THE NICK OF TIME: Essays on Haiku Aesthetics, by Paul O. Williams. Edited by Lee Gurga and Michael Dylan Welch. Foster City, CA: Press Here Books, 2001, 112 pp., paper ($12)

What is a haiku, really? How do we know one when we see it? Are English-language haiku less authentic than Japanese haiku? And how do we know if a haiku is bad? These questions are answered and more are raised in this important and delightful new volume of 16 essays by master haiku poet Paul O. Williams. His ruminations on the art, craft and love of haiku will go a long way toward furthering the discussion of what constitutes this ancient form today.

The book is aptly named after this quotation from Thoreau: “In any weather, in any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment.”

And precisely where haiku reside. In “The Burst of Haiku,” Williams writes, “Haiku discovers the unusual and significant in daily life, shows it is not quotidian but often startling. Things happen. Haiku sees the astounding nature of these things, or the universality, or the fineness of quality there, or the uniqueness and significance. . . . We deal with wonders on a daily basis. It’s a matter of astonishment, and haiku tends to point out that surprise of discovery we feel when we perceive these new dimensions.”

He knows of what he speaks. This is a poet who has lived and breathed haiku for more than half a century, since first being asked about the form by a student when teaching college-level English in 1964. A charter member of the Haiku Poets of Northern California, he was also the founder and editor of its journal, Woodnotes. In 1999, he became the President of the Haiku Society of America, and he’s published three books of haiku. These essays reflect a deep concern with language, image, form, style and, most of all, authenticity in haiku. Now more readers can share in William’s lifetime of discoveries.

There’s practical advice on the nuts and bolts of writing haiku — such as whether to use articles and metaphor, and even certain words such as “silence” which can be “noisy with repetition.” That alone would be worth the cost of the book. But Williams also explores the philosophical and aesthetic questions around haiku, such as the brilliant “Loafing Alertly: Observation and Haiku,” “The Aura of Haiku,” “The Lasting and Ephemeral in Haiku” and my favorite essay in the book, “Engagement and Detachment in Haiku and Senryu,” in which he elucidates the differences in the forms. His writing is sometimes elegant, sometimes rhetorical, sometimes humorous and sometimes querulous, but it’s always measured, disciplined and insightful. You can tell these thoughts have been steeped in a lifetime of haiku.

“While a passion surely exists in haiku, it is often reserved or at least understated,” Williams writes. He himself could never be accused of lacking passion about his subject. It’s especially evident in “Tontoism in American Haiku,” in which he states that many English haiku sound like Tonto conversing with the Lone Ranger because they lack articles (which Japanese doesn’t have) and are “vaguely campy.” Williams doesn’t suffer haiku fools lightly. “An Apology for Bird Track Haiku” is a deliciously ironic manifesto about pseudo-Zen nature writing, and the Nabokovian dialogues between doppelgangers Alphonse and Gaston on “Baloney Haiku” and “Haiku Reviewing” are sure to make writers and reviewers re-evaluate their methods and standards, hopefully laughing at themselves along the way. There’s also a brilliant discussion of haiku and fiction, from a haiku writer who’s also authored eight books of science fiction.

Reading this book is like sitting in a small seminar with an esteemed poet and finding him to be down-to-earth, humorous, challenging, warm and inspiring. These essays offer the same rewards as good haiku — an opening, a moment in which perception shifts, an “Aha!” that allows us to perceive something differently. Touched by the depth of the discussion and sparked by a note of advice or an argument, you’ll want to pick up your pen and write a few lines yourself. It’s the rarest of gifts when a book of criticism can inspire the reader to create art itself.

A representative selection of Williams’ haiku and senryu are also included in the volume. Among them are this poem to mark the 1989 death of fellow haiku poet Nick Virgilio, which received the Museum of Haiku Literature Award:

gone from the woods
the bird I knew by song alone
after the zinnias
the gardener too
drinks from the hose

These essays were published in haiku journals such as Modern Haiku, Ko, Frogpond, Dragonfly and Woodnotes over the past 30 years. The editors, themselves master haikuists and tireless promoters of haiku in America, have done an incredible service by bringing them together in one volume for the first time. