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Performing presence in the haiku moment
Article in Text and Performance Quarterly · March 2017
DOI: 10.1080/10462937.2016.1227469
1 author:
Ross Louis
Xavier University of Louisiana
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Performance, presence, haiku, Richard Wright View project
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Text and Performance Quarterly
ISSN: 1046-2937 (Print) 1479-5760 (Online) Journal homepage:
Performing presence in the haiku moment
Ross Louis
To cite this article: Ross Louis (2017): Performing presence in the haiku moment, Text and
Performance Quarterly, DOI: 10.1080/10462937.2016.1227469
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Date: 28 March 2017, At: 07:53
Performing presence in the haiku moment
Ross Louis
Department of Communication Studies, Xavier University of Louisiana, New Orleans, LA, USA
This essay examines presence as a performed spatio-temporal
relationship. It acknowledges Rose and Coonfield’s recent analysis
of presence as an “experience of thisness” before employing haiku
as an aesthetic and theoretical lens for navigating the
performance of presence. The “haiku moment” signals an effort to
reconcile aesthetic representation with direct experience through
evocative movement across time and space, a movement that
emerges in relation to text, context, and audience. Richard
Wright’s posthumously published haiku project, “This Other
World,” offers a particularly useful case study that demonstrates
presence as intertextual, imaginative, and metonymic.
Received 10 April 2016
Accepted 17 August 2016
Performance; presence;
haiku; Richard Wright; haiku
As the sun dies down,
Last night’s dew is still sparkling
Upon the lilacs. (Wright 87)1
It is possible that Richard Wright had an immediate and direct encounter with all of
the natural objects found in this haiku. It is possible, for example, that just after an
experience with a setting sun, moisture, and lilacs, sometime between 1959 and 1960
when he wrote the poem in France, Wright contemplated all these in the (just) past
tense. But it is also possible that he encountered these things much earlier, perhaps
in Mississippi as a child, and they stowed away for years until finally reappearing in
a haiku form. Setting aside, for the moment anyway, the possibility that Wright was
referring to these things as metaphors for other human endeavours, we may see this
haiku as elasticizing time, pulling “last night’s dew” from any number of pasts into a
single present that can speak backward and forward in time and space. Perhaps one
day Wright simultaneously discovered a fading sun and dewdrops upon a lilac at his
farmhouse in Ailly, France. Perhaps this was a sudden discovery which then enabled
a literary act that, although certainly revised before its final publication, might later
invoke in a certain reader the dual effects of being transported into the time and
place of this particular haiku image and puzzled by the improbability of time’s elasticity:
certainly last night’s dew has long since evaporated.
Holding too much rain,
The tulip stoops and spills it,
Then straightens again. (Wright 56)
CONTACT Ross Louis
[email protected]
© 2017 National Communication Association
Even as he rapidly acquired the style and philosophy of haiku by reading R.H. Blyth’s
translated volumes of Japanese masters, Wright never intended an exact mirror of the
form. The original title for his manuscript, “This Other World: Projections in the
Haiku Manner,” suggests as much. So does his use of the tulip as an anamorphic metaphor
in this haiku. Of course, Wright might have experienced the tulip in France, planted on the
border of his vegetable garden. But it exists somewhere else too, as something else and for
something else. It contains the possibility of meaning beyond the capture of a single
experience with nature. Perhaps Wright’s subtle adaptation of the Western haiku form
can be read as a testament to presence, to its immanence, to the likelihood that it too
spills over a single haiku moment.
A freezing morning:
I left a bit of my skin
On the broomstick handle. (Wright 72)
The skin left behind here is a trace. It reenacts and activates. The present arrives in this
haiku, already contested, “imbricated with phenomena of memory and anticipation,”
accompanied by the past and the future (Giannachi, Kaye and Shanks 7). And yet, even
while the action occurs in the past tense, a reader of this haiku witnesses a present
moment, “a freezing morning,” and is invited to construct a relationship with its participants: the subject, the objects, and the context. Thus, a provisional beginning: presence
requires memory and hope. As a relationship between past, present, and future, it
suggests both markers of and the corporeal experiencing of time and space. It comes
into being as a performance through the “decontextualization and recontextualization
of discourse” (Bauman 9). The performance of presence is not quite present, nor not
quite absent, in the bodies of performers and audiences (Giannachi, Kaye, and Shanks).
It is a performance in which time and bodies and the texts they generate can emerge,
disappear, and reappear.
One goal of this essay is to elaborate our disciplinary understanding of presence as a
performance, beginning from Rose and Coonfield’s recent argument that presence is a
relational “experience of thisness” (199). To explore the precise ways that presence performs, I turn to haiku as both an aesthetic and theoretical framework. Western readings
of haiku, in particular, contain a desire to transmit the present as a material encounter with
nature, and thus negotiate the tension between direct experience and language as a system
of representation. In this sense, haiku’s handling of presence extends our performance
studies tradition of considering bodies in relation to text, context, and audience. As I
demonstrate later, a careful re-reading of Joan Giroux’s concept of the haiku moment is
also useful for understanding the performance of presence. Introduced in 1974 in
Giroux’s book The Haiku Form, the haiku moment has since been regularly employed
by Western scholars to describe the precise when, where, and what found in a haiku,
thus functioning as a poetic attempt to capture presence. In using Richard Wright’s
haiku to articulate the performance of presence, I understand the haiku moment as
both evocative and relational, a moment of potential in which the impulse to capture or
freeze presence finally yields to movement, across time and space.2 Presence is constructed
through a web of spatio-temporal relations: metonymic, intertextual, and imaginative.
