The Other World of Richard Wright: Perspectives on His Haiku, edited by Jianqing Zheng (Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 2011). 202 pages; 6.25 x 9.25 inches. Hardbound with semigloss tan and black covers. ISBN 978-1-617030-22-2. Price: $55.00 from <http://www.upress.state.ms.us/books/1401>.
In my experience, haiku poets have mixed feelings about well-known, mainstream writers who occasionally venture into haiku. On the one hand, many appreciate the spotlight that inevitably results when a famous writer delves into the genre. However, many are also understandably concerned about the quality of the work and the disproportionate attention that it may receive. The Other World of Richard Wright, a collection of critical essays about the iconic writer's haiku, will provoke these conflicting sentiments.
The African American author of Native Son and Black Boy was introduced to haiku in 1959, approximately a year before his death. Suffering from amoebic dysentery, Wright was given a copy of Blyth's four-volume Haiku. Richard Ladonisi recounts: "Finding the form irresistible, Wright began composing in August 1959 and, within a few months, he had written 4,000 haiku. By March of 1960, Wright had typed the poems; by the middle of April, he had selected 817 that he hoped to publish." Wright's daughter Julia recalls that during this period her father "was never without his haiku binder under his arm. He wrote them everywhere, at all hours." (Richard Wright, Haiku: This Other World, vii).
In the introduction to the present volume, editor Jianqing Zheng asserts that Wright's sole haiku collection, Haiku: This Other World, "has remained almost invisible to the public since its debut" thirty-eight years after his death. Zheng hopes to remedy this: "I believe that Wright's haiku have enriched contemporary American literature, and I hope this collection of criticism will lead readers to the fragrant tree" of Wright's haiku. It's telling that Zheng says that Wright's haiku have enriched American literature—but does not say that they have enriched American haiku, or English-language haiku, or the haiku tradition in general. Most of the scholars in this volume approach Wright's haiku not from the perspective of haiku and haiku technique, but from other genres, including African American and postcolonial literatures. With few exceptions, the emphasis is not on Wright's haiku as haiku but rather on Wright's haiku in other contexts and filtered through different theoretical frameworks. Not surprisingly, the effects are both good and bad.
A typical example is the essay "Female Imagery, Exploitation, and Richard Wright's Journey to His Other World" by Shawnrece Campbell, who directs the Africana Studies Program at Stetson University. Campbell offers a reading of several of Wright's haiku about women, including the following:
Sun is glinting on
A washerwoman's black arms
In cold creek water.
Campbell writes: "A washerwoman's black arms which should 'naturally' be warmed by the sun are actually cold. Why? Historically, this seems a critique of the unnatural labor practices (slavery and colonialism) that prevent the black woman's, as well as all black people's, ability to be a natural person in the world." While offering sensitive and insightful analysis of several poems, Campbell does not offer any haiku criticism per se. There is little discussion of haiku technique. She does not address internal structure (kireji, juxtaposition of images, etc.). She gives no attention to the uses of tense and suggestion. She does discuss seasonality, but without reference to haiku by any other poet. Indeed, Campbell's insights about haiku borrow heavily from the afterword of This Other World by Yoshinobu Hakutani and Robert Tener. No haiku journal articles are listed as sources; the only book listed is This Other World.
Unfortunately, this is typical for the bulk of the essays: minimal analysis of haiku technique, criticism grounded in other theoretical approaches, and a paucity of haiku sources. In other words, the majority of these scholars care about, and evaluate, Wright's haiku not as haiku but rather more generically as literature. Zheng himself acknowledges this when he compares the single essay in the volume (by Lee Gurga) that is focused on haiku practices: "While most of the selected essays focus on the importance and themes of Richard Wright's haiku, the concluding essay, 'Richard Wright's Place in American Haiku' by Lee Gurga, distinguishes itself by pointing out the weaknesses of Wright's haiku through an expert analysis of the haiku techniques." In other words, in these essays you'll find references to Homi Bhabha but not to Paul O. Williams.
For haiku students, there are pluses and minuses to this approach. On the one hand, new insights might be derived from different theoretical approaches. For instance, focusing on the biography of the poet can certainly provide clues to the meaning of his or her work, and may add another layer for appreciation.
The downside is that many haiku poets will, frankly, find much of the haiku criticism to be subpar and simplistic. Many of the essays proceed as if there has been no haiku scholarship in the nearly six decades since the publication of Blyth's four-volume series. They suffer as a result.
It is important to note that there are exceptions. The essays by Sanehide Kodama and Sachi Nakachi follow interesting tangents. Both are grounded in a thorough understanding of the genre. Kodama does endeavor to place Wright's work in the context of American haiku. Nakachi argues that Wright used haiku to create a new form of modern African American literature. Finally, Lee Gurga provides an explicit framework for understanding haiku and proceeds to honestly assess Wright's work. Gurga points out the flaws, from the use of personification to padding poems to conform to the seventeen syllable format. Gurga tempers this criticism with the understanding that Wright was not afforded the opportunity to continue to learn about haiku.
The Other World of Richard Wright should interest students of Wright's body of work. The volume may lead new readers to haiku. However, though it offers a few gems, this volume overall will probably not excite practicing haiku poets. They will be better served by reading Wright's collection and guiding themselves.