Terebess Asia Online (TAO)


Richard Wright's self portrait outside Normandy, France, circa 1959.

Haiku Poems
by Richard Wright
From "Haiku: This Other World", 1998
Selected for Hungarian translation by Gabor Terebess

Richard Wright (1908-1960) by Ty Hadman
Female Images in Richard Wright’s Haiku: This Other World by Shawnrece D. Miller

Hakutani, Yoshinobu. "Nature, Haiku, and 'This Other World'."
Richard Wright's Unpublished Haiku: A World Elsewhere by Floyd Ogburn, Jr.

Richard Wright (1908-1960), one of the early forceful and eloquent spokesmen for black Americans, author of "Native Son," and "Black Boy", was also, it turns out, a major poet. During the last eighteen months of his life, he discovered and became enamored of haiku, the strict seventeen-syllable Japanese form. Wright became so excited about the discovery that he began writing his own haiku, in which he attempted to capture, through his sensibility as an African American, the same Zen discipline and beauty in depicting man's relationship, not to his fellow man as he had in his fiction, but to nature and the natural world.

In all, he wrote over 4,000 haiku, from which he chose, before he died, the 817 he preferred. Rather than a deviation from his self-appointed role as spokesman for black Americans of his time, Richard Wright's haiku, disciplined and steeped in beauty, are a culmination: not only do they give added scope to his work but they bring to it a universality that transcends both race and color without ever denying them.

Wright wrote his haiku obsessively--in bed, in cafes, in restaurants, in both Paris and the French countryside. His daughter Julia believes, quite rightly, that her father's haiku were "self-developed antidotes against illness, and that breaking down words into syllables matched the shortness of his breath." They also offered the novelist and essayist a new form of expression and a new vision: with the threat of death constantly before him, he found inspiration, beauty, and insights in and through the haiku form. The discovery and writing of haiku also helped him come to terms with nature and the earth, which in his early years he had viewed as hostile and equated with suffering and physical hunger. Fighting illness and frequently bedridden, deeply upset by the recent loss of his mother, Ella, Wright continued, as his daughter notes, "to spin these poems of light out of the gathering darkness."



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


Keep straight down this block,
Then turn right where you will find
A peach tree blooming.


Make up you mind, Snail!
You are half inside your house,
And halfway out!


You moths must leave now;
I am turning out the light
And going to sleep.


All right, You Sparrows;
The sun has set and you can now
Stop your chattering!


Sparrow's excrement
Becomes quickly powdery
On sizzling pavements.


The dog's violent sneeze
Fails to rouse a single fly
On his mangy back.


On winter mornings
The candle shows faint markings
Of the teeth of rats.


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


The webs of spiders
Sticking to my sweaty face
In the dusty woods.


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


In the falling snow
A laughing boy holds out his palms
Until they are white.


One magnolia
Landed upon another
In the dew-wet grass.


As the sun goes down,
a green melon splits open
And juice trickles out.


A sparrow's feather
On a barb of rusty wire
In the sizzling heat.


Sleety rain at night
Seasoning swelling turnips
With a tangy taste.


Heaps of black cherries
Glittering with drops of rain
In the evening sun.


The day is so long
That even noisy sparrows
Fall strangely silent.


Spring begins shyly
With one hairpin of green grass
In a flower pot.


An apple blossom
Trembling on a sunlit branch
From the weight of bees.


Leaving its nest,
The sparrow sinks a second,
Then opens its wings.


Like a fishhook,
The sunflower's long shadow
Hovers in the lake.


In the setting sun,
Each tree bud is clinging fast
To drying raindrops.


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


The crow flew so fast
That he left his lonely caw
Behind in the fields.


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


One autumn evening
A stranger enters a village
And passes on through.


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


Amidst the flowers
A China clock is ticking
In the dead man's room.


With indignation
A little girl spanks her doll, –
The sound of spring rain.


The scarecrow's old hat
Was flung by the winter wind
Into a graveyard.


Coming from the woods,
A bull has a lilac sprig
Dangling from a horn.


The summer moonlight
Gleams upon a blacksmith's forge,
And cools red embers.


All the city's bells
Clang deafeningly this midnight,
Frightening the New Year!


No birds are flying;
The tree leaves are still as stone, –
An autumn evening.


In an old woodshed
The long points of icicles
Are sharpening the wind.


Little boys tossing
Stones at a guilty scarecrow
In a snowy field.


Standing patiently,
The horse grants the snowflakes
A home on his back.


Tossing all day long,
The cold sea now sleeps deeply
On a bed of stars.


A silent spring wood:
A crow opens its sharp beak
And creates a sky.


A cock's shrill crow
Is driving the spring dawn stars
From out of the sky.


From the skyscraper,
All the bustling streets converge
Towards a spring sea.


While plowing the earth,
All my crows are visiting
A neighboring farm.


Surely that spring moon,
So yellow and so fragile,
Will crack on a cloud!


Holding too much rain,
The tulip stoops and spills it,
Then straightens again.


Like a spreading fire,
Blossoms leap from tree to tree
In a blazing spring.


The sudden thunder
Startles the magnolias
To a deeper white.


Leaving the doctor,
The whole world looks different
this autumn morning.


I almost forgot
To hang up an autumn moon
Over the mountain.


They smelt like roses;
But when I put on the light,
They were violets.


A freezing morning:
I left a bit of my skin
On the broomstick handle.


A spring sky so clear
That you feel you are seeing
Into tomorrow.


A balmy spring wind
Reminding me of something
I cannot recall.


I feel autumn rain
Trying to explain something
I do not want to know.


A lakeshore circus:
An elephant trumpeting
Waves on blue water.


The Christmas season:
A whore is painting her lips
Larger than they are.


While she undresses,
A spring moon touches her breasts
For seven seconds.


The baby's hiccough
Dies down and the hum of flies
Fills the sunny room.


A peg-legged man
Stumps about in the garden,
Pruning the roses.


The first day of spring:
The servant wears her blonde hair
In a new manner.


A valley village
Lies in the grip of moonlight:
How lonely it is.


In a light spring rain
An old woman is spitting
Into a handkerchief.


A dead mouse floating
Atop a bucket of cream
In the dawn spring light.


In this rented room
One more winter stands outside
My dirty window pane.


My cigarette glows
Without my lips touching it, —
A steady spring breeze.


Settling on the screen
Of the crowded movie house,
A white butterfly.


An empty sickbed:
An indented white pillow
In weak winter sun.


While crows are cawing,
Poppies are dutifully
Deepening their red.


A nude fat woman
Stands over a kitchen stove,
Tasting applesauce.


A washerwoman
Dyes a tub of water blue, –
The sunlit spring wind!


In a barbershop
The stench of soap and hair, –
A hot summer day!


The green cockleburs
Caught in the thick wooly hair
Of the black boy's head.


I am paying rent
For the lice in my cold room
And the moonlight too.


Entering my town
In a heavy fall of snow,
I feel a stranger.


I have lost my way
In a strange town at night, –
A sky of old cold stars.


On a bayonet,
And beyond the barbs of wire, –
a spring moon at dawn.


Shut in the ice box,
A cricket chirps sleepily
In an alien winter.


At a funeral,
Strands of filmy spider webs
On coffin flowers.


The sport stadium:
Every seat is taken
By whirling snowflakes.


Across the table cloth,
Ants are dragging a dead fly
In the evening sun.


Creamy plum blossoms:
Once upon a time there was
A pretty princess...


Just enough of snow
To make you look carefully
At familiar streets.


The arriving train
All decorated with snow
From another town.


My shadow was sad
When I took it from the sand
Of the gleaming beach.


A small spring island
Is being measured by a
Ribbon of ship smoke.


The summer rainstorm
Drenches chickens in the fields,
Making them smaller.


So cold it is now
That the moon is frozen fast
To a pine tree limb.


The big light in the fog
Was but a little lantern
When we came to it.


In this tiny pond
The great big lake in which
I swam as a boy?


From across the lake,
Past the black winter trees,
Faint sounds of a flute.


Amid the daisies
Even the idiot boy
Has a dignity.


My cold and damp feet
Feel as distant as the moon
On this autumn night.


A limping sparrow
Leaves on a white window sill
Lacy tracks of blood.


In a damp attic,
Spilling out grains of sawdust,
A wounded rag doll.


For six dark dank years,
A doll with a Christmas smile
In an old shoe box.


A sick cat seeks out
A stiff and frozen willow
Under which to die.


Sitting in spring rain,
Two forgotten rag dolls,
Their feet in water.


The blindman stumbles,
Pauses, then walks slower
Into the autumn night.


A slow creeping snail;
Moments later I could not
See it anywhere.


As the popcorn man
Is closing up his wagon,
snow begins to fall.


While plucking the goose,
A feather flew wildly off
To look for snowflakes.


The snowball I threw
Was caught in a net of flakes
And wafted away.


High above the ship
On which immigrants sail,
Are departing geese.


The caw of a crow:
On a distant summer field
Goes a silent train.


An empty seashore:
Taking a long summer with it,
A departing train.


In my sleep at night,
I keep pounding an anvil
Heard during the day.


Burning out its time,
And timing its own burning,
One lonely candle.


The naked mountains,
Washing themselves in spring rain
As green fields look on.


That sparrow bent dawn,
Its head tucked beneath its wing, –
Sewing a button?


A leaf chases wind
Across an autumn river
And shakes a pine tree.


A flood of spring rain
Searching into drying grasses
Finds a lost doll.


A darting sparrow
Startles a skinny scarecrow
Back to watchfulness.


The scarecrow's big sleeves
Advertising in the sun:
Huge, red tomatoes!


With solemnity
The magpies are dissecting
A cat's dead body.


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


As my anger ebbs,
The spring stars grow bright again
And the wind returns.


From the cherry tree
To the roof of the red barn,
A cloud of sparrows flew.


In the summer sun,
Near an empty whiskey bottle,
A sleeping serpent.


In the burning sun,
A viper's tongue is nudging
A cigarette butt.


Droning autumn rain:
A boy lines up toy soldiers
For a big battle.


Standing in the snow,
A horse shifts his heavy haunch
Slowly to the right.


On my trouser leg
Are still a few strands of fur
From my long dead cat.


Empty autumn sky:
The bright circus tents have gone,
Taking their music.


From the dark still pines,
Not a breath of autumn wind
To ripple the lake.


I cannot find it,
That very first violet
Seen from my window.


This autumn evening
Is full of an empty sky
And one empty road.


Around the tree trunk,
A kitten's paw is flicking
At an absent mouse.


A tolling church bell:
A rat rears in the moonlight
And stares at the steeple.


Why did this spring wood
Grow so silent when I came?
What was happening?




Ty Hadman
RICHARD WRIGHT (1908-1960)

Ask someone who has read haiku if they can name any female Japanese haiku poets besides Chiyo. The answer you will get almost every time is a blank stare. What does that have to do with the selection for this month's poet profile? Maybe nothing, but now ask this same "someone" if they know of any Afro-American haiku poets. Did you get another blank look? I won't, though I am tempted, ask you to ask about Hispanics or other minorities.

