Refusing to be Boxed In: Sonia Sanchez’s Transformation of the Haiku Form

 

by F. ELAINE DE LANCEY

Note:  This essay is excerpted from“Sonia On My Mind: New and Selected Essays on the Poetry and Plays of Sonia Sanchez,” edited by Dr. Jamie Walker (forthcoming, University of Michigan Press, Spring 2016.)  We are sorry to note that F. Elaine De Lancey passed away recently.

‘Introductory Note by Dr. Jamie Walker

 

In “Refusing to Be Boxed In,” F. Elaine De Lancey, co-founder and editor of

BMa: The Sonia Sanchez Literary Review, the first peer-reviewed journal in the

United States to provide “an interdisciplinary forum for critical discussion of Sonia

Sanchez and Black Arts Movement artists,” explores Sanchez’s formal innovation,

evolving aesthetics, and influence on younger poets and writers. Specifically, she

notes how Sanchez alters the structure of the haiku with her use of Afrocentric

motifs, simile, conjunction, and metaphor. Love Poems (1973) was Sanchez’s first

book of poetry and, in it, Sanchez constantly stresses that the personal is political.

In later books of poetry, including but not limited to: I’ve Been a Woman: New and

Selected Poems (Third World Press 1978), Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected

Poems, and Morning Haiku (2011), Sanchez would return to the haiku, restructuring

the traditional form to “make it say what she wants it to say.” Classical Japanese

haiku, as De Lancey instructs, is a lyric verse form in unrhymed lines with a 5-7-5

count whose “requisite emphasis is external nature,” however, Sanchez’s use of the

haiku form is “a revolutionary textualization of both structure and form.” De Lancey

notes:

Sometimes working within the structural strictures of classical

Japanese form, other times altering the form to fit her needs,

and always textualizing it, Sanchez forces the form to

accommodate her vision. By imbuing the haiku form with

Afrocentric motifs, Sanchez textualizes the form in a specific

manner, and in the instances where she must abrogate

universally observed strictures, she does so to force the haiku

to conform to her needs and her vision.

 

*  *   *

Refusing to be Boxed In: Sonia Sanchez’ Transformation of the Haiku Form

by F. Elaine de Lancey

 

One of the few titled haiku written by Sonia Sanchez, “Walking in the rain in

Guyana” is an excellent example of both the poet’s artistic vision and artistry:

watusi like trees

holding the day like green um/

brella catching rain.

Elements consistent with definitions of classical Japanese haiku as a lyric verse form

in three unrhymed lines, with a 5-7-5 syllable count are evident, so, too, is the

requisite emphasis on external nature. The clarifying title tells us that this haiku

derives from a walk in the rain in .Guyana and announces the poet’s intention to

“localize” the haiku in a particular manner. Sanchez uses Afrocentric motifs to

textualize the haiku, making it not some universal statement about ram and tree but

a particular experience, filtered through the poet’s consciousness. Though Guyana is

located in South America, African people are among its inhabitants; the watusi trees

evoke images of the Burundi Watusi, again, images associated with Africa. Sanchez

localizes this image by inserting “like” in the first line, forcing it into service as she

forges an adjective-phrase, “watusi like” to describe the trees.” Such techniques

signal reader: this is haiku with a difference.

In her transformation of haiku Sanchez often forces the reader to ask “why.”

She notes that writing for her has been a “long tense road of saying ‘What I wanted

and needed to say.” In “Walking in the rain in Guyana,” the poet fuses an unspecific,

unbounded image from external nature to a particular, specific moment, filtered

through her consciousness. More than a personal poetic construction, this haiku is

also an example of Sonia Sanchez’s conscious decision to imbue haiku form with

Afrocentric motifs, and ultimate move beyond the form as prescribed to a fusion of

traditional haiku form with her own structure. In other words, Sanchez is making

the haiku say what she wants to say.

