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Tuesday, April 27, 1999

Haiku as a tether to life and emotional safety net

HAIKU: This Other World, by Richard Wright, edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani and Robert L. Tener, with an introduction by Julia Wright. Arcade Publishers, distributed by Little, Brown, 1998, 320 pp., $23.50 (cloth).

Richard Wright (1908-60) author of the classic 20-th-century novels "Black Boy" and "Native Son," was living in exile in Paris and facing death when he began to write haiku. So deep was his connection and so strong his commitment to the form that he composed over 4,000 verses during the last 18 months of his life, carrying his notebook with him throughout the day.

In the "mathematical" syllable count he found a kind of emotional net, and in the deep connection with nature he found a kind of mirror for the seasons of the soul.

According to his daughter Julia, Wright's haiku were "self-developed antidotes against illness," wherein "breaking down words into syllables matched the shortness of his breath." She read this haiku at his memorial: Burning out its time,/ And timing its own burning, / One lonely candle.

Wright, who had written so searingly about the displacement of the African-American male in American culture and his own bitter youth in the American South, found himself increasingly alienated from American society and more politically motivated as a writer and thinker, in part driven by the belief that counterintelligence agents were tracking his movements (a hunch which critics ascribed to his "paranoia," but which was later proved to have been correct.)

Toward the end of his life, he was also in a state of emotional exile, mourning the deaths of two of his closest friends and his mother, whom he had written about searchingly in "Black Boy." He also faced a kind of physical exile from the body, as his health began to deteriorate. I am nobody: / A red sinking autumn sun / Took my name away.

Like other Western writers of his day, Wright was introduced to haiku in translation through the work of R.H. Blyth and others. Unlike poets such as Ezra Pound or Wallace Stevens, who experimented more freely with the verse's structure while keeping its basic imagistic nature, Wright seems to have stuck tenaciously to a strict syllable count and often incorporated a seasonal reference.

And unlike poets of the Beat generation such as Allan Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, who wrote a handful of haiku, Wright wrote 4,000 over his last year and a half. He then chose 817 and compiled them as they appear here.

Wright paid homage to great forebears of the form such as Basho and Issa, sometimes quite directly, other time more obliquely. This might have been inspired by Issa: Make up your mind, Snail! / Your are halfway inside your house, And halfway out.

Here, the homage to Basho is obvious: A horse is pissing / In the snow-covered courtyard / In the morning sun.

Many are thoroughly original. Through this masterful volume, readers can deepen their appreciation of Wright's work and gain a better understanding of some of the philosophical and artistic concerns of his literary universe.

Exile in Paris was far from the world Wright had grown up in -- rural Mississippi. The once-inhospitable world of nature, which the young writer had equated with hunger and suffering due to his experiences as "a poor black child in one of the world's most fertile landscapes," now offered peace and the possibility of connection in the minimalist landscape of haiku.

The editors tell us that Wright lived from 1947 to 1960 in a farm in Ailly, Normandy, and spent his afternoons working in his garden. His daughter recalls that he hung the haiku up on a clothesline "as if to dry." "Oh, Mr. Scarecrow, / Stop waving your arms about / Like a foreigner."

As his illness worsened, Wright reflected on another world beyond race or politics -- this other world just beneath the surface of everyday perception -- and magnified its moments with humor, joy, dignity and a kind of imagistic delicacy, while touching on those broader themes. And where his writing was once forceful and direct, here it is gentle and suggestive: In the falling snow / A laughing boy holds out his palms / Until they are white.

While nature plays a large role in Wright's haiku, and humor can be found in the many "senryu" collected here, the themes of loss, betrayal, exile, wandering, mourning and longing surface over and over again.

Yet, haiku seems to have offered Wright a kind of nurturing in the face of his own death, a spiritual home in exile. It's almost as if by accepting the cyclical spirit of nature rather than struggling against it, one can accept the human spirit with all of its inherent contradictions and losses. Ultimately, one finds a kind of home.

Richard Wright has done this through and in his haiku, and we are to be grateful that this outstanding volume has at last found its home in print. The manuscript has had a long journey to publication over the past 39 years, first rejected by the World Publishing Company and then held for years in Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Its publication is indeed a major literary event. Haiku has arrived in the hands of a great American writer who has enlarged and, in many cases, emboldened the form.

That Wright's journey from poor country boy to world-renowned author of emotionally charged works that railed against injustice culminated in this collection of quiet, emotionally restrained verse seems appropriate. In the end, Wright sought what the great haiku masters sought, and seems to have found a kind of hard-won transcendence through struggle and acceptance.

"Haiku: This Other World" is an outstanding addition to Wright's literary and humanist achievements and stands as a beacon to this other world, masterful and free.

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