Wright’s haiku, composed long after the publication of Native Son and the autobiographical Black Boy and just before Wright’s death in 1960, serves as a useful exemplar for how
presence performs, particularly because the poems operate relationally between Western
interpretations of haiku and the effects of presence.
The performance of presence
Our discipline has long recognized that the emergent “be-here-now of performance”
occurs at the intersection of sensation and representation (Coonfield and Rose 204).
When analysing a performance event, for example, we often interrogate the relationship
between the perceptions of a subject’s physical presence and the subject’s representations,
a “temporality and common space shared by the spectator and the presence being evoked
(a character, an avatar, or an object)” (Feral 31). Like other performances, presence is constructed, culturally and historically. When we attempt to concretize it, we risk fixing an
“experience of thisness” which is essentially always in movement.3 Yet, our continued disciplinary attention to presence suggests that the “things that we cannot touch but which
nonetheless touch us” are, in fact, important (Kleinberg “Prologue” 1). Presence becomes
valuable precisely because it unfolds relationally, between and across time, bodies, and discourse. The performance of presence is a “persistence of being,” a relationship between self
and other that traverses time and place, a relationship that invokes the material and virtual
bodies of its participants (Giannachi, Kaye and Shanks 11).
Recent work in the philosophy of history approaches presence as the immediate and the
corporeal, representing an attempt to recover a material relationship with the past through
those “actual things that we can feel and touch” in the present (Kleinberg “Presence” 11).
In this rendering of the past, history is not viewed as a relentless analytical project of reconstructing the absent, but rather a “return to the real” that might actually assist in the
production of meaning (Kleinberg “Presence” 12). Hans Gumbrecht understands contemporary Western thought as dominated by meaning culture wherein a “bodyless observer
… from a position of eccentricity vis-à-vis the world of things will attribute meanings to
these things” (“Presence” 319). Meaning culture activates a desire to separate from and
then transform the things of the world through interpretation, analysis, and theory. Presence culture, by contrast, emphasizes the connection between the human and the things of
the world.4 For Gumbrecht, the production of presence resurrects the body of the observer
by acknowledging “any form of communication, through its material elements, will ‘touch’
the bodies of the persons who are communicating in specific and varying ways” (Production 17). Gumbrecht’s argument is simply that bodies matter and meaning alone
cannot contain the entire experience of an encounter. This position also recalls the
work of performance scholars who have long since considered the relationship between
presence and performance.
In their article “What Is Called Presence,” Coonfield and Rose provide a critical review of
how the discipline has engaged the concept of presence, acknowledging in such work both
the desire to re-claim an originary liveness in performance and the influence of mediatization.5 Peggy Phelan and Philip Auslander, of course, have already defended these two positions. Phelan links performance to “a maniacally charged [and embodied] present” as a
defence of the live (148). For Phelan, the present moment of performance erases the performer, whose live body is “metonymic of self, of character, of voice, of ‘presence’” itself (150).
The result is ephemeral: a disappearing into a new thing – “dance, movement, sound, character, ‘art’” (150). Auslander has repeatedly argued that the live cannot exist outside of its
relation to the mediatized (“Liveness;” From Acting; “Performativity”). Considering presence in relation to performance art, especially the work of Maria Abramović, Amelia
Jones joins Auslander in claiming that the authentic, original act does not exist. She
argues that re-enactments are “simultaneously representational and live,” suggesting the
past is always mingling with the present: all experiences in the present tense are filtered
through subjective perceptions rooted in past experience (20). Fenske turns to Bakhtin’s
concept of “answerability” as an ethical intervention allowing for the interaction of liveness
and mediatization: neither the corporeal nor the virtual prevail, rather they are joined (9).
For Coonfield and Rose, the link between presence and performance can be observed by
re-thinking Benjamin’s concept of the “aura” as an “experience of thisness:” performance
always contains, or perhaps enables, a desire for presence, understood as “an experience of
acts occurring” (199). For Benjamin, of course, aura is linked to presence and cannot be
replicated. Coonfield and Rose’s auratic “experience of thisness” occurs in relation to an
emergent “energy generated among performer, text, and audience” that happens in “the
be-here-now of performance” (204). The authors derive this view from Wallace Bacon,
whose theory and practice of oral interpretation of literature they read as linking an
experience to presence: “presence produced by and through the relation of performertext-audience-place and established by expressive embodied acts” (195). While Auslander
also understands Benjamin’s “aura” as an “authentic original,” he argues “all performance
modes, live or mediatized, are now equal – none is perceived as auratic or authentic” (“An
Orchid” 165).
If we instead consider presence as an evocative “reaching” or a relational potential
(“between performer and text, between performer and audience”), as Coonfield and Rose
do when describing the way that presence produces a “movement of becoming,” we
might evade the polarities of original and reproduction, live and mediatized (205).