Sanchez’s transformation of the form is more radical than mere structural

alteration, although she sometimes changes the structure of the haiku by using

simile, conjunction, and metaphor. Her use of these structural markers can always

‘be identified as functional: they are used to make the haiku speak her words, reveal

her vision. In fact, Sanchez’s use of the haiku form is a revolutionary textualization

of both structure and form. Sometimes working within the structural strictures of

classical Japanese haiku form, other times altering the form to fit her needs, and

always textualizing it, Sanchez forces the form to accommodate her vision. By

imbuing the haiku form with Afrocentric motifs, Sanchez textualizes the form in a

specific manner, and in the instances where she must abrogate universally observed

strictures, she does so to force the haiku to conform to her needs and her vision. In

her haiku, then, the effect is a movement through the uneven strictures imposed by

dicta reintroduced for the English haiku. Referring specifically to her book I’ve Been

a Woman, Sanchez discusses her use of haiku and tanka, and her conscious use of

African themes in I’ve Been a Woman, she points out, “I have haiku, tankas, and

again, the movement towards what I call ‘African’ ideas and feelings and also the

movement toward a black ethic and a feminine one too.”

The fifth section of I’ve Been a Woman is entitled “Haikus/Tankas & Other

Love Syllables” and in it Sanchez offers haiku which focus on a number of subjects.

Some are interesting fusions of nature and human elements:

i have looked into

my father’s eyes and seen an

african sunset.

Often these fusions of external nature and humanity emphasize one over the other.

At other times, humanity and elements signifying nature are perfectly balanced in

metaphorical phrases. Thus, function and form are important in the transformation

Sanchez effects. For example, her use of simile and conjunction is also functional.

Though she only alters the haiku 5- 7-5 infrequently, her use of simile, metaphor,

and other structural devices usually alert readers to important structural changes

and, of course, with these changes, an unusual textualization of form. In another

haiku dedicated to Gwendolyn Brooks, Sanchez signals Brooks’s importance by

using images from external nature to create an image of Brooks’s essence as sacred:

woman. whose color

of life is like the sun, whose

laughter is prayer.

We note Sanchez’s use of metaphor and simile showcases Brooks. Such

showcasing transforms this haiku into a compressed praise song for Gwendolyn

Brooks, and external nature serves as handmaiden to Sanchez’s vision. Suggesting

that Brooks’s vision is an exemplar, a sacred model, Sanchez clusters images for

associative value within the permitted 5-7-5 syllable count and with the forbidden

simile and metaphor. After establishing Brooks through metaphor, Sanchez equates

Brooks’s laughter with “prayer.” In this final vehicle, this final image of a woman

who is a sacred model, is effective in this haiku. Again, Sanchez fuses human and

natural elements through clustered images and structural transformation, a woman

whose essence rivals the sun becomes a sacred figure. In the same section of I’ve

Been a Woman, there are other haiku in which nature takes on the coloring of the

human actors in the poetic structure. And although most of the haiku offered below

do not have discernible Afrocentric motifs, they are examples of the poet’s

willingness to abrogate haiku strictures to accommodate her vision:

shedding my years

earthbound now. midnite trees are

more to my liking.

Nature becomes the clarifying element as the image of rooted trees suggests the

experience of being earthbound. Sanchez converts this feeling into a transformative

moment consonant with the speaker’s perspective by playing against our most

commonly held conception of trees. Viewed at midnight, rather than in the sharply

clarifying light of day, the trees as image are subject to greater imaginative

possibilities. Earthbound, the speaker continues to retain the right to see things in

her own way.

With the same ease that she subordinates external nature to humans in some

haiku, Sanchez also imbues her haiku with highly personal moments, ignoring the

stricture against the personal in haiku.

the rain tastes lovely

like yo/sweat draping my body

after lovemaking.

