Jerry W. Ward, Jr., Professor of English at Dillard University, is the author of The Katrina Papers: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery (UNO Press, 2008). Professor Ward has been a faithful guest blogger for the HBW
Just as Camille T. Dungy’s Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (2009) invites us to be more attentive to how black poets have reflected on ecological spaces, The Other World of Richard Wright: Perspectives on His Haiku, edited by Jianqing Zheng, invites us to reassess Wright’s “fascination with haiku and Zen Buddhism” as a sign of his “global mindshift that reflects a significant aspect of his reception of and sensibility to other cultures” (ix). Zheng’s phrase “global mindshift” is critical for any understanding of the totality of Wright’s aesthetic imagination.
The ten essays Zheng has gathered to enlighten us about Wright’s creation of haiku mark an important moment in Wright studies, because they demand that we think again about Wright’s critique and destruction of an American black/white binary in poetry. Thomas L. Morgan, one of the contributors, cleverly directs us to Wright’s comment in a 1955 L’Express interview: “If my writing has any aim, it is to try to reveal that which is human on both sides, to affirm the essential unity of man on earth” (95). Wright identified the “sides” as the Western world and its enemies. Forcing the West to listen, “Wright integrated a Western mind into an Eastern poetic form,” Zheng argues, “to enlarge his or our sense of human complexity and human union or reunion with nature” (xviii).
In the “Afterword” of Haiku: This Other World (1998), Yoshinobu Hakutani and Robert L. Tener suggested that Wright was convinced “that materialism and its corollary, greed, were the twin culprits of racial conflict” (300); nevertheless, we must deal with Wright’s work both as racial and radical discourses, and the shapes our efforts to do so might assume are represented well in The Other World of Richard Wright. In addition to the essays, the “Bibliography on Richard Wright’s Haiku” (189-192) suggests angle of exploration. Ours should be a journey of rediscovering rather than reinventing Wright’s unfinished quest and the value of his contributions to world literature.
It is appropriate to recall that Wright’s early work included proletarian poetry and that “Between the World and Me,” one of the truly great poems of the twentieth century, stands in a special relation to the poetic dimensions of Wright’s fiction and nonfiction and to his haiku epiphany. Indeed, as Julia Wright has asserted, the haiku are “Wright’s poetry of loss and retrieval, of temperate joy and wistful humor, of exile and fragments of a dreamed return. They lie somewhere in that transitional twilight area between the loss for words and the few charmed syllables that can heal the loss” (“Introduction,” Haiku: This Other World, xii) The Other World of Richard Wright brings sunshine to the twilight zone.