Chvasta reminds us, for example, that the “the essence of performance” is found in the
virtual, drawing on Pierre Lévy’s ontological concept of vectors (“the real, the possible,
the actual, and the virtual”) to argue for a renewed focus on how performance effectively
moves “in between” spaces and times (165). Like Lévy’s vectors, performance reveals presence as a “constant becoming-other” (Chvasta 166). As such, we might consider presence as
Chvasta does the virtual: “constituted by potentiality and heterogenesis” (167). In a similar
fashion, Jean-Luc Nancy characterizes presence as a recurring birth, an endless arriving:
[A] to-be-here, or to-be-there, as a come-to-here, or there, of somebody. Some body: an existence, a being in the world, being given to the world. No more, no less, than everybody, everyday, everywhere. No more, no less than the finitude of this existence, which means: the matter
of fact that it does not have its sense in any Idea (in any achievement of “sense”), but does
have it in being exposed to this presence that comes, and only comes. As when we are
born – an event that lasts all our lives. (Birth ix, emphasis in original)
This birthing is enacted relationally as a “co-presence,” as a “being before or being in the
presence of another,” as a collaborative reconciliation of space, time, and the discourses we
encounter together (Giannachi, Kaye and Shanks 1–2, emphasis in original). The production of presence is thus plural: we must account for and struggle with “multiple modalities through which various presences are produced, experienced, maintained, and
contested” (Terry and Vartabedian 357).
The haiku moment
As it is commonly understood in the West as an adaptation of a Japanese literary form,
haiku consists of three syllabic verses (5,7,5) that juxtapose two images, often with a reference to nature. Haiku derives from the ancient collaborative verse forms of waka and
renga, both of which featured syllabic stanzas.6 Western interpretations of haiku’s
origins have often emphasized the poetic capture of a direct, observed experience with
nature in the tradition of Zen Buddhism. R.H. Blyth exemplified this view in his 1949 publication of Haiku, a four-volume work of translations and analyses of Japanese masters,
which re-introduced the West to haiku and relied heavily on Zen Buddhist thought
(Hakutani and Tener).7 It is important to note Shirane’s conclusion that the Western
view of haiku is a contemporary, transcultural construction. Shirane argues that its insistence on direct observation, nature-orientation, and avoidance of metaphor actually
reflects the influence of European realism in the nineteenth century, which in turn influenced modern Japanese haiku, and was finally carried back to the West as authentically
Japanese, no doubt in large part to the influence of Blyth’s work.
In this essay, the relevance of the Western haiku perspective concerns both its influence on Wright’s own haiku project and its desire for presence, often translated as a
distilled poetic image of a person’s singular, concrete experience in and with the
world. The Western haiku is an attempt to document and extend a spatio-temporal
materiality, a moment of presence, communicating it both to oneself as author and
to others as readers. From this perspective, haiku operates from an ontological position
of presence, which serves as both its function and its standard. This is a Western desire
for capture, a still moment in the otherwise frenetic cycle of time and bodies and
places, and thus offers a lens through which to view the relationship between presence
and performance. Haiku actually performs presence through the haiku moment, which
should be understood not as the collapse of self and world in a Zen-like ecstasy, as
Blyth suggests, but as a relational opening that activates a reader, a writer, and a
text. It is a moment in name only, as it moves forward and backward, evoking and
relating, suggesting that experiences with “thisness” are above all experiences with
In the first volume of his Haiku series, Blyth faithfully situates haiku within a Zen tradition that seeks to recover a unity with nature, fusing the self and the natural world in
moments of presence. He writes, “A haiku is not a poem, it is not literature; it is a
hand beckoning, a door half-opened, a mirror wiped clean. It is a way of returning to
nature, to our moon nature, our cherry blossom nature, our falling leaf nature, in short
to our Buddha nature” (243). In doing so, Blyth unwittingly points towards the
paradox of presence: that it resists its own capture. He explains haiku as the revelation
of a “perfectly subjective” thing, undivided from the person who encounters it, “devoid
of all our mental twisting and emotional discoloration” (242). Yet, even while operating
within a Zen framework, Blyth cannot reconcile the ways in which haiku language itself
intervenes between the person and the thing encountered. Once encountered, the thing
loses its status as “perfectly subjective,” no matter how haiku strives “not to obscure
further the truth and suchness of a thing” (Blyth 242). As Marshall and Simpson
observe, at its best, haiku can only be aware of its “fiction of wordlessness” in making
the thing “fully present” (130).
Nonetheless, even while he locates haiku within the sense-making process that follows a
human encounter with the natural world, Blyth also recognizes that “what we return to is
never the same as what we once left, for we have ourselves changed in the meantime” (4).
For Blyth, haiku is both a way of encountering the world and recording it so that an ordinary moment in life might magically register as truth within and outside us, without the
intrusion of poetry. This vision requires a metaphysical acceptance of presence as “that
state of mind in which we are not separated from other things, are indeed identical
with them, and yet retain our own individuality and personal peculiarities” (Blyth 5). It
is precisely this vision that many Western practitioners of haiku have pursued: that indelible instant in which all boundaries between self and the world collapse. Behind this
pursuit, of course, is the belief that such “absorption of self in the present moment and
in the world outside the self” is both possible and recordable in the haiku form (Marshall
and Simpson 119).
