The editors of the T.S. Eliot Studies Annual have selected the following paper as the featured article from volume three and, as such, it will be available free to read for a limited time:
The author had the following to add about their article:
It is not widely known that Richard Wright wrote and published poetry, and that reading T. S. Eliot influenced his poetic career. In 1959, after studying works on haiku and Buddhism, he composed approximately 4,000 haiku-inspired poems. Selecting from this creative outpouring, Wright assembled a manuscript that he titled “This Other World: Projections in the Haiku Manner.” Wright died in 1960 and his recently completed poetry collection remained in the Rare Book Collection of Yale’s Beinecke Library until its publication in 1998.
My article explores how Wright’s works, including his late poetry, were inspired by Eliot’s The Waste Land and their shared interest in Buddhism. I hope to deepen our understanding of the complexity and scope of Eliot’s legacy, examining a series of revisionary engagements with his poetics undertaken in writings by mid-century Black American poets such as Wright, Robert Hayden, and Gwendolyn Brooks, as well as Caribbean poets including Derek Walcott and Saint-John Perse.
Wright’s first and formative encounter with The Waste Land occurred in the early 1930s, when he was working in the Chicago Post Office and attended meetings at the John Reed Club, where Eliot’s work was often discussed; and his 1945 journal, written shortly before he expatriated to France, reveals his serious interest in Eliot’s poetry, when he quotes from passages in “Ash-Wednesday,” “Portrait of a Lady,” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Viewed in this context, it is not surprising that Wright’s abiding memory of The Waste Land resurfaces throughout his works. Part three of Lawd Today!, Wright’s first novel, was begun in 1935, while Wright was still reading Eliot with a passion, and carried this memorable, haunting epigraph from The Waste Land: “But at my back in a cold blast I hear/The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.” Wright even went so far as to title the third section of his novel “Rat’s Alley,” an allusion to the second part of The Waste Land, underscoring the importance of Eliot’s rat imagery in writings composed throughout Wright’s career, from the vivid opening scene of Native Son, to the comparison of rats and exploited workers in The Outsider, to numerous poems written in the haiku manner.
When Wright composed “This Other World,” his interest in Japanese Buddhism, haiku poetry, and transpacific interculturality would have rendered Eliot’s modernism more centrally relevant than ever. Wright’s poems address a question he posed in April 1955 at the historic Bandung Conference in Indonesia, which brought together twenty-nine Asian and African nations: “They made me know that I too was Western. What bridges could be built between these two worlds?” Insofar as his writings help to bridge racial, political, and cultural divides, Wright continually fulfills his primary purpose as an artist.