Honor Black History Month: Write a haiku
Richard Wright is justly remembered as one of America’s pioneering modern black writers. His novel Native Son and memoir Black Boy paved the way for Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and others to follow. What’s less known: He is among the earliest and best American haiku poets.
It’s amazing the things you don’t learn in school. When I was taught haiku in high school in the early 1970s, it seemed the form had been around forever. It was, in fact, still brand new. American writers had been trying to compose haiku in English only since the 1950s, when the Beats, especially Gary Snyder and Jack Keruoac, experimented with it.
No one took to the simple, arduous Japanese poetry form like Wright, who died in Paris in 1960 at the age of 52. During the last year of his life–disillusioned, health deteriorating — he wrote an astounding 4,000 haiku.
“I am nobody:
A red sinking sun
Took my name away.”
Wright became fascinated with haiku in 1959, when a South African friend lent him R.H. Blyth’s landmark four volume study of Japanese poetry, Haiku. Unlike some English-language haiku poets — Kerouac, for example — Wright almost always adhered to the strict form of three lines totaling 17 syllables, five in the first line, seven in the second, five in the third.
For comparison, here is a poem by the classical Japanese poet Basho, who lived in the 17th century:
“A day of quiet gladness,
Mount Fuji is veiled
In misty rain.”
Wright found haiku, with its Zen-inspired simplicity and clarity, a relief from the griefs and disappointment of life. Baldwin had turned against him. His mother had recently died, and so had Albert Camus, one of his best friends. His health was failing, and an unfinished book about racial tensions on U.S. Army bases had exhausted him.
“Keep straight down this block
Then turn right where you will find
A peach tree blooming.”
Wright also found haiku a new and liberating way to express his characteristic theme — the problem of being black and American in the pre-Civil Rights era. Of course, these themes are by necessity elliptical.
“An Indian summer
Heaps itself in tons of gold
Over Nigger Town.”
The mix of beauty and social oppression in that brief poem still has the power to take your breath away. Even the most despised of society, it suggests, still have access to the grace of the natural world. And yet, an entire history of race hatred and exploitation are contained in the three words of the final line.
“The green cockleburs
Caught in the woolly hair
Of the black boy.”
But Wright also wrote haikus to express simple beauty or pleasure or even humor. This is one of my favorites:
“Coming from the woods
A bull has a sprig of lilac
Dangling from a horn.”
Wright never received his due as a major American poet and haiku master, which of course is both predictable and sadly appropriate, given the racial hardships of his time. A few of Wright’s haiku were published in the early ‘6os, and before he died, he selected the 817 he considered his best.
But these were not collected into a book until 1997, when Arcade published Haiku: This Other World.
I propose we honor Richard Wright, and Black History Month, by writing a few haiku of our own. If you feel up to the challenge, please share your efforts with us here in the comments section.
If not, I urge you to read some of Wright’s own poems. This wounded warrior for art and justice deserves our attention and admiration, half a century after his untimely passing.