Haiku, Paris, and Black History Month—

All Come Together in Richard Wright!

When I started writing haiku seriously about two and a half years ago, I searched Amazon.com for haiku books to help me learn.  My query brought up numerous English translations of Japanese haiku written by the four renowned old masters:  Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki.  Then there were the how-to-haiku handbooks and modern collections and anthologies by members of various haiku societies.  There were also over a dozen children’s books using the “traditional” haiku form to tell a tale or teach about the seasons.

Then, there was a big surprise!  Richard Wright (1908-1960), the author of Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945), Uncle Tom’s Children (1938) and Twelve Million Black Voices (1941), among many other works, had a large collection of haiku published posthumously in 1998.  The surprise got even better—Mr. Wright had written all of them when he lived in France!  I ordered a copy immediately.  (See HAIKU: The Last Poems of an American Icon, by Richard Wright; Arcade Publishing, New York, c1998.)

I was encouraged by his prolific haiku outpouring.  If such an esteemed literary figure, who wrote often about the African-American experience in the Deep South before the Civil Rights Movement, could suddenly embrace haiku and relish its elevation of the ordinary to the sublime—then haiku was a poetry genre worthy of my effort, too!

Healing Haiku

In the book’s introduction, written by his daughter, Julia Wright, we learn that haiku writing may have been a tonic, a respite, and a joy to this gifted writer whose health was declining, and who was grieving the loss of several people dear to him:  his beloved mother, Ella; his friend and favorite editor, Ed Aswell; and his good friend Richard Padmore.  Other unsettling events were unfolding in the last years of his life, too, including being embroiled in nasty Cold War politics stemming from his earlier connections with various Communist groups.

In the last 18 months of his life, unable to write longer works due to his failing health, Richard Wright wrote more than 4000 haiku and left his personal selection of 817 of them in a manuscript for his editor.  His daughter writes in her introduction, “But writing these poems kept him spiritually afloat.”   The American writer, who had moved to Paris, France, in 1946, in self-exile, died there in 1960, at age 52.  He’s buried in Père Lachaise cemetery.

Almost all of his haiku are in the standard form taught at that time—in three lines of 5, then 7, then 5 syllables, with a seasonal reference.   I gobbled them up, recognizing vintage French country-scapes in poem after poem.  There were thunderstorms, blossoming fruit trees, cats, rats, dogs, snowflakes, horses, cows, crows and sunshine.  There are another 3200 unpublished haiku hiding in a Yale library that I hope will see the light of day someday, too.  In illness, being mindful of the natural beauty around him, Mr. Wright writes of wonder.

I read one review that suggested this haiku collection would have been more celebrated and appreciated if it had been published in 1960, soon after Mr. Wright’s death, when “5-7-5 haiku” were the accepted, unquestioned norm.  But, thirty-eight years later, in 1998, when it was finally published, the accepted form of English-language haiku had changed.

Due to the great structural differences between the Japanese and English languages, including how to count “sounds” or syllables in their words, serious haiku poets learned that, more often than not, a17-syllable English-language haiku was much longer than a Japanese-language haiku with 17 “sounds,” a few of which even act as voiced punctuation.  New standards for haiku writing in English evolved, so that by 1998, many of Wright’s haiku seemed a bit old-fashioned and long-winded to writers of more “modern” haiku.

Worth Your Time to Read

Oh, but there are gems here!  And there’s evidence that Mr. Wright knew when just enough was said to make a perfect haiku—without counting syllables.  He was a great wordsmith, after all.  Here are a few of my favorites:


Just enough of rain

To bring the smell of silk

From umbrellas.


Yet another dawn

Upon yellowing leaves

And my sleepless eyes.


Winter rain at night

Sweetening the taste of bread

And spicing the soup.


Last summer, my husband and I took a little “field trip” out to the tiny farming village of Ailly, in Normandy, where Mr. Wright had owned a country retreat.  Many of his haiku were so obviously written there.  Then we wandered around the serene “Le Moulin d’Andé” compound, once a cozy writers’ colony where Wright spent time with friends and fellow writers.

