Richard Wright and Haiku: A Review

richard wright and haikuThe worst “scholarly” book I’ve ever read.

The title might lead you to think this book is about Richard Wright and Hiaku; but I guess only fools judge a book by its title. The book is actually a loose collection of essays of which the first four, 76 out of 150 pages, (or just over half the book) has nothing whatsoever to do with Richard Wright.

My mistake, I suppose, was in not taking the book jacket’s back matter at face value:

Richard Writing and Haiku  is presented in two parts. In the first, Hakutani traces the genesis and decelopment of haiku in Japan, discusses the role of earlier poets — including Yone Noguchi and Ezra Pound — in the verse’s development in Japan and in the West, and deals with both haiku and haiku criticism written in English.

Given that the title showcases Richard Wright’s name as the centerpiece of the cover jacket, I mistakenly thought that these first “chapters” — really distinct essays with embarrassingly facile edits meant to draw them together — might somehow relate to Richard Wright. They don’t. So, keep that in mind if you decide to consider this book. The first half of the book isn’t about Richard Wright.

Getting on to what really irritates me: the poor writing and the banal, facile “scholarship”.  The writing is so poor that I first thought the author, Yoshinobu Hakutani, must be Japanese. Were that the case, much could  be forgiven (and more blame to the publishers for poor editing); but the opposite appears to be true. According to the inside cover, Hakutani is Professor of English and University Distinguished Scholar at Kent State University in Ohio.

Good God.

The first thing the reader will notice is the bizarre repetitiveness of the book. In the Introduction, the third paragraph will start:

By 1680, when Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) wrote the first version of his celebrated haiku on a frog jumping into the water…  [p. 1]

The fourth paragraph of the first chapter will start:

By the time Basho wrote his famous poem on the frog jumping into the cold pond… [p. 20]

Later, Hakutani will repeat an entire two sentences within the space of a page. To whit, Page 80:

In 1953, Wright traveled to Africa and published Black Power the following year. In 1955 he attended the Bandung Conference of the Third World; two years later he was a member of the First Congress of Negro Artists and Writers, which met in Paris in September. During the same period he liked to work in his garden on his Normandy farm, an activity that supplied many themes for his haiku.

And Page 81-82

Back in 1953, Wright attended the Bandung Conference of the Third World; two years later he was a member of the First Congress of Negro Artists and Writers, which met in Paris in September. During the same period he liked to work in his garden on his Normandy farm, an activity that supplied many themes for his haiku. Of his experience in this period, Wright’s travel to the newly independent Ghana… & etc.

But maybe that’s an honest editorial ctrl+cctrl+v-mistake? As he hurriedly moved paragraphs around he forgot to delete the source paragraph (try ctrl+x next time?). Distinguished Scholars and Professor’s of English do this sort of thing all the time. Less obviously, but still needlessly repetitive, are Hakutani’s repeated assertions that Wright was influenced by  R.H. Blythe’s four volume study on haiku:

Harold G. Henderson, in An Introduction to Haiku, gives thanks to R.H. Blythe, with whom he had personal contact, and refers to Blythe’s “monumental four-volume work on haiku.” And William J. Higginson, the Haiku Handbook, refers to the American writer Richard Wright and says that he had studied R.H. Blythe’s books and “wrote several hundred [it was actually more than four thousand] haiku during the last year and a half of his life.” [p. 80]

In the late 1950s Wright borrowed R.H. Blythe’s four volume book of haiku from Sinclair Beiles, a South African Beat poet. [p. 108]

When Wright studied R.H. Blythe’s four volumes on the art and history of haiku…  [p. 135]

Just as tragedy is considered a higher genre of literature than comedy, haiku is classed higher than senryu. R.H. Blythe, from whom Wright learned how to write haiku and senryu… [p. 142]

In studying R.H. Blythe’s volumes of Japanese haiku, Wright was deeply impressed with the Buddhist theory of trimigration… [p. 150]

How many times do we need to know that Blythe’s works were “four volume”, or that they were “volumes”, or that he studied them (as if he hadn’t already told us)? This kind of repetitiveness is probably a result of each coming from a separate essay — or “chapter’ —  but avoidable if Hakutani had taken the time to re-arrange the essays into a cohesive book. Am I nitpicking? But the larger problem is the astonishingly poor, hardly undergraduate-worthy, “scholarship”. Let’s go chapter by chapter (skipping the introduction).

