RICHARD WRIGHT: THE WRONG PATH TAKEN

In my previous posting I skimmed over the topic of Richard Wright and his attempts at writing what he called “haiku.”  Here I shall add just a bit to what was already said.

In my view Wright’s “haiku” are useful in demonstrating clearly how Western writers misperceived and misunderstood the hokku from their very first exposure, seeing it through the distorting lens of their Western preconceptions about poetry and poets. Consequently his “haiku,” represented by the volume Haiku: This Other World (Arcade Publishing, 1998) demonstrate how the Japanese hokku, written for centuries, became the “haiku” through its rather confused introduction to the West.

First of all, what is a hokku?  It is a short verse — in three lines in English, though generally one line in Japanese — expressing Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, in the context of the seasons.  It consists of two parts — a longer and a shorter — separated in English by appropriate punctuation.

Richard Wright was exposed to the hokku through the writings of Reginald Horace Blyth, who presented numerous translations of old hokku in his Haiku series, though he obviously and unfortunately used the anachronistic terminology of Shiki common in the Japan of his day.  Nonetheless, the larger part of what Blyth translated and commented upon was hokku, not the revisionistic and conservative “haiku” of Shiki, though Shiki was included in Blyth’s work.

It is important to repeat that when Richard Wright was exposed to the hokku (and conservative haiku) translations of Blyth, he unconsciously mixed what he was seeing with what he already knew of Western poetry, assuming parallels that existed only in his mind.  Consequently when Wright began to compose his own “haiku,” they were heavily influenced by what he was conditioned to think poetry should be, and so he did not see the hokku or the conservative haiku for what it really was.

The result, in the work of Wright and many other self-taught novice writers of the “new” haiku in the mid-20th century, was a hybrid verse that mixed the brief form of the hokku with what was often largely traditional “Western” poetic content.  That is the very simple means by which haiku got off on the wrong foot in the West and continues to misstep awkwardly to this day.

Wright’s “haiku” fall along a graduated scale ranging from verses that — by accident more than anything — may qualify as actual hokku, to verses that hybridize the two (hokku and Western poetry) in varying degrees, to verses that are entirely brief Western poems in substance, with only the brevity of the hokku remaining.

Here, for example, is a Wright “haiku” that has become entirely a Western poem in content, retaining only the shortness of the hokku and nothing of its substance:

Each ebbing sea wave
Makes pebbles glare at the moon,
Then fall back to sleep.

What Wright is really saying is that the successive waves of the withdrawing tide wet pebbles that first reflect back the bright moonlight (glare), then cease to reflect (sleep) as they again lose their watery shine.  But it is the way he says it that is the problem.  As a verse, it does exactly what hokku should not do, which is to mix the fantasy of the writer with reality.  In reality pebbles do not “glare,” nor do they sleep.  Such heavy use of what Wordsworth called the “coloring of the imagination” is, however, very characteristic of Western poetry, which is often heavily fantasy-imagination-based.

Another example of Western fantasy in Wright’s “haiku” is this:

Clutching from the trees,
Thick creepers are strangling clouds
In the lake’s bosom.

No Japanese writer of hokku would have written such a thing.  Again it is just Wright, representative of countless writers of Western “haiku,” smearing his imagination over reality, creating a brief Western poem, but not really a haiku as Shiki knew it, and certainly not a hokku.  Wright seems to have found it very difficult to just let things be as they are:

Every sandgrain
Of the vast sunlit desert
Hears the snake crawling.

Well, no it does not.  Sand grains do not hear.  But Wright must add what he thinks is his poetic imagination to the real poetry of Nature, and in doing so he repeatedly spoils a great many of his “haiku.”

A final example, and an extreme one, of Wright’s failure to understand that in hokku (and in “Shiki” haiku), reality should not be obscured by the writer’s fantasy:

What giant spider spun
That gleaming web of fire-escapes
On wet tenements?

Sadly, one repeatedly encounters such “fantasy” verses in the Wright anthology.  They are the result of an inherent preconception that reality in itself is not “poetic” enough, and must be enhanced by the addition of the writer’s “poetic” imagination.  It is a notion that is death to hokku, but very common in modern Western haiku — a hybrid verse form with little left in it of the hokku or the conservative haiku.

Wright did not understand that a hokku should be a manifestation of a season — something expressing the character of a season.  His use of obvious season, then, seems haphazard.  He assumed, as was and remains common among Western writers of “haiku,” that a haiku is simply an event.  He did not realize that such an event must have a deeply-felt unspoken significance, and so he wrote numbers of verses that leave the reader feeling “So what?”  Here is one of many:

In the July sun,
Three birds flew into a nest;
Only two came out.

Wright’s use of the season here in the word “July” is pointless, because the verse does not express the season.  It is just a random event, a random assemblage of elements.  It does not have the focus and coherence of a real hokku.

Wright sometimes falls victim to the pseudo-profundity syndrome that afflicted so many early Western writers of “haiku,” who thought they should make their verses “Zen-like.”  The result is verses such as:

Six cows are grazing;
The seventh stands near a fence
Staring into space.

Another:

The ocean in June:
Inhaling and exhaling
But never speaking.

And another example of pseudo-profundity:

A cathedral bell
Dimming the river water
In the autumn dusk.

As mentioned in my previous posting on Wright, he wrote many verses that are simply obvious variations on old Japanese hokku, verses recognized by anyone with a knowledge of the traditional hokku repertoire:

Among these “imitations” are:

In a dank basement
A rotting sack of barley
Swells with sprouting grain

That is based on this Japanese original by Buson:

Bags of seeds
Getting soaked;
Spring rain.

The large numbers of people visiting my site hoping to find something about Richard Wright and his “haiku” will likely be disappointed to read that in my view, Wright never really understood the hokku or the “Shiki” haiku, and consequently his work, when viewed in the context of hokku and of conservative haiku, does not go beyond the experimental student stage.  That he is so often used as an exemplar of “haiku” by teachers in elementary and high schools simply demonstrates that those teachers do not really understand what Wright was doing — and not doing.   And because they lack a background in hokku and an historical understanding of the origins of the Western “haiku,” they are unable to evaluate him objectively, and so spread this misevaluation of his verses among their students.

Wright’s “haiku,” falls between two stools, as the Germans say:  it is neither hokku nor “Shiki” haiku, nor is it for the most part even good as Western poetry.  Like much of modern haiku, it is an odd aberration, a reaching for something that Wright, lacking the technical and aesthetic knowledge, was not able to attain, though one nonetheless sees in his attempts a potential that was to remain unfulfilled.  That is due to his failure to understand the aesthetic point behind both the hokku and the “Shiki” haiku, and so he replaced it with a false point derived from what he already knew of Western poetry — something also characteristic of the great bulk of modern haiku, which follows in a similarly confused and erratic tradition.

 

David

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