Global Haiku
Millikin University, November 2014

Danette Beach on Richard Wright

Danette Beach

Danette's Haiku



Richard Wright's Haiku

by Danette R. Beach

Richard Wright, (1908-1960) was an African American author who wrote Haiku during the last 18 months of his life during his self-imposed exile in Paris, France. This collection of 817 haiku titled, Haiku: This Other World, was published after his death. According to his daughter, Julia Wright, who wrote the introduction to this book, Richard Wright was ill with "amebic dysentery." She believed his writing of haiku was a "self-developed antidote against illness, and that breaking down words into syllables matched the shortness of his breath, especially on the bad days when his inability to sit up at the typewriter restricted the very breadth of writing" (Wright, p. viii). Richard Wright's style of haiku is the Japanese 5-7-5 syllable pattern.

Richard Wright wrote 16 books including, Native Son and Black Boy. Although living a life of exile in France, many of his haiku poems tells of his origins in America. There are many quiet and peaceful haiku poems using traditional Japanese haiku objects such as nature but also some reflect his experiences as a black boy in the American south. Richard Wright grew up poor and hungry. As told by his daughter, Julia, Richard Wright also experienced social upheavals as a writer when conducting research on racial tensions on U.S. Army bases. He himself became a political victim during the cold war years which undoubtedly led to his departure from the U.S. Julia quotes her father's letter to a friend, Margrit de Sabloniere, on March 30, 1960, "So far as the Americans are concerned, I'm worse than a Communist, for my work falls like a shadow across their policy in Asia and Africa."

The first haiku poem in this collection speaks volumes about Richard Wright's feelings:

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

Wright, HTOW, 1

However, outside of the first haiku in this collection, one senses that these haiku are a reflection of his memories in America and his experiences in the south. His daughter stated that Richard carried his haiku journal with him everywhere he went, "at all hours" (Wright, Introduction). This strikes a familiar chord of references to Matsuo Basho and his many travels to distant towns and his development into a master haiku poet. Richard Wright composed 4000 haiku. This essay examines haiku poems that illustrate his keen observance of man and nature in unity and simplicity. There are some that observe the frailty of life. His haiku poems have simplistic themes that show his passion for the craft of writing haiku Japanese form of poetry.

As a matching comparison author, I chose George Swede (1940-). George Swede was born in Riga, Latvia. He grew up in British Columbia and has lived in Canada since 1947. The matching comparison is taken from George Swede's collection of haiku, Almost Unseen: Selected Haiku of George Swede, edited by Randy M. Brooks. George Swede's haiku does not employ the 5-7-5 syllable pattern. He does not follow the dictates of three lines and 17 syllables. He creates a sense of awe with very few words. His haiku reflect piercing insights that stimulate the imagination and leaves a sense of lingering wonder.

Richard Wright and George Swede are compelling haiku writers in maturity and depth. They both have experiences that deal with serious issues of life. The Wright collection of 4,000 haiku poems are deposited in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Richard Wright's haiku can strike the emotions with visual clarity and the quiet observations and enjoyment of nature as seen in the first haiku selected for study below.

Just enough snow
For a boy's finger to write
His name on the porch.

Wright, HTOW, 9

The object of this haiku is snow which the author uses to create an atmosphere of wonder. Richard Wright gives all the details of the scene, but it sets off a response of how thin the layer of snow is. It is not a lot of snow – just enough to write one's name. This haiku uses nature links that entices the imagination into a small scene: the light snowfall, touching the snow, the feel of the snow beneath a finger, the solid background of a wooden porch to support a word written in snow. It is very interesting and it engages the visual and tactile senses in a wintry atmosphere. It is a simple scene and in its essence is unique to the outdoors. One cannot write their name in the snow inside a house. It follows the haiku tradition of enlightenment that occurs when one connects with nature.

In a misty rain
A butterfly is riding
The tail of a cow.

Wright, HTOW, 5

This haiku uses a butterfly as the object. It creates interest because of the movement. It takes keen observation to create a scene such as this – especially in the misty rain! This is not something that I have experienced but it makes one wonder. One's imaginary eye can see the misty rain. It is soft and quiet. And a butterfly that is allowing the tail of a cow to transport it when it can fly on its own makes one's mind leap at the curiosity of the scene. It is a scenic haiku that shows that engages ranges – broad to close views of the scene from one link to the next. Under ordinary circumstances, one would hardly notice the tail of a cow!

The creeping shadow
Of a gigantic oak tree
Jumps over the wall.

Wright, HTOW, 179

the fisherman's shadow stretches
across the river

Swede, AU, 106

Richard Wright's haiku is a scene that uses the words to signify truly how big the shadow is and also its strength – "oak tree." It is a scene in nature that makes one pause and to take notice. In a recent PACE class, Biology of Birds, with Dr. Horn, the class took weekly bird walks. There were two walks I distinctly remember where I took notice of the trees as well as the birds. Tall trees are majestic and this haiku links the ability to imagine the shadow of this tall tree looming over a wall. A wall in itself is a tall structure but the shadow of the gigantic oak jumps over it! This haiku shows movement of a tree in a powerful way. The use of the word "creeping" gives one the sense of a little scary and dark.