Chapter 1, The Genesis and Development of Haiku in Japan, is vaporously uninformative.  No one without a prior familiarity with haiku is going to learn anything whatsoever about their genesis or development. Consider that it takes Hakutani all of two paragraphs (of the opening three) to move from “The genesis of haiku can be seen in the waka…” to  “By the time Basho wrote his famous poem on the frog…” There’s zero discussion of Waka, other than to mention that it’s a 5-7-5-7-7 verse form. Renga, from which Haiku really got started, aren’t even mentioned.  So much for the “genesis” or “development” of haiku. But Hakutani apparently decides he’s covered it. The next seven pages are essentially a checklist with examples: “human life in association with nature”, “unity of sentiment”, yugen, sabi, Shiki’s “modernist challenge”, wabi. Hakutani’s habit is to print a haiku, then breifly analyze it — but his analyses are embarrassingly obvious – barely worthy of a high school student. In discussing Sabi,  Hakutani offers the following haiku:

In the hospital room
I have built a nest box but
Swallows appear not.

Then writes:

Not only do the first and third lines express facts of loneliness, but also the patient’s will to live, suggested by the second line, evokes a poignant sensibility. 

And that’s that. This is what a distinguished scholar gives you. Nothing of a haiku’s uniqueness is conveyed. By the time we’re done with the first chapter, the uninitiated reader will have learned only that haiku can be like the thinly explained yugen, sabi, and wabi, and will have learned nothing about their genesis, development or what distinguishes them from western poetic practice. Hakutani writes: “Haiku traditionally avoided such subjects as earthquakes, floods, illnesses, and eroticism — ugly aspects of nature or humanity. Instead haiku poets were drawn to such objects as flowers, nests, birds, sunset, the moon, and genuine love.” Which, when you think about it, makes the entirety of the Japanese poetic tradition seem like nothing more than a meeting of the Victorian Ladies Poetry Society.  La!  Most importantly, Hakutani is flatly wrong. Some of Japan’s most striking haiku touch on the ugliness of nature. For example:

A flying squirrel
munches a small bird’s bones
in a bare winter field 

~ Buson

Chapter 2 is called Basho and Haiku Poetics. The essay doesn’t so much as mention Wright. It examines Basho’s Haku for their “affinity with nature” 28-30, Confucianism 30-33, Buddhism 33-36, Zen 36-39, “juxtaposition of imagery” 39-41, and “unity of sentiments” 41-43. That’s all well and fine, but there’s a checklist feel to the essay’s progression and any explanation of Confucianism or Buddhism, for example, is of the most generic kind.  For instance:

A Zen point of view enables one to see things in humanity and nature more objectively. Zen teaches us to gain freedom from our ideas and desires. Basho expresses this notion in his haiku:

To be rained upon, in winter,
And not even an umbrella-hat, —
Well, well! 

From a human point of view, being rained on when you do not have an umbrella is uncomfortable. From nature’s perspective, however, rain provides water for all objects in nature; water, nourishing plants and animals, creates more life on earth. [p. 39]

First of all, it’s not even clear that this was Basho’s intention. Rain “in winter”?  What plants need a nourishing rain in winter, but then again perhaps Basho wrote this in a more tropical clime? We don’t know because Hakutani doesn’t do any of the work that might inform us. Out of curiosity, I checked the weather forecast for Atsuta, Japan (it’s presently the middle of January) and came up with the following:

atsuta forecast

So, it’s a safe bet that since Basho was walking to Atsuta (he wasn’t flying in from a northern clime) the rain was a comparatively warm one (compared to New England).

