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Volume 33.2
Summer 2002

book review

The Nick of Time: Essays on Haiku Aesthetics
by Paul 0. Williams


reviewed by John Stevenson

The Nick of Time: Essays on Haiku Aesthetics, by Paul 0. Williams (Foster City, Calif: Press Here, 2001). 112 pages, paper, perfectbound, 6" x 9". $12.00 from the publisher at PO Box 4014, Foster City, CA 94404-0014.

Make 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.

The 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.

Two 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.

A 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.

Agreeing 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.

A sample of the poems, one from the eighties and one from the nineties:

a dead dragonfly
on a dried weed stem—
wings extended


the old garden fence
keeps the goldenrod
from the goldenrod




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