Many people are quite surprised when they discover that the author of books such as Native Son, Black Boy, Black Power, White Man, Listen!, American Hunger, Rite of Passage, etc. also wrote haiku poetry. It is even more startling when it is learned that he wrote over 4,000 haiku! Many haiku poets that have been writing for 20 or 30 years have not written that many, and yet Wright accomplished that amazing feat in less than one!

Wright was first introduced to haiku during the last year or two of his life. Haiku became the calm eye within during this stormy period marked by a series of traumatic and chaotic events. His mother Ella, who he had written of so emotionally in Black Boy and who had given him the kind of childhood in Mississippi of which he had so many fond memories, died in January, 1959. That same month, the French writer Albert Camus, who Wright highly admired, died in an auto accident. The year before, his favorite editor and a good friend, Ed Aswell, also died. After his mother's death, Wright sold his retreat in Ailly, Normandy, moving his family off the farm from where they had lived during the previous 12 years, to England so that he could be near his close friend, "Uncle" George, who he had excitedly been making plans with for another trip to Africa in the up-coming months. They never made the journey. George Padmore died unexpectedly in September, 1959. To add to his grief and difficulties, the British Passport Office turned down his immigration application, so he had to return with his family to France where he had been living in self-exile.

Wright was working during this period on a book, titled Island of Hallucination, that never got finished. The material he was gathering for this book centered around racial tensions on Army bases in Europe. The U.S. government was using counterintelligence tactics and Wright was one of the radical black expatriates being targeted. Perhaps it should also be mentioned that this was a particularly sensitive time for the American government. France had been fighting in Vietnam for several years and was losing the war. Secret high level discussions were being conducted on possible future U.S. involvement in the case of a French withdrawal.

Besides all this grief and tension and on the top of dwindling finances, Wright spent 12 of the last 18 months of his life in a grueling battle recovering from amobic dysentery.

It was amidst the backdrop of all this grief, suffering, fear, chaos and uncertainty that Wright was introduced to haiku in the summer of 1959 when he borrowed R. H. Blyth's four volumes of Haiku from a young South African and began his intensive research of the Japanese masters.

By March of 1960, Wright went into high gear composing haiku. During the final months of his life, he practically lived and breathed haiku, always carrying his haiku binder with him under his arm everywhere he went. He wrote haiku in Parisian cáfes and restaurants; in Le Moulin d' Anduve, a writing community in the French countryside; but many, like Shiki, were written while he was bedridden during his period of convalescence.

In Paris, he transferred his poems written on paper napkins to sheets of paper and then hung them up on long metal rods and strung them across his dingy studio to examine, similar to Paul Reps' idea of hanging his haiku up on lines stretched between bamboo poles.

Wright scrutinized his haiku in this way before choosing the personal favorites that he wanted to see published, 817 in all. This manuscript can be found among the Wright collection in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. Richard Wright died November 28, 1960, exactly 40 years ago. It was not until just a couple of years back that this manuscript finally got published. Why so long a wait? Good enough to be hidden and tucked away in the Yale Library, but not good enough for the public to read? For whose eyes only then?

Unfortunately, at this late date, much of his work will appear to most readers as very outdated, so again, his work will continue to be ignored by most. But from a historical and cultural standpoint at least, this is neither fair nor a particularly good idea in my opinion. And what about the other 3,200 haiku, will we ever get to see some of them someday or will we have to wait for another 38 years? I have a sneaking suspicion that many of them are as good or better than what got published.

A few of his haiku were first published in Ebony in 1961, the year following his death. Several more trickled out in the following years: 1968, 1970, 1971, and 1978 in literary publications, his biography, and a book of selected writings, but his haiku have remained unknown to the majority of haiku poets. His name and work were excluded from haiku publications and anthologies. His name does not even appear in Brower's Haiku In Western Languages.

Why were there not more Black Americans and Hispanic Americans writing haiku in the past or even today for that matter? Were there and are there perhaps more poets belonging to minority groups that wrote or are writing haiku that we should all know about? Why have so few haiku on blacks and black culture been published? Is it because they aren't being written or are not part of most haiku poets' experience or simply because the vast majority of haiku moments refer to human experiences common to all cultures, races, and religions? Is haiku perceived amongst many writers of minority groups in America as a poetic form that mainly reflects Asian and European cultures, values, and religious philosophy and is therefore not seen as a relevant part of their cultural environment and experience? Is
and was the importance of Buddhist philosophy, especially Zen, overemphasized today and in the early years of American haiku history? History, culture, and religion were an integral part of traditional Japanese haiku and that is also true of American haiku, but as we all know, America is the world's "melting pot". Does American haiku then accurately reflect the true cultural and religious diversity in America? Has the publication of American haiku in the major haiku periodicals and anthologies been a democratic representation? And what about black women who wrote haiku? At least an example or two of Alice Walker's haiku and a couple of her brief comments on haiku in haiku publications and anthologies would have helped, even a little, in bringing greater cultural diversity to American haiku. Why the exclusion? Reading American haiku, you wouldn't think that most Americans were either Christians, Catholics, or Jewish. I clearly remember reading Nick Virgilio's haiku that won the Eminent Mention Award in Modern Haiku in 1978:

Old rabbi
unrolling Torah scroll:
bitter cold

His haiku was a real eye-opener for me. How many haiku that reflect some aspect of the Jewish religion and culture have you read since then? I suppose I have been on this theme long enough now. I don't have the answers; I only suspect and wonder. Perhaps I have opened a can of worms, but I ask the questions because I have not heard or read very much discussion on these topics and I think they should be addressed.

Let's now have a look at some of Richard Wright's haiku taken from HAIKU – This Other World, Arcade Publishing, 1998.

Keep straight down this block,
then turn right where you will find
a peach tree blooming

Wright wrote mainly 5-7-5 haiku, deviating only a bit at times. I want the readers of this column to understand that I have neither a preference for this style nor a prejudice against it. However, that being said, it is true that Wright, like most others who have chosen to follow this discipline, could have obviously written better versions of some of his haiku if he had not been so rigid on this point. The above haiku contains 16 one-syllable words with one two-syllable word at the end! Amazing! Haiku
containing more than 13 or 14 words with a total of 17-22 syllables are extremely difficult to get accepted for publication in haiku periodicals and included in anthologies. For this reason and because of the general avoidance and criticism of the 5-7-5 form in English over the years, minimalist haiku have gained in popularity. Some excellent results have been achieved due to this shift. But now, longer haiku are written less frequently or not at all by some poets partly because they are more difficult to get published. If there are no superfluous words and assuming
there is merit, then I ask, why not accept them too?

In Wright's haiku above, the poet knows exactly where to go and how to get there. So let's go!

Heaps of black cherries
glittering with drops of rain
in the evening sun

I think that Wright admired Buson and Shiki. Most of Wright's haiku contain strong visual images, often colorful. The use of the words black, white, or other words like molasses and snowflakes are prominent in many of his haiku.

More examples of his use of color:

An old winter oak:
Once upon a time there was
a big black ogre . . .

* * *

Creamy plum blossoms:
Once upon a time there was
a pretty princess . . .

Buson, Issa, and other Japanese masters occasionally referred to Japanese fairy tales in their haiku, but Wright in the two haiku above, has a tale of his own to tell.

The green cockleburs
caught in the thick wooly hair
of the black boy

* * *

An Indian summer
heaps itself in tons of gold
over Nigger Town

* * *

As the sun goes down,
a green melon splits open
and juice trickles out

Humor is often lacking in Wright's haiku, but not in this one below:

Coming from the woods,
a bull has a lilac sprig
dangling from a horn

Occasionally Wright's haiku take place in an urban rather than a rural environment:

From this skyscraper,
all the bustling streets converge
towards the spring sea

Compare the next haiku with the one that follows by Taigi:

A freezing morning:
I left a bit of my skin
on the broomstick

* * *

bamboo broom
too cold to hold
left under the pine

Wright very occasionally uses a technique that I call a "haiku round". Simply explained, in haiku rounds the reader goes from the third line back to the first line again, going around in an unending circle, repeating the haiku as often as one wishes. Some of the Japanese haiku masters also wrote haiku rounds. It's a technique that should probably be explored more than
it has in English. Rhythm and rhyme are often employed when using this technique.

The neighing horses
are causing echoing neighs
in neighboring barns

Here's an example of a "haiku round" by Taigi:

the mountain roses:
green, yellow, green
yellow and green

another by Buson:

rising & falling
all day the spring sea
rising & falling

Wright occasionally deals with socioeconomic issues in his haiku:

The Christmas season:
a whore is painting her lips
larger than they are

Remember Basho's "Traveler" haiku?

First winter shower;
you can just call me
a traveler now

Wright's circumstances were quite different:

Their watching faces,
as I walk the autumn road
make me a traveler

Here's a good haiku on an ecological theme:

With the forest trees cut,
the lake lies naked and lost
in the bare hills

Compare the next haiku with one by Alexis Rotella that follows:

In a dank basement
a rotting sack of barley
swells with sprouting grain

* * *

a bag of barley bursts
onto the floor:
winter moon

* * *

Standing in the snow,
a horse shifts his heavy haunch
slowly to the right

Compare the above haiku with Timothy Russell's 1999 Shiki Salon Grand Prize winner:

the egret shifts from stillness
to stillness

The question mark is not often used in American haiku. Making a quick check, I found it used only once in over 700 haiku in The Haiku Anthology edited by Cor van den Heuvel for example. Pablo Neruda, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, invented a new poetic form in the last book he wrote before he died which might be considered a special type of Hispanic haiku. The book published the year after his death, The Book Of Questions, contains verses in two-line stanzas written as questions with a cutting word often at the end of the first. Haiku are usually open-ended, especially at the end. The open-ended question can be more effective than perhaps many haiku poets realize. Wright uses the question more than just a few times in his haiku. Here are a couple of examples:

That frozen star there,
or this one on the water, –
Which is more distant?

Here's one with a double question:

Why did this spring wood
grow so silent when I came?
What was happening?

One of the most memorable and most quoted examples of the use of the question in Japanese haiku is Basho's:

Autumn deepens . . .
What does my neighbor do
to survive?

Compare Wright's haiku with one that follows it by the world famous Argentine poet, Jorge Luis Borges:

A balmy spring wind
reminding me of something
I cannot recall

* * *

The afternoon and the mountains
have told me something,
but now it's lost . . .

Julia, Richard Wright's daughter, was reading through the haiku manuscript in her father's study in Paris just after the funeral and upon coming across the haiku below, she exclaimed, "This is Daddy!"

Burning out its time
and timing its own burning
one lonely candle

I would like to close, if I may, with a postscript of four haiku of my own and four by Mexican poets on Afro-Americans:

playing hide-and-seek
a little black boy crouching
behind the snowman

(Ithaca, NY)

* * *

coming out of the shadows,
a beautiful black woman
steps into the moonlight

(Atlanta, GA)

* * *

long rows of shacks
on the other side of the tracks:

(Puerto Barrios, Guatemala)

* * *

filling sand bags under the hot sun
soul brothers singing
soul music

(Dong Ha, Quang Tri, Vietnam)

* * *

the flowing tears
of the black prostitute,
clear – like mine!