Traditional haiku conventions of nature, taste, feeling, and present time all interact

in a rather unconventional manner here. Most noticeable, of course, is “rain”

representing nature in the first line perfectly balanced against “lovemaking” in the

last. Between the first and the last line, water as in rain has been transformed into

the perspiration produced by the efforts of the two lovers. The haiku’s argument

suggests nature as human and other, and its structure effectively forges the two. But

this is also a haiku imbued with the personal and is, therefore, a transgression of

conventional practice. In another transgression, Sanchez dares to be intensely

introspective in her haiku:

what is it about

me that i claim all the wrong

lives, the same endings?

Signaling metaphysical crisis, the speaker questions past practices and

centers herself in the haiku. In this profoundly personal and introspective moment

of crisis, the speaker questions the patterns of her life, and to do so, she moves from

present to past. Her mistakes are tallied in words like “all” and the plural “lives” and

“endings.” Ignoring the censure demanding external nature, Sanchez transforms the

haiku form in incisive and startling linguistic turns:

you have pierced me so

deeply i cannot turn a

round without bleeding.

missing you is like

spring standing still on a hill

amid winter snow.

Introspective moments rarely produce epiphanies; at most, they are moments of

fragmented insight. The haiku form complements Sanchez’s poetic renderings of

such moments and is thus particularly appropriate; yet, this is a revolutionary move.

In their quiet intensity, each haiku represents the poet’s vision. While not obviously

Afrocentric in terms of motifs, these haiku represent the view of an African

American woman. Specifically, they represent an artist aware of censure choosing to

work against the imposed norm. Even in those haiku that are not decidedly

Afrocentric, one finds Sanchez presenting her own vision in her own way and saying

what she wants to say.

So far, I have advanced the notion of Sanchez’s haiku as decidedly

revolutionary, whether she is presenting introspective moments or making political

statements. In changing the form by textualizing it, Sanchez demonstrates her own

considerable skill as poet. But to truly understand the imperative that informs

Sanchez’s transformations, one must examine bnet1y the nature of certain strictures

in haiku writing.

Claims about what constitutes haiku are curiously antithetical to general

practices. For example, here seems to be general agreement that Japanese haiku is

rimeless, its seventeen syllables usually arranged in three lines, often following a 5-

7-5 pattern. However, in The Art and Craft of Poetry: An Introduction, Lawrence John

Zillman writes that in haiku one is not concerned “with metrical feet, rime, or

contrived stanzas.” Rather the emphasis should be on the “two basic patterns” in

which “everything is to be said in either thirty-one or seventeen syllables. The tanka,

the longer structure, is made up of five lines, of tanka 5-7-5-7-7 syllables relatively.”

In fact, writers of English haiku often ignore such patterns. Rime, then, appears to

mark the important difference between Japanese and English haiku. This single

adjustment seems to be the only acknowledged transition from the Japanese to the

English haiku. But it is also evident that certain strictures are deeply ingrained. Still

to be considered is the often cited constraint from Basho urging the restriction of

content in haiku to what is happening in this place and this moment.

Editors and critics frequently ignore the flexibility of Basho’s definition of

haiku. Rather, they evoke the strongest strictures, insisting not only upon the

“present moment” in haiku, but also that the subject matter of haiku focus on

external nature–that the poet focus on what can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or

touched. In her haiku, Sanchez most often observes one stricture while transforming

another. While her observation of the 5-7-5 seventeen syllable stricture is most

consistent, she takes the “present moment” and imbues it with any number of

Afrocentric images or her unique, sometimes introspective vision. In the intensely

personal haiku about lovemaking, she reinvests the stricture oftaste, taking it from

conventional dicta and turning it on its head.

According to X. J. Kennedy, “Haiku is an art of few words, many suggestions.

