02 May 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/18

Five Haiku

       Just enough of rain
To set black ants a-swimming
       Over yellow sand.

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

       On the pond's bottom
The faint shadow of a fish
       Flitting on white sand.

       Just enough of rain
To bring the smell of silk
       From umbrellas.

       Trembling on the wall,
A yellow water shadow
       From the lake outside.

Richard Wright, Haiku 100 - 104

About a year and a half before his death in Paris in late 1960, Richard Wright, the great American novelist best known for his examinations of the African-American experience, discovered the haiku form (not as well-known then as it is today). He became obsessed with writing them. He ended up creating thousands of them, and shortly before his death, he chose 817, which were finally published in 1998. His daughter Julia Wright has shared her memory of him in his final days, carrying his haiku binder everywhere, counting syllables, writing pages of them and hanging them up "as if to dry". She connects the brevity of the form, and its syllable-by-syllable counting, with the shortness of his breath in his last months.

It may seem odd that a novelist who could be called an American Zola both for his realist manner and for his passionate engagement with social justice through the radical politics of his time should end his career writing such verses, brief yet strictly controlled in form, each a little flash of observation, but in fact there are many connections, aesthetically and even politically, between Wright's artistry in his novels and in his final poems. Though haiku seem very stylized as a result of the brevity and control of the form, they generally describe things that are readily observable and often everyday, even commonplace; in other words, they are coming from as much of a realist tradition as a lengthy novel about poor blacks in a Chicago slum. A "haiku in prose" could easily form part of the stage-setting for a novel, or provide the sort of point-of-view realization that lends verisimilitude as well as psychological depth to fiction. Wright was drawn to philosophy, particularly the postwar existentialists; the haiku is a philosophical form, embodying the fleeting quality of time and the importance of noticing; it's the noticing that turns the insignificant significant, that makes life memorable and might perhaps give it whatever meaning it has. And noticing is also where haiku connects with the political world: accurate and close observation, unguided and unhindered by theories, agendas, or interests, is still one of the most radical political acts possible.

The sequence I've put here is sort of randomly chosen by me. They do share several elements, such as a sense of fleeting, barely noticeable things – just enough of rain, a phrase which occurs twice; quickly vanishing, first drops, the faint shadow of a fish flitting on a pond bottom, a water-shadow (refracted light) trembling on the wall. The only human presence is an implied one, in the old wooden door, in the umbrellas lightly struck by rain, in the wall reflecting the light off the lake outside; the natural world is very close to and encroaches on these man-made things, the door, the umbrella, the wall. There is close, even minute, observation – the drops of rain hitting the wood of the old door, the ants set a-swimming by the rain (Wright may have chosen a-swimming rather than swimming for the sake of the syllable count, but I love its folksy sound, which gives a rural feel to the poem.) There are a few strong, simple colors – black ants, yellow sand, white sand, yellow water-shadow. As is traditional in haiku, each contains a suggestion of what the season is – in one it's explicit that it's a summer rain, but in the others you can guess that it's definitely not winter, or even fall; with the light rain, the active ants and fish, the not-frozen lake, it's most likely late spring or summer. And above all, these poems share a sense of evanescent, barely noticed beauty being drawn to our attention before it too passes away.

These are from Haiku: This Other World by Richard Wright, edited and with notes and afterword by Yoshinobu Hakutani and Robert L. Tener, with an introduction by Julia Wright. It looks as if the paperback edition has a different subtitle, either The Last Poems of an American Icon or The Last Poetry of Richard Wright, depending on whether you go by the Amazon entry or the picture of the cover in that same entry. I assume the contents are the same as the first edition, and I prefer the original subtitle.


Civic Center said...

"And noticing is also where haiku connects with the political world: accurate and close observation, unguided and unhindered by theories, agendas, or interests, is still one of the most radical political acts possible." Is this yours or from someone else? It's one of the most brilliant sentences I've ever read.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thank you, it's mine (if I were quoting someone, I would have marked the words and attributed them). I'm sure others have made similar observations, though -- I think it was Conrad who used to say words to the effect of "I am trying above all to make you see." It's surprisingly difficult to take in what is actually there.