(José Juan Tablada – 1922)

* * *


A jazz band jamming . . .
African masks on all the walls
some ivory, some ebony

(José Juan Tablada – 1922)

* * *

A painful song
of Negroes and guitars:
the blues, the blues, the blues

(Rafael Lozano – 1921)

* * *


Under the full moon:
whites to the right,
blacks to the left . . .

(Efrain Huerta – 1949)


All translations from the Japanese and Spanish by Ty Hadman

Column Copyright © Ty Hadman 2000.
Page Copyright © AHA Books 2000.



Shawnrece D. Miller
Female Images in Richard Wright’s
Haiku: This Other World

In traditional haiku, nature is not a representation of goodness, truth, or beauty but often uncovers truths. These truths are often revealed in a relationship between the human subject and nature. Traditional haiku often include a clear reference to the season in which they were written, often showing how nature transforms sensations to the human psyche—where nature’s tangible presence stimulates a cathartic experience.

Wright’s haiku reveal that there can be a conflict between nature and culture. Nature on its own is neither good nor bad; the interiority of the seer defines what is seen, When there is a conflict between the natural subject and the culture it sometimes suggests that certain members of this culture are being exploited by their culture and are made unnatural by the culture and its demands of the subject, such as women exploited for labor and sex.

Like writers of traditional haiku, Wright uses nature in his poems; however, his use of nature often does not show the wonders or mysteries of the natural world and how these wonders/mysteries correlate to the wonders of the internal (the human heart, psyche, etc.). It is Wright’s use of human nature—its ability to exploit, abuse, and injure—that exposes suffering. His natural world discloses women and young girls suffering exposure to natural elements like rain and snow rather than learning from them, pondering them or enjoying them. Something they are unable to do because of cultural economic deprivation and/or exploitation. Thus, nature itself is not necessarily a wellspring of either transcendent sensationalism or of horrific pain in and of itself; rather, it is the subject’s social/cultural position in the world that causes suffering and which enables him or her to see what he or she sees in nature. If one is treated unjustly, exploited, and/or hurt, nature can be an agent of pain and suffering.

Wright reveals in his use of nature that the social position of the speaker and his object in the haiku are relevant to the haiku’s meaning—to meaning-making in general. This seems to be very much in line with Wright’s views of nature and culture in Native Son. What one sees is made possible because the culture provides the means, or lack thereof, for one to see it (or not). Instead of nature revealing epiphany-like, transcendent moments, in Wright’s haiku nature reveals the truths of his subjects—women and young girls who suffer and who are separated from the natural world because they are physically and economically exploited by their culture.

The female imagery in Wright’s haiku reveal his concern for the exploitation and suffering of women. Wright’s female subjects’ perceptions of the natural world rely on their experiences in their unnatural “natural” worlds. Unlike the Japanese noblemen, priests, writers, singers, and artists who had the time to find beauty and pleasure in natural phenomena, Wright’s female subjects have to contend with the negative aspects of nature.

Nature often has a dual role in Wright’s haiku, occupying not only the position of mother nature but playing the role of human nature as well. It is overwhelmingly human nature that impedes Wright’s female subjects’ abilities to enjoy mother nature. As a result, many of the female subjects in Wright’s haiku experience the type of cultural determinism Wright emphasizes as controlling the fate of the male protagonists in his prose. The following haiku (number 415 in the book) is an example of Wright’s harking back to the theme of cultural determinism present in his fictional works:

In a drizzling rain,
In a flower shop’s doorway,
A girl sells herself

The theme of human nature causing women to suffer natural elements because of cultural demands is clearly presented in this haiku. Rain sets the tone—something death-like, melancholy, gray, unhappy. The speaker does not reverse the reader’s expectations. The girl (youth—connection to growth, spring, promise of flower shop flowers) sells herself shy—prostitutes herself as the flower (nature) is prostituted/appropriated/exploited in order to fulfill man’s (culture’s) desires.

Note that it is a drizzling rain and not a torrential downpour. This suggest that the girl’s prostitution and suffering are not particularly cataclysmic to the culture that demands them. The drizzling rain suggests a slow, steady, experience of suffering rather than a quick or sudden death or injury. That she stands in the flower shop’s doorway is significant also because the doorway is a bridge, a transition between two worlds—the outside world as human nature and the inside world as mother nature.

However, culture exploits nature both inside and outside the flower shop. Inside the flower shop, the natural world of flowers is exploited/sold because of culture’s demands. Outside the flower shop, the girl representing the natural is also exploited/sold because of culture’s demands. The girl and the flowers are exploited by culture’s desires to own and to use whatever it desires. Instead of being in nature and permitted their own natural experiences of life, the flowers are cut and sold in order to fulfill human (cultural) desires. Likewise, instead of being in nature as a young girl who can experience sex for its pleasures, the girl is a commodity that is cut off from her youth and its pleasures as she is bought and sold in an economy of exploitation that denies its member’s humanity.

Exploitation of women’s bodies echoes again in haiku number 378:

Upon crunching snow,
Childless mothers are searching
For cash customers.

Here a woman’s nature—her sexuality—is exploited for culture’s (the cash customer’s) desires. Being a mother is not, for these women, a part of this sexual economy of exploitation. Because prostitution relies on the use, abuse, and exploitation of women’s sexuality but not its natural result (children), the natural world and result of women’s sexuality (her own and her offspring’s) are annihilated by economic and cultural demands on her flesh, flesh the culture sees as a commodity for its own use.
Unfortunately, Wright is aware of far too many women who are represented by the plights of the women in the haiku above. He can only watch as they lose the innocence Wright expresses in haiku number 363:

A little girl stares,
Dewy eyes round with wonder,
At morning glories.

During their youth, young girls wait patiently for some unknown good to touch their lives. As this promise of hope turns into a dream deferred, the girls become victims of cultural demands who are made to suffer while they are waiting. The word “stares” suggests something unnatural about this young girl’s gaze. It eliminates the romance one might expect from such an idyllic scene which is an indication that the myriad opportunities available in life, represented by the morning glories, also will be eliminated in this young girl’s life.

Haiku number 186 represents Wright’s memory of a woman towards the end of her life of suffering:

From these warm spring days,
I can still see her sad face
In its last autumn.

The focus here is on the juxtapositions of seasons. The speaker is calling to mind an old memory during warm spring days. Because spring represents growth, renewal, and rebirth and autumn represents decay, death, and the onset of old age, this haiku suggests that the speaker may not be in tune with nature because he recalls her sad face during these warm spring days. It also suggests that the female subject is out of tune with nature since the speaker remembers her sad face in its last autumn, “last autumn” suggesting that she has experienced deaths before as a metaphor for loss.

The conflict in many of Wright’s haiku containing female imagery is between the natural human subject and her experiences in a corrupt culture. Wright’s haiku seem to emphasize that it is a cultural determinant that is to blame for his subjects’ being out of tune with nature: sun, rain, spring, autumn, flowers, and snow. Wright’s female subjects suffer because cultural elements—men’s (sexual) desires, cultural demands, forced labor, loss, pain, suffering, and injustice—will not allow them freedom to fully be or to be at one with nature.

After writing four thousand haiku, Wright seems to be more vehement than ever in his belief that two of human beings’ devices, materialism and greed, are the twin culprits of racial discord and poverty. While his fiction and nonfiction works explicitly advocate his position, he is only able to express this indirectly in his haiku. The primal outlook on life for which Wright gives witness coincides with his belief that there is a preeminence of intuition over knowledge in the search for truth. This is what leads Wright to call into question the basic assumptions of existence, that is, questioning the life one is socially and politically taught to live. In his haiku, as in all of his works, Wright admonishes us, that for us to see ourselves truly as human beings, we must give our utmost attention to comprehending the relationship between humanity and nature.

[Shawnrece D. Miller is an Assistant Professor of English
at Stephen F. Austin State University.]

©2002 Modern Haiku
Modern Haiku • PO Box 68 • Lincoln, IL 62656



Yoshinobu Hakutani
Hakutani, Yoshinobu. "Nature, Haiku, and 'This Other World'."

In: Richard Wright and Racial Discourse, pp. 261-91. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996.



In 1960, less than a year before his death, Wright selected, under the title This Other World: Projections in the Haiku Manner, 817 out of the about four thousand haiku he had composed since the summer of the previous year.1 His motive for writing so many haiku in the final years of his life is not entirely known, but he told Margrit de Sabloni?re, his Dutch translator and friend: "During my illness I experimented with the Japanese form of poetry called haiku; I wrote some 4,000 of them and am now sifting them out to see if they are any good."2 It is also known that a young South African who loved haiku described the form to Wright, who in turn borrowed from him the four volumes of Haiku by R. H. Blyth, a well-detailed study of the genre and a commentary on the works of classic and some modern Japanese haiku poets.3
A reading of the haiku in This Other World, as well as the rest of his haiku, indicates that Wright, turning away from the moral, intellectual, social, and political problems dealt with in his prose work, found in nature his latent poetic sensibility. Above all, his fine pieces of poetry show, as do classic Japanese haiku, the unity and harmony of all things, the sensibility that man and nature are one and inseparable. In his prose work, despite the social and racial conflicts described, he had an insatiable desire to find peace and harmony in society. Bigger Thomas's muted protest before execution and Cross Damon's last message to his fellow human beings as he lies dying are meant to unite division in human life. Only when Fred Daniels in "The Man Who Lived Underground" achieves Zen-like enlightenment, his peace of mind with the world, is he shot dead by police. It is in another country that Fishbelly Tucker's quest for manhood, his dream of happiness and love, can be fulfilled. Although Wright wanted to belong to two cultures, American and African, as Black Power demonstrates, he was at times torn between the two worlds and remained an exile in Europe. His haiku, on the other hand, poignantly express a desire to transcend social and racial differences and a need to find union and harmony with nature. While his prose exhibits a predilection for a rational world created by human beings out of their narcissistic image of themselves, the humanism expressed in his haiku goes beyond a fellowship of human beings. It means an awareness of what human beings share with all living things. The human images in his haiku represent life at its deepest level.
The genesis of Wright's poetic sensibility is clearly stated in "Blueprint for Negro Writing," even though his theory is Marxist and hence political rather than literary. An African American writer's perspective, Wright defines, "is that part of a poem, novel, or play which a writer never puts directly upon paper. It is that fixed point in intellectual space where a writer stands to view the struggles, hopes, and sufferings of his people."4Wright established this vantage point in Black Boy, a nonfictional, autobiographical prose work. Yet he consciously created a poetic vision through and against which racial conflict could be depicted. The first chapter contains a long series of images from nature:

