fibonacci on your own.  I find the Fibonacci to be an exuberant form; it starts slow and then takes off.  A friend of mine started written them and told me she found them kind of 'addicting'.  I think it is the exuberance which is so attractive.

Give it a try -- you will enjoy it.

Saturday, November 16, 2013



Before dawn
November cold
The moon has gone down
The sound of my footsteps
There is no wind this morning
The Orion constellation,
Like an adagio for my eyes,
Sends me an invitation to the sky.

Friday, November 15, 2013



Thick and cold
November gray


That’s a difficult word,
One that is not often heard;
Lack of things means you’ve not prospered,
That abundance has been deferred.
Perhaps some tragedy has occurred.
There must be some kind of explanation;
An ongoing rationalization
For a psychological repression?
That it’s attractive is beyond conception,
It can’t be voluntary renunciation.

There is beauty in the sight of a leafless tree,
A distant solo flute’s exquisite melody,
In a room a single book that is often read,
A few words overheard that a stranger once said,
A walk along the beach when the ocean is calm,
The transcendental presence that glows in a Psalm
That opens a door that allows us to perceive
Waves of vast spaciousness from a limitless sea.

Monday, November 11, 2013


A few strangers
Memories like leaves scatter,
Is that me in that picture from years ago?
I used to believe that there were many intriguing things that I could know --
Having entered the roaring blizzard of silence and endlessness the pursuit of knowledge became a greed to forgo,
In the middle of a field whose perimeters are only vaguely perceived, in the shade cast from a massive boulder, dropped by an ancient glacier, there lies the last patch of slowly melting snow.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Two Resources for Composing the Very Short Line

Two Resources for Composing the Very Short Line

An aspect of contemporary syllabic forms in English which has intrigued me for years is that many of these forms require writing poetry in very short lines.  I define a very short line as a line of four syllables or less.  The syllabic forms which require very short lines include Cinquain, Fibonacci, Lucas, Etheree, and Tetractys.  And the Lanterne form consists entirely of very short lines: 1-2-3-4-1 syllables.  I am not aware of any other time in the history of poetry where the very short line was such a persistent feature of poetic form.

The very short line poses a challenge to the syllabic poet.  If the very short line is written well, it functions like a seed, or a very condensed and articulate statement.  If it does not function well, the very short line will lack definition and the specific shape of the syllabic structure will be lost.

Recently I have encountered two resources for composing very short lines of poetry.  The two resources are: A Dictionary of Haiku by Jane Reichhold, and New and Selected Poems of Samuel Menashe, edited by Christopher Ricks.  Together the syllabic poet can learn much from these two works on how to construct very short lines in forms like Fibonacci and Lanterne.

Reichhold’s Dictionary was published this year.  It is a huge work; about 5,000 Haiku with a page count a little over 300 pages.  The work is arranged along the lines of a traditional Japanese Saijiki; that is to say that the Haiku are classified by Season, and within each season by Topic, and within each Topic by Subject.  This arrangement makes the Haiku easily accessible; the reader can digest one Subject at a time.

Reichhold’s approach to Haiku is what I refer to as a ‘free verse’ approach.  By that I simply mean that Reichhold does not hold to a syllabic count or structure.  Her approach is a three-line, highly condensed, no wasted words, approach.  It is a minimalist approach in the best sense of that word, the sense of no wasted words.

Here is an example:

meditation with my partner
the spider

This is from the New Year Season, Animals Topic, Insects Subject, and is found on page 302.  For the syllabic poet, notice Lines 1 and 3.  Line 1 is two syllables, Line 3 is three.  In spite of the shortness of the lines, they have integrity, they feel like a line.

Here is another:

because it called to me
the moon sets

(This is from the Fall Season, Moods Topic, and ‘being needed’ Subject on Page 170.)

Notice the one syllable of Line 1.  It functions like a statement and has a double meaning.  It both refers to waking up, getting up, and it also refers to the fact that the moon is up in the sky.  This is nicely balanced by the fact that the moon is setting.  This is an excellent example of how to use very short lines effectively.

