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

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:

A winter morning;
Marks of rat teeth
On the candle.

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