There was the delight I caught in seeing long straight rows of red and green vegetables stretching away in the sun to the bright horizon.
There was the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when dew came on to my cheeks and shins as I ran down the wet green garden paths in the early morning.
There was the vague sense of the infinite as I looked down upon the yellow, dreaming waters of the Mississippi River from the verdant bluffs of Natchez.
There were the echoes of nostalgia I heard in the crying strings of wild geese winging south against a bleak, autumn sky.
There was the tantalizing melancholy in the tingling scent of burning hickory wood.
There was the teasing and impossible desire to imitate the petty pride of sparrows wallowing and flouncing in the red dust of country roads.
There was the yearning for identification loosed in me by the sight of a solitary ant carrying a burden upon a mysterious journey.
There was the disdain that filled me as I tortured a delicate, blue-pink crawfish that huddled fearfully in the mudsill of a rusty tin can. …
There was the languor I felt when I heard green leaves rustling with a rainlike sound. …
There was the experience of feeling death without dying that came from watching a chicken leap about blindly after its neck had been snapped by a quick twist of my father's wrist. …
There was the thirst I had when I watched clear, sweet juice trickle from sugar cane being crushed. …
There was the speechless astonishment of seeing a hog stabbed through the heart, dipped into boiling water, scraped, split open, gutted, and strung up gaping and bloody.
There was the love I had for the mute regality of tall, moss-clad oaks. …
There was the saliva that formed in my mouth whenever I smelt clay dust potted with fresh rain.
There was the cloudy notion of hunger when I breathed the odor of new-cut, bleeding grass.
And there was the quiet terror that suffused my senses when vast hazes of gold washed earthward from star-heavy skies on silent nights.
(BB [Black Boy], 14-15)

Two kinds of natural images are intermingled. On the one hand, those representing harmony and tranquillity in nature are presented as simple descriptions: "rows of red and green vegetables," "dew … on to my cheeks and shins," "wild geese winging south," "the tingling scent of burning hickory wood," "green leaves rustling with a rainlike sound," "the mute regality of tall, moss-clad oaks," "clay dust potted with fresh rain," "vast hazes of gold." On the other hand, those representing stressful and violent events in nature relate to human conflict and violence: "the petty pride of sparrows," "a solitary ant carrying a burden," "a [tortured] delicate, blue-pink crawfish," "a chicken [leaping] about blindly after its neck [is snapped]," "sugar cane being crushed," "a hog stabbed through the heart," and "the odor of new-cut, bleeding grass." What Wright calls a writer's perspective is not only a juxtaposition of the images of harmony with those of conflict, but also a use of images of conflict and violence in nature to allude to those same elements in society. In fact, one of Wright's haiku, "Don't they make you sad, / Those wild geese winging southward, / O lonely scarecrow?" (OW [This Other World], 581), originates from a passage quoted above: "There were the echoes of nostalgia I heard in the crying strings of wild geese winging south against a bleak, autumn sky."
Another series of poetic images is included in the second chapter ofBlack Boy in the aftermath of a beating the young Wright has sustained after his bath for telling Granny, "When you get through, kiss back there" (BB, 49). Unlike the first series, this one predominantly consists of images from nature that generate feelings of joy and happiness, a sense of harmony between man and nature. "The days and hours," Wright recalls, "began to speak now with a clear tongue. Each experience had a sharp meaning of its own" (BB, 53). Of the eighteen sentences beginning with "There was," fourteen of them feature images of nature, harmony, and joy: "the breathlessly anxious fun of chasing and catching flitting fireflies"; "the drenching hospitality in the pervading smell of sweet magnolias"; "the aura of limitless freedom distilled from the rolling sweep of tall green grass"; "the feeling of impersonal plenty when I saw a boll of cotton"; "the pitying chuckle … when I watched a fat duck waddle across the back yard"; "the suspense I felt when I heard the taut, sharp song of a yellow-black bee hovering … above a white rose"; "the drugged, sleepy feeling that came from sipping glasses of milk"; "the slow, fresh, saliva-stimulating smell of cooking cotton seeds"; "the excitement of fishing in muddy country creeks with my grandpa on cloudy days"; "the puckery taste … when I ate my first half-ripe persimmon"; "the greedy joy in the tangy taste of wild hickory nuts"; "picking blackberries … with my fingers and lips stained black with sweet berry juice"; "the relish of eating my first fried fish sandwich"; "the long, slow, drowsy days and nights of drizzling rain" (BB, 53-55).
Even the two sentences that contain images of unfriendly nature basically differ from those in the first series that contain images of society and conflict. The second series includes the following: "There was the fear and awe I felt when Grandpa took me to a sawmill to watch the giant whirring steel blades whine and scream as they bit into wet green logs. … There was the morning when I thought I would fall dead from fear after I had stepped with my bare feet upon a bright little green garden snake" (BB, 54-55). But in these passages his feelings of anxiety have little to do with nature itself, since nature is not to blame for such feelings. Indeed, the poetic passages in Black Boy signify Wright's incipient interest in the exaltation of nature and the usefulness of natural images for his poetic sensibility.
The primacy of the spirit of nature over the strife of man is further pronounced in his later work, especially Black Power. In "Blueprint," one of the theoretical principles calls for the African American writer to explore universal humanism, what is common among all cultures. "Every iota of gain in human thought and sensibility," Wright argues, "should be ready grist for his mill, no matter how far-fetched they may seem in their immediate implications."5 After a journey into the Ashanti kingdom in West Africa in 1953, when he was forty-five, he wrote in Black Power:

The truth is that the question of how much of Africa has survived in the New World is misnamed when termed "African survivals." The African attitude toward life springs from a natural and poetic grasp of existence and all the emotional implications that such an attitude carries; it is clear, then, that what the anthropologists have been trying to explain are not "African survivals" at all-they are but the retention of basic and primal attitudes toward life.
(BP [Black Power], 266)

Wright's exploration of the Ashanti convinced him that the defense of African culture meant renewal of Africans' faith in themselves. He realized for the first time that African culture was buttressed by universal human values, such as awe of nature, family kinship and love, faith in religion, and honor, that had made the African survival possible. This primal outlook on life that he witnessed in Africa had a singular influence on his poetic vision.
Before discussing Ashanti culture, he quotes a passage from Edmund Husserl's Ideas that suggests that the world of nature is preeminent over the scientific vision of that world, that intuition is preeminent over knowledge in the search for truth. This relationship of human beings to their world is somewhat remindful of Emerson, who emphasizes the preeminence of the spiritual and transcendental over the material and empirical. As Emerson urges his readers to realize their world rather than to attain material things, Wright defines the primal vision in African culture as the preeminence of spirit over matter.
Similarly, Wright's interpretation of African philosophy recalls a teaching in Zen Buddhism. Unlike the other sects of Buddhism, Zen teaches that every individual possesses Buddhahood and all he or she must do is realize it. One must purge one's mind and heart of any materialistic thoughts or feelings and appreciate the wonder of the world here and now. Zen is a way of self-discipline and self-reliance. Its emphasis on self is derived from the prophetic admonishment Gautama Buddha is said to have given to his disciples: "Seek within, you are the Buddha." Zen's emphasis on self-enlightenment is indeed analogous to Emersonian transcendentalism, in which an individual is taught to discipline the self and look within, for divinity resides not only in nature but also in human beings.
But there are differences between Zen and Emerson. Fascinated by the mysticism of the East, Emerson adapted to his own poetical use many allusions to Eastern religions. From time to time, however, one is surprised to find in his essays an aversion to Buddhism. This "remorseless Buddhism," he wrote in his Journals, "lies all around, every enterprise, every sentiment, has its ruin in this horrid Infinite which circles us and awaits on dropping into it." Although such a disparaging remark may betray the young Emerson's unfamiliarity with the religion, as Frederic Ives Carpenter has suggested, this passage may also indicate Emerson's aversion to the concept of nirvana. For Emerson, the association of this Buddhistic enlightenment with an undisciplined state of oblivion to the self and the world is uncongenial to his stoicism and self-reliance.6 Satori in Zen is an enlightenment that transcends time and place and even the consciousness of self. The African primal outlook upon existence, in which a person's consciousness, as Wright explains, corresponds to the spirit of nature, has a closer resemblance to the concept of enlightenment in Zen than it does to Emersonian transcendentalism. To the African mind and to Zen, divinity exists in nature only if the person is intuitively conscious of divinity in the self. To Emerson and Whitman, for example, God exists in nature regardless of whether the person is capable of such intuition.
Just as, in Zen, a tree contains satori only when the viewer can see it through his or her enlightened eyes, Wright saw in African life a closer relationship between human beings and nature than between human beings and their social and political environment:
Africa, with its high rain forest, with its stifling heat and lush vegetation, might well be mankind's queerest laboratory. Here instinct ruled and flowered without being concerned with the nature of the physical structure of the world; man lived without too much effort; there was nothing to distract him from concentrating upon the currents and countercurrents of his heart. He was thus free to project out of himself what he thought he was. Man has lived here in a waking dream, and, to some extent, he still lives here in that dream.
(BP, 159)

Wright thus created an image of the noble black man: Africa evokes in one "a total attitude toward life, calling into question the basic assumptions of existence," just as Zen teaches one a way of life completely independent of what one has been socially and politically conditioned to lead. As if echoing the enlightenment of Zen, Wright says: "Africa is the world of man; if you are wild, Africa's wild; if you are empty, so's Africa" (BP, 159).
Wright's discussion of the African concept of life is also suggestive of Zen's emphasis on transcending the dualism of life and death. Just as Zen master Dogen taught that life and death are beyond human control and not separate, the funeral service Wright saw in an Ashanti tribe showed him that "the 'dead' live side by side with the living; they eat, breathe, laugh, hate, love, and continue doing in the world of ghostly shadows exactly what they had been doing in the world of flesh and blood" (BP, 213), a portrayal of life and death reminiscent of Philip Freneau's "Indian Burial."
Wright was moreover fascinated by the African reverence for nonhuman beings, a primal African attitude that corresponds to Buddhist belief. He thus observed:
The pre-Christian African was impressed with the littleness of himself and he walked the earth warily, lest he disturb the presence of invisible gods. When he wanted to disrupt the terrible majesty of the ocean in order to fish, he first made sacrifices to its crashing and rolling waves; he dared not cut down a tree without first propitiating its spirit so that it would not haunt him; he loved his fragile life and he was convinced that the tree loved its life also.
(BP, 261-62)

The concept of unity, continuity, and infinity underlying life and death is what the Akan religion and Buddhism share. Interviewed by L'Express in 1955 shortly after the publication of Black Power, Wright was asked, "Why do you write?" He responded, "The accident of race and color has placed me on both sides: the Western World and its enemies. If my writing has any aim, it is to try to reveal that which is human on both sides, to affirm the essential unity of man on earth."7 When Wright was among the Ashanti, he was not conscious of an affinity between the two religions, but as he later read Blyth's explanation of Zen and its influence upon haiku, he found both religious philosophies fundamentally alike. Indeed, his reading of the African mind conforms to both religions in their common belief that mankind is not at the center of the universe. It is this revelatory and emulating relationship between nature and human beings that makes the African primal outlook upon life akin to Zen Buddhism.


