Loafing Alertly: Observation and Haiku

      by Paul O. Williams

From the author’s book, The Nick of Time: Essays on Haiku Aesthetics, Foster City, California: Press Here, 2001, edited by Lee Gurga and Michael Dylan Welch. This essay was originally published in Frogpond IV:4, Winter 1981. See also the book’s introduction.       +

Some time ago, Frogpond printed an article that discussed the problem of accuracy in the haiku poet's observation of nature. I recall cringing at the notion that purple martins might be depicted eating corn tassels. Aside from problems of scale, this is congruent with cows eating rabbits and belongs to the world of fancy, not of haiku.
        And yet simply close and correct observation of nature is not haiku either. This is a problem that has chronically troubled my own attempt to work in this form. As I have discovered, and keep discovering every time I make the mistake again, even clear delight in new perceptions tends to create images, not haiku. But sometimes the delight of discovery, or rediscovery, is so intense as to fool one. What can be lacking, though, is the human dimension, the organic moment when everything including oneself falls into a single comprehensive event that lies below the level of verbalization.
        That is asking a lot, as of course haiku does.
        I have observed that such perceptions as do transform themselves into haiku tend to emerge from the familiar rather than the new. My one trip to the Virgin Islands dazzled me with Caribbean newness. But out of thousands of fresh impressions no poems arose. Everything had acquired a strange sea change. The hummingbirds had curved bills. Lizards lived on kitchen walls in harmony with the family. Flamboyant tree pods hung scimitar-like, gigantic compared to the familiar locust pods. The beach bore a profusion of shells almost cloying to someone familiar with quahogs and razor clams. The result was inarticulate wonder.
        On the other hand, the familiar has a tendency to become transparent or habitual. Even in one's deeper perceptions familiar things don't shed haiku easily or in profusion. I recall lying under some tiger lilies for a moment's rest while trimming the lawn. A strange rush of air caused me to open my eyes and discover a rubythroat just two feet above my head visiting each flower in succession. I had seen this from a distance hundreds of times but never felt the remarkably strong air blast whooshing down from the bird's tiny body.
        I remember being perfectly still, not even blinking, feeling that I was in a haiku moment. The aura of the hummingbird suffused me for in instant. Then with a twitch it was gone. I felt Emily Dickinson's "route of evanescence" much more keenly than I had before, but if a haiku was hovering in the air of my thought, it vanished, too. I've never found it even after many tries.
        It may be that the haiku moment allies itself easily to those individual events that are more obviously tied to the rhythms and repetitions of nature: the first white-throated sparrow of the fall, its thin, reedy voice piercing the chill dusk; November sunset again in the perfect position to reflect the oxbow lake out on the flood plain; the persistently constructed ant hills once more flushed away by summer rain--the way each of these things intersects human life.
        Sometimes the haiku moment seems to be found most easily in the ability to see with the side of the eye, to be surprised in the midst of familiarity by that doubleness of vision that accepts the common but sees in it the strange and new. It is a seeing without scrutiny, yet suffused with attention--a relaxed allowing of seeing to happen. Such perception comes to the mind that has refused to become enthralled by facts, no matter how lovingly it has studied them. As Thoreau (who focused on fact with an assiduous devotion) knew and asserted over and over, it is not the fact that is important but the impression that flows from it.
        Impression come from facts when the mind is relaxed and waiting. "I loaf and invite my soul," said Whitman in opening his "Song of Myself." Sometimes that works. He surely was not drowsing. He was loafing alertly. Sometimes, too, it doesn't work: one loafs and invites in vain until sleep comes. One can't coerce the arrival of a haiku perception.
        If the hummingbird whose wing-breath so stirred me is still alive, he is in South America now. But something of him still hovers in the thought. Maybe it will alight on the birch twig of a haiku sometime. I really wish it would, but all I can do now is enjoy the wait. While waiting, I certainly have experienced many other small bursts of haiku perception--and the best of them have come to a mind both active and at rest, serenely perturbed, meditatively taut, loafing alertly.