In comparison, George Swede's haiku uses his "fisherman's shadow" to connect man with nature. Use of the word "sunrise" depicts early morning and partners well with the word "stretches" as one does upon rising out of bed in the morning. The use of words such as "fisherman's" and "river" are related and fit well into the haiku. It creates a narrative scene that is easy on the imagination and very peaceful. The fisherman is early on the lake and will stay as long as the fish are biting!

Midnight is striking:
In a cold drizzle of rain
Two men are parting.

Wright, HTOW, 19

This haiku creates a narrative scene that is cold and dark and foreboding. The words create impact. This takes place at midnight perhaps the end of a meeting where the two men have spoken and struck a deal on arranged plans. It sounds ominous. Men do not meet at midnight in the cold in the rain unless they do not want to be seen or are making secret plans. This haiku perhaps creates a sense of danger. The middle link pulls the first and third lines together and it heightens the mood at "midnight." There is word play using "striking" and "parting." This haiku creates tension in line one that leaves a sense of foreboding and because of this I do not feel the tension is resolved.

The path in the woods
Is barred by spider webs
Beaded with spring rain

Wright, HTOW, 19

This is a haiku that starts off with a broad scope in line one and narrows to a fine point at the end. Line one uses words that show the big picture -- "The path in the woods." One can visualize a path in the distance. Line two takes one's imagination a shot closer as when spotting a spider web before approaching it. The last line narrows the scope finely. To notice the beads of rain drops on a spider web requires a very fine sense of observation – also as when one get very close to the web. It is a very natural haiku that can be experienced on any walk in the woods. Who wants to suddenly walk into a spider web! It makes one feel wary and it feels natural at the same time.

It is not the sun,
But the spring rain that beats loose
The rose's petals.

Wright, HTOW, 18

This is a pleasant haiku where Richard Wright imposes his view on nature and the rose petals. I do notice myself that when I am watering flowers, I contribute to petal detachment. It is an interesting use of rain and the result of its forcefulness. Rose petals are soft and delicate and water is a powerful element. Given some thought of when the two combine, it is easy to see the rose petal will eventually give way in time. This is interesting as flowers need sunlight and water to grow, the bud blooms, loses it petals, and restarts the cycle again. More sun, more rain . . .

A bloody knife blade
Is being licked by a cat
At hog-killing time.

Wright, HTOW, 8

This is a compelling haiku in its visual shock with each line. Haiku links should stand on its own and this is the case for lines one and three. The object of this haiku is to create tension and it truly does. Lines one and two are the tension links and it is resolved in line three but there is a lingering sense of shock because one's imagination realizes it is only a sideshow, a smaller part of a bigger whole – the hog killing. Richard Wright's unique experiences in the south are reflected in this haiku.

Venturing outdoors,
The children walk timidly,
Respecting the snow.

Wright, HTOW, 9

This haiku creates an atmosphere of children held obedience to the presence of snow. Lines one and two demonstrates desire to experience the snow and their manner of walking signifies their respect for nature's beauty of snow. They do not want to destroy or disturb it. One can sense the children want to enjoy the snow for as long as possible. This is a narrative scene about nature's wonder and beauty of snow. Considering how infrequently it would snow in the south, Richard Wright expresses the wonderment of this fleeting and rare occurrence in nature.

Sun is glinting on
A washerwoman's black arms
In cold creek water.

Wright, HTOW, 15

In this haiku Richard Wright presents social status and one can visualize this washerwoman at work. This haiku could very well been an observation of Richard Wright's mother or a scene regularly noticed in the south. During his childhood era in the south, this was a common occupation for women in the south. Richard Wright uses words in line one that signifies the hardness of the task – "sun is glinting on" and "black arms" brings one into stark awareness of social status. I have researched my family history and one of the stories passed down is about my great-great-grandmother being a washerwoman as a slave. In another story, her daughter, my great-grandmother earned a living washing clothes. My uncle retold the story of long cotton sacks filled with laundry. This is a hard task. I think Richard Wright signifies this using words such as "glinting" and "black arms" and noting the coldness of the water. From my family history, I intuitively understand this haiku as it brings together the washerwoman and the utilitarian needs of the creek for cleaning without mentioning dirty clothes. Richard Wright does a good job of describing the scene without mentioning the task of cleaning.

A bursting ripe plum
Forms a pool upon a leaf
From which sparrows drink.

Wright, HTOW, 12

In this haiku Richard Wright demonstrates progression in an active narrative scene. This is a seasonal link from the ripeness of plums – late spring to early summer. One's imagination is stimulated at the thought of nature working so readily together to provide a drink for the sparrow. Use of the word "bursting" gives thoughts of a juicy and sweet plum. It ends well in that bird does not have to work hard for this pleasant delight. How often does this happen? This is a narrative scene from Richard Wright's southern background. My father grows plum trees – several of them on his land. He has often told me how there are just too many to pick in June and they often fall to the ground. My father makes plum wine but there are so many plums left over. What a treat for animals to benefit from the bounty of a plum tree.

