Preface to The Edge of the Woods
by Paul O. Williams
From The Edge of the Woods, privately published by the author in Elsah, Illinois, in 1968. Also included here are ten poems selected from the book. See the postscript at the end for comments that place this book into historical context. For additional essays by Paul O. Williams, see Further Reading or look for his book The Nick of Time on the Press Here page.
Why haiku? What relevance has this traditional Japanese form for a modern American. The current interest in haiku by Americans must have an explanation. Perhaps it is that we have no other poetic form with which simply to express the burst of wonder emanating from a fine sensing, from an observation tending beyond itself. Our native poetic forms tend to be cogitative and exploratory. Even when lyric, they usually elaborate. Things which might have become haiku appear as images, but the shape of a perfect stone is usually unseen in the pebbled stream bed.
The experience of one who works with haiku is that this simple form is not strict or stultifying, probably because so much of the poem is implication. The size of the poem is much larger than its appearance, and the writer’s task is to voice that part of the possibilities of the poem which will strike fire and lead the mind on.
The true haiku has a shy aspect. Confident of their cultural depth, the Japanese nevertheless frequently assume a demureness through which wit, tenderness, and perception only gently show themselves. Haiku reflects this attitude. The small ritual of the poetic form is the “given,” a crystal jar, transparent but shaping, through which the light flows, splashing color on the wall.
There is some danger that among casual readers the haiku form may be demoted to a triviality, a type of verse suitable for small jottings or a simple game good chiefly for initiating children to poetic expression. But those who have enjoyed good haiku come so to regard it that they pursue the escaping puff of meaning, the burst of light, with the respect which offers the form the dignity requisite to feeling its pulse of wonder. It is the edge of the woods, straying into which reveals that one is partly a woods dweller who had forgotten or hadn’t noticed.
At best, haiku gains a dramatic tension, though frequently only by the hint of the presence of a human involved in the rhythmic interplay between his life and the experience of the natural world.
The above remarks are preconceptions and aims, not necessarily what one will find in this small book. They suggest what I have tried to put there. Haiku refuses to be a captive. One can’t say, “I have followed the rules and therefore have written haiku.” He can say, “This poem, I feel, has caught it,” or, “This is nice, but not haiku.” Others may agree or disagree, though those practiced in the form do draw close together in their standards. Calling the poems below “haiku,” as I boldly have, is more of a hope than a clear claim. They are all in haiku form, but this, of course, guarantees nothing.
Twenty-seven poems in this collection have been previously published in American Haiku, SCTH, The Human Voice Quarterly, Imprints Quarterly, Haiku West, and Haiku Highlights, and I here gratefully acknowledge permission to reprint them.
16 March, 1968
The edge of the woods—
crossing under the green shapes
is exchanging worlds
Is it a spring rain
just starting? Oh, no—cycling
Resting in the grass,
butterfly and bulldozer,
hear the katydid machines
weaving Queen Anne’s lace.
Bluejays warn the woods.
I sit under the hemlocks,
admire their feathers.
Summer twilight falls,
the river a hook of light
with rusty islands.
falling among them, on them,
still whiter flowers.
Wandering mouse tracks—
now the new snow has become
still more innocent.
The nest, like a cup,
tilted, swings from one last twig,
spilling out its snow.
Ages split this rock.
Again the fluted fossil
fills with rain water.
The preceding prose appeared as the preface to The Edge of the Woods, the first haiku book by English-language haiku pioneer Paul O. Williams, who privately published this collection in 1968 in Elsah, Illinois. Much of what he said more than fifty years ago is still true today, as many of us in the west continue to wrestle with the challenge of haiku and what it seemingly should be—or might be—in English. Phrases such as “the burst of wonder emanating from a fine sensing, from an observation tending beyond itself” serve as an exemplary description of haiku, if not a definition. I also find it marvelous to think of haiku as having “a shy aspect” in its typically demure understatement, and that “The size of the poem is much larger than its appearance.” Following this self-effacing and often lyrical preface are ten selected poems from the book’s collection of 55 haiku. If these poems had been published by someone such as Richard Wright, who wrote thousands of mostly 5-7-5 haiku in the last 18 months of his life before he died in 1960, they would surely be better known than they are—they have a similar feeling to Wright’s haiku, a similar heft, a similar sensitivity. Their images and careful observations, such as a nest tipping out its snow, are as arresting as nearly anything written by Wright. While Paul O. Williams repudiated this collection’s poems in his later years (he declined to have any of them included in The Nick of Time, which I published with Press Here in 2001), the preface is still worthy of consideration for its historical significance, its still-resonant aesthetic suppositions, and its expressive wonder. Thank you to Paul’s daughter, Anne Chadwick Williams, for permission to reprint the book’s preface and selected poems.
—Michael Dylan Welch, 31 December 2020, Sammamish, Washington