ABSTRACT: Sonia Sanchez has chosen haiku for many decades to create magic in the now and to throw down sacred words with the power of healing past trauma. As a writer of the Black Arts movement, like Amiri Baraka, she has also consistently affirmed African culture and turned to an “ancient image” of African civilization to nurture her vision. This paper explores Sanchez’s wide-ranging development of new strategies within haiku — techniques that, in the words of Baraka, “raise up, return, destroy, and create,” knocking down almost all of the traditional conventions for haiku to chart her own journey as a Black woman poet. The paper especially investigates Sonia Sanchez’s relationship to the natural world, to the artist’s path of creativity, and the pendulum swings she makes between human relationships and the natural world. Her continuing attention to African culture has allowed her to lay claim to natural images within haiku while navigating the tensions of an exploitative, nihilistic past that destroyed African life as ordinary practice. Sonia Sanchez covers a wide range of historical topics in her haiku, including the 1985 MOVE bombing in West Philadelphia, the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, and the courageous actions of Harriet Tubman in the abolitionist movement affirming a collective consciousness and implicitly calling for increased activism for social justice. Sonia Sanchez relates her own understanding of spirituality, self-discovery, and scholarship to her reading of Egyptian and West African philosophies that affirm unbroken connections between the New World and African civilizations, and these connections inevitably influence her approach to writing haiku.
by Meta L. Schettler
we be. gonna be
even after being. black
mass has always been. (I’ve Been a Woman 79)
In Amiri Baraka’s seminal poem “Ka’ Ba” he describes an urban landscape embedded with images of African culture and African spirituality in his poetic vision. In the center of the poem he contrasts the oppression and cold grayness of the New World to the freedom and fullness of an embodied African culture affirming creativity, community, ritual, and wholeness. He writes:
We are beautiful people
With African imaginations
full of masks and dances and swelling chants
with African eyes, and noses, and arms (Gillan 156)
He describes the need for escape, the need to find a way out of the New World context, “we labor to make our getaway, into/the ancient image,” and the poem’s title “Ka’ Ba” points to ancient Egyptian philosophy, and Egyptian beliefs of the soul, personality, the afterlife, how the soul travels. Baraka ends the poem with a call for magic, an invitation to conjure while his own poem serves as the first spell, the first invocation of African culture to dispel the cold grip of repression and self-destruction. He writes:
. . . We need magic
now we need the spells, to raise up
return, destroy, and create. What will be
the sacred word? (Gillan 156)
Sonia Sanchez has chosen haiku for many decades to create magic in the now and to throw down “the sacred word.” As a writer of the Black Arts movement, like Amiri Baraka, she has also consistently affirmed African culture, and turned to “the ancient image” to nurture her vision. This paper will explore Sonia’s wide-ranging development of new strategies within haiku, techniques that “raise up, return, destroy, and create,” knocking down almost all of the traditional conventions for haiku to chart her own journey as a Black woman poet. I am especially interested in Sonia Sanchez’s relationship to the natural world, to the artist’s path of creativity, and the pendulum swings she makes between human relationships and the natural world. In the tradition of Bashō, the path of creativity tied to the natural world is called “zōka zuijun.” As Haruo Shirane writes in Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashō, “The poet who follows or ‘returns to the Creative’ implicitly engages in a process of spiritual cultivation that allows the zōka within to join the zōka of the cosmos” (261). Derived from Daoist texts “Zōka is written in two Chinese characters whose literal meaning is “create and transform” (Qiu 324). With her haiku, Sonia Sanchez seeks foremost to create and transform herself, to release herself from an oppressive history, to reconcile herself to the world as it is, and to create a glimpse of what might be.
For the African American poet, the ability to connect to the natural world can be severely compromised by current racism, the dearth of natural beauty in urban landscapes, as well as the history of colonialism and enslavement, the forced exile from African land, the violence of the New World. As Camille Dungy describes in the introduction to her anthology Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, some Black poets “implicate the natural world in a personal or collective history of trauma. The plants, animals, water, and weather seem to be complicit with society, creating various taunts and tragedies even while flaunting potential beauty and possibility” (xxxi). This interpretation of the natural world is quite separate from Zen or Taoist principles. In her haiku, Sanchez records this complicity of the natural world, but she also affirms it as a space of empowerment and healing. In his introduction to her first published volume of poetry Home Coming, Haki Madhubuti notes a rejection of nature replaced with an intense focus on building love among Black people, “The love of blackpeople, the love of blackness. That’s what it is all about, the love-of self & people. . . . She need not talk about the aesthetics of a tree; there are no trees in Harlem or on the westside of Chicago” (Sanchez 7-8). Sonia’s poetry has evolved greatly from this first collection in 1969 to the present, and the haiku form makes space to reconcile herself with the forces of nature and the natural world. Her continuing attention to African culture allows her to lay claim to natural images within haiku while navigating the tensions of an exploitative, nihilistic past that destroyed African life as ordinary practice.
