The Middle Way: Paul O. Williams’ Essays on Haiku

First published as the introduction to The Nick of Time: Essays on Haiku Aesthetics by Paul O. Williams (Press Here, 2001), edited by Lee Gurga and Michael Dylan Welch. Paul O. Williams was a noted science-fiction writer and a fine haiku poet. He also excelled at writing essays about haiku, and it was my privilege to count him as a friend. Since the publication of The Nick of Time, all seven of Paul’s novels in the Pelbar cycle, originally from Del Rey (the science-fiction branch of Ballantine/Random House), have been republished by the University of Nebraska Press. He also published two novels in his Gorbuduc cycle, three books of haiku, and one book of longer poetry. Of the dozens of books I’ve published with my press, The Nick of Time is perhaps the one that I’m most proud of because of the value and influence of its careful thought. You can read Leza Lowitz’s review of this book online at the Japan Times website. As Lowitz says in her review, “Anyone writing haiku, thinking about writing haiku, or thinking about haiku, will be enriched by having this indispensable, lyrical manual in their collection.” And as William J. Higginson wrote on the back cover of the book, “Everyone who cares about, or wishes to learn about, the continuing evolution of haiku in English should read, and reread, this book.” I also wrote the introduction to Paul’s tanka book, These Audacious Maples. Paul O. Williams passed away on 2 June 2009, at the age of 74. See also three essays from the book: “Tontoism in American Haiku,” “The Question of Articles in Haiku,” and “Loafing Alertly: Observation and Haiku.”

 

The Japanese haiku master Bashō once said that “The secret of poetry lies in treading the middle path between the reality and vacuity of the world.” For decades now, Paul O. Williams has been gently pointing out a middle path for those in the haiku community who have an ear to listen. He always weighs in with a combination of reasoned thoughtfulness and humor to point out the absurdities of extremes. His essays on haiku contain an irresistible blend of deep insight and plain common sense.

        The essays here were selected from a larger group of articles with an eye to furnishing the reader with the full range of Paul’s contribution to haiku thought while attempting to reduce the repetition unavoidable in pieces written over a long period of time and for a variety of purposes. Paul originally published these essays between 1975 and the present. We have tried to select what is quintessentially Paul O. Williams, presenting his insights into current problems of American haiku.

        We have arranged the essays in topical groups that serendipitously maintain much of their original chronological sequence. One could gather from this congruence of topic and chronology that the essays record the development of the issues facing American haiku over the last twenty-five years, while at the same time reflecting the poetic development of an individual haiku poet. Although American haiku has no masters in the sense that Japan does, Paul’s essays have put him in the forefront of writers on haiku aesthetics. While he might dismiss such an appraisal with a furrowed gaze to the sky, his essays on haiku are, nevertheless, a record of his growth. In the essays we can observe what Paul might call an ongoing apprenticeship as he considers a range of aesthetic concerns facing haiku, progressing and building on his ideas over a long and dedicated period of study.

        In these essays Paul touches on all the major issues that are vital to the development of haiku as an art form, questions as fundamental as when to use an article in a poem and when to leave it out, others that get to the heart of the perception that lies behind the best haiku. Yet he does so with a combination of insight, modesty, and humor that make it easy to agree with him and unimaginable not to admire him. To use his own phrase, he has “rendered it precisely, but with overtones.”

        These essays, at times musing, quizzical, and profound, do not contain a single statement or assertion aimed at ridiculing the ideas of those with whom he does not agree. Paul’s trademark is a thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis of the situation as it is and as it could be. The manner of his essays is patient and often understated but clear, always trusting the truth of what he believes—rather than artifice or chicanery—to carry the weight of his arguments. In one essay, Paul describes haiku as conserving tradition, avoiding flamboyance, and having reserve and modesty. These words could also be used to characterize the nature of Paul’s presence in the haiku community over the past three decades.

        Harold G. Henderson, the grandfather of American haiku, is often quoted as saying “What kinds of poems they [haiku in English] will eventually turn out to be will depend primarily on the poets who write them.” Unfortunately, this statement has been used as license for the most harebrained excuses for haiku—such as the naked prepositional phrase that was given an award as haiku in a recent contest. But Henderson’s prediction has a second part to it that serves as a warning yet is frequently forgotten: “At the same time, they cannot differ too much [from Japanese haiku] and still be haiku” (Haiku in English, Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle, 1967, page 28). Paul O. Williams is one of the enlightened poets who have taken this entire message to heart.