However, if the haiku moment is re-framed as a negotiation between “presence effects”
and “meaning effects” that evokes the possible, it helps explain the particular ways in
which presence performs, especially in relation to systems of representation and time.
In Empire of Signs, Barthes situates haiku within the competing desire for fixing and
opening meaning. While he observes that the “West moistens everything with
meaning,” the allure of the haiku is that it manages to mean nothing in particular (69).
All that is not present in the haiku – the careful description of the thing, the metaphor
even – activates a “double condition” of meaning so that the haiku, operating through a
technique of “absence,” appears to open meaning to the reader (69). Like Blyth, Barthes
suggests that haiku seeks to evade the reach of meaning when it realizes a “vision
without commentary,” most often through the omission of description and definition
(82). But, Barthes also recognizes that haiku’s absence does not erase meaning so much
as rendering it answerable by producing “a space of encounter with life/living” (Fenske
10). The haiku moment, then, might be understood as an evocative “experience of thisness,” for Barthes both unclassifiable and unnamable: “It’s that, it’s thus, says the haiku,
it’s so. Or better still, so! it says, with a touch so instantaneous and so brief … that even
the copula would seem excessive” (83, emphasis in original). Using mediations of
language, haiku thus works to make things present in the sense of making things tangible
and near. Gumbrecht suggests numerous ways that language achieves this, but the principle technique that appears in haiku is the way in which words merely “point” to
things rather than totalizing them in representation (“Presence” 322). The effect of this
pointing, as Barthes also acknowledges, is to make present an object from the past,
even if only for certain readers at certain moments.
The haiku loosens the spatio-temporal boundaries of the present, even while seemingly fixing a single moment through poetic representation. The haiku’s performance
of presence, then, is found in “the remains,” in the evocative traces of the past etched
into the present for each subsequent reader, traces that also enable an imaginative
movement forward (Giannachi, Kaye and Shanks 1). For Shirane, haiku dwells in
two axes: the horizontal present, which is the contemporary world of now and the vertical past, which is cultural memory. As the haiku moment illustrates, a third axis, the
potential future, is already present in the formation of haiku. Presence is activated at
those moments when the axes cross, when the now captured by the haiku poet encounters the possibilities brought by each reader, when the convergence of text, audience,
and context enable a movement across time and space. As Jones reminds us, this is not
an impossible presence of “unmediated co-extensivity in time and place of what I perceive and myself” (18). The haiku itself mediates the haiku moment. Again, Rose and
Coonfield’s notion of “be-here-now” helps explain how in the case of haiku, or even in
the desire for the haiku moment, “liveness is not necessarily a predicate for experience
of thisness” (202). The mediated fixing that occurs in the haiku helps achieve the axis
crossing between the past, present, and future that Shirane describes, so that presence
emerges as an evocative action. Or as the action of a thing captured in the haiku and
placed before all its “origins, relations, process, finalities and becomings” (Nancy
“Technique”). Haiku can thus be viewed as an emergent genre that fuses direct experience with representation in such a way that presence (as the haiku moment) performs
again and again for future readers.
Projecting presence in “This Other World”
In the English-language Western haiku tradition, an encounter with nature is translated
through a seasonal reference, the use of the present tense, an internal comparison of two
images divided by a pause, and a concise syllabic form (Gurga). But as we will now see
with Wright’s haiku project, presence can – and does – perform well beyond a single encounter with nature. Reading his poems as written “in the haiku manner” elaborates our understanding of how presence is performed and adheres to his original manuscript title, “This
Other World: Projections in the Haiku Manner.” In this case study, I do not read Wright’s
work strictly through Blyth’s haiku rubric (that is, the haiku moment as a pure transcendent
experience of unity between self and nature), and I often consider the haiku in isolation, a
decision made with the full understanding that Wright intended for them to be read in conversation with each other.8 My objective is to consider the ways in which Wright’s poems
mediate an encounter with a past/present/future materiality through language in a manner
that illuminates three links between presence and performance. These include metonymy
as a tool for manipulating time and drawing the past into the present; intertexuality as the
relational means by which the “be-here-now” of the haiku moment restores the past; and
imagination as a future-oriented path to reconcile the tension between liveness and mediation
that characterize our contemporary conversations about presence. After a brief review of the
existing scholarship on Wright’s haiku, I examine each of these modes.
Years after moving to France, Wright was introduced to haiku in August 1959 during a
conversation with beat poet Sinclair Beiles in Paris. Beiles, who worked alongside William
S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, loaned him all four volumes of Blyth’s Haiku. Wright read
them alongside multiple volumes of D.T. Suzuki’s essays on Zen Buddhism, Christmas
Humphrey’s Zen Buddhism, and Blyth’s work Zen in English Literature. Between September 1959 and March 1960, he produced 4000 haiku of his own (Kiuchi). He then edited
and reduced the haiku to 817, creating three drafts that organized the poems by theme
and season. In June 1960, Wright submitted a final manuscript to his editor for feedback,
and after receiving a rejection, did not pursue the project further before his death in
November 1960 (Kiuchi). The manuscript was finally edited by Hakutani and Tener
and published in 1998 as Haiku: The Last Poems of an American Icon.