Another translation from here, reads:


no rain hat in the winter showers? well, well!

kasa mo naki / ware o shigururu ka / ko wa nan to

A later footnote adds the following literal translation and explanatory information: 

hat even is-not / me ! winter-shower ? / this as-for what

• Winter: winter showers (shigure*). 1684–85. In another version, the last line is literally “what what” (nan to nan to).

shigure (verb:shiguru): early winter showers. Brief, intermittent, cold showers or drizzle of early winter and sometimes late autumn. WINTER.

Matsuobasho-wkd offers the following translation:

kasa mo naki ware o shigururu ka ko wa nantono

rain hat
in the winter showers?
well, well!

~ Tr. Barnhill Written in 貞亨元年, Nozarashi Kiko, on the way to Atsuta. Winter of 1684/85

He was surprised by a sleet shower on the road.

shigure 時雨 is not simply a kigo for winter, it also expresses the important “fuuryuu 風流” furyu – “poetic elegance” in Japanese poetry. ko wa nan to – short for nan to nan to shows his great way with choosing words.

 Of the word fuuryuu, the site Jaanus has this to say:

Lit. refined taste. An aesthetic ideal implying traditional elegance, chic stylishness, creative ingenuity, and sometimes, eroticism . The term is derived from the equally broad Chinese, fengliuu 風流, which originally meant good etiquette, but eventually came to signify the opposite, and later referred to various types of beauty. In 8c Japan, fuuryuu was used to mean urbane manners but soon came to refer to things elegant, tasteful, or artistic. By the Heian period, fuuryuu could indicate either an elegant object or a cultivated person. In later centuries fuuryuuevolved several quite distinct meanings and usages. The word was used frequently in the poetry of the Zen priest *Ikkyuu 一休 (1394-1481) who, drawing upon the range of Chinese implications, used it to mean alternately the rarified beauty of monastic life, the essence of an eremitic existence, and the charm of sexual relations. The sensual side of fuuryuu emerged in the Momoyama period fad for the fuuryuu dance found in *Houkokusai 豊国祭 screens. More broadly, the concept of fuuryuu can be seen as the operative aesthetic in 17c genre painting *fuuzokuga 風俗画. The term fuuryuu was also used to distinguish popular styles of arts such as garden design, flower arrangement, and *chanoyu 茶湯. For example, the style of *wabi わび tea was often refered to as wabifuuryuu わび風流. In the Edo period literature of the floating world *ukiyo zoushi 浮世草子, also called fuuryuubon 風流本, fuuryuu implied an up-to-date stylishness, often with erotic implications. It is related to the aesthetic ideals of *sui 粋 and *iki いき. fuuryuu often appears in titles of *ukiyo-e 浮世絵 prints, particularly parody pieces *mitate-e 見立絵.fuuryuu was also applied to haiku 俳句 and to southern paintings *nanga 南画 where it implied a work based upon a past style. 

So, perhaps this shows some small measure of the cultural knowledge a Japanese reader can bring to a single haiku. Hakutani communicates none of it. And I’m also not convinced by Hakutani’s reading or translation  — is it Hakutani’s? But my overall argument with Hakutani is that he conveys none of the subtlety or complexity  of haiku. He prints a given haiku, then gives facile summaries that usually amount to no more than two or three sentences. He’ll write that a given haiku portrays Basho’s loneliness, and “that a living being is connected to another”, and that therefore the haiku reminds him of the loneliness in a Langston Hughes poem — the kind of thing I’d expect from a grade-school book report. But why stop there? Surely it also reminds him of every other poem, in just about every other language, that’s ever been about “loneliness” and ‘connected beings’.

His next two essays — Yone Noguchi and Japanese Poetics and Ezra Pound, Imagism, and Haiku — examine the poetry of Noguchi, then make the circumstantial argument that it was Noguchi who was responsible for Pound’s  theories of imagism — “Direct treatment of the thing … (or object)”.

  • Noguchi was born in Japan and learned English as a second language. He eventually emigrated to California and being a deep admirer of western poetry, began writing it. (While Noguchi’s poetry isn’t all that good, one does have to admire anyone who can write passable poetry in foreign language).

But to the first of the two essays. Hakutani’s weakness as a reader of poetry comes to the fore when he attempts to trace the influence of Japanese poetic aesthetic in Noguchi’s poetry.