        How do we write haiku that are neither imitations of the Japanese nor merely short Western poems? What role does innovation play in haiku? What is the role of figurative language in haiku? These are some of the questions that Paul addresses in his essays. Through his answers, he indicates an appropriate direction for English-language haiku.

        If you write haiku, have you ever gone on a trip thinking, “Here, finally, is a chance to get out and write some haiku!”? In “Loafing Alertly: Observation and Haiku,” Paul points out one of the most frustrating limitations facing the writer of haiku: that sheer delight in new perceptions tends to create images, not haiku, that haiku is more often found in the familiar than in the exotic, and that individual moments, unless they are tied to the rhythms of nature, often fail to yield haiku. Haiku poets might consider this point carefully when they look over their vacation or travel haiku and haibun, and wonder, “What happened?”

        In his delightful “Dialogs,” Paul addresses the critical issues of book reviewing and contrived images. He approaches these serious problems with a humor that is sure to disarm and open the minds of those who might disagree with him. In “A Dialog about Haiku Reviewing,” Paul points out the need for honest critical reviews. In “A Dialog on Baloney Haiku,” he laments the tendency of some poets to write for shock value, by borrowing from what has been flashed onto CNN this week rather than what one has experienced directly, or by inventing situations that support the writer’s political or social opinions. According to Paul, hardly anything can be farther away from the haiku way than this. “Falsity in haiku stands out like a lit neon sign,” he says. “If it’s written by someone primarily intent on helping the homeless, or showing how much more sensitive he or she is than the government, then it is likely to flop—because haiku must be self-contained. Its purpose lies within itself. Once it becomes a slogan, or a blow struck for justice, the purpose has moved outside the poem, and the poem is made to serve it.” Or as British poet Jon Stallworthy, editor of The Oxford Book of War Poetry, says in his poem “Letter to a Friend,”

 

I have seen fields beyond the smoke:

And think it better that I make

In the sloganed wall the people pass,

A window—not a looking glass.

 

That these are problems not only for haiku, but for contemporary poetry in general, enable poets who write in other forms to improve their approach to that writing as well.

        What thoughts does Paul have to share with those who have an itch to invent? It would seem that the erstwhile designers of “new” haiku forms are more in step with the times than Paul is. After all, as Lionel Trilling observed in Sincerity and Authenticity, “Modern art is oriented toward invention rather than discovery” (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1972, page 130). With characteristic humor, Paul invites us to examine more deeply this felt need for invention in haiku. Paul urges us to question whether there might not be some crucial contradiction between the need to invent and haiku’s focus on perception. Why do some people insist on calling any short Western poem “haiku”? Well, as Paul points out, because it provides an instant “market” for publication in one of the many haiku journals eager to please subscribers.

        In the essay “The Aura of Haiku,” Paul explains the extreme delicacy of haiku that so often provides much of its charm. He points out the risks of the poet’s wit and literary skills overwhelming the poem’s subtleties. He observes that innovation in haiku is often not innovation at all but simply a return to Western poetic habits. As John M. Ellis points out in his The Theory of Literary Criticism, “for the most part, technical innovations in literature are new practices from among a range of possibilities that has always been and will continue to be available” (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1974, page 219). Seen from this perspective, the claims of avant-gardism of some poets sound hollow. No such thing as “progress” or “evolution” exists in literature in the sense one uses the terms in science or medicine, Ellis maintains, because all of these techniques or postures have always been available. Their use, as he points out, is simply a matter of preference, and should be regarded as a manner of style of the particular authors. Because of his own quiet approach to haiku, Paul is able to discern the delicacy, the aura that remains around each fine haiku after it has been experienced by the reader, and communicate what is special about this.

        In “The Question of Words in Haiku,” Paul discusses a perennial problem of haiku: the overuse of some of the most powerful words available to the haiku poet to produce resonance, words such as “silence,” “old,” “darkness,” “shadow.” The solution, Paul proposes, is not only to seek better, more specific words, but to seek more accurate perceptions. Specifically, he explores a thought that many poets have likely grappled with but have never verbalized—the problem of “unearned emotion.”

        “The Limits of Haiku Form” and “The Question of Metaphor in Haiku” are the two most substantial essays in this collection and together comprise Paul’s greatest contribution to haiku criticism. “Limits” was presented as a paper at the 1991 Haiku North America conference at Las Positas College in Livermore, California, and was first published in Modern Haiku in 1993. The metaphor essay, delivered at the 1993 Haiku North America conference, also in Livermore, has never before appeared in print. In “The Limits of Haiku Form,” Paul addresses one of the most difficult questions still facing haiku today, that is, what is haiku outside of the Japanese language? Is the definition of haiku merely formal (that is, related to form), or is there some more fundamental element without which a poem is not haiku? He addresses this issue with his usual erudition and sense of fair play. His answers give readers a reasonable framework to use in assessing their own positions.