Like transcendentalists such as Emerson and Whitman, Japanese haiku poets were inspired by nature, especially its beautiful scenes and seasonal changes.8 Although the exact origin of haiku is not clear, the close relationship haiku has with nature suggests the ways in which the ancient Japanese lived on their islands. Where they came from is unknown, but they must have adapted their living to the ways of nature. Many were farmers; others were hunters, fishermen, and warriors. While they often confronted nature, they always tried to live in harmony with it: Buddhism and Shintoism constantly taught them that the soul existed in them as well as in nature, the animate and the inanimate alike, and that nature must be preserved as much as possible. Interestingly, haiku traditionally avoided such subjects as earthquakes, floods, illnesses, and eroticism-ugly aspects of nature. Instead haiku poets were attracted to such objects as flowers, trees, birds, sunsets, the moon, and genuine love. Those who earned their livelihood by labor had to battle with the negative aspects of nature, but noblemen, priests, writers, singers, and artists found beauty and pleasure in natural phenomena. Since the latter group of people had the time to idealize or romanticize nature and impose a philosophy on it, they became an elite group of Japanese culture. Basho (1644-1694) was an essayist, Buson (1715-1783) was a painter, and Issa (1762-1826) was a Buddhist priest, and each of them was also an accomplished haiku poet.
The genesis of haiku can be seen in the waka, or Japanese song, the oldest verse form of thirty-one syllables in five lines (5-7-5-7-7). As an amusement at the court one person would compose the first three lines of a waka and another person was challenged to provide the last two lines to complete the verse. The haiku form, a verse of seventeen syllables arranged 5-7-5, with such exceptions as 5-7-6 and 5-8-5, thus corresponds to the first three lines of the waka. Hyakunin Isshu (One hundred poems by one hundred poets), a waka anthology compiled in 1235 by Fujiwara no Sadaiye, contains haikulike verses, such as Sadaiye's "Chiru Hana wo" (The Falling Blossoms):

Chiru hana wo
Oikakete yuku
Arashi kana

The falling blossoms:
Look at them, it is the storm
That is chasing them.(9)

The focus of this verse is the poet's observation of a natural object, the falling blossoms. To a beautiful picture Sadaiye adds his feeling about this phenomenon: it looks as though a storm is pursuing the falling flower petals.
This seventeen-syllable verse form was preserved by noblemen, courtiers, and high-ranked samurai for more than two centuries after the publication of Hyakunin Isshu. Around the beginning of the sixteenth century, however, the verse form became popular among the poets. It constituted a dominant element of another popular verse form calledrenga, or linked song. A renga consisted of a continuous chain of verses of fourteen (7-7) and seventeen (5-7-5) syllables, each independently composed, but connected as one poem. The first collection of renga, Chikuba Kyogin Shu, contains over two hundred tsukeku (adding verses) linked with the first verses of another poet. As the title of thisrenga collection suggests, the salient characteristic of renga was a display of ingenuity and coarse humor. Chikuba Kyogin Shu also collected twenty hokku (starting verses). Because the hokku was considered the most important verse of a renga series, it was usually composed by the senior poet attending a renga session. The fact that this collection included fewer hokku in proportion to tsukeku indicates the poets' interest in the comic nature of the renga.10
By the 1680s, when Matsuo Basho wrote the first version of his celebrated poem on the frog jumping into the old pond, haikai, an older poetic genre from which haiku evolved, had become a highly stylized expression of poetic vision. Basho's poem was totally different from most of the haikai poems written by his predecessors: it was the creation of a new perception and not merely an ingenious play on words. As most scholars observe, the changes and innovations brought about in haikaipoetry were not accomplished by a single poet.11 Basho and his contemporaries attempted to create the serious haikai, the verse form known in modern times as haiku. The haiku, then, was a unique poetic genre that was short but could offer more than wit or humor: a haiku late in the seventeenth century became a crystallized expression of one's vision and sensibility.
To explain Basho's art of haiku, Yone Noguchi, a noted bilingual poet and critic, quoted "Furu Ike ya" ("The Old Pond"):

Furu ike ya
Kawazu tobi komu
Mizu no oto

The old pond!
A frog leapt into-
List, the water sound!(12)

One may think a frog an absurd poetic subject, but Basho focused his vision on a scene of desolation, an image of nature. The pond was perhaps situated on the premises of an ancient temple whose silence was suddenly broken by a frog plunging into the deep water. As Noguchi conceived the experience, Basho, a Zen Buddhist, was "supposed to awaken into enlightenment now when he heard the voice bursting out of voicelessness, and the conception that life and death were mere change of condition was deepened into faith."13 Basho was not suggesting that the tranquillity of the pond meant death or that the frog symbolized life. He was describing the sensation of hearing the sound bursting out of soundlessness. A haiku is not a representation of goodness, truth, or beauty; there is nothing particularly good, true, or beautiful about a frog's leaping into the water.
It seems as though Basho, in writing the poem, carried nature within him and brought himself to the deepest level of nature where all sounds lapse into the world of silence and infinity. Although his vision is based upon reality, it transcends time and space. What a Zen poet like Basho is showing is that man can do enough naturally, enjoy doing it, and achieve his peace of mind. This fusion of man and nature is called spontaneity in Zen. The best haiku, because of their linguistic limitations, are inwardly extensive and outwardly infinite. A severe constraint imposed on one aspect of haiku must be balanced by a spontaneous, boundless freedom on the other.
From a Zen point of view, such a vision is devoid of intellectualism and emotionalism. Since Zen is the most important philosophical tradition influencing Japanese haiku, the haiku poet aims at understanding the spirit of nature. Basho thus recognizes little division between man and nature, the subjective and the objective; he is never concerned with the problems of good and evil. The satori that the Zen poet seeks is defined as the state of mu, nothingness, which is absolutely free of any thought or emotion; it is so completely free that such a state corresponds to that of nature. For a Zen-inspired poet, nature is a mirror of the enlightened self; one must see and hear things as they really are by making one's consciousness pure and clear. Classic haiku poets like Basho, Buson, and Issa avoided expressions of good and evil, love and hate, individual feeling and collective myth; their haiku indeed shun such sentiments altogether. Their poetry is strictly concerned with the portrayal of nature-mountains, trees, flowers, birds, waterfalls, nights, days, seasons. For the Japanese haiku poet, nature reflects the enlightened self; the poet must always make his or her consciousness pure, natural, and unemotional. "Japanese poets," Noguchi wrote, "go to Nature to make life more meaningful, sing of flowers and birds to make humanity more intensive."14
The haiku poet may aim not only at expressing sensation but also at generalizing and hence depersonalizing it. This characteristic can be shown even by one of Basho's lesser-known haiku:

Hiya hiya to
Kabe wo fumaete
Hirune kana(15)

How cool it is,
Putting the feet on the wall:
An afternoon nap.

Basho was interested in expressing how his feet, anyone's feet, would feel when placed on a wall in the house on a warm summer afternoon. His subject was none other than this direct sensation. He did not want to convey any emotion, any thought, any beauty; there remained only poetry, only nature.
Because of their brevity and condensation, haiku seldom provide details. The haiku poet delineates only an outline or a highly selective image, and the reader must complete the vision. Above all, a classic haiku, as opposed to a modern one, is required to include a clear reference to one of the four seasons. In Basho's "The Old Pond," said to be written in the spring of 1686, a seasonal reference to spring is made by the frog in the second line: the plunging of a single frog into the deep water suddenly breaks the deadly quiet. Although the frog traditionally is a kigo, a seasonal reference, to spring, Yone Noguchi interprets "The Old Pond" as an autumnal haiku: "the Japanese mind turns it into high poetry (it is said that Basho the author instantly awoke to a knowledge of the true road his own poetry should tread with this frog poem; it has been regarded in some quarters as a thing almost sacred although its dignity is a little fallen of late) … because it draws at once a picture of an autumnal desolation reigning on an ancient temple pond."16 As a result, the poet's perception of the infinitely quiet universe is intensified. It is also imperative that a haiku be primarily concerned with nature; if a haiku deals with man's life, that life must be viewed in the context of nature rather than of society.
The predilection to portray man's life in association with nature means that the poet is more interested in genuinely human sentiments than in moral, ethical, or political problems. That haiku thrives upon the affinity between man and nature can be illustrated by this famous haiku by Kaga no Chiyo (1703-1775), a foremost woman poet in her age:

Asagao ni
Tsurube torarete
Morai mizu(17)

A morning glory
Has taken the well bucket:
I'll borrow water.

Since a fresh, beautiful morning glory has grown on her well bucket overnight, Chiyo does not mind going to her neighbor to borrow water. Not only does her action show a desire to preserve nature, but the poem also conveys a natural and tender feeling for nature. A classic haiku, while it shuns human-centered emotions, thrives upon such a nature-centered feeling as Chiyo's. Nor can this sensibility be explained by logic or reason. Longer poems are often filled with intellectualized or moralized reasoning, but haiku avoid such language.
Because the haiku is limited in its length, it must achieve its effect through an internal unity and harmony. Feelings of unity and harmony, indicative of Zen philosophy, are motivated by a desire to perceive every instant in nature and life: an intuition that nothing is alone, nothing is out of the ordinary. One of Basho's later haiku displays this sense of unity and relatedness:

Aki fukaki
Tonari wa nani wo
Suru hito zo(18)

Autumn is deepening:
What does the neighbor do
For a living?

Although a serious poet, Basho was enormously interested in the commonplace and in common people. As autumn approaches winter and he nears the end of his life, he takes a deeper interest in his fellow human beings. His observations of the season and his neighbor, a total stranger, are separate, yet they intensify each other. His vision, as it is unified, evokes a deeply felt sentiment. In haiku, two entirely different things are joined in sameness: spirit and matter, present and future, doer and deed, word and thing, meaning and sensation. Basho's oft-quoted "A Crow" depicts a crow perching on a withered branch, a moment of reality:

Kare eda ni
Karasu no tomari taruya
Aki no kure(19)

A crow
Perched on a withered tree
In the autumn evening.

This image of the crow is followed by the coming of an autumn nightfall, a feeling of future. Present and future, thing and feeling, man and nature, each defining the other, are thus unified.
The unity of sentiment in haiku is further intensified by the poet's expression of the senses. Basho's "Sunset on the Sea," for instance, shows the unity and relatedness of the senses:

Umi kurete
Kamo no koe
Honoka ni shiroshi(20)

Sunset on the sea:
The voices of the ducks
Are faintly white.

The voices of the ducks under the darkened sky are delineated both as white and as faint. Interestingly, the chilled wind after dark evokes the whiteness associated with coldness. The voices of the ducks and the whiteness of the waves refer to two entirely different senses, but, each reinforcing the other, the images create a unified sensation. This transference of the senses may occur between color and mood, as shown in a haiku by Usuda Aro, a contemporary Japanese poet:

Tsuma araba
Tozomou asagao
Akaki saku(21)

Were my wife alive,
I thought, and saw a morning glory:
It has blossomed red.

