The Unlikeliest Haiku Master

Richard Wright spent the last year of his life writing five-seven-five.

During the last 18 months of his life, struggling with failing health and living in exile in Paris, Richard Wright devoted himself almost exclusively to writing haiku. His emotional life was agonizing. In 1959, he lost two of his closest friends, and his mother died. He was hounded by the US government and was homesick. Inspired by R.H. Blyth's classic four-volume study of haiku, Wright found spiritual resilience, joy, humor, and pathos writing in a strict poetic form. He carried his notebooks with him wherever he went, eventually compiling 4,000 haiku, from which he selected 817 to be preserved in book form. But the World Publishing Co. rejected the manuscript, and upon Wright's death in 1960 it was deposited, under tight restrictions, in Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Haiku: This Other World by Richard Wright (Arcade, $23.50) I am paying rent

For the lice in my room

And the moonlight too. In these poems, Wright often walks the thin line dividing Zen-inspired haiku from its more comic cousin, senryu. Anyone well-versed in the poetry of Basho, Issa, and other major haiku poets will find remarkable paraphrases and associations seen with the freshest of eyes throughout this remarkable book. Basho wrote: "All along this road/not a single soul—only/autumn evening." Wright's re-envisioning of the poem: "I see nobody/Upon the muddy roadway/In autumn moonlight." The old Japanese Zen haiku master would love Wright's work here. Basho himself drew equally heavily from the writings of Chuang Tzu, Tu Fu, Po Chu-i, and many other classical Chinese poets, and Wright's poem brings the experience delightfully into modern English. As close as it is to Basho's original, simply by adding the first person and the moonlight, Wright strikes a worthy and original chord. Basho wrote: "Awakened at midnight/by the sound of the rice jar/cracking from the ice." Wright draws inspiration from the poem and writes: "The sound of a rat/Gnawing in the winter wall/Of a rented room." In one of the most famous poems in Narrow Road to the Interior, Basho writes, "Eaten alive by lice and fleas—now the horse/beside my pillow pees." Wright responds: "The horse's hot piss/Scalds a fragile nest of ants/In a sea of foam." In his Sarashina Travelogue, Basho writes, "Now I see her face,/the old woman, abandoned,/the moon her only companion." Wright responds: "I last saw her face/Under a dripping willow/In a windy rain." It is clear throughout This Other World that Wright took to his studies seriously. While these examples may appear to be mere derivations, such a reading would be a major mistake. There are literally hundreds of poems of utter originality. As the popcorn man

Is closing up his wagon,

Snow begins to fall. Basho argued on behalf of elegant simplicity, on behalf of poems drawn from mundane reality, but with everything clarified. Wright's "popcorn man" fits Basho's criteria like a hand in a glove. It might seem odd at a glance: The great African-American novelist who invented the inarticulate, fearful, irate Bigger Thomas finds himself in declining health, living in exile, mourning the deaths of those closest to him, hounded by McCarthyites and the CIA; he picks up a volume of Japanese poetry in translation, and his life is utterly transformed. In turning to haiku, Wright sought to engage and extend a remarkably fertile and supple literary tradition. He wanted to bring "the Black experience" to haiku. And he wanted to stay as tightly within the traditions of haiku as possible. For 18 months, he wrote and revised and evaluated constantly. At his best, he is as good as any haiku poet this country has ever produced. He has amazing instincts and effortless control as he reveals whole relationships—most often between people and nature. A freezing night wind

Wafts the scent of frying fish

From the waterfront. In haiku, what is left unsaid is every bit as important as what is stated. All over the world, there are people in haiku clubs and societies cranking out poor imitations of the great masters, writing little sentimental nuggets composed mostly of hot air that go down like cotton candy. Wright had the courage to let us see his sources and the accomplished writer's resistance to self-absorption. As my anger ebbs,

The spring stars grow bright again

And the wind returns. The Way of Poetry (Kado in Japanese, the Tao of Poetry) is a path toward enlightenment. Wright began to see in Zen "nothingness" the superficiality of momentary emotions. Basho instructs, "Follow nature, return to nature, be nature. Yesterday's self is already worn out!" There can be no doubt that for Richard Wright, the haiku mind brought him to a far deeper engagement with the world around him, assuaging his mourning and his bitterness toward his homeland that had treated him with such cruelty. From the dark still pines,

Not a breath of autumn wind

To ripple the lake. It is inconceivable that World Publishing Co. rejected Wright's manuscript. And it is astonishing to think that it has taken nearly 40 years to make his poetry available. Richard Wright is indisputably one of the giants of American letters. He belongs among our best poets, and Haiku: This Other World belongs in everyone's library beside Native Son and Black Boy. Sam Hamill is a poet, translator, and editor-in-chief of Copper Canyon Press. His latest collection, Gratitude, was published by Boa Editions in August.

 
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