Since its publication, a number of scholars have analysed Wright’s haiku in the context of
his entire oeuvre, often viewing them as either a final Zen-like transcendence of racial
discord or as a literary tactic by which to critique race and class inequality. The first perspective racially codifies Wright, suggesting that he reconciled his “violent, African American
consciousness” through the construction of haiku (Kodama 127). Hakutani and Tener
read the poems as racial discourse that turns to a Zen tradition in which the human
subject strives for balance with nature. This interpretation essentially transfers Blyth’s framework to Wright. For example, Hakutani has argued that the haiku enabled Wright to
pursue his original longing for “mu,” the Zen concept of nothingness in which a person
achieves harmony, interpreting the title, “This Other World,” as clear evidence for
Wright’s desire to see “nature and humanity … united” (101). The second perspective
reads the haiku as an ongoing ideological critique of the race and class hegemony that
Wright combatted throughout his life. Iadonisi, for example, argues that Wright disrupts
Zen’s promise of unity with nature by introducing an African American “dialogic consciousness that plays with the transcendence generally associated with Japanese haiku”
(195). Morgan and Brink both suggest that Wright reimagined the haiku genre for the continuation of his earlier anti-colonial critique. While these studies have not addressed presence directly, by considering his aims, strategies, and results, they offer useful directions for
a closer analysis of how presence performs, and to what effect, in Wright’s haiku projections.
The first way in which the haiku perform presence – as metonymy – is particularly
instructive for understanding how time mediates between the two. Wright’s commitment
to dialogue within his haiku manuscript opens possibilities for presence inasmuch as it
reminds us that time does not fix or close meaning. Instead, through their encounters
with the past, Wright’s haiku retain a trace of temporality, the “one-time” moment of
their construction. As readers, we are quite aware that a given haiku was created in the
past and references a past beyond that. But we are asked to accept the haiku moment as a
possibility that the past has stowed away and is now available to us as a sort of re-enactment,
evoking within us an experience of presence or “thisness.” As Runia observes, the past continues on into the present as a metonymic relationship where the occurrence of an absence
becomes a “transfer of presence” (“Presence” 29). Or as he has written elsewhere, “Presence is
not the result of metaphorically stuffing up absences with everything you can lay your hands
on. It can best be kindled by metonymically presenting absences” (“Spots” 309). In such
cases, representation, as in the presentation again of something “that is absent right now,”
manages to do what Richard Schechner referred to as restored behaviour, while also carrying
the past into the present (Ankersmit 328). Wright’s haiku, then, can be read as metonyms of
presence that enable an interaction between “meaning effects” and “presence effects.”
Once again, the reader of Wright’s haiku, as the witness of the aesthetic encounter, is activated as a participant in bridging the spatio-temporal gap between now and then, here and
there. Runia acknowledges that we have an “inordinate ability to spring surprises” on ourselves, often by suddenly connecting with that which we know is absent but that which nonetheless persists as presence for us (“Presence” 6). Wright often activates our capacity for
participating in his haiku presence by using suspense as a metonymic trigger. In several
haiku, he introduces a physical context in the opening two verses whose actors are
unknown until the final verse.
In the summer dawn,
Before it has time to dress,
How sad the willow. (Wright 166)
In the summer sun,
Near an empty whiskey bottle,
A sleeping serpent. (Wright 185)
Just before dawn,
When the streets are deserted,
A light spring rain. (Wright 11)
In these cases, we know that meaning will be completed eventually in the final verse. The
haiku, after all, have already been written, and in the event that they reference lived encounters that Wright has previously experienced or imagined, it is the past that resurfaces.
However, presence persists in these haiku, in part through Wright’s use of the present
tense, which metonymically enables a reader to restore any number of pasts (Wright’s,
the speaker’s, the reader’s) as the now. The discoveries of the actors in the final verses –
a sad willow, a sleeping serpent, a light spring rain – offer discrete meanings for the
haiku, but only those that are already in conversation with the ones activated by the reader.
The second link between performance and presence utilizes intertextuality, a characteristic common to the haiku genre. As noted earlier, the achievement of the haiku moment
depends upon the crossing of axes: a horizontal present, represented by an encounter with
the material, a vertical past, represented by a reference to a history that is accessible to both
the poet and reader, and a potential future, represented by imaginative possibility. In this
way, the presence effects generated by the haiku might be understood less as the inevitable
result of a serene encounter with nature, captured through the force of the haiku form, and
more as the unfinalizable possibility that arises in moments of intertextual exchange. That
is, the very conditions that Shirane observed in classic Japanese haikai, a spontaneous
social act performed as both a “dialogic exchange with other individuals” and a literary
text that can “transcend time and place,” also enable presence in contemporary haiku,
especially in Wright’s case. For Wright’s haiku, presence relies on the intertextual “workings of the human imagination, memory, literature and history” (Shirane). This act is performed by the poet and a reader in conversation with the physical world they encounter,
the former in direct contact with a selected object found in the world and the latter in
response to the sparse description of that object offered in the haiku.
