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Sleepless Nights and Autumn Roads

Richard Wright's Path to Mindfulness

By Geoffrey Philp Published about a month ago 3 min read

Haiku can transform heightened moments into existential insights. Richard Wright, the renowned African American novelist, turned to haiku later in his life and produced startling haiku while battling dysentery. Written in the final year of his life, Wright's haiku in The Last Poems of an American Icon show a perspective shift, blending natural imagery with introspective thoughts to reveal perceptions about time, longing, solitude, and the natural world. In haiku, such as "A Sleepless Spring Night" and "Autumn Moonlight," Wright takes simple scenes from nature and everyday life to unveil observations from the perspective of a dying man embracing life's end. Through thoughtful structural choices, Wright uses haiku's brevity to link the physical world with the emotional and spiritual realms.

A sleepless spring night:

Yearning for what I never had

And for what never was. (Wright)

In this haiku, Wright, through a careful balance of imagery, time, and emotion, blends the temporal and the eternal, the mundane and the spiritual. The mention of a "sleepless spring night" acts as the timeframe for the poem, a specific and relatable backdrop. By choosing spring, a season symbolizing renewal and growth, Wright contrasts the themes of sleeplessness and yearning.

However, this yearning isn't about concrete, unattained goals but the intangible and unattainable, reflecting a spiritual longing that contemplates desire. Additionally, Wright contrasts spring, representing nature's cycles of rebirth and growth, with the notion of unquenched yearning, emphasizing the divide between tangible reality and elusive desire – the space between what is and what could be.

In another haiku, "Autumn moonlight," Wright illustrates the dual nature of solitude:

Autumn moonlight

Deepens the emptiness

Of a country road. (Wright)

The imagery of "Autumn moonlight" and "a country road" paints a scene that is both familiar and evocative. The choice of autumn, a season often symbolizing transition, decay, and the approach of winter, enhances the poem's themes. It suggests a natural progression towards introspection and solitude. Wright's use of "deepening" concerning "emptiness" is significant; it implies a journey into the core of solitude, where the absence of human presence is not just observed but deeply felt, spatially and emotionally.

Yet, the solitude depicted in this haiku is not bleak but rather peacefully accepting. The moonlight doesn't erase the emptiness but embraces it as a route to self-discovery and contemplation. In the quiet and calm, solitude is redefined—not as an emptiness to fill but as a space to inhabit fully and mindfully. The haiku, then, becomes a meditation that encourages reflection on life's natural cycles and the role solitude plays in our comprehension of both the world and ourselves. Wright's narrative embraces emptiness by blending light and shadow, absence and presence. Within this void, he uncovers a deep peace and an acceptance of life's natural fluctuations.

Through thematic development and use of the strict haiku structure, Richard Wright skillfully captures everyday natural scenes and transforms them into reflections on human existence. By subtly shifting perspectives on ordinary moments - like a spring sky, a restless night, or a rural road in autumn - Wright, in the face of mortality, found resonance, beauty, and inspiration in the everyday, translating that perspective into the elegant simplicity of his final haiku.

Here are a few of my haiku, haibun, and essays on Vocal:


"Winter Moon": https://vocal.media/poets/winter-moon

"Snapshots of my Family": https://vocal.media/poets/snapshots-of-my-family


"The Persistence of Green": https://vocal.media/poets/the-persistence-of-green

"An Island Escapade": https://vocal.media/poets/an-island-escapade

"Ten Days in Turkey": https://vocal.media/poets/ten-days-in-turkey

"Ten Days in Israel": https://vocal.media/poets/ten-days-in-israel

"New Eyes, Old Fears": https://vocal.media/poets/new-eyes-old-fears


"Zen and the Art of Haiku": https://vocal.media/poets/zen-and-the-art-of-haiku

'Writing Haiku": https://vocal.media/poets/writing-haiku-l05b0z2z


Wright, Richard. The Last Poems of an American Icon. Skyhorse Publishing Inc., 2012.

Zheng, John. "Richard Wright's Haiku, Japanese Poetics, and Classical Chinese Poetry." The Haiku Foundation, 2012, https://thehaikufoundation.org/omeka/files/original/4e1a24a72f16ffd9ffcc8e23c3fbec53.pdf. Accessed 20 Feb. 2024.

"Five Haiku by Richard Wright." African American Registry, aaregistry.org/poem/five-haikus-by-richard-wright/.

If you're interested in learning more about Wright's haiku, which inspired me to explore this poetic form, here are some articles you might find interesting:

"Five Haikus by Richard Wright - Famous poems, famous poets." All Poetry, https://allpoetry.com/Five-Haikus. Accessed 21 Apr. 2024.

"Haiku Poems by Richard Wright." Terebess Asia Online (TAO), https://terebess.hu/english/haiku/wright.html. Accessed 21 Apr. 2024.

"Richard Wright, Masaoka Shiki, and the Haiku of Confinement." The New York Review of Books, 25 June 2020, https://www.nybooks.com/online/2020/06/25/richard-wright-masaoka-shiki-and-the-haiku-of-confinement/. Accessed 21 Apr. 2024.

"The Haiku of Richard Wright." JSTOR Daily, https://daily.jstor.org/the-haiku-of-richard-wright/. Accessed 21 Apr. 2024.

Besides The Last Poems of an American Icon, here are my foundational books:

Basho, Matsuo. The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches. Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa, Penguin Classics, 1966.

Blyth, R. H. Haiku. 4 vols., Hokuseido Press, 1949-1952.

Donegan, Patricia, editor. Haiku Mind: 108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness and Open Your Heart. Shambhala, 2008.

Hass, Robert, translator. The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa. Ecco Press, 1994.

Higginson, William J., and Penny Harter. The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku. Kodansha International, 1985.

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About the Creator

Geoffrey Philp

I am a Jamaican writer. I write poems (haiku & haibun), stories & essays about climate change, Marcus Garvey, music icons such as Bob Marley, and the craft of writing. For more info, visit my webpage: https://www.geoffreyphilp.com/

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