…more importantly [Noguchi] is suggesting that Japanese poets always go to nature to make human life mmeaningful to make “humanity more intensive”. They share artistic susceptibility where,as Noguchi writes, “the sunlight falls on the laughter of woods and waters, where the birds sing my the flowers.” This mystical affinity between humanity and nature, between the beauty of love and the beauty of natural phenomena, is best stated in this verse by Noguchi:

It’s accident to exist as a flower or a poet;
A mere twist of evolution but from the same force;
I see no form in them but only beauty in evidence;
It’s the single touch of their imagination to get the embodiment of a poet or a flower:
To be a poet is to be a flower,
To be the dancer is to make the singer sing.

The fusion of humanity and nature, and the intensity of love and beauty with which it occurs, can be amply seen in haiku… [p. 54]

Yes, the fusion of humanity and nature can be amply seen in haiku, but it can also be amply seen in poetry straight back to Chaucer (let alone Blake or Whitman). Noguchi is writing firmly in the Western tradition — no need to reference haiku. And there’s nothing uniquely Zen in a poet’s desiring union with nature, though Hakutani seems to think so (as if that’s all that Zen were about). A page later, Hakutani will claim that personification and anthropomorphism is somehow a unique indication of haiku’s influence:

An empty cup whence the light of passion is drunk! —
To-day a sad rumour passes through the tree
A chill wind borne by the stream,
The waves shiver in pain;
Where now the cicada’s song long and hot?

Such images as chilly wind and the shivering waves are not used to signal the passing of summer. Rather the chilly wind and the shivering waves themselves constitute the passing of summer. Similarly, such phrases as “the light of passion” and “the cicada’s song long and hot” are not metonymies of summer, thereby expressing nostalgia or some sort of sentiment about summer; instead they are the summer itself. In Noguchi’s poetry, then, as in classic haiku, poetry and sensation are spontaneously joined in one and the same, so that there is scarcely any room left for rationalism or moralism. [p. 56]

  • Personification n. A figure of speech in which inanimate objects or abstractions are endowed with human qualities or are represented as possessing human form, as in Hunger sat shivering on the road or Flowers danced about the lawn. Also called prosopopeia.

Here’s an example from Shakespeare:

“When well-appareled April on the heel
Of limping winter treads.”

Was Shakespeare also influenced by classic haiku?  

Hakutani then goes on to assert that Pound was influenced by Noguchi. Pound was strongly influenced by Chinese and Japanese aesthetics (as far as he understood them); and Pound’s famous haiku “In a Station of the Metro” put into practice what he learned — a “Direct treatment of the thing”. (Stevens and Williams, respectively, would later write:”Not ideas about the thing but the thing itself” and “No ideas but in things”.) So, if Noguchi was a  primary influence on Pound’s poetics then by extension Noguchi is partly responsible for Imagism and western poetry’s modernist movement (hence Hakutani’s interest in the subject and his effort to trace the influence back to haiku). He highlights some of the apparent affinities between Pound and Noguchi’s poetics (which may or may not indicate familiarity between the poets), but only waits until the end, with a single closing paragraph, to make his central argument:

Noguchi’s English poems had been widely circulated in London well before September 1914, when Pound’s vorticism essay appeared, and Noguchi’s essay on hokku in Rhythm and his book The Spirit of Japanese Poetry were published in January 1913 and March 1914, respectively. The material in the essay and the book was delivered in a series of lectures during his stay in English from December 1913 to April 1914. In these circumstances it is hardly conceivable that the imagists did not acquaint themselves with Noguchi’s ideas. Even though Pound’s modernist theory might partly have derived from other sources, one can scarcely overlook the direct link between haiku and Pound’s imagism through Noguchi.

Yes, I suppose anything is possible. We go from “hardly conceivable” to “might partly have” to “one can scarcely overlook the direct link”. Unfortunately, the only evidence to support Hakutani’s assertions is circumstantial (it’s typical academic legerdemain to skip so lightly from the vacuous “hardly conceivable” to a therefore “direct link”). Hakutani overplays his hand, and it’s unnecessary. But what does any of this have to do with Richard Wright?

