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Honor Black History Month: Write a haiku

February 9, 2010

Richard Wright

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.”

I could share Wright’s haiku with you for the rest of the day, but instead you can find examples and additional information at ahapoetry.com and Terebes Asia Online.

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.


29 Comments leave one →
  1. February 9, 2010 2:44 pm

    I will write one soon and post it. Very interesting.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 9, 2010 11:29 pm

      We’re waiting breathlessly.

  2. Tommy permalink
    February 9, 2010 2:48 pm

    Chauncey Mabe indites here

    Literature Luminary

    We say Thank You, Sir

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 9, 2010 11:31 pm

      Very nice. “A” for effort.

  3. alexis permalink
    February 9, 2010 4:48 pm

    It is such a shame that no one knew he was such a haiku master until after he died.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 9, 2010 11:32 pm

      No one knew until long after he died. I think this needs to be much more widely known — his poems are superb, I think. Another black artist, not getting his full due.

  4. February 9, 2010 5:17 pm

    Catching words and world
    by spinning a wheel-shaped web
    lying still, waiting.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 9, 2010 11:34 pm

      As always, Yahia, you humble me with your grace and skill. To everyone else: Don’t be daunted by this haiku — Yahia is a published poet, essayist, aphorist and all-round literary MVP. Please contribute your own haiku. It’s not a contest, it’s a celebration.

      • February 10, 2010 10:57 am

        I do appreciate the opportunity to stop by and seriously play. Thanks, Chauncey, for this and all else!

  5. February 9, 2010 9:53 pm

    Chauncey,
    Thanks for this brief moment of respite from a hectic day.
    And thanks for the insights into Wright’s haiku writing – I’m going to share them with people who take my Walking The Spirit tours of Black Paris.
    I’ll also link to you from my Spirit of Black Paris blog.
    I find so much solace and inspiration in how Wright lived his life.

    A City of Light
    Hailed Richard Wright’s spirit,
    His words will live on

  6. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    February 9, 2010 11:37 pm

    Julia, thanks for the comments, the fine haiku, and the link. I fear Wright has been shunted aside somewhat by the black writers who came after him. Writing this blog post has got me meditating about his life and career, which I know see as essentially tragic and noble. I’d love to see interest in his life and work revived in the American canon. As his sublime late work in haiku shows, there’s a lot more to Richard Wright than Native Son.

  7. Candice Simmons permalink
    February 10, 2010 11:26 am

    Change we believe in.
    Yes. No. I change my mind–that.
    We can live without.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 10, 2010 12:11 pm

      Candice, that’s a very intellectual haiku, I must say, not to mention political, and philosophical. A veritable hat trick of haiku. Well done, indeed.

      • rachel permalink
        February 10, 2010 12:36 pm

        Candice, I like this. Very interesting.

  8. rachel permalink
    February 10, 2010 12:35 pm

    Thanks Chauncey Mabe. As always I am learning something here. I, sadly, didn’t know about Richard Wright. But I, happily, have a new poet to explore. I really liked the poems you shared in your blog.

    And I am impressed by the efforts of the commenters. Well done all.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 10, 2010 3:26 pm

      Yes, by all means explore Wright’s haiku, but his prose work, which is what made him (and, in way, broke him) a literary star in his own day. It’s impossible to appreciate the struggle for black equality, not to mention the evolution of black literature, without reading Native Son, at the very least.

  9. Candice Simmons permalink
    February 10, 2010 1:22 pm

    Didn’t know him for his poetry, but Native Son is a favorite. Thanks for enlightening me, Chauncey Mabe.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 10, 2010 3:27 pm

      As always, the pleasure is mine.

  10. rachel permalink
    February 10, 2010 2:57 pm

    I bit my cheek hard.
    What was it doing in the
    way? Behold: I’m here.

    • Tommy permalink
      February 10, 2010 3:24 pm

      Ravenous Rachel
      So hungry she ate her mouth
      Now she is quiet

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 10, 2010 3:28 pm

      Excellent, Rachel. And Tommy: Also excellent, in riposte.

      • rachel permalink
        February 10, 2010 3:39 pm

        Tommy, I like it.

  11. Candice Simmons permalink
    February 10, 2010 4:56 pm

    You guys crack me up.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 11, 2010 2:13 am

      Snow falls on the hills
      You’re warm in your tiny house
      Giggling at haiku

      • rachel permalink
        February 11, 2010 10:24 am

        Nicely done, Chauncey Mabe.

      • February 11, 2010 1:04 pm

        I like your meta-haiku, too –
        evocative with a light touch.

  12. Tommy permalink
    February 11, 2010 2:23 pm

    Dark skin or white skin
    No difference, no distance
    In a perfect world

    I caress full lips
    I reach, feeling their moist warmth
    My amour, I am touched

    Stupid ellipsis,
    so thoughtless, what about folks
    who speak with a lisp?

    This is fun

    • Tommy permalink
      February 11, 2010 3:03 pm

      Durn it! I thought I wrote light skin, not white skin. I don’t know anyone with white skin. Give it back! Durn!

  13. Candice permalink
    February 11, 2010 3:32 pm

    It’s okay, Tommy. I know people with white skin.

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