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A Review of African American Haiku: Cultural Visions

John Zheng, Editor. African American Haiku: Cultural Visions. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi. Hardcover, 197 pages. ISBN 978-1-4968-0303-0.

John Zheng’s new book explores one of the more interesting cross-pollinations in Western literature — African-American haiku. Zheng has collected essays focused on the haiku of five African-American poets: Richard Wright, James Emmanuel, Ethridge Knight, Sonia Sanchez, and Lenard D. Moore. These essays focus primarily on the influence of African-American culture on haiku and the various approaches these authors take towards haiku. 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.
Zheng’s Introduction serves as a history of haiku in African-American writing, going back to the Harlem Renaissance and Lewis Grandison Alexander. He explores various African-American haiku poets, providing a list of over twenty authors who have explored haiku in their writing in one way or another. The purpose of the introduction seems to be not just educating the audience about African-American haiku, but also to position the five featured authors of this anthology in that greater history. It’s a thorough, though not exhaustive, history and really serves to introduce the readers to the concept of haiku that is distinctly African-American in aesthetic.
The first two essays in the anthology focus on the haiku of Richard Wright. The opening essay, written by Zheng himself, focuses on the influence of Japanese haiku on Wright’s poetics. Zheng focuses on haiku principles like juxtaposition, perishability, sabi, suggestion, as well as haiku’s connection to Zen and Taoist principles. Zheng’s argument firmly places Wright’s haiku into a strong Japanese aesthetic and shows how contemporary haiku scholars may have had a direct influence on Wright’s haiku. In the second essay, Sachi Nakachi argues that Wright’s haiku cannot only be analyzed via a lens of Japanese aesthetics; she argues that there is a more direct connection between Wright’s understanding of blues, and that he was attempting to infuse haiku with a sense of the blues, not Japanese aesthetic. These two essays serve in stark juxtaposition against each other. Both, however, are argued and defended quite well, so that readers are able to see not only the influence of Japanese culture on Wright’s haiku, but also the influence of blues lyricism on his haiku. This provides for a richer experience of Wright’s haiku and a deeper appreciation for his work among haiku readers.
The next two essays focus on the jazz haiku of James Emanuel. Yoshinobu Hakutani argues commonalities between jazz and haiku, then asserts that Emanuel’s haiku embody a sense of mu, a Zen state of mindlessness or nothingness, and that Emanuel uses his haiku to urge African-American readers towards this state through individualistic means. Hakutani regularly connects Emanuel’s haiku and its use of jazz as a subject matter to Eastern concepts, seeking to legitimize Emanuel’s haiku as not just abstract or experimental, but also rooted in haiku tradition. Virginia Whatley Smith continues in this vein, her essay arguing that Emanuel’s haiku are a syncretism between Japanese philosophy and African-American musical traditions. This section will be problematic for most readers of Western haiku because both Hakutani and Smith try so hard to connect Emanuel’s haiku with Japanese traditions that they often stretch their arguments past defensibility. Emanuel is writing poems in a 5-7-5 syllabic pattern with a topic of jazz; it will be a stretch for readers of Western haiku to see these poems as haiku (Smith even quotes Bruce Ross’s description of haiku which argues against a strict 5-7-5 model), let alone to say they contain elements of Japanese philosophy as well. The scholarship here is thin at best, especially where Japanese terms are concerned, and this section stands out as the weakest in the collection because of it.
The next essay focuses on the haiku of Etheridge Knight. Claude Wilkinson explores elements of improvisation in Knight’s haiku, which Wilkinson believes stems from the urban attitude and blues or jazz lyricism of Knight’s haiku. Wilkinson also looks into the orality of Knight’s haiku, delving into the way Knight was able to bring rhythms of sound and speech into haiku. This is a solid essay that introduces readers to the scholarship on Knight and also shows how Knight was able to expand the form and make it uniquely his own.
The fourth section of the anthology focuses on the haiku of Sonia Sanchez. Meta L. Schettler explores the use of a black aesthetic in Sanchez’s haiku, arguing that Sanchez created a new, hybrid form between traditional English haiku and a black aesthetic which served to expand the boundaries of both traditions. She focuses on Sanchez’s use of non-seasonal topics for haiku, the idea that Sanchez breaks the “rules” for haiku, and uses Zen principles related to animism. Schettler uses definitions from The Haiku Society of America to ground her discussion, but makes the argument that because Sanchez breaks away from these definitions, she is innovating a new form and infusing haiku with a black aesthetic. This may be problematic for scholars of Western haiku because Schettler seems to dismiss the idea that if enough “rules” are broken, something ultimately ceases to be a haiku, and instead becomes simply a three-lined poem. She insists that what Sanchez writes are haiku, and approaches her analysis from that perspective.
Richard A. Iadonisi also 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.
The last section will probably be the most comfortable for readers and scholars of Western haiku. It focuses on the poetry of Lenard D. Moore, past-president of The Haiku Society of America and notable haiku poet and editor. Toru Kiuchi examines the African-American aesthetic in Moore’s haiku, exploring the rich natural imagery in Moore’s work and his ability to connect the kigo of his haiku to a larger black history and ancestry. Ce Rosenow argues that, while haiku are traditionally individual moments, Moore crafts haiku sequences that reveal a communal, African-American narrative and the stories of a collective black experience. In the third, and final, essay on Moore, Sheila Smith McKoy argues that Moore’s haiku use renso, a Japanese concept of linking two ideas that initially seem disparate, and sankofa, a concept from the Akan culture of Ghana in which people are called to engage in their cultural history in order to understand themselves. McKoy argues that, by using both of these ideas, Moore is able to craft haiku that have individual importance, but also a greater African-American cultural importance. All three essays look at Moore’s individual haiku as well as his two book-length narrative haiku sequences, Desert Storm and Gathering at the Crossroads. These essays stand as a contrast to the other essays in the anthology in that they don’t seek to legitimize Moore’s haiku nor, with the possible exception of McKoy, connect it directly to Japanese haiku or defend it with Japanese aesthetic principles. For example, despite the fact that both Desert Storm and Gathering at the Crossroads are meant to be read like narrative sequences, none of the critics use a term like rensaku to describe them. It is clear that, of all the poets studied in this anthology, Moore has one of the strongest connections to the Japanese tradition and that critics are able to focus more on the African-American aesthetics in his haiku rather than trying to prove that his work is haiku. This makes the last three essays of the book the most rewarding because they explore the work more fully and through a more critical lens than their earlier counterparts.
Overall, African American Haiku: Cultural Visions is a fascinating collection of essays focused on the haiku of five prominent African-American poets. For readers unfamiliar with the work of these authors, it serves to not only introduce the haiku of these poets but to place them firmly in the haiku tradition. It is a well-developed collection of essays that expands the definition of American haiku and its authorship, and exposes readers of Western haiku to poets they may not have explored previously. While some readers may find the assertions of some of the critics questionable, overall the scholarship is rich and thorough and the anthology serves as an excellent exploration of African-American haiku.

— Joshua Gage

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