In the following haiku, Wright enlists a personal discovery as an intertextual opening
for the reader to extend the scene.
The indentation
Made by her head on the pillow:
A heavy snowfall. (Wright 86)
Wright activates movement across time, past and present, through his description of an
impression left behind on a pillow. The “indentation” may have been observed in the
same moment the speaker describes it (“The indentation that is made by her head … ”),
but it may have been just as easily the speaker’s memory (“The indentation that was made
by her head … ”). The haiku thus loads the present with the past, as we must finally acknowledge that Wright composed it after a personal or imagined experience prior to the moment of
composition. “A heavy snowfall” further activates Wright’s vertical axis, relying on the likelihood that this reference to winter signifies for the reader well beyond the speaker’s discovery
or memory of the trace of a woman’s head upon a bed. The reader is thus invited to
participate intertextually, considering the metaphoric and literal possibilities that exist
between the described scene and the effect of a “heavy snowfall” in conversation with the
reader’s always present personal and cultural experiences that contribute to the meaning
making process. It is in this way that Wright frames presence as a dialogic opportunity for
answerability, where the “event of living” referenced in the haiku makes possible and is
answerable to a response by the reader (Fenske 10). Of course, this interpretation is
always limited or enabled by the participants of the encounter. It requires a reader who willingly acknowledges that one’s cultural memory (the vertical axis) can converse both with the
images and material encounters that Wright indexes in the haiku.
Wright more specifically encourages intertextual meaning across his literary works. For
example, several linked lines in Black Boy, written 15 years prior to his discovery of haiku,
suggest that Wright’s eventual poems were set in dialogue with his own sustained and
emergent system of observing nature in relation to humans.9 Wright included a series
of early passages in this book whose poetic style deviated from his autobiographical
account of childhood events, seemingly foreshadowing his eventual haiku project. These
devices act as “rhetorical centers,” signifying the “inner authority” of the text in which
they occur, while also suggesting the ways that Wright’s eventual haiku converse with
the themes of his earlier works (Ogburn 64–65).
Each event spoke with a cryptic tongue. And the moments of living revealed their coded
meanings. There was the wonder I felt when I first saw a brace of mountain-like, spotted,
black-and-white-horses clopping down a dusty road through clouds of powdered clay.
There was the delight I caught in seeing long straight rows of red and green vegetables
stretching away in the sun to the bright horizon.
There was the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when dew came onto my cheeks and shins as I ran
down the wet green garden paths in early morning.
There was the vague sense of the infinite as I looked down upon the yellow, dreaming waters
of the Mississippi River from the verdant bluffs of Natchez. (Wright 8)
Fabre demonstrates how the ending of one sentence from these passages in Black Boy can
be presented essentially as a haiku without altering the word order.
“There were the echoes of nostalgia I heard in the crying strings of wild geese winging south
against a bleak autumn sky.”
Crying strings of wild geese
Winging south against
A bleak autumn sky. (qtd. in Fabre 20)
Wright, in fact, eventually returned to this very image in his haiku manuscript:
Don’t they make you sad
Those wild geese winging southward,
O lonely scarecrow? (Wright 146)
These time- and genre-crossing citations enable and, at times, require the reader to
move in and out of the present moment of the haiku to make meaning. While the
haiku might be read in isolation as a sparse description of nature, they also open to
the vertical axis of memory. The reader thus may be expected to consider Wright’s
earlier work in reading any of these haiku, asking: A memory of when? A memory
of what? A memory of whom? The effect of this movement is to activate the reader
as a participant in the construction of presence or as a collaborator in Wright’s
“other world.”
Third, Wright relies on future-oriented imaginative encounters with the natural world,
a technique that is instructive for discussions about how and if presence is mediated. As
noted earlier, Wright always recognized that his poems were haiku “projections” and
thus could mobilize and transform the haiku form that he acquired through careful readings of Blyth and the Zen Buddhist tradition. In doing so, he ironically employed a trait
found in traditional Japanese haiku: the invention or alteration of a lived encounter with
the world, natural or otherwise. Shirane explains that Western English language
interpretations of haiku have missed the crucial point that both linked verse renga and
the opening hokku verse of a haikai sequence were “fundamentally imaginary.” Even
Basho, one of Japan’s most influential haiku poets, recognized that describing the
world as it actually is does not mean denying the fictive quality of language. Indeed,
Basho rewrote much of his haiku to alter the historical details of the situation in an
effort to “move from one world to another” (Shirane). Wright’s project thus recovers
an ancient impulse of haiku: to use a precise poetic form in order to explore the
utility of invoking other potential worlds that interact with the present moment. Presence
becomes an experiential tool, not a transcendent finality. Or as Fenske explains, “Art and
life are connected, one is not meant to transcend the other” (9). Imagined projections
function to implicate and activate readers in the other world. The live encounter with
the natural world, which is always contained within the system of haiku representation
anyway, attaches to an intentional imaginary version of that encounter, enabling future
Wright’s tendency to re-work an image or an opening and closing verse demonstrates
how a dialogue might be sustained between representation and direct experience. His final
manuscript, rejected by his editor because it contained so many haiku as to induce “a quiet
monotony,” repeats the same verse 10 times on one occasion and 9 times on another
(Kiuchi 22). His original notebooks total 4000 haiku and contain numerous versions
that open or close with the same verse.10 While we certainly see Blyth’s influence on
Wright’s work, especially in communicating one’s immediacy with the natural world,
his meticulous revising and recycling of a single image suggests that a live encounter
with nature or other humans does not supersede the mediation of poetic language. Composed in a haiku system of representation, neither does Wright’s language supplant the
natural encounter. Instead, meaning is opened relationally, often through the technique
of repetition, to remind the reader that the world is encountered as potentiality, not as
fixed. In a series of nine haiku spread throughout the manuscript, for example, Wright
uses the same opening verse, “Just enough of … ,” changing the ending of the line to
either “light,” “snow,” “wind,” or “rain.” He then completes each of these haiku by describing a different effect for each natural phenomenon.
