WRIGHT OR WRONG?

The automatic statistics of this site tell me that frequently people come here hoping to see something illuminating about the “haiku” of Richard Wright — just why, I am not certain, given that this site favors hokku and generally considers “haiku” only a mutant degeneration of it.

Nonetheless, I suppose those visitors, given their frequency, should go away with something, so here are a few words about Richard Wright and his “haiku.”

The primary book for Wright’s verses is Haiku: This Other World (Arcade Publishing, 1998).  It oddly combines an anthology of his “haiku” with a considerable amount of historical information about what is really Japanese hokku, much of which does almost nothing to illuminate Wright’s verses.

The reason is, of course, that anyone reading the book from an historical perspective discovers very quickly that Wright had the same difficulties, and followed essentially the same course, as almost all those whose verses were written under the influence of R. H. Blyth’s works titled Haiku — works which were really largely about hokku.

In short, Wright followed the standard mid-20th century pattern of reading Blyth and then writing his own verses based upon a distorted Western view of Blyth’s translations — the result of unconsciously mixing one’s own Western preconceptions about poetry with the brevity of the hokku.

Wright’s “haiku” can largely be divided into these categories:

1.  Verses that are essentially brief “Western” poems;
2.  Poems written as variations or studies on Japanese hokku translated by Blyth;
3.  Poems written in a 5-7-5 syllabic pattern, which Wright somehow concluded was “standard” for his haiku in English;
4.  Verses written in a 5-5-5 syllabic pattern; and
5.  Verses written in an uneven syllabic pattern.

By examining a few of them, we get a very good picture of the whole of his work:

There are verses that are simply images:

Heaps of black cherries
Glittering with drops of rain
In the evening sun.

(One wonders if that was influenced by William Carlos Williams’ “red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens”).

The very first verse in the book is this:

I am nobody.
A red sinking sun
Took my name away.

It is not a hokku, so we shall have to put it in that vast and vague category of poems that look superficially like hokku but are not — ‘haiku.’  It is too personal, too “me” oriented for hokku.  Essentially it is a brief modern Western poem that would not even qualify as a “Shiki” haiku.  Structurally it consists of three lines, each of which has precisely five syllables.

We will find a great many of Wright’s verses are like this.  And that tells us a great deal about Wright’s approach to verse.  First and foremost, to repeat, it was the result of the unconscious mixture of Western notions of poetry with the brevity of the hokku, a problem endemic in the “haiku movement” of the second half of the 20th century.

As with most beginners in hokku, we find among Wright’s verses the usual, obviously Issa-inspired examples using the technique I call “talk to the animals”:

Make up your mind, snail!
You are half inside your house
And halfway out!

There is no real value in such verses, but one may suppose that through them Wright was experimenting, trying to find his way.  He obviously read a lot of Blyth, but of course as I often lament, Blyth left no clear and specific instructions for writing the hokku in English.  So all too often, his readers were unable to extract the principles of writing hokku in English from the matrix in which Blyth left them embedded in his writings, valuable as those writings are.  So it is no surprise that Wright was left looking about for a path.

Sometimes he detours into what looks like Issa-flavored senryu rather than hokku:

“Shut up you crickets!
How can I hear what my wife
Is saying to me?”

None of the verses given up to this point are hokku, nor are they worthwhile as “Western” verses in general.  But that does not mean Wright’s attempts at haiku are without value.  It just means that we have to sift the better examples out of all the inferior verses.

We find, for example, this:

A summer barnyard;
Swishing tails of twenty cows
Twitching at the flies.

That is hokku.  It is set in a season.  It has Nature as its focus.  And it is in two parts, a longer and a shorter.  Wright seems to have fixated on the predilection of that time for sequences of 5-7-5 syllables as the “right” standard for his verses, which led to a bit of padding, but nonetheless this verse qualifies as a real hokku, and even more importantly, it works as a hokku.   We could improve its form a bit, like this:

A summer barnyard;
The tails of twenty cows
Swishing flies.