The first line conveys a feeling of loneliness, but the red morning glory reminds him of a happy life they spent when she was living. The redness-rather than the whiteness or blueness-of the flower is transferred to the feeling of happiness and love. The transference of the senses, in turn, arouses a sense of balance and harmony. His recollection of their happy marriage, a feeling evoked by the red flower, compensates for the death of his wife, a reality.
Well-wrought haiku thrive upon the fusion of man and nature and upon the intensity of love and beauty this fusion creates. A haiku by Takarai Kikaku (1661-1707), Basho's first disciple and one of the most innovative poets, is exemplary:

Meigetsu ya
Tatami no ue ni
Matsu no kage(22)

The harvest moon:
Lo, on the tatami mats
The shape of a pine.

The beauty of the moonlight here is not only humanized by the light shining on the man-made object but also intensified by the shadows of a pine tree that fall upon the mats. The beauty of the shadow reflected on the man-made object is far more luminous than the light itself, for the intricate pattern of an ageless pine tree as it stamps the dustless mats intensifies the beauty of the moonlight. Not only does such a scene unify an image of man and an image of nature, but it also shows that man and nature do interact.


As the haiku has developed over the centuries, certain aesthetic principles have been established. To define and illustrate them is difficult since they refer to subtle perceptions and complex states of mind in the creation of poetry. Above all, these principles are governed by the Japanese national character as it developed over the centuries, and they do not necessarily mean the same today as they did in the seventeenth century. Discussion of these terms, furthermore, proves difficult simply because poetic theory does not always correspond to what poets actually write. It has also been true that the aesthetic principles of the haiku are often applied to other genres of Japanese art such as Noh drama, flower arrangement, and the tea ceremony.
One of the most delicate principles of Eastern art is called "yugen." Originally yugen in Japanese art was an element of style pervasive in the language of Noh. It was also a philosophical principle that originated in Zen metaphysics. In Zen, as noted earlier, every individual possesses Buddhahood and must realize it. Yugen, as applied to art, designates the mysterious and dark, what underlies the surface. The mode of expression is subtle as opposed to obvious, suggestive rather than declarative. In reference to the works of Zeami, the author of many of the extant Noh plays, Arthur Waley expounds this difficult term:

It is applied to the natural grace of a boy's movements, to the gentle restraint of a nobleman's speech and bearing. "When notes fall sweetly and flutter delicately to the ear," that is the y?gen of music. The symbol of y?gen is "a white bird with a flower in its beak." "To watch the sun sink behind a flower-clad hill, to wander on and on in a huge forest with no thought of return, to stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that goes hid by far-off islands, to ponder on the journey of wild-geese seen and lost among the clouds"-such are the gates to y?gen.23

Such scenes convey a feeling of satisfaction and release, as does the catharsis of a Greek play, but yugen differs from catharsis because it has little to do with the emotional stress caused by tragedy. Yugenfunctions in art as a means by which man can comprehend the course of nature. Although yugen seems allied with a sense of resignation, it has a far different effect upon the human psyche. A certain type of Noh play like Takasago celebrates the order of the universe ruled by heaven. The mode of perception in the play may be compared to that of a pine tree with its evergreen needles, the predominant representation on the stage. The style of yugen can express either happiness or sorrow. Cherry blossoms, however beautiful they may be, must fade away; love between man and woman is inevitably followed by sorrow.
This mystery and inexplicability, which surround the order of the universe, had a strong appeal to a classic haiku poet like Basho. His "The Old Pond," as discussed earlier, shows that while the poet describes a natural phenomenon realistically, he conveys his instant perception that nature is infinitely deep and absolutely silent. Such attributes of nature are not ostensibly stated; they are hidden. The tranquillity of the old pond with which the poet was struck remained in the background. He did not write "The rest is quiet"; instead he wrote "The sound of water." The concluding image was given as a contrast to the background enveloped in quiet. Basho's mode of experience is suggestive rather than descriptive, hidden and reserved rather than overt and demonstrative. Yugen has all the connotations of modesty, concealment, depth, and darkness. In Zen painting, woods and bays, as well as houses and boats, are hidden; hence these objects suggest infinity and profundity. Detail and refinement, which would mean limitation and temporariness of life, destroy the sense of permanence and eternity.
Another frequently used term in Japanese poetics is sabi. This word, a noun, derives from the verb sabiru, to rust, implying that what is described is aged. Buddha's portrait hung in Zen temples, as the Chinese painter Liang Kai's Buddha Leaving the Mountains suggests, exhibits the Buddha as an old man in contrast to the young figure typically shown in other temples.24 Zen's Buddha looks emaciated, his environment barren: his body, his tattered clothes, the aged tree standing nearby, the pieces of dry wood strewn around-all indicate that they have passed the prime of their life and function. In this kind of portrait the old man with a thin body is nearer to his soul as the old tree with its skin and leaves fallen is nearer to the very origin and essence of nature.
Sabi is traditionally associated with loneliness. Aesthetically, however, this mode of sensibility smacks of grace rather than splendor; it suggests quiet beauty as opposed to robust beauty. Basho's "A Crow," quoted earlier, best illustrates this principle. Loneliness, suggested by a single crow on a branch of an old tree, is reinforced by the elements of time indicated by nightfall and autumn. The picture is drawn with little detail and the overall mood is created by a simple, graceful description of fact. Furthermore, parts of the picture are delineated, by implication, in dark colors: the crow is black, the branch dark brown, the background dusky. The kind of beauty associated with the loneliness in Basho's poem is in marked contrast to the robust beauty depicted in a poem by Mukai Kyorai (1651-1704), Basho's disciple:

Hana mori ya
Shiroki kashira wo
Tsuki awase

The guardians
Of the cherry blossoms
Lay their white heads together.(25)

The tradition of haiku established in the seventeenth century produced eminent poets like Buson and Issa in the eighteenth century, but a revolt against this tradition took place toward the end of the nineteenth century under the banner of a young poet, Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902). On the one hand, Basho's followers, instead of becoming innovators, as was their master, resorted to an artificiality reminiscent of the comic renga.On the other hand, Issa, when he died, left no disciples. The Meiji restoration (1868) called for changes in all aspects of Japanese culture, and Shiki became a leader in the literary revolution. He launched an attack on the tradition by publishing a controversial essay, "Criticism of Basho." In response to a haiku by Hattori Ransetsu (1654-1707), Basho's disciple, Shiki composed his own. Ransetsu's haiku had been written two centuries earlier:

Ki giku shira giku
Sono hoka no na wa

Yellow and white chrysanthemums:
What other possible names?
None can be thought of.

To Ransetsu's poem, Shiki responded with this one:

Ki giku shira giku
Hito moto wa aka mo

Yellow and white chrysanthemums:
But at least another one-
I want a red one.

Shiki advised his followers to compose haiku to please themselves. To Shiki, some of the conventional poems lacked direct, spontaneous expressions: a traditional haiku poet in his adherence to old rules of grammar and devices such as kireji (cutting word) resorted to artificial twisting of words and phrases.
A modernist challenge Shiki gave to the art of haiku, however, kept intact such aesthetic principles as yugen and sabi. Classic poets like Basho and Issa, who adhered to such principles, were also devout Buddhists. By contrast, Shiki, while abiding by the aesthetic principles, was regarded as an agnostic: his philosophy of life is demonstrated in this haiku:

Aki kaze ya
Ware ni kami nashi
Hotoke nashi(27)

The wind in autumn
As for me, there are no gods,
There are no Buddhas.

Although his direct references to the divinities of Japanese culture smack of a modernist style, the predominant image created by "the wind in autumn," a conventional kigo (seasonal word), suggests a deep-seated sense of loneliness and coldness. Shiki's mode of expression in this haiku is based upon sabi.
Some well-known haiku poets in the twentieth century also preserve the sensibility of sabi. The predicament of a patient described in this haiku by Ishida Hakyo arouses sabi:

Byo shitsu ni
Su bako tsukuredo
Tsubame kozu(28)

In the hospital room
I have built a nest box but
Swallows never appear.

Not only do the first and third lines indicate loneliness, but the patient's will to live suggested by the second line also evokes a poignant sensibility. To a modern poet like Hakyo, the twin problems of humanity are loneliness and boredom. He sees the same problems existing in nature, as this haiku by him illustrates:

Ori no washi
Sabishiku nareba
Hautsu ka mo

The caged eagle;
When lonely
He flaps his wings.(29)

The feeling of sabi is also aroused by the private world of the poet, the situation others cannot envision, as this haiku by Nakamura Kusatao, another modernist, shows:

Ka no koe no
Hisoka naru toki
Kui ni keri(30)

At the faint voices
Of the flying mosquitoes
I felt my remorse.

Closely related to sabi is a poetic sensibility called wabi. Traditionallywabi has been defined in sharp antithesis to a folk or plebeian saying, "Hana yori dango" (Rice dumplings are preferred to flowers). Some poets are inspired by the sentiment that human beings desire beauty more than food, a sentiment lacking in animals and other nonhuman beings.Wabi thus refers to the uniquely human perception of beauty stemmed from poverty. Wabi is often regarded as religious, as the saying "Blessed are the poor" suggests, but the spiritual aspect of wabi is based upon an aesthetic rather than a moral sensibility.
This mode of expression is often attributed to Basho, who did not come from a well-to-do family. Basho's life as an artist was that of a wandering bard, as recorded in his celebrated diaries and travelogues, the most famous of which is Oku no Hoso Michi (The narrow road of Oku). Nozarashi Kiko (A travel account of my exposure in the fields), one of Basho's earlier books of essays, opens with this revealing passage with two haiku:
When I set out on my journey of a thousand leagues I packed no provisions for the road. I clung to the staff of that pilgrim of old who, it is said, "entered the realm of nothingness under the moon after midnight." The voice of the wind sounded cold somehow as I left my tumbledown hut on the river in the eighth moon of the Year of the Rat, 1684.

Nozarashi wo
Kokoro ni kaze no
Shimu mi ka na

Bones exposed in a field-
At the thought, how the wind
Bites into my flesh.