A haiku starts us thinking and feeling.” Sonia Sanchez uses the haiku form in a

manner that forces her readers to think, and she does it successfully because she

alters the form. It would seem then that some flexibility must be offered to the poet

who wants to textualize haiku; yet, a cursory examination of the 1990 Poet’s Market

finds that many strictures continue to dominate in a rather monolithic manner: “Do

not use metaphor/simile/” and “Do not tell your emotions.” Unlike Kennedy or

Zillman, many editors are unyielding proponents of traditional strictures. They

expect the content in haiku to focus on external nature; they expect haiku writers to

reject simile and metaphor. And these editors exercise some control over poets by

their ability to reject haiku that do not conform to strictures. This, in turn, influences

the poetry community, wedding haiku writers who want to publish to traditional

strictures. Apparently monolithic, this perspective seems to be based on false

notions, and as in all arbitrary dicta, the contradictions serve as imperatives for

poets who want to alter the form. One of the more clarifying statements about

Japanese haiku is offered by Kennedy, but even his flexible comments present

censures against Sanchez’s transformation of the haiku form:

Haiku poets look out upon a literal world, seldom looking

inward to discuss their feelings. Japanese haiku tend to be

seasonal in subject, but because they are so highly compressed,

they usually just imply a season: a blossom indicates spring; a

crow on a branch, autumn; snow, winter. Not just pretty little

sketches of nature.( as so many Westerners think), haiku

assumes a view of the university in which observer and nature

are not separated.

The obvious difference between the description offered by Kennedy and Sanchez’s

haiku is, that she does not hesitate to look inward, producing introspective haiku.

Yet Kennedy’s statement confirms that there are still misconceptions among

practitioners and editors about what constitutes haiku. Further, the obvious gap

between these misconceptions and views such as Kennedy’s is a proving ground

that Sanchez stakes out for herself as she redefines the haiku form. Thus, the

contradictions become Sanchez’s imperative for transforming haiku.

As Carolyn Rodgers, George Kent, and others point out, Sanchez has

traditionally used newforms. In one of her articles “Black poetry–where it’s at,”

Rodgers offers a comprehensive typology of black expression in poetry. She

identifies Sanchez’s use of the “shouting” poem as an example of her utilization of

new forms. George Kent offers a more extensive analysis of Sanchez’s skill, not as a

poet experimenting with new forms, but as a poet who has experimented with form

and mastered it. Citing her mastery of mountain-top poetry, Kent refers specifically

to Sanchez’s A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women as “a culmination of

spiritual and poetic powers.” He speaks of Sanchez’s earlier experiments with

language and spelling as “efforts to force the speaking voice to speak from the

printed page.” He applauds her “simplicity of diction” and her “careful but

undistracting uses of natural and mechanically induced pauses.” In textualizing

haiku, Sanchez produces exciting experimental forms and verifies earlier critical

assessments of her work. Indeed, she reveals herself as a poet at the top of her craft.

Just as she forces the stricture concerning nature in haiku to accommodate her

vision of human nature and external nature, and the relationship they share, so, too,

does she push the form and herself. This fusion of form finds Sanchez offering

beautiful images of external nature in harmony with man:

the trees are laughing

at us. positioning their

leaves in morning smiles.

Seemingly antithetical elements of nature are made to serve, through artistic

skill, a different function:

we are sudden stars

you and i exploding in

our blue black skins.

In the” forbidden use of metaphor Sanchez combines the external nature,

represented by the “stars,” with the human element, thereby creating a certain

texture in the form: the “you and i” and the “blue black skins” are human elements

fused with stars. One becomes the other. In another lyrical instance Sanchez

combines disparate elements, including simile, to make external nature and

humanity complement each other:

O this day like an

orange peeled against the sky

murmurs me and you.

Sanchez uses powerful elements from external nature perfectly equipoised

against the human aspect. Furthermore, we have another instance of Sanchez using

the forbidden simile and conjunction to establish the harmony important in human

relationships and textualizing the poem in terms of several antithetical elements:

structure and form; nature and man. The love for humanity comes through in this

haiku precisely because Sanchez uses simile and conjunction. The effect of “like”

between the orange and the sky balances them against the “me and you” of the

haiku. Aspects of nature work for the humans in the poem, and there is harmony.

