A Pre-Electronic View of the World

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 Woodnotes #28, Spring 1996. See the Press Here page for this book. See additional essays from The Nick of Time on the Further Reading page, and see also the book’s introduction.       +

Like most of us, I have numerous friends who do not live where they are located, but in a number of places at once, or so they think. They are confirmed in this attitude by the media, television perhaps most obviously, bringing into their living rooms the celebrations and agonies of much of the world daily.

In fact one is expected to be both at home and in Jerusalem, or at the Million Man March, or the playoffs. To be unaware is somehow to refuse to live in the modem world.

But all this attention comes at a cost--of awareness, usually of what is going on immediately around one. And that, of course, is generally the source of haiku. Bashō is often quoted as indicating that haiku is simply what is going on at a given place and time. And yet some of us are only slightly aware of our own place and time.

Thoreau once remarked, “In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment. This is the alertness that makes one aware of haiku moments, as they drift by on the slight breezes of the mundane day. It is likely not a heroic or famous time. No cheering crowds or celebrities are present to see the way the butterfly opens and closes its wings on the Joe Pye weed. The light glances from these fragile wings, the eye-like circles of which appear to open and close. We notice. We try to put that in a poem, to see it precisely.

In doing so, perhaps we are living in a pre-electronic consciousness. It is not hooked to the Internet. Its economy is only that of our consciousness. Its richness lies only in what we at the moment bring to it. Likely only we will know. It is terribly unofficial. Maybe it will mean nothing very large. But it is our life, as we are living it and bringing out the zing in it. This is the central vitality of haiku, with its focal attitude so different from what the world is continually announcing to us, as it tries to hook us up, tune us in, program our reactions and approvals and contributions.

This reaffirmation of a pre-electronic consciousness is not, however, archaic, because such a consciousness is what is really going on. It is a stripping away of approvals and disapprovals, of officialdom, importances and unimportances, of economic value and price on the market. One could scarcely be more affirmative.