Sonia Sanchez’s poetic truth quite often explicitly proclaims her political intent and political consciousness. For example, she writes a concise prose poem in Under A Soprano Sky which declares:
For I know as Martin knew: “The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa/ Nairobi, Kenya/ Accra, Ghana/ New York City / Atlanta, Georgia/ Jackson, Mississippi/ or Memphis, Tennessee, the cry is always the same – ‘we want to be free’” (97).
A few haiku also implicitly affirm this Pan-African vision, and her desire to keep historical memory alive. In two poems from Like the Singing Coming Off of Drums, Sanchez takes images of fire to consecrate the space of the poem and remember the damaging fires of racism. She writes:
to be lifted in
smoke to be cast in iron
remembering the fire. (82)
and i am flesh burnt
red charcoal black gift wrapped in
philadelphia blood. (91)
In the first poem, she does not explicitly mention race or the history of slavery, but the image of iron directly relates to iron chains, ironwork, African culture, and the exploitation of African people. Her use of enjambment in the first line break creates a stronger presence for smoke and iron as images in the second line as they stand out as bookends for the line. The last line, “remembering the fire” produces no relief but does allow us to pause and stay with the troubling images of the second line. As Elaine De Lancey wrote of Sonia’s haiku, “Introspective moments rarely produce epiphanies; at most, they are moments of fragmented insight” (De Lancey). The disturbing images are meant to unsettle us, to raise political consciousness more than zen consciousness.
In the second haiku, the final image of “philadelphia blood” immediately recalls the 1985 tragedy of the bombing of the row house owned by the revolutionary Back-to-Africa group MOVE. In a standoff with police the MOVE organization’s house on Osage Avenue was fire-bombed and allowed to burn resulting in eleven deaths (including five children) and 61 houses destroyed in the surrounding blocks in West Philly. In her poem, Sonia Sanchez takes this enormous loss of life and destruction of a Black neighborhood, and compresses it down to an intensely personal depiction as intense and graphic as Richard Wright’s poems for lynching. The image of fire here is inseparable from a charred body and her naming of this body as a “red charcoal black gift” holds a bitter irony. The idea of a “gift” forces us to wonder why the gift was given, who took it, and what we are supposed to learn from the transaction. The opening of the poem with the conjunction “and” also extends the scope of the poem to a larger story. It could be the complex and twisted story of the MOVE bombing itself, or it could be the broader history of racial violence and slavery. Both poems create healing by refusing to look away, by cauterizing the pain by exposing the wound, indirectly in her first poem’s use of metaphor and image and quite explicitly in the second’s graphic nature.
Two poems that document an urban landscape and link Sonia’s militancy to the younger generation pronounce her desire to keep struggle and resistance alive. She writes:
summer has sped a/
cross this philadelphia land/
scape warrior style. (I’ve Been a Woman 84)
haiku (for mungu and morani and the children of soweto)
may yo seasons be
long with endless green streets and
permanent summer legs. (Under A Soprano Sky 81)
In the first poem, her use of forward slashes to break the lines into haiku-form calls attention to her images, the “cross” within “across” and the “warrior” within “warrior style.” Again, like her more graphic poem for the MOVE bombing, she alludes to a larger history of racial violence, this time embedding that violence in Western culture signified by the cross. Instead of streets, she points to the “land/scape,” which might also recall colonial exploitation with its larger range of vision and deeper history. The image of summer as warrior suggests endurance after the tragic losses of the MOVE bombing and a refusal to surrender to the desolation of injustice.
In both poems, she uses the seasonal reference to summer atypically, politically, to demonstrate that the struggle should be the apex of life with the sun and long days providing strength for the work ahead. She further subverts the convention of the seasonal word in the Soweto poem by invoking a blessing that refers to plural seasons rather than a singular image to wish her sons and the children of Soweto longevity and resilience, “may yo seasons be/long”. The final image of “permanent summer legs” in the Soweto haiku affirms the march of the Soweto students moving in the Soweto uprising, and the continuing need for movement in the struggle. Struggle continues, a luta continua, with the energy of a “permanent summer.”
