My favorite genre of poetry is haiku. Not the strict adherence to a set number of syllables, the 5/7/5 we were taught in school; but the elegance of a distilled feeling or image. Their brevity invites breath in the reading and the reflection thereof. Haiku are shape-shifting moments of discovery or inspiration. Or homage, as in Sonia Sanchez's collection Morning Haiku, which celebrates and mourns Black musicians and singers, writers and artists, activists and leaders.

In the preface entitled “haikuography”, Sanchez tells of her awakening upon discovering the form when she was twenty-one. “This haiku, this tough form disguised in beauty and insight, is like the blues, for they both offer no solutions, only a pronouncement, a formal declaration—an acceptance of pain, humor, beauty and non-beauty, death and rebirth, surprise and life. Always life.”

Sanchez plays with the form, unfettered by syllabic count. Her haiku often appear in cycles, with each three-line haiku serving as a sort of stanza or musical movement in a longer piece.

In a December 2020 interview on The Poetry Magazine Podcast, Sanchez called haiku a “magical form” and the magic flows from her pen and her lips. For a treat, listen to Sanchez read, or rather perform, the first poem from Morning Haiku, “10 haiku (for Max Roach)”. Between her haiku movements, Sanchez vocalizes drum rhythms, scat-like, creating fusion with the jazz great:


your sounds exploding

in the universe return

to earth in prayer


your drums

soloing our breaths into

the beat…unbeaten


your hands

simmering on the

legs of rain.

Another rhythm driven piece, “7 haiku (for Ray Brown)”, commemorates the African American jazz double bassist. Her beats reflect Brown's bop style and you hear his music in her words:


African bass

translating our




nails into the




our eyes on




violining us into

blue black waves


ding ding ding (click)

dong dong dong dong dong (click)

dee boom (click) deeeboooom (click)

deeeee booooom (click)

Some of the poems resemble journal entries, as Sanchez captures the feelings from listening to music or viewing artworks. One such piece is “10 haiku (for Philadelphia Murals)”. It's as if Sanchez reached out and caught the essence of these public murals that reflect the culture of the city's neighborhoods. I see, having never seen, the murals through her eyes, her soul:



a warrior's face

i hear our bones singing


common ground

is we, forever

breathing this earth



in the green light

saluting peace

She experiences the power of the painter/sculptor in “6 haiku (for Elizabeth Catlett in Cuernavaca)”:


O how you

help us catch

each other's breath


a woman's

arms climbing with

colored dreams



slides into the pool

hands kissing the water


i pick

up your breath and

remember me


your hands

humming hurricanes

of beauty.

Imagery returns to “hands” and “breath” often, appropriate as these are the tools of spoken word poets. We feel Sanchez take us by the hand, leading us to a memory that can take breath away or restore it.

The power of her breath and that of other activists is most pronounced in “9 haiku (for Freedom's Sisters)”. The explanatory notes, which give context for the writing inspiration and the lives being honored, tells us that Freedom's Sisters was an interactive, multimedia, touring exhibit that celebrated “twenty African American women who worked for the equality of people of color.” Each haiku is dedicated to a different woman, named at the top:


(Kathleen Cleaver)


panther woman speaking

in thunder


(Shirley Chisholm)

We saw your

woman sound   footprinting

congressional hallways


(Fannie Lou Hamer)

feet deep

in cotton you shifted

the country's eyes


(Rosa Parks)

baptizer of

morning light walking us away

from reserved spaces


(Dr. Dorothy Irene Height)


your words

helped us reconnoiter

the wonder of women


woman sequestered

in the hurricane

of herstory…

A number of poems do not refer to other artists or activists. These haiku capture moments of dance, love, and the poet's memories. “Memory haiku” begins:


i was born

a three-legged

black child


carrying an

extra leg for quick


The collection culminates in “haiku poem: 1 year after 9/11”. Comprised of twenty-eight spare couplets that are all questions, this apt ending ponders the tragedy, the continuance of hatred in the world, and what will come next. A reminder that the work is not done:

How hard must the wind

blow to open our hearts?

How to live—How to live

without contraband blood?

Do the stars genuflect

with pity for everyone?

Breathe in the beauty and power of Sanchez's words. Breathe out a dedication to honoring the poet and all the lives that bring art, music, literature, and equality to the world.

Purchase Morning Haiku here.

Podcast with Sonia Sanchez

Click here.

Diane Englert is a writer, actor, accessibility consultant and provider. She writes for the website Write or Die Tribe and her work also appears in Ruminate Magazine, From the Depths, What Rough Beast, and We’ll Never Have Paris. She wrote libretto for several mini musicals that were all produced. Diane has a BFA in theater from University of Utah and an MBA from Marylhurst University.

Sonia Sanchez's

Morning Haiku

Celebrates Black Lives

Book Review

by Diane Englert