Academic journal article MELUS

"I Am Nobody": The Haiku of Richard Wright

Academic journal article MELUS

"I Am Nobody": The Haiku of Richard Wright

Article excerpt

When Richard Wright's typescript Haiku: This Other World was first published in 1998, it seemed logical to expect a fair amount of critical attention to be focused on the volume. After all, the dramatic shift that Wright makes from writer of realistic and naturalistic fiction to haikuist is so unusual that it seems to beg for explication. Moreover, Wright is the first noteworthy American minority writer to produce the highly popular poetic form. Such, however, has not been the case. To this point, Wright's collection has received even less notice than did the twenty-three haiku that were published during the author's lifetime and collected in The Richard Wright Reader. This neglect is unfortunate because examining the whole collection allows us to see how Wright radically reinvents the haiku form, making of it a revolutionary poetry that offers and then savagely undercuts the possibility of Zen oneness; in the process, the haiku serve as a vehicle that articulates the author's anti-colonial position.

Because a number of biographers have chronicled Wright's relationship with the haiku, only a brief summary is required here. While suffering from a relapse of amoebic dysentery in 1959, Wright picked up a volume of Japanese haiku, which he read repeatedly and with fascination. Finding the form irresistible, Wright began composing in August 1959 and, within a few months, he had written four thousand haiku. By March of 1960, Wright had typed the poems; by the middle of April, he had selected 817 that he hoped to publish. After devoting the next month to rearranging the sequence of these haiku, Wright submitted them in June to editor William Targ of World Publishers. The eighty-page typescript was rejected and, following the author's death and the disbursal of his estate, the typescript remained in the Rare Book Collection of Yale's Beinecke Library until its publication under the auspices of editors Yoshinobu Hakutani and Robert L. Tener. (1)

Because haiku in the United States grew in popularity following World War II, Wright had at his disposal a number of major critical treatises on the verse form. (2) However, little question exists as to the work that most influenced him. That work is R.H. Blyth's four-volume Haiku. From Blyth, Wright learned the history of the haiku form from its beginnings as the opening stanza in thirteenth-century Heian court poetry contests to its inception as a single, three-line, seventeen-syllable poem with Buddhistic, impressionistic, and/or realistic overtones. Attempting to capture the exact form of haiku, Wright reproduced the three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables and sought to include a seasonal reference, sometimes implicit, other times explicit. He also learned that Japanese haiku are classified by seasons and subjects. From Blyth, Wright also learned that haiku are loosely "syllogistic" because they present "step by step in each line, an independent but related image" although these relationships may not be overtly signaled (Kodama, "Japanese Influence" 66-67).

In addition to the external characteristics of haiku, Wright learned from his encounter with Blyth that concepts taken from Zen Buddhism often underlie the poems. Specifically, Wright became familiar with such Zen concepts as mu, "a state of nothingness that is absolutely free of any human-centered thought or emotion"; sabi, a quiet beauty or lonely grace; wabi, an aesthetic appreciation of beauty stemming from poverty; and yugen, the "mystery and inexplicability, which surround the order of the universe" (Hakutani 276-77, 280, 290), as well as the proper state of mind required to write haiku: a state of selflessness, a condition of rest and ease (Kodama, "Japanese Influence" 67).

Relying on this Zen foundation to contextualize Wright's haiku, a number of important Wright scholars seek to connect the haiku with flight, escape, and transcendence. An overview of the commentary will demonstrate what I feel has been an erroneous or at least misleading approach. …

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