In her commitment to Black history and the struggle, Sonia Sanchez also backs away from the convention of self-forgetting, to make the poet secondary to the primary power of Nature itself. Instead she invokes the power of Nature within herself, sometimes to the level of an orisha, or deity, with supernatural powers. For example, in Like the Singing Coming Off of Drums, she writes:
come windless invader
i am a carnival of
stars a poem of blood. (22)
i am moving in
air amazon woman bare
foot thunderbound bells. (23)
In both poems she aligns herself with the elements, especially the sky, to lift herself to the cosmos gathering strength and a sense of invincibility. In the first poem, the “windless invader” remains unidentified and nonspecific, but like the poems for Philadelphia and Soweto, the final image of a “poem of blood” directs us to a larger, ancestral struggle. With its image of the poet as a carnival of stars, this poem also recalls her haiku sequence for Emmett Till in her latest collection Morning Haiku where she writes:
walking in Mississippi
i hold the stars
between my teeth (13)
Like “come windless invader” Sanchez breaks multiple haiku conventions by employing multiple images instead of limiting herself to two separate images to build resonance and meaning. As a result, her haiku create a strong sense of movement rather than stillness or pause. The carnival of stars morphs into a poem of blood, an Amazon warrior treads on air with thunder ringing out like bells from her feet, and the repression of Mississippi disintegrates as she holds the stars in her teeth. All three poems hold a cacophony of images in a very small space. Sonia signals her intent to keep moving forward, as a woman, a poet, and even an orisha, to achieve her goals and chart a new path. This magical realism in her haiku conjures a vision of a “magic/now” as Amiri Baraka called for, a sense of magic that asserts mindfulness and a sense of presence that refuses to remain earthbound, a sense of possibility that leans on African philosophy and the infinity of African ancestors embedded in stars.
Sonia Sanchez also creates movement in her haiku by affirming ubuntu, the African principle of connection between people, in poems describing romantic love, honoring contemporaries, and remembering important communal ancestors. The principle of ubuntu affirms generosity, open-heartedness, and a divine, unbroken connection between the living, the ancestors, and the unborn. In the spirit of ubuntu Sanchez has consistently honored many artists and legends of Black history in her poems, especially within her most recent collection Morning Haiku. She constructs a broad and inclusive family through various dedications, poems that directly praise fellow artists and activists and/or poems that imagine their experience and reconstruct Black history. For example, the April 2018 issue of Poetry published a series of haiku and tanka by Sanchez for Harriet Tubman. These poems include many of the hallmarks of Sanchez’s haiku written for Black history, the magical realism, the value of community, and a tumultuous combination of multiple images of Nature blended together to evoke supernatural powers and larger than life experience. The poems that open the series show Tubman’s orisha status, heroic, iconic, and large-looming:
Picture a woman
riding thunder on
the legs of slavery . . .
Picture her kissing
our spines saying no to
the eyes of slavery . . .
Picture her rotating
the earth into a shape
of lives becoming . . .
Picture her leaning
into the eyes of our birth clouds . . . (23)
In this introduction, Tubman appears as a shape-shifting giant “riding thunder” and capable of wrapping herself around the “legs” and “eyes” of slavery to inhibit it and reject it. Poem 3 especially depicts Tubman as a god-like figure spinning the earth like a ball and shaping a new world for the Black community. Within the series, Sanchez uses repetition in creative ways, repeating both particular phrases or words and particular elements of nature especially air to signify breath and life. Twenty out of the twenty-four poems in the series start with the directive “Picture” to emphasize both vision and a tone of command, directing us to see Tubman in our minds’ eye and follow her on rescue missions to liberate the enslaved. The remaining four poems of the series start with another directive, “Imagine.” Sanchez writes:
Picture a woman
jumping rivers her
legs inhaling moons . . .
Picture her ripe
with seasons of
legs . . . running . . .