I stood at the edge of the mill pond and looked out over the water.  I paid my homage by imagining him here with his friends, in the prime of life, with his family, relaxed and appreciated and free.  The mill pond was teeming with life:  little fish and frogs, sunning turtles, ducks and singing birds, and dragonflies, bright blue ones.  And, of course, I wrote a haiku.


He stood here once …

Watching other dragonflies

On other lily pads.


I recommend HAIKU: The Last Poems of an American Icon, by Richard Wright; Arcade Publishing, New York, c1998.


The old writers' colony at "Le Moulin d'Andé" in Normandy, as it looks today, with its mill pond.

The old writers’ colony at “Le Moulin d’Andé” in Normandy, as it looks today, with its mill pond.


Wine and Summertime

Ah, wine.  I thought I knew a bit about wine before I moved to France fourteen years ago.  Little did I suspect how much more I had to learn.  I’d participated in a dozen wine-tasting events in the US.  I knew about grape varieties and ordered Cabernet Sauvignons and Pinot Noirs and Merlots.  But that was not how my new French neighbors spoke of wine.  No, sir.  They spoke not of the cépage (grape varietals), but of the terroir (the region where the wine is produced).

They ordered Burgundies and Bordeaux and Côtes du Rhônes, using the names of the major wine-producing regions.

And to speak of the region, or terroir, was to summon all they knew of the “flavor” of the land:  the qualities of the soil; the usual amount of rain; the average number of sunny days and thunderstorms; the range of temperatures and typical humidity during the growing season; the knowledge and care and skill and years of experience of the region’s main wine producers; the timing of the harvest and whether the grapes were harvested in bunches all at once or were selected grape berry by grape berry, one by one, later in the season; even the wind–and how all these factors influenced the flavor and quality of the wines.  I have learned so much, and this new-found knowledge increased my appreciation of wine immensely.

Today’s post is not meant to be a wine lesson, though.  I capture here, below, my first 17-syllable impression of the passion for wine I found among most of my French acquaintances and friends … my “ah-ha” moment when I first appreciated all that had gone into the making of a very fine wine.

When I savor wine now, I often think of one of my fourteen summers in France–where we ventured and what we discovered–and the bottles we brought back from every region, now lining the walls of the cellar, or la cave.  Only our photos top these dusty-musty bottles as our favorite souvenirs.

I would love to see your 17-syllable impressions of good wine!  Will you accept the challenge?  

Wine at cafe

May 23, 2014

Summertime is just around the corner!  Time to catch some rays … Parisian style.

Parisians enjoy their city gardens and parks year-round, but especially in late spring and early summer.  Sunbathing and napping in the gardens and parks is seen as healthy and stress-reducing.  Two little details catch my attention almost every time I stroll through these green havens.

The first:  In two of the larger gardens, the Luxembourg and the Tuileries, there are sturdy steel chairs painted green to sit in.  Although quite heavy (in spite of their thin-looking legs), most folks will drag a chair to a choice spot and then often drag a second one over to the first to use as a footrest.  Then comes the precise orientation of the chairs to receive the most benefit from the sun.  As the day wears on, subsequent sunbathers will re-position the chairs to align with the sun as though they were human sunflowers.

The second:  Rather than paving over every inch with asphalt, Parisians seem to  prefer leaving the garden paths and other ground surfaces bare or a bit rustic, with just a thin layer of chalky gravel over the dirt.  And, while I do respect this idea, it causes me much consternation when I exit the garden and notice my shoes.  Covered with tenacious chalky dust from the gravel, my black shoes are now dusty gray and will require brushing and rinsing to recover.  Don’t sport your new Jimmy Choo’s in Paris gardens!

I was initially inspired to write this:  “Heliotropes doze / Splayed across spindly-legged chairs / Stick out dusty shoes.”  But when I gave my photographer this assignment in August, there were only bare feet propped up on those green footrests!  How clever I felt when I devised a more appropriate five-syllable ending!

In a second haiku, I play with the form and tweak the syllable count–experiments very common among haiku poets today, writing in languages other than Japanese.

The happy result:


May 6, 2014

Say it with flowers!