Aki too tose
Kaette Edo wo
Sasu kokyoo

Autumn-this makes ten years;
Now I really mean Edo
When I speak of "home."(31)

The first haiku conveys a sense of wabi because the image of his bones suggests poverty and eternity. Although Basho has fallen of fatigue and hardship on his journey, he has reached a higher state of mind. The expression of wabi in this verse is characterized by the feelings of agedness, leanness, and coldness. Basho's attachment to art rather than to provision on his travel is shown in this haiku:

Michinobe no
Mukuge wa uma ni

Upon the roadside
Grew mallow flowers: my horse
Has eaten them all.(32)

Rikyu (1521-1591), the famed artist of the tea ceremony, wrote that food that is enough to sustain the body and a roof that does not leak are sufficient for man's life. For Basho, however, an empty stomach was necessary to create poetry. Among Basho's disciples, Rotsu (1651?-1739?), the beggar poet, is well known for having come into Basho's legacy of wabi. This haiku by Rotsu best demonstrates his state of mind:

Toridomo mo
Neitte iru ka
Yogo no umi

The water-birds too
Are asleep
On the lake of Yogo?(33)

Rotsu portrays a scene with no sight or sound of birds on the desolate lake. The withered reeds rustle from time to time in the chilly wind. It is only Rotsu the beggar and artist who is awake and is able to capture the beauty of the lake.
The sensibilities of yugen, sabi, and wabi all derive from the ways in which Japanese poets have seen nature over the centuries. Although the philosophy of Zen, on which the aesthetics of a poet like Basho is based, shuns emotion and intellect altogether, haiku is nonetheless concerned with one's feeling and thought. If haiku conveys the poet's feeling, that feeling must have been aroused by nature. That the art of haiku comes from man's affinity with nature is best explained by Basho in his travelogue Oi no Kobumi (Manuscript in my knapsack):

One and the same thing runs through the waka of Saigy?, the renga of S?gi, the paintings of Sessh?, the tea ceremony of Riky?. What is common to all these arts is their following nature and making a friend of the four seasons. Nothing the artist sees but is flowers, nothing he thinks of but is the moon. When what a man sees is not flowers, he is no better than a barbarian. When what he thinks in his heart is not the moon, he belongs to the same species as the birds and beasts. I say, free yourselves from the barbarian, remove yourself from the birds and beasts; follow nature and return to nature!34

Basho not only had great confidence in his art but he also believed that, though the form of haiku differs from that of any other art, the essence of haiku remains the same.


In trying his hand at haiku, Wright initially modeled his work after classic Japanese poets such as Moritake (1472-1549), Basho, Kikaku, Buson, and Issa. Two of the haiku in This Other World-"Off the Cherry Tree" (OW, 626) and "A Leaf Chases Wind" (OW, 669)-have a thematic resemblance to Moritake's famous hokku:

Rakka eda ni
Kaeru to mireba
Kochô kana

Fallen petals
Seemed to return to the branch,-
A butterfly!(35)

Both of Wright's haiku, "Off the Cherry Tree" and "A Leaf Chases Wind," create an illusion similar to that in Moritake's poem. In "Off the Cherry Tree" a twig with its red blossom flies into the sun as if a bird flew off the cherry tree. Likewise "A Leaf Chases Wind" captures a scene in which a leaf seems to be chasing wind and shaking a pine tree rather than the other way around. (A literal translation of Moritake's first two lines would be, "A fallen flower appears to come back to its branch.")
Interestingly enough, it is this hokku by Moritake that influenced Ezra Pound's composition of the famous metro poem, "The apparition of these faces in the crowd: / Petals, on a wet, black bough." Pound acknowledged for the first time in his career his indebtedness to the spirit of Japanese poetry in general and the art of haiku in particular. In the "Vorticism" essay, he quoted Moritake's hokku just before discussing his famous "In a Station of the Metro," often regarded as the first published haiku written in English.36 According to Margaret Walker, Wright was fascinated by the American Imagists, including Pound, but Pound was not likely the original source of Wright's interest in haiku.37
Another pair of Wright's haiku in This Other World-"In the Silent Forest" (OW, 316) and "A Thin Waterfall" (OW, 569)-in their style and content are reminiscent of two of Basho's most celebrated haiku. Wright's "In the Silent Forest" echoes Basho's "It's Deadly Quiet":

It's deadly quiet:
Piercing into the rocks
Is the shrill of cicada.

As Basho expresses the awe of quietude, Wright juxtaposes silence in the forest to the sound of a woodpecker. Similarly, Wright's "A Thin Waterfall" is akin to Basho's "A Crow," quoted earlier. Basho, as noted earlier, focuses upon a single crow perching on a branch of an old tree,38 as does Wright upon a thin waterfall. In both haiku, the scene is drawn with little detail and the mood is provided by a simple, reserved description of fact. As parts of the scene are painted in dark colors, so is the background. Both haiku create the kind of beauty associated with the aesthetic sensibility of sabi that suggests loneliness and quietude as opposed to overexcitement and loudness.
It is legend that Basho inspired more disciples than did any other haiku poet and that Kikaku is regarded as Basho's most innovative disciple. Two of Wright's unpublished haiku, "Beads of Quicksilver" (OW, 106) and "A Pale Winter Moon" (OW, 671), bear some resemblance to Kikaku's "The Harvest Moon," quoted earlier, since both poets emphasize an interaction between man and nature in the creation of beauty. In Kikaku's haiku, as pointed out earlier, the beauty of the harvest moon is intensified by the tatami mats, man-made objects, on which the shape of a pine tree is reflected as if it were a beautifully drawn painting. In Wright's first poem, an element of nature, "Beads of quicksilver," is reinforced by a man-made object, "a black umbrella." In "A Pale Winter Moon," while the second line portrays the loneliness of a doll, a pale winter moon, a beauty of nature, is intensified by the presence of a man-made object.
This Other World includes a number of haiku that depict seasonal, climatic changes in nature, as do those by classic Japanese haiku poets. Wright's published "I Would Like a Bell" (OW, 13), for instance, is comparable to Buson's well-known "On the Hanging Bell" in the simple depiction of a spring scene:

I would like a bell
Tolling in this soft twilight
Over willow trees.

On the hanging bell
Has perched and is fast asleep,
It's a butterfly.

Buson was well known in his time as an accomplished painter, and many of his haiku reflect his singular attention to color and its intensification. Wright's unpublished "A Butterfly Makes" (OW, 82), for example, is reminiscent of Buson's "Also Stepping on":

Also stepping on
The mountain pheasant's tail is
The spring setting sun.

For a seasonal reference to spring, Buson links an image of the bird with a spring sunset, because both are highly colored. As a painter he is also interested in an ambiguous impression the scene he has drawn gives him; it is not clear whether the setting sun is treading on the pheasant's tail or the tail on the setting sun. In any event, Buson has made both pictures beautiful to look at, just as Wright in his haiku draws pictures of a butterfly and the sunshine, themselves highly colorful and bright, which in turn intensify each other.
Although some of Wright's haiku in This Other World read like senryu,humorous, often graceless poems related to haiku in form, rather than like genuine haiku, a great majority of them are serious compositions in accordance with the basic principles and requirements of haiku. Many of his pieces show that one of his chief aims as a haiku poet is to create beauty in his perception of nature. These haiku illustrate his attempts to express newly perceived sensations in his close contact with nature. "The Path in the Woods" (OW, 76), portraying a scene of spring where insects live in their natural environment, creates an image of beauty. Similarly, "After the Parade" (OW, 262) expresses the pleasant sensation that the snow, a representation of nature, has absorbed the flags, a representation of society. And "I Wonder How Long" (OW, 662) expresses a surprising awareness that nature perpetually creates beauty whether man notices or not.
In "On the Pond's Green Scum" (OW, 84), "Spring Dawn Is Glinting" (OW, 177), and "On a Bayonet" (OW, 477), for example, the beauties of nature are intensified by contrast. "On the Pond's Green Scum" is a haiku of balance and harmony, which is characteristic of some classic and modern haiku. Not only does a yellow butterfly, an image of beauty, counterbalance the pond's green scum, an image of ugliness, but the entire scene becomes beautiful because of two yellow butterflies, perhaps a couple, instead of one. In "Spring Dawn Is Glinting" it looks as though the beauty of nature is toning down the ugly aspects of human life. Similarly, in "On a Bayonet," the beauty of a spring moon at dawn mitigates the turmoil and suffering in human life.
Some of Wright's haiku, such as "The First Day of Spring" (OW, 173) and "A Blindman's Eyebrows" (OW, 241), as do some Japanese haiku, intensify an image of beauty through a sense of paradox. "The First Day of Spring" depicts the arrival of spring with winter lingering on the mountains. The bright sun intensifies the beauty of snow; as a paradox, the poem extols winter while celebrating spring. In "A Blindman's Eyebrows," the autumn fog, while keeping the living from seeing, creates beads of light, a beautiful image, for a man who unfortunately cannot see.
Because Wright was deeply concerned with the creation of beauty in his haiku, he quite consciously used such aesthetic modes of expression asyugen, sabi, and wabi. Haiku criticism has traditionally apotheosized Basho's "The Old Pond," the frog poem, for his manner of yugen, of describing what is hidden and hence mysterious. Interestingly enough, Wright's haiku "The Fog's Density" (OW, 318) and "Above Corn Tassels" (OW, 798) both focus on a frog's croaking, which sounds mysterious. In both poems the object depicted is hidden by a hazy mist as the croaking underscores a scene of mystery and nebulosity. In Wright's "Faint in Summer Haze" (OW, 388), green hills are hidden and nebulous because of a haze and clouds of flies.
Many of Wright's haiku also suggest the feeling typical of yugen that nothing in nature or human life remains the same and nothing is immortal. In "A Falling Petal" (OW, 83) the common destiny of a falling petal and a floating petal exhibits inevitable change in nature, as do the color and odor of a rose in "How Could This Rose Die?" (OW, 650). Similarly, in "Under the First Snow" (OW, 657), the color and sound of yellow leaves recall this change in nature.
Many of Wright's haiku are also composed in the manner of sabi,expressing loneliness, as does this published haiku by Wright:

An autumn sunset:
A buzzard sails slowly past,
Not flapping its wings.
(OW, 141)

Both "The Road Is Empty" (OW, 136) and "An Autumn Sunset," quoted above, express loneliness, as does Basho's famous "A Crow," with a reference to autumn. In Wright's unpublished "Yellow Petals Gone" (OW,125), the third line, "a drizzling rain," makes a clear reference to autumn, as do the other two pieces, and the second line, describing the sunflower with its yellow petals fallen off, reinforces a vision of loneliness. In "The Road Is Empty" and "An Autumn Sunset," one empty road leading into hills and a single buzzard sailing slowly in the open sky without flapping its wings, respectively, convey loneliness and isolation.
Wright's "Don't They Make You Sad" (OW, 581), "From the Rainy Dark" (OW, 584), and "O Cat with Gray Eyes" (OW, 594) also exhibit modes of expression characteristic of sabi and yugen. As pointed out earlier, the middle line of "Don't They Make You Sad" originates from a passage inBlack Boy. These three poems, with their dark backgrounds, all express feelings of loneliness as well as of mysteriousness.
Some contemporary Japanese haiku, though characterized by the sensibility of sabi, convey a sense of balance and harmony in human life. Such a mode of expression is also characteristic of some of Wright's haiku. In "While Convalescing" (OW, 224), a feeling of happiness suggested by red roses compensates for the loneliness suggested by convalescing, as the color of the flowers compensates for the absence of smell. In "Leaving the Doctor" (OW, 243), a feeling of isolation and loneliness, a modernist theme, is balanced by the presence of the doctor just as night is by day and sadness by happiness. Likewise, "In a Bar's Doorway" (OW, 405) depicts a scene in which spring wind counterbalances loneliness in human life.
As the sensibility of sabi produces an effect of balance and harmony, so does that of wabi, "the 'beauty' of poverty";39 it is a reflection of self-discipline and self-reliance in Zen Buddhism. The sensibility of wabi also has an affinity with Emerson in his belief in the primacy of nature over materialism. Many haiku in This Other World are characteristic of wabi,as this published haiku by Wright indicates:

Merciful autumn
Tones down the shabby curtains
Of my rented room.
(OW, 174)

Rotsu's haiku "The water-birds too / Are asleep / On the lake of Yogo?" depicts, as discussed earlier, the experience of a poet in which he could capture the beauty of the lake, a natural beauty only the beggar and artist saw. In the same way Wright's haiku, while describing his poverty and isolation, intimates the transcendence of materialism and the creation of beauty. The beauties of nature-as represented by one more winter in "In This Rented Room" (OW, 412), one buzzing fly in "This Tenement Room" (OW, 421), the moonlight in "I Am Paying Rent" (OW,459), and the autumn sun in "My Decrepit Barn" (OW, 695)-not only compensate for one's plight of existence but fulfill the ultimate goal of an artist.