Picture her tasting
the secret corners
of woods . . . (24)
In poem 6, she employs synesthesia with Tubman’s legs breathing while crossing rivers with superhuman strength. This combination of senses is slightly disorienting and creates a stronger sense of the supernatural, bending nature to the service of myth-making. Like her unconventional use of summer and the struggle as a political seasonal word, here Sanchez describes “seasons of legs . . . running” to show Tubman’s long dedication to her dangerous escape missions and innovates a new representation for seasonal words. The physical description makes the seasonal reference more literal and unconventional compared to traditional Japanese seasonal words. The phrasing commemorates a longer history and a collective history of physical resistance to slavery through physical escape. Sanchez intentionally foregrounds images of the body to encourage healing but simultaneously recalls dismemberment and destruction. When she writes, “Picture her kissing/our spines,” Tubman embraces her community collectively, and then “leaning into the eyes of our birth clouds . . .” Tubman reaches back through time to see instinctive, primal beginnings. Sanchez again privileges a collective, communal history making Tubman’s story not so much the story of an exceptional individual but a people’s history of resilience and collective triumph. As the epigraph of this paper shows Sanchez holds this sense of community strongly and firmly:
we be. gonna be
even after being. black
mass has always been. (79)
Like Tubman’s time leaps to primal beginnings and her ability to shape the future the lines “we be. gonna be/even after being” suggests a breaking out of ordinary linear time to make a new larger chronology that reconciles the past, present and future into a collective story of survival.
This collective story also includes other important figures that link Tubman to the broader history of abolitionism and freedom-fighting. She writes:
Picture the daylight
bringing her to woods
full of birth moons . . .
Picture John Brown
shaking her hands three times saying:
General Tubman. General Tubman. General Tubman. (26)
This repetition of Tubman’s honorary status as a general and commanding role in the war against slavery reads like an incantation and a blessing. The ending of the poem with its focus on air and breath also affirms a sacred approach, honoring Tubman with basic elements of life, breathing life into the people and the country as a whole:
Picture this woman
freedom bound . . . tasting a
people’s preserved breath . . .
Picture this woman
of royalty . . . wearing a crown
of morning air . . .
Picture her walking,
a country’s breath . . . (27)
Sanchez claims the haiku elements not solely for herself but to document the collective struggle of Black people, to keep the memory of a painful history alive, retold and redeemed through praise stories of resistance and the desire to find freedom. As Sanchez says in the middle of the poem, “Imagine a woman/asking: How many workers for this freedom quilt . . .”(25), and Sanchez stitches the quilt pieces together with elements of haiku. The pendulum swings between people’s actions, heroic or tragic, come to a standstill in the final part of the poem with Tubman “wearing a crown/of morning air . . .” This crown of morning air strengthens the repetition of breath and further boosts Tubman’s status as a goddess-like figure or orisha, an ancestor to be highly honored and loved.
Besides this important communal love that preserves an African heritage, in her many poems dedicated to romantic love, Sanchez creates healing spaces for finding love, savoring love, as well as losing love, always affirming the connection to her loved one as sacred and essential as breath. Like her orisha poems, in these love poems, nature is subsumed by human need subverting haiku conventions, and movement dispels any stillness that might be possible in the space of the haiku. From I’ve Been A Woman, she writes:
at the center of
me, you, holyman walking
in lightning colors. (71)
bear the rhythm of
your name and mine wide on green
rivers of change. (79)
We get a brief moment of stillness in the first poem with the sequence and punctuation of the first half of the poem, “at the center of / me, you,” with the center holding a certain stillness, and the commas forcing us to pause almost abruptly, but the poem takes off with the final phrasing, “holyman walking/ in lightning colors.” Like her orisha poem where she herself walked the air, she again invokes the sky to create a sense of expansion and vivid action. Both “walking” and “lightning” create this strong sense of movement that suggest transformation and change, and naming her lover as a “holyman” explicitly affirms the sacred and posits human love as divine love. The second love poem also strongly suggests a space of transformation with the image of wide, green rivers of change and the melding of the lovers’ names borne in the sound of the river. Here human elements become so fused with natural elements that Sanchez create a magical realist or even surreal effect in place of an objective or Zen self-forgetting way. The communication and transportation of the lovers’ names seems to suggest a space of continuity and remembrance rather than a distinct still moment of time. In this way, Sonia blends historical elements with natural elements to repurpose literal images of nature typically found in haiku.
