In Praise of Whatnots

First published as the foreword to These Audacious Maples (Xlibris, 2007), a book of tanka by professor, poet, and science fiction novelist Paul O. Williams, who for many years when I lived in California was my closest haiku/tanka neighbour.

The poet Charles Wright once wrote that “It is all right to be trendy and fashionable, . . . but someone has to speak up for the quiddity of the whatnot.” With his tanka in this book, Paul O. Williams speaks up for the ordinary, but his quiddities are not mere trifles; they are breaths of life itself. He makes the ordinary quiver, elevating the everyday to the extraordinary. His whatnots are a hoe clinking on stones during a TV football game, an “uh huh” repeated into the phone, the splitting of an infinitive, an admiration for a fallen oak, and listening to a talking camera instructing him to change its dying battery. Yet he propels these mundanities beyond the trivial into the transformed, taking the reader with him in his understated nuances. He speaks up for these whatnots with fecundity, at times flowing and lyrical, at others deliberately choppy, admitting a wide range of topics as poetic fodder. He writes with a sure hand and a sensitivity for attentive readers, with a slowing syntax and a disarming simplicity, and with a modesty that belies the serious psychological realizations that he finds in himself and others through his poems.

        Paul has been writing tanka poetry longer than most other tanka poets writing in English. As a result, it is no surprise that he has refined his craft and developed his voice with his work, particularly in these recent poems. His is a voice that I find meticulous, mature, patient, and gracious—and occasionally sly. He casts his words at a particular slant, words that seem at times to be a personal conversation, or a finger poked firmly in the ribs. His words come from an honest and unpretentious place, from a source of self-awareness, and at times with bemusement. This self-awareness grounds him in his observations of the world around him. The poems may be domestic, philosophical, observational, or peppered with the tang of the real. They are also literary, humble, engaging, pleasing—all while praising the ordinary. His poems will reward your time in reading them.

        Furthermore, by savoring Paul’s tanka, you can join him in his world of subtle praise, and see how he says just enough to reveal life’s faint, pale shimmering. I invite you to take your time with these poems, refraining from reading ahead too quickly. You’ll find sincerity, authenticity, and above all a bemused and embracing personality. Here’s to speaking up for the quiddity of the whatnot, which Paul O. Williams does so well with these poems. Prepare to be transformed.