        Because of its longstanding role in English literature, the use of metaphor and other figurative language is one of the greatest stumbling blocks facing writers of English-language haiku. Finding a balance in the use of figurative language (or not finding it) in many cases makes the difference between writing haiku and writing something else. Paul’s insights on this matter are nothing short of brilliant. As he points out, the best haiku flow out onto the page when we have experienced something precisely, when we have first seen something and then seen through its masks of cliché and of our presumptions of its own surfaces to something inside. Poems often cry out to be metaphoric, but by withholding the metaphor the haiku writer achieves a tension finer than expression, the tension of the unresolved. It is this tension combined with precision of expression that unite haiku and fiction writing as sister arts.

        This book is not only a tribute to Paul’s thoughts on haiku but also a tribute to Paul himself. What readers might not realize, on reviewing these essays, is the range of his other work as a writer. You might walk into a bookstore and pick up the Everyman edition of James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans and find that Paul wrote its introduction. Or you might be looking at past issues of The Concord Saunterer or The Thoreau Society Bulletin, journals of the Thoreau Society, and discover that in 1978 Paul was the society’s president. You might come across one of Paul’s local history books written for the Historic Elsah Foundation in Illinois, or be interested to know that he is currently seeking a publisher for an historical novel set in central Illinois. Or you might find The Breaking of Northwall in a used bookstore and discover that it is one of Paul’s eight science-fiction novels, published in the 1980s by Del Rey Books (the science-fiction branch of Ballantine/Random House), or learn that in 1983 he won the John W. Campbell Award as the best new science-fiction writer of the year. Yet, at heart, Paul is still a poet. One reviewer of Paul’s science fiction wrote that “he occasionally writes as a poet would. His descriptive, evocative style is one which draws the reader into his creation in both the physical and the emotional [realms].”

        Paul’s experience with haiku began in 1964 when one of his students asked him about the genre. As Paul explains it, “I gave him the standard answer, including the 5-7-5 routine, but after he left, I was dissatisfied with my answer because he seemed really curious. So I went to the college library and checked out Harold Henderson’s Introduction to Haiku. I quickly became enthralled with the form, or what I thought at the time it was, and began writing haiku. The student and I exchanged haiku almost daily for a time. He published a small volume of haiku and other poems, and in 1965 I brought out an execrable haiku collection called The Edge of the Woods. I began subscribing to American Haiku, Haiku Highlights, Haiku West, and anything else that was around.” Paul had his first haiku published in 1965 in American Haiku, and he has written haiku and related forms steadily ever since. When the Haiku Society of America formed in 1968, Paul was one of its first Midwest members.

        Paul was born in 1935 in Chatham, New Jersey. In 1986, he moved from Elsah in central Illinois to Belmont, California, where he still lives. In 1989 he was one of the charter members of the Haiku Poets of Northern California, which continues to meet regularly in San Francisco. Also in 1989, Paul founded the HPNC journal Woodnotes, and served as its coeditor from 1989 to 1991. He served as HPNC’s president in 1991 and 1992, and again in 2000. Paul has judged numerous contests over the years, including an HPNC senryu contest, and renku (linked verse) and senryu contests for the Haiku Society of America. He has also served the HSA as its California regional coordinator for several years. In 1999, Paul was elected as president of the Haiku Society of America. Through the years, Paul’s commitment to haiku has been unwavering, not only through poetry and criticism, but through his involvement with the various societies and groups he has had the opportunity to support.

        As a professor of English Paul has also guided countless students to their first insights in the reading and writing of literature. He has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania (1962), and has taught literature and composition at Penn, Duke University (1961–64), Principia College in Elsah, Illinois (1964–1986), and De Anza College in Cupertino, California (1987–1997). Paul has now retired from full-time teaching and in recent years has given himself the assignment of writing at least one haiku a day. It is this lifetime of thought, concern, and tempered enthusiasm that Paul has brought to bear on the challenges facing the American haiku poet.