And here is one of my favorite:

on the far mountain

Riechhold’s Dictionary is an endless resource of how to shape a very short line that also has integrity.  I recommend it to the syllabic poet, particularly if you have an interest in those forms like Fibonacci (which start out with the first four lines being very short [1-1-2-3]), or the Tetractys which also opens with four very short lines (1-2-3-4) or Lanterne, which is nothing but very short lines.  Studying this work will be of great assistance.


The second resource I’d like to suggest is the poetry of Samuel Menashe.  I had not known about Menashe until I read Sparring with the Sun Jan Schreiber.  Schreiber recommends Menashe and I followed up and I’m very glad I did.

Menashe was a minimalist poet whose tight, highly regulated, verse packs a lot of meaning into very few words.  Here is Menashe’s most famous poem:

Pity us
by the sea
on the sands
so briefly

Menashe is a metrical poet, but notice that this poem also can be understood as syllabic; a Quatrain with 3 syllables per line.  It uses a standard Quatrain rhyme scheme of A-B-C-B.  I have found that this rhyme scheme feels strongly cadential, an appropriate usage for a poem with this topic.

Notice how each line has integrity; there is no enjambment even though each line is very brief.  Lines 2 and 3 are prepositional phrases.  Line 1 is, all by itself, a sentence, which is then commented on in Lines 2, 3, and 4. 

Here is another:


Ghost I house
In this old flat –
Your outpost –
My aftermath

The same rhyme scheme is used for this Quatrain; but the rhyme for Lines 2 and 4 is slant.  Again, notice how each line has integrity, how each line holds a thought and contributes clearly to the whole.

Not all of Menashe’s poems consist solely of very short lines; but enough of them do to make this a rich resource for those composing in syllabic forms that include very short lines. 

The challenge for the syllabic poet writing very short lines is to write in such a way that the linebreaks do not feel forced, artificial, arbitrary, or anorexic.  By ‘anorexic’ I mean a line that lacks a sense of wholeness on its own.  This sense of wholeness can be grammatical or image based, or both, but if that sense of wholeness is not present the reader will feel that the linebreak is arbitrary and meaningless and will link the line to the following line, in an attempt to create a sense of wholeness.  The result will be a loss of the particular syllabic shape of the poem.

In practice what this means it that radical enjambment is put aside.  Radical enjambment is a pervasive feature of free verse poetry these days.  My observation has been that when poets move from free verse to syllabic verse, the greatest difficulty they have is overcoming this tendency to compose lines that spill over into the following line, without the ameliorating usage of metrics or rhyme.  While radical enjambment can be effective in a free verse context, when used in a syllabic context, and in particular when used in very short lines, the syllabic shape is lost.  When the syllabic shape is lost, the reader, or listener, looses the pulse of that particular form.

Generally speaking, lines that end in an article, the or a, and lines that end in prepositions, will feel enjambed and will lack a sense of wholeness.  The reader/listener will feel a strong tendency to either attach the word to the next line, or to bring the following line up and make it one, longer, continuous line.  A modifier, an adjective or adverb, that ends a line can also feel enjambed, but the feeling is not usually as strong.  And if the modifier is rhymed, or falls on a metrical accent, that will minimize the sense of shapelessness.

Very short lines that consist of nouns often have a sense of wholeness.  The template for this is the list.  When writing a shopping list, for example, each item stands on its own.  Or when writing a list of ‘things I like/dislike’, or ‘things that are distinctive about where I live’, the list will often consist of items that consist mostly of nouns.  A list can give a lot of information.  For example, a list can give the reader of a poem a sense of place and/or a sense of time/season.  In my own shaping of very short lines, this is the approach I use most often.

Reichhold takes what I call a free verse approach to Haiku.  And Menashe is a metrical poet.  Neither of these poets write syllabics.  But the syllabic poet, writing in English, has to learn to gather lessons in the craft of syllabic shaping from many different sources.  This is because syllabic poetry in English has not, as yet, established a canon; either of significant works or of established procedures.  This is both a plus and a minus.  It’s a minus because, at times, it can leave the syllabic poet feeling a little lost.  It’s a plus if the syllabic poet takes advantage of their situation and remains open to whatever can assist in the craft of shaping words into syllabic forms.


A Dictionary of Haiku: Second Edition
Jane Reichhold
ISBN: 9780944676240

Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems
Christopher Ricks, Editor
ISBN: 1931082855

Both are available at Amazon