Chapter 5 finally begins a discussion of Wright, a ten page essay called Haiku and Haiku Criticism in English. This essay efficiently enumerates the haiku books Wright and others might have read. Hakutani’s version of examining criticism of Haiku in English literally amounts to nothing more than quoting, verbatim, two pages of Higginson (which are actually some of the more insightful passages on Wright).

The next five essays are essentially “the book” you thought you were buying: Wright’s Haiku as English Poems, Wright’s Haiku and Classic Haiku Poetics, Wright’s Haiku and Modernist Poetics, Wright’s Haiku and Africa, Wright’s Haiku as Senryu. What’s absent in these chapters is any sense of Wright’s personality or of his place, as a living breathing poet, among other poets of the day. There’s no human interest. As is Hakutani’s habit, each essay is a checklist of observations — in this haiku we see X, in this haiku we see Y, etc… The comments tend toward the utterly banal:

The path in the woods
Is barred by spider webs
Beaded with spring rain.
(Haiku 76)

On which Hakutani writes:

“The Path in the Woods” portraying a scene of spring where insects live in their natural environment, creates an image of beauty. [p. 92]

And that’s that. That’s the flavor of all the comments from this distinguished scholar. The banal summaries add nothing to our understanding of Wright and they often miss the deeper sublimity of the poems:

In a drizzling rain
In a flower shop’s doorway,
A girl sells herself.
(Haiku 415)

The dreary scene of a drizzling rain is brightened by a flower shop, but the unhappy vision of a prostitute would make the viewer disillusioned. [p. 148]

He seems to completely miss the comparison between the girls and flowers, both for sale. And what is being compared to what? And when Hakutani’s not telling us what’s already obvious he seems at a loss, making observations that aren’t so much obvious as just plain sophomoric:

Wright also learned how to express loneliness from Issa, who wrote haiku such as this:

For you fleas too,
The night must be long,
It must be lonely.

Wright composed the following:

For you, O gulls,
I order slaty waters
And this leaden sky!
(Haiku 2)

While Issa employs the image of a flea to express human loneliness, Wright describes gulls, slaty waters, and leaden sky to create a visual effect of loneliness. [p. 111]

The notion that Wright learned how to express loneliness from Issa is just aggravatingly absurd — but Hakutani has to write something and at first glance — maybe — the assertion looks substantive. A page later Hakutani will claim that “Wright substituted English punctuation marks for cutting words. For example” Hakutani writes “the exclamation point at the end of the first line is a substitute for the cutting word, ya, a sigh of admiration:

Look, look, look!
These are all the violets
Left by last night’s rain!
(Haiku 435)

The assertion is beyond silly. As if every poet who ever wrote a haiku in English decided: “Hey! Why don’t I substitute punctuation marks for kireji! I wasn’t even going to use punctuation marks!” But it’s this sort of assertion (which I can only assign to his being at a loss for anything better) that repeatedly mars Hakutani’s essays. Again and again he’ll link this or that word, image or sentiment to the influence of Japanese poetics, sensibility and culture when there’s simply no need to. It’s forced, concocted, and distorts Wright’s poetic practice. For instance, how much did Wright really know about or understand Zen? Hakutani never discusses the matter and yet, in a footnote, he can confidently assert the following:

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

In this haiku, Wright tries to attain the state of mu, nothingness, by controlling his emotion. This state of nothingness, however, is not synonymous with a state of void, but leads to what Wright calls in Black Power “a total attitude toward life.” “So violent and fuckle,” 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.” In this haiku, 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 achieves a “total attitude toward life” can he perceive nature with his enlightened senses. [p. 197]

Zen in English LiteratureWithout any background or biographical support, the explanation could just as easily be cut from whole cloth. There’s no compelling reason to think that Wright’s haiku drew on such an intimate knowledge of Zen. Here’s what I mean: Among the many books R.H. Blythe wrote on Oriental poetics was Zen In English Literature and Oriental Classics in which he extracted haiku/zen-like passages from poets and writers of the western canon. Does this mean that Keats or Blake studied Zen or that Zen influenced their poetry? No. It means that poets and writers have realized the same insights without the Zen.  Zen systematized a certain kind of philosophy, but much (if not most) of Zen’s sentiments are not unique.

tao and the bardOr consider a little book I recently picked up on a lark: The Tao and the Bard: A Conversation. It’s a great little book. And what’s eerie (and amazing) is how Shakespeare’s phrasing and thought so closely parallels Lao Tsu’s.

