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Novelist Richard Wright and Haiku

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Richard Wright

Richard Wright

Matsuo Basho and Haiku

The haiku form was perfected and popularized by Matsuo Basho in 17th century Japan. Basho remains the most celebrated haiku master of all time. He was a Zen Buddhist and a lay monk. His haiku themes are spiritually influenced by Zen Buddhism. One of Basho’s most obvious paeans to Buddhism is the following:

Glory to Buddha,
On a pedestal of grass
Such coolness.

Basho’s most famous and widely anthologized haiku is

Old Pond
A frog jumps into
The sound of water.

After the form immigrated to the USA, students, teachers, artists, and poets all became enamored of that short form. Most poets have from time to time tried their hand at composing haiku.

The form has also become a useful teaching tool. Its strict structural form and limited number of syllables force the writer to engage the best word in the best place in order to create a successful piece of drama.

After Richard Wright’s success as a novelist with his wildly popular Native Son and his autobiography, Black Boy, the novelist spent the final two year of his life addicted to writing that shortest of poetic form.

About his fascination with composing haiku, Wright’s daughter has reported that her father always went about with his "haiku binder under his arm." She said that he wrote them everywhere he went.

While recovering from amebic dysentry in bed, he continued to write haiku. She went on to say that he wrote them in cafes and restaurants where he counted syllable on the table linen. He continued to write while visiting a community writing group "owned by French friends, Le Moulin d’Ande."

in the introduction to the collection, Haiku: The Last Poems of an American Icon, the daughter stated that her father would hang pages of haiku on metal rods in his office as one would hang clothes to dry.

Wright’s penchant for hanging his haiku up like drying photos—he also dabbled in photography and developing his own photos—demonstrates the level of devotion to his multi-talent for the arts.

Wright thus represents the Renaissance man as a novelist, photographer, and poet.

Matsuo Basho

Matsuo Basho

Sampling Wright’s Haiku

Richard Wright directed his haiku to delve into many different subjects and issues. It is estimated that he created some four thousand of them those brief poetic dramas.

The speaker of each haiku in the following series makes a mournful cry while couching his anguish in that traditional Japanese haiku form: seventeen syllables with some allusion to one of the seasons.

Five Haiku

1.
I am nobody:
A red sinking autumn sun
Took my name away.

2.
I give permission
For this slow spring rain to soak
The violet beds.

3.
With a twitching nose
A dog reads a telegram
On a wet tree trunk.

4.
Burning autumn leaves,
I yearn to make the bonfire
Bigger and bigger.

5.
A sleepless spring night:
Yearning for what I never had
And for what never was.

Wright’s haiku on display

Wright’s haiku on display

Commentary

In his over four thousand haiku composed during the last two years of his life, Richard Wright broached many different subjects. The brief form of the haiku allowed him to state succinctly exactly how he felt about each of the subjects that had attracted his attention.

Haiku 1: An Echo of Emily

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

The speaker in the first haiku declares his lack of identity. The reader might be reminded of an Emily Dickinson poem that begins "I'm Nobody! Who are you?"

Unlike the speaker in the Dickinson poem that addresses a listener and demonstrates a mad glee at being unidentified, the speaker in Wright's haiku decries his "nobody" status.

He did not voluntarily give up his identity to become a "nobody"; it was taken from him: "A red sinking autumn sun / Took my name away."

While the symbolism of the "red sinking autumn sun" remains somewhat private, one possible reference does offer itself because Wright had toyed with notion of becoming a communist and relied on the American Communist Party to eradicate racism.

But Wright, like many other writers during this time period, including Langston Hughes and E. E. Cummings, had been sorely disappointed by communism.

Haiku 2: A Little Silly

I give permission
For this slow spring rain to soak
The violet beds.

The second haiku of the series provides a lovely image but a rather silly claim. The reader is tempted to exclaim, "well, you don't say so!" after the claim, "I give permission" for rain to fall on the violets.

If, instead, the speaker had withheld his permission, who knows what would have happened? Perhaps an all-out tug-of-war with Mother Nature!

The reader can also be generous and simply take the claim as the speaker giving himself permission to feel a certain way about the "rain [ ] soak[ing] / The violet beds."

It is, however, a little odd to say "violet beds" because violets are wild flowers and do not actually grow in beds.

But again, the human mind has a way of assigning qualities to things to fit its own desires and perceptions. And readers are always free accept or reject assertions.

Haiku 3: Echoing Pound?

With a twitching nose
A dog reads a telegram
On a wet tree trunk.

In haiku 3, the speaker chooses to go a little nonsensical, as modernist, and especially postmodernist, poetry is often wont to do: the image of a dog reading anything would strike one as humorous.

But give that dog a "twitching nose" and place the reading material on "a wet tree trunk," and the only thing that prevails is roaring nonsense which is nevertheless as entertaining as it is thought-provoking.

The speaker is not likely echoing Ezra Pound's

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

But it is likely that most readers will be reminded of the Poundian piece that has so often been quoted.

Still, only exuberant nonsense can account for a twitching-nosed dog reading a telegram while situated on a wet trunk of a tree. Or is the telegram on the wet tree trunk?

The ambiguity might be expressing the speaker’s wish to retain that unclear location of reading dog and telegram.

Haiku 4: Bigger

Burning autumn leaves,
I yearn to make the bonfire
Bigger and bigger.

The speaker in haiku 4 returns to ordinary sense claiming that while he is burning leaves that have fallen from his trees, he wishes to make the fire into a bonfire to burn with ever more ferocity.

Again, it remains unlikely that the speaker is employing the repetition of "Bigger and bigger" to allude to his main character in his most famous novel Native Son.

It is, however, likely that readers will be put in mind of Wright’s "Bigger Thomas" character in his widely reputed novel.

Haiku 5: Self-Pity with Hope

A sleepless spring night:
Yearning for what I never had
And for what never was.

Haiku 5 returns to unadulterated sorrow: this poor speaker is kept awake with regrets for all the things in life that he has never possessed and for all the situations that have never come about.

This very human condition is placed in the context of "spring," a time for renewal of hope in the midst of nature’s rebirth of beauty.

The trigger effect of this confession demands a correction, and the reader leaves the piece filled with hope that the speaker is somehow about to turn that yearning into earning, so that in future, he may acquire some of those heretofore unpossessed possessions.

Sources

Richard Wright - Sanctuary in Haiku

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Linda Sue Grimes