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Richard Wright's Five 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

Introduction and Text of Five Selected Haiku

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

a major form of Japanese verse, written in 17 syllables divided into 3 lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, and employing highly evocative allusions and comparisons, often on the subject of nature or one of the seasons.

About his fascination with composing haiku, Wright’s daughter has explained in the introduction to the collection, Haiku: The Last Poems of an American Icon:

He was never without his haiku binder under his arm. He wrote them everywhere, at all hours: in bed as he slowly recovered from a year-long, grueling battle against amebic dysentry; in cafes and restaurants where he counted syllables on napkins; in the country in a writing community owned by French friends, Le Moulin d’Ande.

The observant daughter continues to describe her father’s fascination with the art form:

My father’s law in those days revolved around the rules of haiku writing, and I remember how he would hang pages and pages of them up, as if to dry, on long metal rods strung across the narrow office area of his tiny sunless studio in Paris, like the abstract still-life photographs he used to compose and develop himself at the beginning of his Paris exile. I also recall how one day he tried to teach me how to count the syllables: "Julie, you can write them, too. It’s always five, and seven and five—like math. So you can’t go wrong."

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.

Sampling Wright’s Haiku

Although Richard Wright directed his haiku to delve into many different subjects and issues—it is estimated that he created some four thousand of them—the speaker of each haiku in the following series makes a mournful cry while couching his anguish in that traditional form of the 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

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

Emily Dickinson - daguerrotype at age 17

Emily Dickinson - daguerrotype at age 17

Haiku 1: Like Emily

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

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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.

Communist Flag

Communist Flag

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.

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 located 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, while 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 turning things around 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

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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