Just enough of light
In this lofty autumn sky
To turn the lake black. (Wright 8)
Just enough of snow
For a boy’s finger to write
His name on the porch. (Wright 9)
Just enough of wind
To agitate soundlessly
The maple tree leaves. (Wright 23)
Just enough of rain
To set black ants a-swimming
Over yellow sand. (Wright 25)
Read in conversation with each other, these haiku invite other possibilities imagined by the
reader for each encounter with nature: just enough of light to turn the lake clear; just
enough of snow to hide a boy’s footsteps; just enough of wind to blow away the maple
tree leaves; or just enough of rain to camouflage black ants over yellow sand. In this
sense, Wright’s haiku proposes an eminent aesthetic, which “allows the audience to see
that it is constructed” and then enabling “those signs of construction as primary sites of
meaning-making” (Terry and Vartebedian 347). The result is an ethical reminder that
encounters with aesthetic acts might open us to the effects of presence by obliging us to
participate in the act of creating (Fenske).
Mobilizing presence
Keep straight down this block,
Then turn right where you will find
A peach tree blooming. (Wright 1)
On the first page of Wright’s manuscript, there is a pause just before the discovery of “a
peach tree blooming,” a stillness really: stillness as the loaded, overflowing moment that
births a future action. Wright, no doubt, is offering directions for participating imaginatively in his haiku moment, insisting “the past is present in the present,” then mobilizing
presence across past, present, and future (Runia “Presence” 28). We are invited – or even
commanded – to co-create meaning alongside the haiku as written, and having thus
entered this performance of presence, we still may be surprised to discover Wright’s
“peach tree blooming.” The life of the text reaches us in the present, activated metonymically, and, “in that elusive moment, a new presence emerges,” a presence which might
enable different discoveries for the end of this haiku (Coonfield and Rose 197).
Coonfield and Rose’s essay has already situated our discipline in a tradition of relational
potential, where the live and mediated body encounters text, context, and audience in persistent movement, a movement that can be called presence. I have suggested that making
sense of presence allows us to make sense of how we orient ourselves, in performative
relation, to the past, present, and future. Understanding this might allow us to see our
bodies in the “here and now” as simultaneously situated in the past and future, always
emerging in a performance of presence. Haiku offers a lens for recognizing this performance because it negotiates time, text, and performers (the author and the audience) in an
emergent dialogue, moving simultaneously towards the construction of meaning and the
material experience of an encounter in the world. Haiku achieves this through the haiku
moment as a relational opening or an evocative “experience of thisness.” Wright’s haiku
project, in particular, elaborates this dialogue’s present-oriented, metonymic manipulation
of time, its past-oriented intertextuality, and its future-oriented embrace of the imaginary.
In closing, I briefly call attention to a new mobility for presence, that of ideological critique, which can be observed in a number of Wright’s haiku and which fits our disciplinary
capacity for praxis. As noted throughout this essay, presence demands participation. As
Wright’s haiku often demonstrate, participation may take the form of negotiating traces
of past material conditions in the present tense, and then projecting future possibilities
(for meaning or action). Brink notes that Wright invents an intertextual matrix of anamorphic images, where a single reference to nature (most often, “snow,” “sun,”
“autumn,” or “spring”) opens “dual and possible contradictory aspects or implications –
with one leg in the rhetoric of the visible and undeniable and the other intimating corrective
modernist utopian yearnings” (1079). In such cases, the reader encounters a nature image in
the present tense, and then is offered the possibility that the past, especially as represented by
a metaphor for hegemonic control, has not disappeared at all, and thus the future might be
imagined in the present moment as well. Wright’s images of nature serve a dual effect of
activating presence effects as powerful metonyms for what is absent and signifying
beyond the present moment to critique the past. Brink highlights two such cases among
the many that occur in the manuscript, one that references the sun as an anamorphic
image and another charging the snow as a symbol of white domination.