Within her haiku, besides movement and change, Sonia Sanchez also makes effort visible, the effort to be an activist and the effort to be a writer. In this self-assertion, she claims the space of haiku to confront and contain the enormity of losses in Black history, and the difficulty in achieving harmony when facing hard truths. In two poems from I’ve Been A Woman she shows us both the struggle and release when she writes:
these words stained with red
twirl on my tongue like autumn
rainbows from the sea. (74)
morning snow falling
astride this carousel called
life. i am sailing. (75)
Both poems again affirm movement and a cluster of strong images knocking together. In the first poem she alludes to some difficulty with words twirling in a color that again suggests blood and “autumn rainbows from the sea” again invoking nature in a surreal and supernatural way. Rather than passively observing nature, Sonia infuses nature with her own vision and purpose, which may negate Taoist principles but ultimately carves out her own path. In “morning snow,” we do see an effective and perhaps more conventional resonance between the falling snow and the poet’s persona “sailing” with both images conveying a sense of lightness and floating in air. However, Sonia Sanchez also audaciously shares a vision of a world in perpetual movement, “astride this carousel called / life” inserted between the parallel images, which creates an expansive sense of movement, and a sense of belonging and self-awareness. The world is not overwhelming. It charms us like a carousel, and invites us to embrace its fast-moving succession of experiences.
In a 1985 interview Sonia Sanchez spoke of the influence of African religions in her poetry and her desire to bring “another life force” into her writing when she was asked, “When did the African influence enter your poetry?” and Sanchez replied:
There were some phenomena I could not explain, like the collective unconscious, but I wanted to. When I read Flash of the Spirit, [and] the Egyptian Book of the Dead, I laughed. That’s the person I talked to, that was Yémaya. . . . I was bringing into the arena of poetry the sense of another sensibility, another way of looking at the world, another life force. If I touch you, I give you a life force, also. (Joyce 16)
Sonia relates her own deep sense of spirituality and that sense of self-discovery through scholarship, her reading of Egyptian and West African philosophies that affirmed unbroken connections between the New World and African civilizations. Yemaya, the Yoruba goddess or orisha of love and creation, especially relates to the New World, the Middle Passage, and the African Diaspora because of her association with water, rivers, and the ocean. When Sonia announces that she speaks to Yemaya, she affirms an African goddess as her muse. In describing her own project with haiku in comparison to traditional haiku, Sonia Sanchez also tells us that she connected with the traditional principle of tapping into spirituality in nature. She says:
That’s what I try to do too. Sometimes there are double meanings and triple meanings there too, which means that you know there is life between the poem and the lines, which means that if you really understand your life, our lives, there are lives in between that we don’t always see, because we limit ourselves. (Joyce 43)
Sanchez alludes to the Zen concept of yūgen, a concept described in this way by Hakutani and Tener in their afterword of Richard Wright’s haiku This Other World, “In Zen, every individual possesses Buddhahood and must realize it. Yūgen, as applied to art, designates the mysterious and dark, what lies under the surface” (Hakutani and Tener 256). For Sonia Sanchez, as well as Richard Wright, this spirituality then becomes a unifying element to build a new tradition, blending the Black aesthetic and African animism with the Zen tradition. Sanchez may radically alter haiku conventions, but through the haiku form she is constantly learning and offering new lessons of Black history and conjuring up the “magic/ now” to heal herself and her readers.
De Lancey, F. Elaine. “Refusing to be Boxed In: Sonia Sanchez’s Transformation of the Haiku Form.” PoetryWitch: A Magazine of Poetry and Magic. February 2, 2015. Web. May 24, 2018.
Dungy, Camille T. Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. University of Georgia Press, 2009.
Gillan, Maria M., and Gillan, Jennifer. Unsettling America: an Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry. 1994.
Hakutani, Yoshinobu, and Robert L. Tener, eds. Haiku: This Other World by Richard Wright. New York: Arcade, 1998.
Joyce, Joyce A., ed. Conversations with Sonia Sanchez. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007.
Qiu Peipei, “Daoist Concepts in Bashō’s Critical Thought.” East Asian Cultural and Historical Perspectives, edited by Steven Totosy de Zepetnek and Jennifer W. Jay. Research Institute for Comparative Literature and Cross-Cultural Studies, University of Alberta, 1997, pp. 323-340.
Sanchez, Sonia. “Haiku and Tanka for Harriet Tubman.” Poetry 212:1. (April 2018): 23-27. ProQuest Literature Online. Web. 3rd July 2018.
— Home Coming: Poems. Broadside Press, 1969.
— I’ve Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems. 1985.
— Like the Singing Coming off the Drums: Love Poems. Beacon Press, 1998.
— Morning Haiku. Beacon Press, 2010.
— Under a Soprano Sky. Africa World Press, 1987.
Shirane, Haruo. Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashō Stanford University Press, 1998.