In another beautiful image of harmony, nature, and man, poet and haiku

strictures merge to become a Sonia Sanchez construction wholly Afrocentric in

technique, becoming what Carolyn Rodgers calls a “mindblowing” poem:

morning snow falling

astride this carousel called

life. i am sailing.

“Mindblowing” because it uses the haiku to demonstrate poetic skill as well

as poetic vision, this haiku reveals a poet boxing her way out and away from

prescriptive form. Her refusal to yield to form is a lesson in itself. The opening lines

signal conventional haiku, but each line moves the haiku away from the

conventional toward individual technique and vision. Internal punctuation in the

last line suggests that the poet will simply settle for the injection of the word “life” to

signal her experimentation with form. On this introspective npte, she is, in fact,

situated in the present, but as she muses about “carousel called life” we recognize

this structure as both synchronic and diachronic in nature; it is, therefore,

introspective.

However, after the period, which makes it appear to be an afterthought, the

phrase “i am sailing” alters our response to the haiku. One could argue that this is

the most powerful line in the haiku. “Mindblower poems” according to Rodgers,

“seek to expand our minds, to break the chains that strangle them, so that we can

begin to image alternatives for black people.” The artist’s technical finessing thrills

the reader who expects the poem to move in one direction, but finds it moving in

another. This haiku, like others, not only signals Sanchez’s mastery of form, it also

reveals her ability to forge her own technique with those aspects of haiku that she

needs. Although she forces it to accommodate Afrocentric vision, Sanchez has

healthy respect for haiku form. Keenly aware of the form’s possibilities, she

applauds its power to discipline novice poets. Thus, she is not attempting to destroy

this existing form as a reactionary response to arbitrary dicta. In fact, an

examination of her haiku convinces one that though her altering of structure is

revolutionary, the extent to which Sanchez imbues the content and structure of

haiku, filling it with an Afrocentric texture filtered through her unique womanist

vision, is even more revolutionary. This tension between form as control and form

as discipline informs Sanchez’s most political haiku. Political vision in her work

both disrupts the structure and offers future possibilities for form:

redlips open wide

like a wound winding down on

the city. clotting.

A political poem that is indeed “mindblowing,” this disturbing haiku offers a

poetic argument. It incorporates the poet’s sense of her role as vatic poet who

serves the dual function of communicating with a particular community and the

wider world. A powerful vignette, its vision is prophetic and moves the poet toward

a new form that is Afrocentric in both structure and form. Sanchez breaks some

rules while retaining others. As noted earlier, the insistence upon the present and

external nature in haiku is important in conventional dicta. In this example, Sanchez

turns this stricture on its head, inverting it so sharply that we sense an urgent note.

The present tense Sanchez offers is not a soothing photograph of nature, but an

intrusive and disturbing vignette, beginning an ominous chapter. Inherent in this

haiku is the tension between present and future that the poet observes and advises.

Thus, the texture, philosophy, and structure of this poem combine to render it

wholly Afrocentric. As a poet, Sanchez observes and then tells what she sees, hinting

at future implications. This is her strongest forte as a poet, and the haiku’s

compressed form works to her advantage. Forced to be brief, she must communicate

her vision quickly. This rapid closure adds to the urgency of the moment.

As she forces this form to do much more than is expected, Sanchez also forces

the reader to interact with the haiku, to go beyond the three lines to the implications

of the vignette, to seek and know the future the poet thinks the circumstances augur.

In effect, the reader is forced to inquire as to what is beyond its frame. Even if we

did not have the dedication “for a blk/prostitute,” we would recognize this as a

political haiku. Sanchez’s careful structuring also alerts us that we must become

involved not only in analyzing her haiku, but in responding to the situation she

describes. In effect, she is producing haiku that make us feel and respond in much

the same way that X. J. Kennedy suggests. Sanchez goes beyond form, in this

instance creating a personal situation between poet and community. Indeed, her

technical skill moves this haiku beyond Afrocentric content to Afrocentric discourse

as we recognize the required interaction between poem and reader as “call-and-

response,” an Afrocentric form of discourse.

