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Maintained by William J. Higginson

His Last Poems: Haiku

Richard Wright, Haiku: This Other World, edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani and Robert L. Tener, New York: Arcade Publishing, 1998. 320 pp., $23.50.

Reviewed by William J. Higginson

Richard Wright is known to most literate Americans as the author of the searing novel Native Son and the autobiography Black Boy. He was also a poet, and his poems, like his prose, focused mainly on the harsh realities of African-American life and political themes. After his fiction and other prose writings made him famous, however, his involvement with poetry diminished, to become almost non-existent—until the last 18 months of his life.

During the summer of 1959, Wright came under the spell of R. H. Blyth’s four-volume work Haiku, the same which only a few years earlier had inspired Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac to begin composing haiku-like poems. Blyth’s books give substantial background on haiku from a decidedly Zen perspective, and include some 3-4,000 haiku with commentaries, arranged by the seasons. Immediately, Wright began to compose haiku in English, reportedly writing some 4,000 before his death in 1960.

Wright’s debt to Blyth is extensive, both deeper and more direct than that of his Beat contemporaries. And, although Blyth presents his translations in three lines of varying lengths almost without regard to the forms of the originals, Wright took a conservative approach to his own compositions, writing almost all of them in the strict 5-7-5-syllable format that dominates traditional Japanese haiku. Unfortunately for Wright, he did not have the advantage of later linguistic studies showing this form in English to be both wordier in content and longer in duration than the Japanese. Even so, he created many fine haiku in this format, as evidenced by those in this collection, appearing at last almost forty years after its completion.

During his last few months, Wright prepared a manuscript of 817 of those haiku, and sought to have them published as a book. He was unsuccessful, and the manuscript languished amidst his other papers for many years, until the efforts of his widow led two professors of English at Kent State University to work toward an edition that would include all of the poems Wright himself selected—the book we now have. Prior to its publication late last year, only twenty-odd of Wright’s haiku had appeared in print, some in magazines, some in the Richard Wright Reader published in 1978. (See my article "African-American Haiku", at http://wjhigginson.home.att.net/archives.html.)

A somber tone pervades much of Wright’s Haiku, understandable since he was ill while writing these haiku, and since some of his closest friends and his mother died during this same period. Nonetheless, the collections shows a wider range of subject and tone than any other body of haiku in English from the period—a range fully justified by the range of Japanese haiku though it pushes at the boundaries set by Blyth’s deliberately Zennist taste.

The best poems among Wright’s haiku exhibit the pure, significant observation, the delicate sensitivity, or the mysterious narrative fragment that characterize many of the best Japanese haiku, from an American perspective. Here are some of my personal favorites, with their numbers in the collection.:

    Just enough of light
In this lofty autumn sky
    To turn the lake black. (32)

    The sound of the rain,
Blotted out now and then
    By a sticky cough. (34)

    The first day of spring:
A servant’s hips shake as she     
    Wipes a mirror clean. (198)

    Standing in the field,
 I hear the whispering of
    Snowflake to snowflake. (489)

Some of  Wright’s poems of pure reportage fall flat, but, as with any poetry, different readers may find different examples to delight in or pass over quickly. Wright is at his best with poems that reflect the human comedy, or give us a peek at an apparent mystery, as these:

    With indignation
A little girl spanks her doll,—
    The sound of spring rain. (171)

    As my delegate,
My shadow imitates me
    This first day of spring. (532)

    One autumn evening
A stranger enters a village
    And passes on through. (134)

    In my sleep at night,
I keep pounding an anvil
    Heard during the day. (638)

This last is one of the very few poems in Wright’s Haiku that does not contain a seasonal reference, an element thought essential by most Japanese haiku poets from the earliest days of haiku in the seventeenth century. And this is one contribution the book makes, for most American poets from the first have only somewhat paid lip-service to the seasons in their attempts at haiku; many members of the large and growing community of American haiku poets ignore the seasons altogether. By including the season at almost every turn, Wright’s collection will no doubt please Japanese readers, and may make some American poets today reexamine the seasonal possibilities in their own work.

As one might expect, some of Wright’s haiku echo themes and even the language of the poems found in Blyth’s volumes. Some of these follow, with what may have been their unconscious models in Blyth’s translations (which indicate volume and page number).

Haiku by Wright
Translation by Blyth
Blyth's Author
    The caw of a crow
Draws a diagonal line
    Across a field of corn. (235)
     The cry of a hototogisu
Goes slanting—ah!
     Across the water.

Bashô (3, 167)
     The sound of a rat
Scampering over cold tin
     Is heard in the bowels. (294)
     The sound
Of a rat on a plate,—
     How cold it is!

Buson (4, 174)
     A shaggy brown dog
Squatting under winter trees,
     Shitting in the rain. (416)
     A stray cat
     In the winter garden.

Shiki (4, 290)

Of Shiki’s poem, Blyth says “This is an extraordinarily good haiku.” Wright’s language is as direct as Shiki’s, which Blyth’s is not.

There are many poems of stark, harsh reality in Wright’s collection, and many more that simply don’t make the grade. But, page for page, poem for poem, Wright’s Haiku is the best large American haiku collection yet to come out of the 1950s and ’60s, and the only full collection of haiku by a major American writer to remotely suggest both the range and depth possible in the genre.

Reading Haiku straight through, as with any large number of extremely short poems, can be tiring. But sampling its pages, finding the poem that speaks to the reader’s mood of the moment, will yield many pleasures, not to mention a connection with the gentlest side of this great writer’s rich and diverse heart. That he accomplished this in something less than a year and a half, during illness and severe emotional stress, says much for the inner strength and delicate sensibility of one of our most important writers. More than a footnote to the breadth of African-American writing, Richard Wright’s Haiku is a major contribution to the growing, worldwide literature that begins in Japanese haiku.


An earlier and shorter version of this review under this title first appeared The Santa Fe New Mexican, February 21, 1999. This version is substantially the same as that which appeared under the title "Black Haiku" in Frogpond, #:# ().

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