African American Haiku: Cultural Visions

[longer version]

The following is an expanded earlier draft of a much shorter review that was first published in the “Briefly Reviewed” section of Frogpond 40:1, Winter 2017, pages 103–104. This longer review was not published in Frogpond for space reasons. See also the new postscript at the end.

African American Haiku: Cultural Visions, edited by John Zheng (2016, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, MS). 198 pages, 6¼×9¼ inches, hardback, 978-1-4968-0303-0. $65.00 from the University Press of Mississippi or on Amazon.

It is rare for an academic book, let alone one published by a university press, to examine English-language haiku, and this book may well be a first—other than the occasional dissertation and a book or two that have concentrated purely on the haiku of Richard Wright (I also note Jeffrey Johnson’s Haiku Poetics in Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde Poetry, which is also in the ballpark, but it does not cover any leading haiku poets of the last fifty years). Ethnic studies and focusing on minorities is trendy in academia, but how about a similar book that does not dwell on race, one that recognizes literary achievement by some of the West’s leading English-language haiku poets regardless of race? As for the poets in this book, do they deserve more attention just because of their race? And are some of these poets even writing haiku, or just a bastardized form of haiku? This book raises many questions like these, and some of them are not answered.

The poets under discussion here include Richard Wright, James Emanuel, Etheridge Knight, Sonia Sanchez, and Lenard D. Moore, covered by two essays for each poet, except for Moore, who has three. As for the commentators, those in the haiku community may well recognize such names as Yoshinobu Hakutani, Toru Kiuchi, Ce Rosenow, perhaps Meta L. Schettler, and the book’s editor, John Zheng, but not Sachi Nakachi, Virginia Whatley Smith, Claude Wilkinson, Richard A. Iadonisi, and Sheila Smith McKoy. Consequently, one strength of this book is how it engages critical commentary from voices that the haiku community may not have heard of—or heard from—before. This helps us get out of our haiku ghetto. Brief biographical sketches at the end of the book tell us more about the book’s pedigreed commentators. Other strengths include the assessment of haiku as effective poetry, regardless of whether it is “haiku” or not, the exploration of jazz, blues, and improvisation, the innovations of some of these poets as they make haiku their own, and the adaptation of haiku to an African American vernacular. Unfortunately, the brevity of this review precludes a fuller celebration of the book’s rich content.

One shortfall of this book seems to be that the analyses of the poems by some observers do not make enough of a case for what haiku is, or whether these poets even understand the haiku genre, but mostly use non-haiku poetics to analyze what is simply called haiku by the authors (which is still valuable, regardless of whether the poems are haiku or not). In Moore’s case, the poems pass muster, as do most of Wright’s haiku. But in too many cases, especially Sanchez and Emanuel, the poems make a selfish or hybrid use of “haiku” that some readers may feel departs too far from the genre. This is an important book of haiku criticism, but it’s one that could have taken a more rigorous stand on whether some of these poets are writing haiku or merely writing in the name of haiku.

The good news about a book such as this is that it helps us see haiku from varied and objective points of view. Its “ethnic studies” focus may also help to open the door to future books that discuss haiku by leading English-language poets regardless of race. But despite its many strong points, I still wonder if books like this privilege the minority (this question is not limited to haiku—see the 1996 New Criterion essay, “‘Diversity,’ ‘cultural studies’ & other mistakes” by Roger Kimball). It would be worthwhile if more works of criticism could be colourblind in assessing haiku poets—regardless of minority status. Do haiku poets who are not minorities therefore become neglected? I’ve discussed this issue with Dana Gioia, current poet laureate for the state of California, author of the influential essay, “Can Poetry Matter,” and former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (and on the advisory board for my former publication, Tundra: The Journal of the Short Poem). Dana also wrote an appreciative blurb for the book’s back cover. In an email message to me, he honed in on the issue succinctly: “Diversity represents a necessary civic value. The problem is when the political becomes a substitute for the aesthetic.” I hope the “political” aspect of this book’s focus on minorities (which academic presses are wont to love) has not substituted itself for aesthetic worth, although in some poems here and there my feeling is that it has. I invite you to read these finely written and researched essays to decide for yourself.


I have an additional thought to share in response to my call here for “colourblindness” in critical studies of haiku. What I mean is that it would be beneficial to see books such as this that assesses a range of haiku poets regardless of race. In other words, what about nonethnic studies? As distinctive and influential as many of the poets are in this book, how many equivalent critical books exist that assess many other nonminority poets of equal and even superior status? Perhaps none. That’s what I mean by colourblindness, or at least some measure of it. However, when assessing the poems of individual poets, one should of course still see the poet’s race. While one assesses work for its success as haiku, it would also seem beneficial to consider race and other cultural or contextual influences, to whatever degree they’re relevant. For example, in the case of Sonia Sanchez, her subjects and vernacular choices often spring from her Black culture, and to ignore that would be a disservice to her work. What may still be an issue, however, is when the racial context or springboard as manifested in a particular poet’s haiku might be at odds with the aesthetics of haiku, even while haiku should be broad. This then raises the question of haiku as a genre—are certain understandings of this poetry itself clouded by majority bias? And at what point do racial aesthetics conflict with haiku aesthetics, if at all? If they ever seem to conflict, a responsible critical analysis would seem to need to address this possibility.

—24 October 2022