        Not to be forgotten amid this book’s words about haiku is Paul’s poetry. As Shunryu Suzuki said in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “True understanding is actual practice itself.” As a taste of Paul’s work, this book includes selections from Tracks on the River (Elsah, Illinois: Coneflower Press), his second collection of haiku, published in 1982, selections from his most recent collection, Outside Robins Sing: Selected Haiku (Decatur, Illinois: Brooks Books, 1999), as well as other haiku and senryu. Many of these poems are Paul’s own favorites. Two of his poems have won Museum of Haiku Literature Awards, and the first winner, in 1989, is a classic of English-language haiku:

 

gone from the woods

the bird I knew

by song alone

 

The poem is all the more moving when one learns that Paul wrote it as a memorial for haiku poet Nicholas Virgilio who died unexpectedly in 1989. Paul had never met Nick in person, but knew him by the voice of his published poems.

        Paul has also written tanka extensively, but we have chosen to omit any examples of his tanka and longer poetry in order to focus on haiku and its cousin, senryu. For a sampling of Paul’s tanka, see Footsteps in the Fog (Foster City, California: Press Here, 1994), an anthology of tanka by seven San Francisco–area poets.

        Paul’s haiku and senryu have appeared over the last three decades in such early journals as American Haiku (the first English-language haiku journal), Haiku West, and Haiku Highlights, and in later journals such as Cicada, New Cicada, Old Pond, Dragonfly, Bonsai, Outch, SCTH, Geppo, Point Judith Light, Modern Haiku, and Frogpond. His haiku have also appeared in and the Mainichi Daily News in Japan, as well as elsewhere. The selections we provide are, again, just a taste. For a fuller sampling of Paul’s haiku, see Outside Robins Sing: Selected Haiku. A number of the senryu selections come from Fig Newtons: Senryu to Go (Foster City, California: Press Here, 1993), a book of senryu by six San Francisco–area poets.

        In “The Burst in Haiku,” his introduction to Outside Robins Sing, Paul observes that “almost all haiku contain some sort of burst in them.” This burst, he says, “gives the poem a power that . . . enlarges it beyond its diminutive size. This is not a bomb burst, or even an aerial bomb on July Fourth. Often it is only the puff of a goatsbeard seed head, or even a surprise of recognition of something. But it tends to be there.” Indeed it does, and you’ll find many bursts in Paul’s poems.

        You’ll also find that Paul frequently makes, as he himself says of haiku, “the common uncommon.” He expands eloquently on this perspective in “The Burst in Haiku”:

 

Haiku discovers the unusual and significant in daily life, shows it is not quotidian but often startling. Things happen. Haiku sees the astounding nature of these things, or the universality, or the fineness of quality there, or the uniqueness and significance. When sedimentary rock, once part of a sea bottom, now in a high Midwestern bluff, finally is frost loosened and tumbles down the bluff, that is an event that took millions of years to prepare. When we wave away a mosquito, she is, after all, trying to eat us. When we cut a two by four to make a picnic table, we see the grain in the wood. That was once a tree growing somewhere, sucking up fluids from the rain, spreading over a large space, filling the air, lived in by birds and insects, waving in the wind, perhaps singing a quiet tree song. It isn’t just a dull piece of wood.

        We deal with wonders on a daily basis. It is a matter of astonishment, and haiku tends to point out that surprise of discovery we feel when we perceive these new dimensions. It notes the grace in the wave of a hand, the sadness of drying grass, the tiny tongue of the mouse drinking the river. And by doing so it enriches our everyday lives immeasurably.

        This, rather than an attempt to discern and continue Japanese poetic tradition, which no Westerner can hope to do anyhow, is what I am after in haiku. Haiku is not cleverness. It is not Zen. It is an opening up to the unexplained happenings of things.

 

With this understanding in mind, we hope you enjoy Paul’s poems as well as his essays. After all, things happen, and astute haiku poets such as Paul do not let such surprises of discovery go unnoticed.

        In addition to his haiku and essays, Paul has published many longer poems in publications as diverse as The Christian Science Monitor, River Styx, Sou’wester, and Poet Lore. In 1991 he collected fifty-four of his longer poems into a book called Growing in the Rain (Santa Rosa, California: Smythe-Waithe Press). Here is an excerpt from the book’s title poem:

 

I too

need growth, may find it—not in water,

not in warmth, but [. . .]

in lingering cold, in seasons of the heart,

in the difficult weathers of the world.

 

“I too need growth,” Paul says. As an astute observer of haiku, he has helped others grow. Through his essays on the art and craft of haiku poetry, he has taken many readers through difficult weathers, and he has succeeded at this task by staying true to the middle way. Thus it gives us great pleasure to present this selection of essays on haiku aesthetics by Paul O. Williams. We invite you now to turn to the essays themselves—and to the poetry. They are, after all, what we are here to celebrate.

 

Lee Gurga                           Michael Dylan Welch

Lincoln, Illinois                   Foster City, California