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Richard Wright's Five Haikus

Updated on March 1, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Richard Wright

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Communist Flag

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Ezra Pound

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Noted primarily for his novels, Richard Wright also did some dabbling in poetry. He seemed especially drawn to haiku.

The speaker of each haiku in this series makes a mournful cry while couching his anguish in the traditional form of the Japanese haiku form: seventeen syllables with some allusion to one of the seasons.

Haiku 1: "I am nobody"

The speaker in the first haiku declares his lack of identity. The reader might be reminded of an Emily Dickinson poem that begins "I'm Nobody! Who are you?"

Unlike the speaker in the Dickinson poem that addresses a listener and demonstrates a mad glee at being unidentified, the speaker in Wright's haiku decries his "nobody" status. He did not voluntarily give up his identity to become a "nobody"; it was taken from him: "A red sinking autumn sun / Took my name away."

The symbolism of the "red sinking autumn sun" is, however, so private that the reader can only guess at why the speaker engages it. One possibility that offers itself is that Wright, who had been a Communist and relied on the American Communist Party to eradicate racism, has been disappointed by communism.

This kind of interpretation is unsatisfactory because it relies on information that the ordinary reader might not have. There should be another possibility, but in reality, as mentioned earlier the symbolism is simply too private.

Haiku 2: "I give permission"

The second haiku of the series provides a lovely image but a ridiculous claim. The reader is tempted to exclaim, "well, you don't say so!" after the claim, "I give permission" for rain to fall on the violets.

The reader can also be generous and simply take the claim as the speaker giving himself permission to feel a certain way about the "rain [ ] soak[ing] / The violet beds." It is, however, a little odd to say "violet beds," because violets are wild flowers and do not actually grow in beds.

Haiku 3: "With a twitching nose"

In haiku 3, the speaker chooses to go a little nonsensical, as modernist, and especially postmodernist, poetry is often wont to do: "With a twitching nose / A dog reads a telegram / On a wet tree trunk."

The speaker may be trying to echo Ezra Pound's, "In a Station of the Metro": " The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough."

Still, only exuberant nonsense can account for a twitching-nosed dog reading a telegram while located on a wet trunk of a tree.

Or is the telegram on the wet tree trunk? The ambiguity is a flaw that could have easily been repaired, unless the speaker wishes to retain that unclear location of reading dog and telegram.

Haiku 4: "Burning autumn leaves"

The speaker in haiku 4 returns to sense claiming that while he is burning leaves that have fallen from his trees, he wishes to make the fire into a bonfire to burn "Bigger and bigger."

Quite possibly, Wright uses the repetition of "Bigger and bigger" to allude to his main character in his most famous novel Native Son.

Haiku 5: "A sleepless spring night"

Haiku 5 returns to unadulterated sorrow: even though it is spring, a time of renewal, this poor speaker is kept awake with regrets for all that "[he] never had" and "for what never was."

Note: To read Richard Wright's Five Haikus" please visit Modern American Poetry


© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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