Remembering Bill Higginson

Written in January of 2009, with revisions in June and August, and then first shared on Sunday, 9 August 2009 at the memorial event for Bill Higginson at the 2009 Haiku North America conference at the National Library of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario. Not previously published. In addition to Bill’s poems quoted here, see also poems collected In Memory of William J. Higginson. See also “This Perfect Rose: The Lasting Legacy of William J. Higginson.”

 

 

 

William J. Higginson, poet, scholar, and translator

17 December 1938 – 11 October 2008

 

My first knowledge of William J. Higginson, whom I soon came to know as Bill, was through his seminal book about haiku, The Haiku Handbook (McGraw-Hill, 1985, Kodansha, 1989). More than two decades after its publication, it is still the single book I recommend to people who are interested in learning about this poetry, including its history, major practitioners, and how to write haiku in English. When I read this book, Bill’s words were those of an informed but gentle expert, and they were persuasive to me in changing and creating my understanding of haiku poetry, cementing the life path I had set for myself. The same is true for countless others, and we are all in Bill’s debt for his leadership, the length and breadth of his scholarly research and translations, and for his own haiku and related poetry.

        Indeed, Bill was not just prolific with his writings about haiku, but with his own poetry, too. He was present at the very first meeting of the Haiku Society of America as a charter member. The organization formed in 1968, when Bill was 29 years old, and he was an eager and passionate contributor right from the start. His scholarship and translations would blossom soon after, but Bill’s first contributions were in the form of poems, joining and leading a growing cadre of poet friends who were exploring haiku for the first time—and their explorations were not just firsts for themselves but often firsts ever by anyone writing haiku in English. Bill took a turn as HSA president in 1976, and helped focus the organization not just on reading and enjoying this poetry but on craft and aesthetics as well.

        Until he died in October of 2008, Bill was the only person who had been to all nine of the biennial Haiku North America conferences that started in 1991—at which it was fitting that he gave the first keynote address, on the democracy of haiku. Bill was nowhere more in his element than at HNA. It is pleasing that he has been afforded a special memorial at the tenth conference in Ottawa in the summer of 2009.

        Here are all ten poems by Bill from the HNA conference anthologies (two from 2005). At least a couple of these are classic poems by Bill, and the last one seems particularly poignant since his passing.

 

Harvest

1991, San Francisco

 

the city boy

is the only one listening—

the song of the frogs

 

The Shortest Distance

1993, San Francisco

 

the fence post

hangs upright in the washout—

mid-summer heat

 

Northern Lights

1995, Toronto

 

summer solstice

          the cat wakes up

          a few minutes early

 

Shades of Green

1997, Portland, Oregon

 

through blossom light

into the gathering dusk

the swift bus

 

Too Busy for Spring

1999, Chicago

 

a junco works

the grass-seed stalk . . .

falling snow

 

Paperclips

2001, Boston

 

fire in the treetops

the truck races down the street

trailing its hose

 

Brocade of Leaves

2003, New York City

 

spring rain

rereading my own book

I fall asleep

 

Tracing the Fern

2005, Port Townsend, Washington

 

autumn morning—

the shape of the mountain

in the white cloud


a Bach toccata

keeps the fingers moving—

autumn twilight

 

Dandelion Wind

2007, Winston-Salem, North Carolina

 

after the Leonids

a falling leaf sets

the grassblade quivering

 

        I first met Bill at the premier HNA conference, held in California in 1991. He was nearly mythical to me. I had been writing haiku for 15 years, but had discovered his book—and the Haiku Society of America—just a few years before. He was immediately warm and supportive in his letters, and even more so when we met in person. Only later when we were trusting friends would we sometimes argue over the structure or logic of a haiku article or the politics of some tempest in the HSA teapot. He could be strident in his advice, but I grew to respect it because it was borne out of careful and deep thinking, and a valid impatience for sloppy logic or scholarship. Early on, I remember telling him that I thought he and I were a lot alike. His reply was an inclusively ironic “You think?!?”—meaning that of course we were. He made it clear to me that he appreciated me as a kindred spirit, not just for my liking of haiku, but for approaching it in ways highly similar to him, as a poet, translator, critic, advocate, collector, and enthusiast.

        Always by Bill’s side, too, was Penny Harter—or perhaps he was always by her side. They struck me as being deeply devoted to each other. Together, for many years, even decades, they were the president and first lady of English-language haiku, and you could count on the poems or critical writing of either one of them to be valuably informed and influenced by the other.