From the scarecrow's sleeve
A tiny green leaf unfolds
On an oaken arm.

Wright, HTOW, 27

This haiku demonstrates a simple scene in nature that creates curiosity and wonder. I certainly would not care to venture close to a scarecrow but it is interesting to see how nature "unfolds." This oaken arm obviously is still part of a rooted tree.

On the pond's bottom
The faint shadow of a fish
Flitting on white sand.

Wright, HTOW, 26

Richard Wright demonstrates depth and action in this narrative scene. It is a view from top looking downward until one's eye reaches the bottom of the pond. It is interesting because one usually looks across the pond. This haiku moves the reader's eye down to the very bottom. At the bottom there is action of a fish living in his natural habitat. This haiku is likable for many reasons. I have rarely read haiku that delves into observation of fish in the water. This introduces the reader to visualize from a different perspective.

Quickly vanishing,
The first drops of summer rain
On an old wood door.

Wright, HTOW, 26

The first line of this haiku draws the reader in. Curious at reading the words, "Quickly vanishing," one immediately looks forward to the next line. Line two is very subtle. Finally reading line three, one looks back to line one and two. It is a juxtaposition that flows together in nature. One intuitively realizes the summer heat and old wood contribute to the rain drops vanishing. This is a simple haiku – an observation in nature for the reader to interpret as a bystander and to understand as a summer occurrence.

With shy yellow smiles,
Baby pumpkins are hiding
Under yellow leaves.

Wright, HTOW, 28

This is a seasonal haiku depicting early growth of pumpkins. The color of the leaves seems to indicate the changing season. The color "yellow" ties the lines together. Richard Wright diverts to a more Westernized haiku form of writing using "personification" and giving human attributes to the pumpkin. "Shy yellow smiles" has an endearing effect and double use of the word "yellow" reinforces brightness and warmth. Line three shows the nature of leaves in the form of protection until the pumpkins are mature enough to stand out on its own.

Crying and crying,
Melodious strings of geese
Passing a graveyard.

Wright, HTOW, 30

In this haiku Richard Wright uses juxtaposition of the "Crying, crying" of the geese as they fly over a graveyard. It is a curious collision of connecting the sounds of geese with the solemnness of a graveyard. Line two stimulates a visual image of the geese in flight – melodious yet, this is also a word commonly used in reference to song. It is as if the geese are having a mournful moment while traveling over the graveyard.

A spring pond as calm
As the lips of the dead girl
Under its water.

Wright, HTOW, 35

This haiku has many devices. It is calm in nature in line one which draws the reader in who unsuspectingly gets a shock after reading lines two and three. It is a progression haiku that creates an atmosphere one would not want to encounter. There is tension created and line three does not create any relief. There is a shocking impact between nature and the girl. There are emotion links that create an atmosphere that gets sadder and sadder.

A wounded sparrow
Sinks in clear cold lake water,
Its eyes still open.

Wright, HTOW, 36

dead roadside deer
a snowflake melts
on its open eye

Swede, AU, 105

This haiku by Richard Wright also creates an atmosphere that makes the reader pause. There is a sense of sadness. A reader can visualize the death of the bird as it is being engulfed by water – and soon to be forgotten and out of sight. Using words such as "cold lake water" builds the scene and shows vulnerability for the wounded sparrow as it faces death and all one can do is watch. Perhaps this is Richard Wrights personal perspective on life since this haiku was written during his illness. His life was in the fleeting stage looking back through the lens of his deteriorating health. Although a literary success, Richard Wright's life was fragile and he had experienced many bad turns and difficulties.

In comparison, George Swede's haiku also creates an atmosphere of sadness, abandonment, and vulnerability. The reader intuitively understands the horrific death – presumably road collision – has occurred but these lines reveal the visualization of death in its stillness. The deer is left to die and nature continues on. It is a piercing view in the minute detail of the snowflake melting on the deer's open eye.

Both haiku have many layers to it, making the reader reflect on the obvious and think about the moments leading up to the scene. It leaves a lingering sense of the fragility of life which, considering the background of both authors, it is easy to understand their ability to write this haiku. It also make one contemplate the sense of sadness and abandonment. Perhaps this is a reflection of the authors experiencing and/or seeing life's disappointments.

Beyond a railroad,
A river and a sunset
In the April rain.

Wright, HTOW, 42

This haiku brings a reader back to traditional haiku moments. Line three uses a season word. Lines one and two makes the reader take a distant view past the object in line one to focus on objects in line two – the river and the sunset. This is a haiku that demonstrates visual movement to focus on objects in nature that create an atmosphere of peace and tranquility. This is authentic haiku in the observation of stillness.

• • •

Works Cited Page

Wright, R. (1998). Haiku: This Other World. New York: Arcade Publishing.

Swede, G. (2000). Almost Unseen: Selected Haiku of George Swede. Decatur, IL: Brooks Books.

© 2014 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors
last updated: December 10, 2014