“Branches Without Roots” — But Full of Flowers
Upon his death at the age of 52 in Paris on Nov. 28, 1960, Richard Wright, author and subject of Black Boy, left a literary legacy of novels, short stories, essays, and poetry. Part of his poetic legacy is the haiku — a specialized form of Japanese poetry that consists of three lines with a 5-7-5 syllabic structure — more than 4,000 of which he wrote over the last 18 months of his life.
Haiku: This Other World is a collection of the 817 he most preferred. The book displays Wright’s versatility with poetic form and is a call to scholars of African American culture. And in keeping with this particular form of art, the poetry emphasizes, among other things, beauty, changing seasons, oneness with nature, and the revelations that nature inspires. Take, for instance, “Haiku 446”:
“Sleepy bumble bees
Buzzing about plum blossoms
In the setting sun”
Notable aspects of this poem are its reference to spring (plum blossoms), harmony between the bees and the blossoms, onomatopoeia (a poetic device in which a word represents the sound that it makes, such as the word “buzzing”), sibilance (repetition of the “s” sound, as in “sleepy” and “setting sun”), and alliteration (repetition of an initial consonant sound, as in “bumble bees” and “buzzing … blossoms”).
Analysis of this sort is necessary and is found in the “Notes” and “Afterword” of the book. But what is missing, however, is any discussion of Wright’s poems in relation to works produced by other African American writers. For example, Wright’s haiku on bees, plum blossoms, and the horizon beg comparison to the poetry of Jean Toomer. Toomer’s 1923 effort, Cane, is a literary snapshot of prose and verse singing out the final days of a smal, rural African American community in Georgia.
Likewise, some of Wright’s poems are also reminiscent of the opening pages of Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. In that novel, love and rebirth are represented by bees buzzing around a pear tree, and the horizon represents lead character Janie’s connection with nature and self.
Haiku is presented as the literary final gasps of a poet. Wright’s daughter, Julia, declares in the “Introduction” that the poems mourn the passing of his mother and announce his own impending death. Moreover, she says that the shortness of the lines “matched the shortness of his breath … [and] enabled him to reach out to the Black boy part of himself still stranded in the South that continued to live in his dreams.”
Wright’s autobiographical “Haiku 647” was read by Julia at her father’s funeral.
“Burning out its time
And timing its own burning,
One lonely candle.”
The image of a life presaging and proclaiming its own imminent death is reminiscent of Paul Laurence Dunbar, who, like Wright, suffered a debilitating chronic illness and died at an early age. Dunbar also wrote poetry about his impending death.
Some of Wright’s themes are also found in the poetry of Arna Bontemps. For instance, Wright’s image of a bell tolling in “Haiku 13” mirrors Bontemps’ bell tolling in the poem “Idolatry.”
And while most of Wright’s poems concern aspects of African American southern heritage — peach blossoms, turnips, trains, cotton, sugar cane, childless mothers (a twist on the African American spiritual “Motherless Child”) magnolia trees, blacksmiths’ hammers, and crows, to name a few — a comparison to the urban-centered poetry of Langston Hughes is unavoidable. Take “Haiku 253, “for example, which parallels Hughes’ famous use of the blues as theme and form in poetry:
From a tenement,
The blue jazz of a trumpet
Weaving autumn mists
In fairness to Yoshinobu Hakutani and Robert L. Tener, the book’s editors, the “Afterword” does provide a necessary and detailed overview of Haiku tradition in Japan and a comparison between Wright and Japanese poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), whose interest in depicting the lives of everyday people predated and paralleled Wright’s. Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens are also mentioned as American poets who experimented with haiku form. And, it briefly connects Wright’s philosophies on the Ashanti and Zen Buddhism.
The “Afterword” also makes a few brief comparisons between haiku themes that appeared in Wright’s previously published prose. But curiously, the editors make no effort to show examples of African American poetry written by artists other than Wright. Nor do they discuss the aesthetics of African American poetry. In their effort to emphasize the universality of Wright’s poems, they show “branches without roots,” as Hurston would say. The universal quality of much of Wright’s works stem from his determination to render the specifics of setting and African American life.
In collecting Wright’s Haiku, the editors make a significant step towards a fuller understanding of the man who wrote them. Wright’s haiku may best be described as condensed moments of revelation, utilizing a decidedly Afro-Asian approach and fully informed by painfully personal and studied aspects of African American life. Haiku: This Other World beckons to scholars of African American culture to claim and further contextualize Wright’s poetry.
— Dr. Lisa Pertillar Brevard is the director of the Master of Arts in English program at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
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