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Five Haikus
By Richard Wright


Poet's Choice

By Robert Hass
April 11, 1999

Here's a surprise, a book of haiku written in his last years by the fierce and original American novelist Richard Wright. Wright changed American literature by writing books – "Native Son," "Black Boy" – about the fact that poverty, discrimination and hopelessness are not necessarily a formula for producing virtuous citizens. He wrote (especially in "Native Son," the novel that brought him to public attention and became an unexpected bestseller in 1940) about the consequences of racism with an angry exactness that took readers – black and white – by surprise.

After the success of "Native Son," Wright moved to France and bought a farm in Normandy. His life there was part exile and part expatriation. He escaped the daily humiliations of living with American apartheid, made friends with French writers like Sartre and Camus, and followed from a distance the controversy that continued to swirl about his reputation in the United States. It was in this context that, during the last 18 months of his life, Wright discovered haiku. From the summer of 1959 until his death in late 1960, he studied the form and wrote, according to his editor, 4,000 poems. And then he put together a collection, "Haiku: This Other World," which has only now been published in its entirety by Arcade in New York.

What an outpouring! Wright's way with the form was to keep strictly to the syllable count of the Japanese tradition – five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables. Many of the poems seem to be imitating and trying out Japanese ideas, applying them to the French countryside or to the remembered rural Mississippi of his childhood. Others try to bring the form to urban themes. Others – the most original – reach into the pulse of his own life. The first poem in the book suggests why the form was so useful to him:

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

It lifted away from him for a moment his writer's vita, his radical's dossier, the fury of a life of literary controversy, and gave him permission to be, to look:

I give permission
For this slow spring rain to soak
The violet beds.

Many of the poems seem to be about paying attention, what the haiku form is so much about:

With a twitching nose
A dog reads a telegram
On a wet tree trunk.

Some of them look back on his own life and also seem to absorb into him his own mortality:

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

That poem must be about aging, but it also has to pun on the angry black man Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of "Native Son." Enough commentary. Here is one more:

A sleepless spring night:
Yearning for what I never had
And for what never was.

From "Haiku: This Other World," by Richard Wright

(Arcade, 1998)

Robert Hass, former U.S. poet laureate, is the author, most recently, of the collection "Sun Under Wood."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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