Mother’s Day is coming up soon!  Can’t go wrong with a bouquet of flowers!  Paris florist shops are nothing if not glorious.  French florists take pride in their unique, artistic, floral creations.  Some shops display row-upon-row of seasonal varietals neatly arranged in buckets, while other shops might prefer rustic, country or cottage “looks” to their displays.

Floral gifts:  Always an appropriate gift for your mother, your lover, your dinner hostess, your in-laws, or your grandmother on Sunday!  Of course, you can buy them for yourself, too.  Buy a ready-made bouquet or select your own stems with the florist’s help.  You will always be asked whether it’s a gift, so the florist can select the correct wrapping:  Pour offrir?  C’est un cadeau?  If you say “oui,” then the gift packaging (un paquet cadeau) will often include a piece of colored tissue inside the clear plastic wrap, secured with a pretty ribbon tied in a bow, and the florist’s business card (or label) attached to the top.


Busy months ahead:  I am about to embark on a busy couple of months with lots of travel to and fro, so my blog posts will be regular (when I don’t forget), but quite brief—perhaps just the haiku with its photo, the way I started this blog back in October 2013.  I may occasionally refer to these as “haiga.”

Haiga:  When traditional haiku poets in Japan add a few brush strokes to enhance the effect of a haiku (a frog, a blossom, a bird, branch or mountain, for example), the work is called “haiga.”  A number of modern “haikuists,” many living outside of Japan and writing in other languages, now also use photography to heighten the effect of their tiny poems—and call them “haiga,” too.

Here’s my “haiga” post for this week, then, which I hope will remind my photographer and his brother that Sunday is Mother’s Day in the US!

Haiku Florists

April 28, 2014


We finally got some much needed rain this weekend (it always seems to come on a weekend!).  The snails are happy.  The photographers were out hunting rainbows.  The pattering sound on my roof was comforting.

I have only one haiku so far that mentions rain in Paris (but it’s not about singing in it), so I thought I’d post that one this week.

The sheets of gray zinc used on the roofs of so many Paris buildings gives almost any view over the city’s rooftops a uniform and rhythmic quality.  Add in the rows of clay chimney pots and topmost windows (often with flower boxes full of bright geraniums overflowing the railings), the ubiquitous shutters and cream-colored building façades–and you have another “icon” of Paris:  its rooftops.  The patterned effect is charming.  They look even better when wet!

(Note:  My photographer son shot this photo looking out from the Chimera Gallery up on Notre Dame Cathedral.  Many people also enjoy the classic rooftop views seen from the top steps of Sacré Coeur.  You might have a favorite rooftop view from your own balcony!)

My 17-syllable impression is below.  I encourage you to give yours!

Haiku Rooftops 2

March 15, 2014

Continuing my “bookish” theme from last week’s post on les bouquinistes (the antiquarian book vendors along the quays of the Seine), this week’s post is also about books.

It’s almost obligatory for book lovers to stop in at Shakespeare & Company bookstore at 37 rue de la Bûcherie (in the Left Bank’s Latin Quarter, across the river from Notre-Dame), at least once during any visit to Paris.
This veritable institution has been at this location since its American expatriate founder, George Whitman (1913-2011), opened for business in 1951 under its original name, Le Mistral.  In 1964, George changed the name to Shakespeare & Company in honor of the “late great” Sylvia Beach (1887-1962), who had passed away about two years earlier.
Sylvia Beach opened the original Shakespeare & Company in 1919 at 8 rue Dupuytren, moving it to 12 rue de l’Odéon in 1921.  She published James Joyce’s “Ulysses” in 1922, securing her place in the history of literature and bringing fame to her establishment. But the shop experienced difficulties during the Great Depression and closed during the German occupation of Paris, shuttering for good in 1941. 
George’s reincarnation continued the spirit of the original in supporting and promoting new literary talent.  George’s daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman (named for, but no relation to, the older Sylvia Beach), operates the shop today.
Nestled in its cozy corner, with outdoor benches for reading, a few trees, and its own Wallace fountain, the green and gold storefront itself seems to embody the shop’s motto (adapted from a Bible passage): “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.”