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.