Black winter hills
Nibbling at the sinking sun
With stark stumpy teeth. (Wright 175)
Black men with big brooms
Sweeping streets in falling snow,
Are absorbed by flakes. (Wright 153)
With the first example, Brink traces revisions from “black hungry hills” and a “red sun”
in earlier drafts to its final published form seen above as evidence of Wright’s efforts to
embed critique within his haiku (1095). It is in this movement of engaging the past in a
present moment that Wright reminds us “some agencies – whether personified as
plants, animals, or inanimate objects in his haiku – seek life and are denied it” (Brink
1088). And it is in this movement that our active, willing participation in a haiku
moment might enable a counter-hegemonic future possibility. When Wright’s alterations
of the haiku genre – his haiku projections – regard humans as nature or nature as human,
they not only emphasize his theme of alienation, they also induce the possibility for action.
This finally suggests a political utility for presence that responds to Coonfield and Rose’s
call for further investigations of the contexts in which “presence marks a problem or crisis”
(206). As we continue to trace presence through our theoretical and performance practices
(especially our study of emergent, relational and evocative encounters), we might also
mobilize it as a future-oriented means of ideological critique and action.
1. Each of Wright’s haiku cited in this essay reference the page on which the haiku appears in
his posthumously published Haiku: The Last Poems of an American Icon rather than the
number that the editors assigned each haiku in that edition. See Brink and the note below for
an explanation of the importance of this citation style. Reprinted by permission of Arcade
Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.
I am grateful to Marcyrose Chvasta for suggesting this re-definition of the haiku moment.
My thinking here is informed by Chvasta’s analysis of the virtual, especially in relation to its
resistance of concretization.
See Terry and Wood for an application of Gumbrecht’s distinction between meaning effects
(to “make sense” intellectually) and presence effects (to “sense” physically) to the context of
audiencing aesthetic acts (181).
“Performing Presence: From the Live to the Simulated” is another useful theoretical resource.
The interdisciplinary research project was conducted from 2005 to 2009 in England. The
project archives can be found here:
Waka consisted of five syllabic verses and were written for the entertainment of royal courts
as early as the eighth century, with one poet offering an opening stanza of three verses (5,7,5)
and another responding with two concluding verses (7,7) (Hakutani and Tener). Renga, a
linked verse form from the twelfth century, connected a series of syllabic verses (5,7,5 followed by 7,7), with the most important verse of the renga, the hokku (5,7,5), being reserved
for the most accomplished poet (Hakutani and Tener). Centuries later, haikai (now called
haiku) developed as a singular syllabic form (5,7,5) with Matsuo Basho as its most influential
poet. Haiku’s primary difference from its predecessors is its showcasing of a single poet’s perception of the world.
A number of American writers produced haiku or poetry influenced by haiku in the first
decades of the twentieth century, including Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos
Williams, and Amy Lowell. American scholar Harold Henderson published a number of
critical volumes on Japanese haiku in the 1930s and 1940s. A French haiku literary movement also existed in the early decades of the twentieth century. However, after World War
II, the West largely learned the haiku form from Blyth’s work. Several beat poets, such as
Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Allen Ginsberg, read Blyth and made connections to Zen
Buddhism. Wright was introduced to haiku in Paris through Blyth’s work and was apparently
unaware of the earlier French and American haiku publications.
Brink has illustrated that the only published version of the haiku, edited by Hakutani and
Tener, is deeply flawed, confusing the original order of the poems in Wright’s manuscript
and thus misunderstanding the precise categories that he had constructed for their
reading. Brink correctly observes that Wright’s final structuring of the manuscript utilized
two columns per page, with the expectation that the unnumbered haiku would be read
vertically down the left column and continued at the top of the right column. Unfortunately, Hakutani and Tener’s version of the collection numbers the haiku and arranges
them by reading from left to right. The result is a drastic reorganization of Wright’s
intended structure. While Brink suggests the error is likely accidental, he also notes
that the numbering system adds an unnecessary interpretive frame to each haiku, and,
in some cases, interrupts an obvious progression that Wright has built between specific
haiku. Brink’s finding is supported by evidence in the Richard Wright Papers in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. Wright’s final draft aligns
very closely to a series of cardboard broadsides on which he pasted individual haiku in
thematic groupings. The 19 broadsides contain nearly every haiku included in the final
Ogburn argues that Wright illustrated a haiku aesthetic as early as 1941 in his essay 12
Million Black Voices, citing lengthy descriptions of nature written in the present tense.
Toru Kiuchi has developed a database of all 4000 of Wright’s original haiku located in the
Richard Wright Papers, tracking revisions that Wright made to each haiku in the four
draft manuscripts of “This Other World.” In many cases, the revisions dramatically
change the meaning of the haiku, shifting the subject, the seasonal reference, or the result
of an action.
The author thanks the anonymous reviewers and Mindy Fenske for their helpful comments,
Thomas Nash for assisting in early archival research, Jerry Ward for suggestions on employing
Richard Wright’s work, and Julie Morel for accommodations at Incident.res during fieldwork
research in France.
Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.
This work was supported by the Faculty Resource Network at New York University through a
Scholar in Residence award; the UNCF/Mellon Program through a Faculty Residency Fellowship;
and Xavier University of Louisiana through a sabbatical award.
Notes on contributor
Ross Louis is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies and an affiliate
professor in the Performance Studies Laboratory at Xavier University of Louisiana.
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