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A Review of Sonia Sanchez’s Poetic Spirit Through Haiku

John Zheng, Editor. Sonia Sanchez’s Poetic Spirit Through Haiku. New York, NY: Lexington Books. Hardcover, 183 pages. ISBN 978-1-4985-4332-3.

John Zheng’s new book explores the haiku of Sonia Sanchez, including her literary and social influences, the unique perspectives she takes towards writing haiku, and the importance of her haiku to the Western canon. These essays focus primarily on the influence of African-American culture on her haiku and the liberties she take with the term haiku and the haiku form. It’s a very important collection of essays, though writers and scholars of Western haiku may occasionally be dismayed at the approach that some of the authors take.
“‘another life force’: Racial Violence and Collective Memory in Sonia Sanchez’s Haiku” by Meta L. Schettler explores the influence of African religions in Sanchez’s poetry, particularly those involved with communication with ancestors. Schettler examines the ways that Sanchez uses personal and collective memories to create a haiku that exists as both and individual and communal protest. She uses events like the Middle Passage and the murder of Emmitt Till as sources of imagery to connect readers to the past and urge them towards creating a more hopeful future.
“‘The Color of Your Song’: Sonia Sanchez’s African American Haiku as Cosmopolitan ‘Green’ Poetry” by Michio Arimitsu explores the cosmopolitan, international aspects of Sanchez’s haiku. He argues that by using a form that is both foreign and familiar, Sanchez is able to represent African-American identity in new and vibrant ways. He also argues that Sanchez challenges and recreates African-American identities with nature, creating a form of African-American ecopoetics that encourages African-American readers to interact and protect the natural world.
The next essay is an expanded reprint of Richard A. Iadonisi’s essay “‘Some Beauty . . . Some Love’ and an Attitude: The Haiku of Sonia Sanchez” from Zheng’s other book, African American Haiku: Cultural Visions. This essay explores Sanchez’s rebellion against tradition. He argues that Sanchez dismisses the haiku attitude prescribed by Kenneth Yasuda, and infuses haiku with the personal and political, especially the voices and representations of black women. This essay accuses American poets and editors of cultural appropriation of haiku, and insists that Sanchez’s haiku subverts this appropriation by using haiku as a vehicle to expose the world struggle against inhumanitarianism. Some readers may take offense at the idea that American haiku is cultural appropriation, or that by breaking the “rules” of haiku, Sanchez reclaims haiku in some way. The logic is questionable, and while Iadonisi makes excellent points about the cultural and personal content about Sanchez’s haiku, his attempt to give it revolutionary meaning seems a bit over the top.
In “Constant Sky: Sonia Sanchez’s Haiku,” Becky Thompson looks at how Sanchez’s haiku is “embodied,” how it infuses images of the body with natural images. She then explores Sanchez’s ability to speak to future generations with her haiku, including its influence on the Black Lives Matter movement. Thompson then explores Sanchez’s use of haiku as tribute to ancestors, both personal and communal, and how that connects to Sanchez’s Swahili praise poems.
Sally Michael Hannah, in her essay “Reading Sonia Sanchez’s Haiku as Racial Representation,” argues that Sanchez’s uses haiku as a platform to explore self-identity through jazz and blues motifs. She then argues that Sanchez’s haiku is used to reclaim African-American feminist history, or “herstory,” by using a communal “I” in her haiku to represent all African-American women, past, present and future. Hannah argues that haiku “emerges as epiphany inspired by a merger of human and nature bringing wisdom” (92).
Ce Rosenow explores Sanchez’s haiku sequences in her essay “Reflections of the ‘Haiku Mind’: Formal Innovation in Sonia Sanchez’s Haiku Sequences.” Rosenow is the first critic in this volume to explore Sanchez’s through the lens of rensaku, a haiku sequence in which the haiku are meant to be read in a particular order. Rosenow focuses on Sanchez’s interpretation of “haiku mind” and uses that as a lens through which readers can understand Sanchez’s haiku and achieve a sense of understanding, compassion, and peace.
John Zheng focuses on Sonia Sanchez’s invented form, the “sonku,” in his essay “A Writer’s Creative Mind: Sonia Sanchez’s Sonku.” The sonku is a four-line stanzaic form of 4-3-4-3 or 3-3-3-3 syllables. Zheng looks at the history of this form across Sanchez’s work, and how it reveals her creative thought processes at different stages of her career. He also explores how Sonia Sanchez’s sonku are used to express African-American cultural sensibilities.
John Han, in his chapter “Celebratory and Defiant: Sonia Sanchez’s Ethnographic Haiku,” explores the celebratory and defiant nature of Sanchez’s haiku, connecting it to feminist ideology and the Black Arts Movement. He argues that Sanchez writes “ethnographic haiku,” which are “haiku that reveal the intricacies of a certain culture which encompass a group’s values, ideologies, and frame of reference” (142). He really examines how Sanchez’s haiku are different from most of Western haiku, and how Sanchez changes and manipulates the form of haiku to suit her own purposes.
In “The Gendered Blues in Sonia Sanchez’s Haiku,” Tiffany Austin looks at how the body, nature, and music intertwine in Sanchez’s haiku to create a unique voice. She further connects Sanchez’s haiku to Lorca’s ideas about “duende” and “cante jondo,” arguing that Sanchez uses similar notions of spirit and emotion to create her haiku.
Toru Kiuchi takes a more historical approach in his essay “Sonia Sanchez’s Haiku: From Origin to Development.” He explores Sanchez’s writing before she discovered haiku, and really makes that argument that haiku changed Sanchez and the direction of her writing. He looks at how Sanchez used haiku to parallel the moments in her life, and how biographically she used haiku to express herself.
Overall, the essays in this book worked well, and really exposed a lot of information and unique perspectives about Sanchez and her haiku. However, many scholars of Western haiku and haiku literature may be disappointed in this book. This source of this disappointment can be found in Zheng’s introduction, when he writes

According to traditional haiku standards and aesthetics, these poems may not be haiku, for they are simply plain questions and statements lacking the haiku elements of indirectness or juxtaposition that sets a haiku in two parts. But, we need to understand that Sanchez never tries to bend to the strict haiku standards. Instead, the form bends to her need when she adopts it to express her poetic spirit of blackness. In other words, she refuses to follow the tradition. (xii)

This really captures the essence of the issue that many readers of Western haiku will take with Sanchez’s haiku. If she refuses to follow tradition, if her poems lack the core elements that make up a haiku, is it even appropriate to label these poems as haiku or to study them as haiku? Are these merely three line poems or stanzas, and would it be better to analyze the poems from that lens instead?
The authors of these chapters seem to all agree that these are haiku, and contain enough comparison to Western haiku that they should be studied through that lens. They do a solid job looking at how Sanchez connects with current haiku theory and how she departs from it to create her own unique voice within the form of haiku. They also offer various lenses through which to analyze her haiku, providing unique insight into the language and themes of her work. Overall, this is an impressive collection of scholarship focused on one of the more unique voices in American haiku.

— Joshua Gage

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