Penny softened Bill. Amid his analysis of poetry, she always reminded him of its heart, or so it seemed to me. As inseparable as they always were, they each wrote with individual voices and unique styles. Like Penny, Bill also wrote longer poetry, and published several books of them in his earlier days. Both together and individually, Bill and Penny were
poetically formidable, yet always remained accessible.

        Bill also evangelized for haiku. He was not content to preach to the choir, but published numerous articles in broader poetry or educational contexts, sometimes about his beloved renku, sometimes about haiku techniques, sometimes about prominent poets from Japan who had become his friends. In all these ways, he was both a passionate haiku ambassador and preeminent haiku role model. His anthology for children, Wind in the Long Grass (Simon and Schuster, 1991), is still among the best books of haiku for children ever published, especially for its seasonal emphasis. He was also a leading committee member for Japan’s Masaoka Shiki International Haiku Award, a prestigious and generous prize that he surely would—and should—have won if he hadn’t been on the selection committee. For his poetry, for service to haiku, and for his influence on haiku writing around the world, few can be remembered as an equal to William J. Higginson, and thus I believe he deserves respect and appreciation on par with R. H. Blyth and Harold G. Henderson.

        That summer when I first met Bill, I asked him to sign my haiku autograph book (now multiple volumes and one of my most prized haiku possessions). He was among the very first signers. I ask signers to write out one or more of their favourite or best haiku—poems to be remembered by. This is the haiku Bill inscribed for me at Las Positas College in Livermore, California, on 24 August 1991:

 

after the shower

finally able to see

this perfect rose

 

        About a year before this, in one of the earliest letters he wrote to me, dated 6 July 1990, Bill asked for a copy of the first haiku book I published with my press. He also said, “I have enjoyed your work . . . and look forward to seeing what sort of things you will do as an editor and publisher.” Such simple words were enormously encouraging to a new haiku poet. No doubt many other poets treasured his words to them just as passionately.

        Since we met, we worked on numerous projects together. I have particular fondness for the time I spent working with Bill on the HSA book, The Haiku Path (1994), a history of the society’s first twenty years. We enjoyed composing renku together on occasion, but disagreed about the linked poetry form of rengay (partly because I think he feared it would threaten or dilute an understanding of renku, which was so dear to his heart). We disagreed about the best location to situate the Haiku Society of America archives, but he was willing in 2003 to serve as honourary curator of the American Haiku Archives in California where the HSA’s archives had landed in 1996 (even though he later donated his own haiku library and papers to Columbia University). I helped him with extensive feedback on some of his essays and book reviews, and the reprints of The Haiku Seasons (Kodansha, 1996, and Stone Bridge Press, 2008) and Haiku World (Kodansha, 1996, and Stone Bridge Press, hopefully still forthcoming), and he helped me on essays and other projects, too, such as the introduction that Lee Gurga and I wrote for Paul O. Williams’ The Nick of Time: Essays on Haiku Aesthetics (Press Here, 2000). However, we never got to finish one project, to present descriptions and new translations of poems from a set of shikishi given to the Haiku Society of America by Tokyo’s Museum of Haiku Literature in 1978.

        I wonder, too, how many more books and articles Bill still had left in him—surely many. I know it frustrated him that he couldn’t revise The Haiku Handbook, but it continued to sell steadily enough even twenty years after its 1989 edition that Kodansha International was apparently unwilling to pay to print a new and revised edition. However, I’ve recently heard that Kodansha will be publishing a special twenty-fifth anniversary edition in 2010, with a new introduction, which I believe Bill did not know about before he died. In addition, I had been thinking to collect the best of his many published essays and book reviews into a single book, published by my press, for surely such a compilation would be invaluable to new and established haiku poets worldwide. Without Bill’s active guidance and assistance, that would now be a very daunting task.

        Those of us who write haiku with a passion have typically started on this path from various beginnings, each at first finding our own way. But as we travel the haiku path further and further, we quickly come to find fellow travellers taking the same route. Perhaps more than anyone else, William J. Higginson has cemented that path. Yet he wasn’t so vaunted as to be unapproachable and above us. Rather, he remained one of us, humbly working at his poems and criticism just like the rest of us. Through his lectures, workshops, and extensive writings, Bill has made haiku appealing and welcoming to both beginners and more experienced poets. Far ahead, where the cement wasn’t yet laid, Bill was one of the leaders, one of the explorers for English-language haiku. The path has become a much-loved road, and will likely become a highway. For the many people who knew and loved Bill Higginson, he was one of haiku’s chief engineers, blazing the trail ahead of us.