From the beginning the images elicit associations bordering on the

grotesque. This ecdochic’ mage “red lips open wide” suggests the myriad function

his prose serves, but in the simile “like a wound” the grotesqueness is deepened

with the comparison of the lips to a wound with infectious connotations. “Clotting”

further suggests unnaturalness, but this impression is achieved by reversing our

preconceived notion of clotting. We must shift from the impression of clotting as

positive, stemming the loss of blood, to clotting as negative, cutting off the heart’s

circulation. As a clot, the prostitute places the entire community at risk. In the case

of the African American community, she is a special risk, but because she is a

member of the community, her pain becomes communal pain: “Winding down on

the city” reinforces the image of veins, circumscribing blood’s course through the

body. This “black prostitute,” then, is headed to the heart of our existence; as a clot,

she presents mortal danger. Once we have the picture in focus, it becomes for us a

vignette. Sanchez’s message comes in her careful structuring of images. In addition

to the alignment of images, she uses the end-stop powerfully. In fact, she is “bringing

it on home” to the reader. “Redlips open wide” is a powerful, lingering image,

etching in the mind’s eye a picture of the prostitute walking down the street. But the

whole of its impact is made by Sanchez’s structural innovation. End-stop as used by

Sanchez in this instance, provides the tension between present and future, between

the poet’s prescience and our own dawning awareness. The period after “city,” and

the final word “clotting” moves the reader from disinterested observer to worried

inner-city dweller or African American member of the community.

Sanchez is perceived as a militant writer. Such a perception has as much to

do with the themes she addresses in her poetry as the form she uses. Critics,

however, tend to focus on her militant themes. Certainly, it is understandable that

critics focus on Sanchez’s use of certain themes in her work, but her disruption of

the haiku form is directly related to her fusion of function and ethos in poetry, and

though she is consistently revolutionary, she is also a skilled artist. Ironically,

because of the general perception of her as militant, Sanchez’s use of the haiku

puzzles some scholars who associate her militancy solely with free verse and rarely

with haiku. In an interview with Herbert Leibowitz, Sanchez talks about the

perception of her as militant and places for work in perspective:

My early poetry was introspective, poetry that probably denied

or ignored I was black. I wrote about trees, and birds, and

whatever, and that was hard, living in Harlem, since we didn’t

see too many trees, though I did draw on my residual

memories of the South. People kept saying to me, if you write a

political poem, ‘it will be considered propaganda—an

ineffective and poor poem–but I read Neruda and saw that he

didn’t deny the personal. In the early Sixties I became aware

that the personal was the political.

Sanchez’s statement reveals her own philosophy of poetry: poetry can be

both personal and political. Further, this statement accounts for her unique fusion of

external elements, introspective elements, and highly personal elements in her

haiku. For Sanchez, the use of nature in an artificial sense serves no useful purpose.

jluman concerns fuel her structures. She uses nature in a way that forces it to serve

a function. As she points out, her journey from the point at which she struggled to

write about trees and plants from residual memories to her own realization that she

could write revolutionary poetry has been a “long, tense road.”

Because of her tendency to focus on the human condition in her poetry,

Sanchez is often associated with militancy. Two misconceptions account for this

tendency: Sanchez’s highly militant and often publicized free verse poetry, which

employs tropes and themes associated with political struggle, and the conventional

notion of haiku that influences both the poetry and critical community. Sanchez’s

insistence upon her own vision puzzles both critics and friends alike. Her account of

a friend’s reaction to her love poetry offers an example of how she is perceived:

When I gave my book Love Poems to a friend, she said, “God, I

didn’t know you wrote love poems.” But in every book of mine

there’s been a section of lyrical pieces. If you describe me, as

some critics do, as a lyrical poet, I say yes I am, but I’m also a

hard-hitting poet and a political poet because this is a lyrical

world and a terrible world, too, and I have to talk about that.

