some room on the shelf that holds your copies of Blyth,
Henderson, Higginson, and other important haiku theorists
for this little volume of common sense. The Nick of Time
is a collection of sixteen essays written by Paul 0. Williams
between 1975 and 1996, interspersed with selected poems
from roughly the same period. It is the product of someone
who has been able to set his own pace of inquiry and the
embodiment of what Lee Gurga and Michael Dylan Welch aptly
describe in their introductory essay as "the middle
way." As such, it offers a most useful point of departure
for discussions of best practices in English-language haiku.
Nick of Time also represents a recent development of
what started with Blyth and Henderson. Its scope, of course,
is considerably narrower. Blyth and Henderson had no sizeable
community of poets writing English-language haiku for an
audience and their work was necessarily directed to people
with wider-ranging interests. Subsequent theorists have
reflected a gradual change in this situation. Higginson's
The Haiku Handbook was aimed at both educators and
poets. Spiess's Speculations speak directly to poets, treating
haiku very broadly, almost as a way of living. What Williams
is offering here is the tip of this particular pencil: practical,
ground-level theory about haiku as poetry, addressed directly
to working poets.
especially encouraging ideas appear as underpinnings to
a number of the essays. One is the promotion of modesty
as an aesthetic value and as a real alternative to the predominantly
Individualistic and competitive displays of brilliance that
we expect as hallmarks of our Western arts. A second, related
idea is that those who believe themselves to be promoting
the "avant garde" in English-language haiku through
use of startling language or subject matter, or the heavy
use of abstractions, metaphor, simile, concrete poetry techniques,
etc. are actually taking a step backward from what is truly
new to our culture by infusing haiku with the familiar mechanisms
of Western poetics.
small sample of the helpful nuts-and-bolts ideas contained
in these essays: in "Tontoism in American Haiku"
(1975) and again in "The Question of Articles in Haiku"
(1989) the author urges, with gentle humor, the natural
use of articles in haiku so that they do not create a distraction
or sound a false note either by their presence or their
absence. In "Engagement and Detachment in Haiku and
Senryu" (1993) he suggests that one reason the two
forms "feel" so different may be a consequence
of psychic stance, stating "the movement of a haiku
is toward engagement, that of a senryu toward detachment."
In "The Question of Words in Haiku" (1993) attention
is drawn to the way in which certain words ("old"
and "silence" are offered as examples) have become
overtaxed because they represent a shortcut to resonance.
with so much of what is presented in The Nick of Time
makes for a less than balanced view. As the author notes
in "A Dialog about Haiku Reviewing" (1990), we
would be in an awful mess if all each book got was praise.
I did find myself dragging a foot from time to time as I
was led through arguments for the certain benefits of theory
to practice. It seems to me that there are distinct, though
closely related, skills of writing and skills of reading.
I am not convinced that a grounding in theory is equally
beneficial to both. Toward the end of "The Limits of
Haiku Form" (1991, 1993) Williams cites "the fact
that a close and reasoned exploration of what we are doing
will certainly help us do it better." Probably it will
but it may also render us more stiff, self-conscious, or
mannered if we are not careful. After all, writing poetry
is not entirely a rational act. These misgivings are with
the efficacy of the subject itself, however, rather than
with the author's treatment of it, which is consistently
clear, thoughtful, incisive and convincing. It might be
argued that there is little here that is new. I believe
this is a mark of the success of Williams's ideas, which
have been widely discussed from the time of their original
publications, to the point of entering common usage and
sometimes losing their contact with him. It is good to see
where they came from, to have them presented in their fullness
and gathered together for easy reference.
sample of the poems, one from the eighties and one from
on a dried weed stem
old garden fence
keeps the goldenrod
from the goldenrod