But even left as it is, this verse by Wright qualifies as hokku.

One frequently wants to re-write his verses, to free them from the cage of 5-7-5, as in this example:

On winter mornings
The candle shows faint markings
Of the teeth of rats.

The hokku perception is obviously there, but again Wright’s reading of Blyth failed to provide him with the necessary technique that would have enabled him to reduce this  5-7-5 wordiness to its essentials, which we might do thus:

Faint marks
Of rat teeth on the candle;
The winter morning.

Here and there we find verses that essentially repeat an old Japanese hokku, for example Wright’s

The webs of spiders
Sticking to my face
In the dusty woods.

That is just a run-on rephrasing of Buson’s

Spider webs
Are hot things;
The summer grove.

And we note of course that Wright has returned here to his 5-5-5 syllable phrasing.

We find other Wright verses all too obviously based upon old hokku, but in doing so we may recall that such variations on old verses are a good way for beginners to learn.  Wright wrote:

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

That is a variation upon Bashō’s

Cold rain –
Enough to blacken the stubble
In the fields.

Another Wright verse is obviously influenced by Shiki:

That abandoned house,
With its yard of fallen leaves
In the setting sun.

A Shiki predecessor was:

A dog asleep
At the door of the empty house;
Falling willow leaves.

So we can see that Wright was heavily influenced by the material Blyth provided, even at times too obviously influenced by it.

One sees this influence repeatedly, sometimes for the worse, sometimes — as in this example, for the better:

Wright’s verse:

Burning autumn leaves,
I yearn to make the bonfire
Bigger and bigger.

One cannot but think that was inspired by Seibi’s  Japanese original:

Swatting flies,
I begin to think
Of Killing them all.

In Blyth’s version it is:

Killing flies,
I begin to wish
To annihilate them all.

Exactly the same feeling of starting small and feeling the urge to carry a matter to extremes.

The more one reads Wright’s “haiku,” the more one has the feeling that here was a man with the poetic sensibility to write excellent hokku, but because of the lack of suitable instruction he got lost in the early student phase, becoming mired there.  He never grasped sufficiently the importance of separating the two parts of a verse, nor of learning the underlying aesthetics.  So we can repeat a quick analysis:  Some of his verses are mere images; some are variations on old Japanese verses translated by Blyth; some are “modern” free verse poems with the brevity but not the substance of hokku or of Shiki’s “haiku.”

Sometimes Wright tries to be too “clever,” which is a failing of modern haiku in general, with its heavy emphasis on Western poetic notions:

In an old woodshed
The long points of icicles
Are sharpening the wind.

At times he strives too obviously and artificially for effect:

To see the spring sky,
A doll in a store window
Leans far to one side.

One could spend a great deal of time commenting on each verse in the book, looking for obvious antecedents in Blyth, noting where Wright, like almost the entire Western “haiku” movement, went wrong in unconsciously substituting his own preconceptions for the inherent aesthetics and techniques of the hokku and of the Shiki “haiku.”  Such an effort would be very enlightening in showing just how and how thoroughly Western haiku went astray in the middle of the 20th century, but it would also be rather disappointing and futile in that it is too late to correct Wright’s misperceptions and missteps, too late to give him the guidance he needed to rise to the level of old Japanese hokku instead of falling into common misunderstandings.

That is, fortunately, not the case with those still writing today.  But the problem in this case is finding those with the potential poetic intuition of a Richard Wright who are also humble enough to be willing to start over and do hokku the right way.

A great deal more could be said about the “haiku” of Richard Wright, and perhaps I shall have more to say when time permits.  But for now I shall only repeat that reading Wright’s “haiku” leaves one with the disappointing feeling of a potential unfulfilled due to lack of informed guidance, the same feeling one gets on reading the better examples of present day writers of “haiku,” who never quite understand what they are doing or why, and who consequently are always walking but never getting anywhere.

David

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