While emulating the techniques of classic haiku poets, Wright also composed his own haiku by focusing on the spirit of nature. The great majority of his haiku constitute various representations of nature, as well as concise expressions of what nature means to human life. Many of his pieces simply express unity in nature in poignant contrast with disunity in society. As the unpublished "An Apple Blossom" (OW, 78), "Would Not Green Peppers" (OW, 527), and "From a Cotton Field" (OW, 725) show, the poet's vision has little to do with human life. "An Apple Blossom" describes not only a sense of unity and harmony between bees and flowers, but also an interaction between them that creates a beautiful scene of nature. "Would Not Green Peppers," as do many of Wright's haiku on nature, finds unity in the world of nature with a sense of humor. In "From a Cotton Field," as in the other two haiku, nature exists in its own unity and harmony.
Some of the haiku included toward the end of This Other World, such as "From the Cherry Tree" (OW, 730), "In Deep Deference" (OW, 791), and "A Tolling Church Bell" (OW, 795), provide images of unity both in nature and between man and nature. Because these poems depict the relationship not only between natural objects but also between man and nature, the mode of expression is not as simple as that in the three haiku described above. In "From the Cherry Tree," as a simple image created in the first two lines signals unity of man and nature, a metaphor in the third line alludes to unity of the living and the nonliving. "In Deep Deference" shows the unity that exists between the living and the nonliving on the basis of an interaction of the senses occurring between the softness of snowflakes and the gentleness of birds' cheeping. In showing an affinity between natural and human sounds, this haiku conveys an intuition that nature itself performs a concert. In "A Tolling Church Bell," the tolling of a church bell and the moonlight above, an interaction between man and nature, sound and sight, create a spell over a rat, part of nature.
A number of haiku in Wright's selection focus their poetic vision on man's union with nature. In some of these pieces, Wright offers simple, direct scenes in which man and nature exist in harmony, in contrast with those complex, intriguing scenes in society where man is always at strife. "Seen from a Hilltop" (OW, 42) finds unity in man and nature: a man, a mule, a rain, a meadow, and a hill. "In the Winter Dusk" (OW, 377), like "Seen from a Hilltop," is a direct description of a scene in which a girl lives in harmony with nature. It is not clear whether a girl leads a cow or a cow her: creating such an ambiguous image intensifies the unity and harmony between them. In "After the Sermon" (OW, 541), the seasonal reference is ambiguous, but Wright finds unity and an analogy between man and nature, "the preacher's voice" and "the caws of crows."
As Wright's finely composed haiku show, the manner of expression relies on an interaction and transference of the senses. In "The Cathedral Bell" (OW, 220), the interaction between the bell and the spring moon reflected on the river points to man's union with nature. Similarly, "From a Tenement" (OW, 253) creates an interaction between the sound of a trumpet and mists. In "From a Green Hilltop" (OW, 428), a transference of the senses between the tolling of a cathedral bell and the blue sky creates a harmonious picture of man and nature. In "Putting Out the Light" (OW, 539), the union of man with nature suggested by a transference between the light and the sound of sleet intensifies the natural phenomenon.
Whether perceiving nature for its own sake or in its relation to man, Wright's haiku thrive upon subtle interactions of the senses captured in seventeen syllables. For instance, in this published haiku the poet seems to detach himself from a natural scene:

The spring lingers on
In the scent of a damp log
Rotting in the sun.
(OW, 47)

The feeling of the warm sun, the scent of a damp log, the sight and silence of an outdoor scene-all coalesce into an image of spring. In the process the overall image evolves from the separate visual images of the sun, of the log, and of the atmosphere. The three images of sight, moreover, are intertwined with the images of warmth from the sun and the rotting log, as well as with the image of smell from the log, all five images interacting with one another. In another finely wrought haiku, Wright portrays man's relationship with nature in terms of art:

From across the lake,
Past the black winter trees,
Faint sounds of a flute.
(OW, 571)

Unlike "The Spring Lingers On," this haiku admits a human involvement in the scene: someone is playing the flute as the poet listens from the other side of the lake. Through a transference of the senses between the faint sounds of a flute and the black winter trees, an interaction of man and nature takes place. As the sound of man and the sight of nature affect each other, Wright has created beautiful images of man as well as of nature.
Traditionally, the haiku in its portrayal of man's association with nature often conveys a kind of enlightenment, a new way of looking at man and nature. In some of his haiku, Wright follows this tradition. "A Wilting Jonquil" (OW, 720) teaches the poet a lesson that nature out of its environment cannot exhibit its beauty. In "Lines of Winter Rain" (OW,722), the poet learns that only when an interaction between man and nature occurs can natural beauty be savored.
This revelatory tradition derived from Zen philosophy, which underlies much of the thirteenth-century Chinese art by such painters as Liang Kai and Mu-chi40 and much of the Japanese traditions of flower arrangement, tea ceremony, and haiku. Several of the pieces Wright selected and included toward the end of This Other World reflect his interest in Zen. For example, in "As My Anger Ebbs" (OW, 721) Wright tries to attain a state of mind called mu, nothingness, in Zen by controlling his emotion. This state of nothingness is not synonymous with a state of void, but leads to what Wright calls in Black Power "a total attitude toward life" (BP, 159). "So violent and fickle," he writes, "was nature that [the African] could not delude himself into feeling that he, a mere man, was at the center of the universe" (BP, 262). In this haiku, as Wright relieves himself of anger, he begins to see the stars "grow bright again" and "the wind" return. Only when he attains a state of nothingness and "a total attitude toward life" can he perceive nature with his enlightened senses.
Similarly, in "Why Did This Spring Wood" (OW, 809), Wright echoes questions posed by a Zen master: why nature remains silent and what nature is. A student of Zen, Wright in the haiku learns that he must attainmu, a state of nothingness that is absolutely free of any human-centered thought or emotion, of human selfishness and egoism. He also learns that this enlightenment is so completely free that such a consciousness corresponds to that of nature. Here he tries to give an admonition, as he does in many of his other haiku, that only by paying nature the utmost attention can human beings truly see themselves.
The four thousand haiku Wright wrote at the end of his life were a reflection of changes that had occurred during his career as a writer. But, more important, the new point of view and the new mode of expression he acquired in writing haiku suggest that Wright was convinced more than ever that materialism and its corollary, greed, were the twin culprits of racial conflict. Just as his fiction and nonfiction directly present this conviction, his haiku as racial discourse indirectly express the same conviction.



1. The manuscript consists of a title page and eighty-two pages, page 1 containing the first seven haiku and each of the other pages ten. The manuscript, dated 1960, is deposited among the Wright collection in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. I have numbered each of the haiku consecutively 1 through 817. Subsequent references will appear parenthetically in the text as OW, using these numbers.
2. See Fabre, Unfinished Quest, 505.
3. See R. H. Blyth, Haiku and A History of Haiku.
4. "Blueprint for Negro Writing," 45.
5. Ibid.
6. See Emerson, Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1820-1872, 318; Carpenter, Emerson and Asia, 150.
7. See "Richard Wright: I Curse the Day When for the First Time I Heard the Word 'Politics,'" in Conversations with Richard Wright,163.
8. See Hakutani, "Emerson, Whitman, and Zen Buddhism."
9. The translations of this verse and other Japanese poems quoted in this chapter, unless otherwise noted, are by Yoshinobu Hakutani.
10. Donald Keene, World within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1868, 13.
11. A group of poets including Ito Shintoku (1634-1698) and Ikenishi Gonsui (1650-1722) of the Teitoku school, and Uejima Onitsura (1661-1738), Konishi Raizan (1654-1716), and Shiinomoto Saimaro (1656-1738) of the Danrin school, each contributed to refining Basho's style (ibid., 56-70). A detailed historical account of haikaipoetry is given in ibid., 337-55.
12. The translation of this haiku is by Noguchi, in Selected English Writings of Yone Noguchi: An East-West Literary Assimilation, 2:73-74.
13. Ibid., 74.
14. Ibid., 69.
15. The original is quoted from Harold G. Henderson, An Introduction to Haiku, 49.
16. Selected English Writings of Noguchi, 2:74.
17. The original is quoted from Fujio Akimoto, Haiku Nyumon, 23.
18. The original is quoted from Noichi Imoto, Basho: Sono Jinsei to Geijutsu, 231.
19. The original is quoted from ibid., 86. The English version is quoted from Blyth, History of Haiku, 2:xxix. The middle line in a later version of the poem reads: "Karasu no tomari keri" (Henderson, Introduction to Haiku, 18). The earlier version has a syllabic measure of 5-10-5 while the later one has 5-9-5, both unusual patterns.
20. The original is quoted from Imoto, Basho, 117.
21. The original is quoted from Akimoto, Haiku Nyumon, 200.
22. The original is quoted from "Meigetsu / ya / tatami-no / ue / ni / matsu-no-kage" (Henderson, Introduction to Haiku, 58).
23. The No Plays of Japan, 21-22.
24. See Max Loehr, The Great Paintings of China, 216.
25. Blyth, History of Haiku, 2:vii.
26. The originals of both haiku are quoted from Henderson, Introduction to Haiku, 160.
27. The original is quoted from ibid., 164.
28. The original is quoted from Akimoto, Haiku Nyumon, 222.
29. Blyth, History of Haiku, 2:347.
30. The original is quoted from ibid., 2:322.
31. Quoted and translated by Keene, World within Walls, 81.
32. The original is quoted from ibid., 81.
33. See Blyth, History of Haiku, 2:viii-ix.
34. Quoted and translated by Keene, World within Walls, 93.
35. The third line in Moritake's hokku, "Koch? kana," has five syllables since the long o consists of two syllables in Japanese. The original and the translation are quoted from Blyth, History of Haiku, 2:56.
36. Pound, "Vorticism." For the influence of haiku on Pound's imagism, see Hakutani, "Ezra Pound, Yone Noguchi, and Imagism."
37. Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius, 313.
38. A literal translation of Basho's "A Crow" (the original given earlier) is "On a withered branch / A crow is perching: / Sunset in autumn." In Blyth's translation (History of Haiku, 2:xxix), "A crow" is in the first line instead of the second.
39. Ibid., 2:viii.
40. See Loehr, The Great Painters of China, 215-25.