Terrible lyricism informs and surprises in the haiku dedicated to John

Brown: “man of stained glass legs / harvesting the blood of Nat / in a hangman’s

noose.” A perfect 5-7-5 form, this praise poem for John Brown exemplifies the

terrible lyricism to which Sanchez refers. This haiku does not focus on nature, but

on the bravery of John Brown’s stand, situating him in history with Nat Turner. But

it also deconstructs history in a surprising manner. Though she concedes with the

reference to “stained glass legs” that John Brown’s stand deserves our respect,

Sanchez is also making it clear that Nat Turner was the first to die. Ironically, John

Brown, though branded as a maniac by Lincoln, receives recognition that makes him

a hero in the fight for African American freedom from European slavery. Afrocentric

texture is apparent in this haiku, but so is its “teaching” or “running it down” quality.

Rodgers defines “teaching” or “running it down” poems as those attempting to give

direction to African American people. And in this dedication to John Brown, as in the

prostitute poem, Sanchez is teaching, “running it down” to those who suffer from

historical amnesia.

What is most striking about this form is the reader’s sense that Sanchez has

almost overwhelmed the form with the weight of significance. Yet, her lyricism not

only saves the haiku, but gives it a cutting edge: “stained glass legs” is an

overwhelmingly beautiful image. The reader inclined toward facile sympathy for

John Brown is prohibited by the clarifying images. The fragile, glass legs are placed

in proper perspective by the images of Brown “harvesting” Nat Turner’s blood. Nat

Turner becomes the model for John Brown, as is made clear by the image of Nat in

the “hangman’s noose.” This deliberate use of form is as shocking as the vignette of

the prostitute moving down the street. In the prostitute haiku, Sanchez is poet

predicting future consequences; in the haiku dedicated to John Brown, she is the

poet correcting the past. In another haiku dedicated to Paul Robeson, Sanchez is the

poet suggesting the importance of Afrocentric vision. Reading our figures through

Afrocentric lenses moves us closer to our African roots.

your voice unwrapping

itself from the Congo

contagious as shrines.

Interestingly, this haiku does not conform to the 5-7-5 haiku constraints (it is

5-6-5 in this case). In content and texture, it resembles the haiku dedicated to John

Brown. Both poems were deliberately pressed into the service of the African

American experience. Though both are Afrocentric in nature, in the latter example,

we also see Sanchez’s introduction of “African” motifs and forging connections with

African as a homeland. In each case the dedication identifies the haiku as political.

Most powerful is the poet’s decision to connect a hero figure with the African

homeland. Like the haiku that opens this essay, the haiku dedicated to John Brown

and Paul Robeson are political, yet lyrical.

In The Militant Black Writer in Africa and the United States Stephen

Henderson talks about the inevitable distortion which occurs when African

Americans attempt to fit themselves into the disinterested categories America

prescribes for them. Offering Phillis Wheatley as an example of an artist who

experienced geometric death, Henderson maintains that Wheatley was boxed in by

alien forms. He views Wheatley as a “privileged slave” or “black prodigy” unable “to

come to grips honestly with her blackness.” As a poet, she was “boxed in by the right

angles of the heroic couplet, an early emblem of geometric death.” Henderson sees

Wheatley as a tragic African American poet subsumed by form. But even if we

qualify this view by indicating the extenuating nature of Wheatley’s circumstances,

we must admit that African American authors frequently must renegotiate

prescribed forms to offer their own vision of the world.

In transforming haiku, Sonia Sanchez declares her own “linguistic

manumission,” refusing to be boxed in by its form. As she textualizes the form,

forging her Afrocentric vision and Afrocentric structure within the discipline of the

‘haiku form, she moves closer to a unique structure that carries her own signature.