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Monday, April 18, 2016

African American Haiku

African American Haiku: Cultural Visions.  John Zheng, ed.  Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016.

Pp. 197.  $65.00 (cloth). ISBN: 978-1-4968-0303-0.

When John Zheng, a noted poet and Wright scholar, edited The Other World of Richard Wright: Perspectives on His Haiku (2011), he hoped that the collection of critical essays would "lead readers to the fragrant tree of Haiku: This Other World to read for aesthetic appreciation and for more criticism as well" (xviii).  His hope did not fall on barren ground.  Scholars and students who have a dedicated interest in the totality of Richard Wright's works did indeed read the book to discover facts about Wright's achievement as a poet who experimented with an Asian poetic form to probe his Western identity and African American sensibility.  American interest in Eastern culture and literary expressions has its origins in the nineteenth century. Interest  assumed special articulation in the modernist period, including Lewis Grandison Alexander's commentary on "Japanese Hokkus" in the December 1923 issue of The Crisis and the publication of  Alexander's Tanka I-VIII and twelve haikus in Countee Cullen's seminal anthology Caroling Dusk (1927).  Thus, we have evidence ---Cullen noted that Alexander specialized in Japanese forms -- for  Asian influence in an evolving African American poetic tradition. Zheng's editing a  collection of essays on African American haiku is at once logical and a signal that, ill-informed arguments notwithstanding, black poetry has never chosen to inhabit ghettoes in the global community of poetry and poetics.

The arrangement of essays in  African American Haiku: Cultural Visions demonstrates Zheng's focused investment  in enlarging the territory for critical exploration.  Opening with Zheng's "The Japanese Influence on Richard Wright's Haiku" and Sachi Nakachi's "Richard Wright's Haiku, or the Poetry of Double Voice," the book invites us to take a retrospective glance as preparation for the essays on James Emanuel, Etheridge Knight, Sonia Sanchez, and Lenard D. Moore which direct us toward a future.

In this sense, African American Haiku provides a model of how critical discourses may be constructed.  It also provides necessary grounds for agreement and counter-argument.  For example, Yoshinobu Hakutani's "James Emanuel's Jazz Haiku and African American Individualism" is a masterful treatment of how Emanuel's "haiku, with sharp, compressed images, strongly reflect the syncopated sounds and rhythms of African American jazz"(56).  For readers who might object that Hakutani's ideas about jazz, individualism, and poetry are not sufficiently nuanced, Virginia Whatley Smith's "Afro-Asian Syncretism in James Emanuel's Postmodernist Jazz Haiku" is a remedy.  Smith's examination of Emanuel's work is precise, surgical and very persuasive in making the case "that Emanuel's postmodernist jazz haiku text projects African American culture more distinctly into an already transnational space in which "jazz" music brings together people from around the world in a common dialogue about universal humanism" (59).  Jazz is one of several musical modes begot by the blues, and the point is not lost in Claude Wilkinson's " 'No Square Poet's Job': Improvisation in Etheridge Knight's Haiku," a provocative analysis of how "Knight's haiku exert a certain bravura reminiscent of the toasts by which he honed his linguistic skills"(107).  Meta L. Schettler's "An African High Priestess of Haiku: Sonia Sanchez and the Principles of a Black Aesthetic" and Richard A. Iadonisi's "Writing the (Revolutionary ) Body: The Haiku of Sonia Sanchez" address Sanchez's unique womanist cultural visions and several of the issues associated with reading haiku through the lens of the Black Arts Movement.  These two essays are appropriately followed  by a trilogy on the work of Lenard D. Moore, who is the most prolific African American writer of haiku:  Toru Kiuchi's "African American Aesthetic Tradition in Lenard D. Moore's Haiku," Ce Rosenow's "Sequences of Events: African American Communal Narratives in the Haiku of Lenard D. Moore" and Sheila Smith McKoy's "Contextualizing Renso and Sankofa:  A Cultural and Critical Exploration of Lenard D. Moore's Haiku."  Kiuchi writes poignantly about his personal correspondence with Moore and how Moore "has turned his life and experiences into expressions through imagistic haiku and other poems with his African American aesthetics" (161).  Rosenow applauds Moore's innovative gestures in "the paradoxical choice to construct communal narratives using a literary form that strives to distance itself from narrative conventions" (164), and McKoy's essay is itself remarkably innovative in linking "renso and sankofa, two concepts that come to us from seemingly disparate sources: ancient Japan and ancient Ghana" (180) to create a persuasive argument that Moore's "contributions as poet and as teacher are indicative of living a haiku life" (190).

It is unlikely that readers will examine the essays in just the order Zheng has chosen, but the effort to do so is rewarding.  The essays work as an ensemble that illuminates Zheng's introduction, a concise and scholarly frame for inquiry about how African American poets have studied, embraced, and made innovations in an ancient Japanese genre.  The introduction is a valuable literary historical guide for sustained study of haiku, African American modernity, and cross-cultural poetics.  African American Haiku: Cultural Visions is seminal for future criticism regarding how Japanese formal aesthetics have been liberated by poets, how haiku is transformed in literary contact zones, and how diversity is constituted by the cosmopolitan practices of individual African American poets.  The book is destined to have an impact on theoretically sophisticated  directions in the study of modern and contemporary African American poetry.

Central China Normal University

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