Lao Tsu:

Out of tao comes the One,
out of one come two,
out of two, three.
From three all things come.


Why railest thou on thy birth? the heaven and earth?
Since birth, and heaven, and earth, all three do meet
In thee at once. [p. 68]

If a distinguished scholar like Hakutani got hold of the book, one wonders whether he’d soon be adumbrating Shakespeare’s indebtedness to Lao Tsu and the philosophy of Toaists (as if poets weren’t capable of sublime insight without Zen or Taoism). It’s nonsense; and a book like The Tao and the Bard demonstrates why. The difference of course is that Wright read Blythe and was exposed to the philosophy of Zen — but to what degree? Japanese scholars, even among themselves, debate the degree to which Basho’s haiku are really indebted to Zen.

The bottom line is that Hakutani makes assertions that are, for all we know, entirely baseless. That makes his insights into Wright’s poetry questionable (a more responsible author might simply draw attention to the parallels between Wright’s poetry and Zen). To ascribe Wright’s insights to “Zen” risks distorting and even diminishing Wright’s poetic accomplishment.

I can’t recommend the book, let alone for the $50.00 dollar asking price. The quality of the scholarship doesn’t merit it. If you can pick up the book for five dollars or less, then maybe. In the meantime, I’ve ordered the following from Amazon:

The Other World

 My hope is that this will be the book that Hakutani’s book should have been.

3 responses

  1. I thought Hakutani established his perspective well as being from the vantage of R.H. Blythe because it is the seminal discussion of haiku in the west. If you had read it you may have noticed some of the more subtle explanations of Wright’s process under the frame of Japanese culture.

    I highly recommend Haiku Vol. 1. It is truly comprehensive in its definition of haiku. At its core Haiku is non-intellectual. Much like Zen, when you think about it too much it’s true power can slip from your grasp. There is actually a strong case that Blyth’s book was in fact the catalyst that drove Zen deeply into the beat movement.

    When you call someone’s assertion baseless “for all we know”, you can be goddamn sure that there is something you don’t know.

    Yoshinobu Hakutani grew up on a family farm in Japan, and has been one of the foremost scholars of English Haiku since before you were born.

    • I own and I’ve read Blythe’s books on Haiku — actually prefer the two volume set to the 4 volume. Blythe may have written the “seminal” discussion of Haiku in the West, in the sense of the first and most thorough, but it’s far from being the best. I’m not alone in the opinion that Blythe puts too much emphasis on “Zen”. Also, Blythe’s discussion of women Haiku poets is flatly asinine (for lack of a better term, and I can’t think of one). He pompously dismisses women poets as barely worthy of contempt, and says so. And he lacks a sense of humor on top of that. So I’m no Blytholator. If you’ve read Blythe, as you claim you have, then I’m guessing you consider his comments on women “seminal” as well?

      As to Hakutani’s assertions, I didn’t call them baseless. I said that for all we know, they’re baseless. Why? Because Hakutani never bothers to tell us why they’re not baseless. So yes, I’m goddamn sure there’s something I don’t know — or maybe not. That’s something Hakutani should have sorted out.

      As to where and when he was born, that has nothing to do with anything. If this book is any indication, he is in no way the “foremost scholar” of English Haiku. He wrote, without question, the worst “scholarly” book I’ve ever read — and I’ve read a lot. Certainly among the worst, and possibly the worst book on English Haiku. I mean, why title your book “Richard Wright” when precisely half your book has nothing to do with the man?

      So, no, I’m not backing off my review in any way, shape or form.

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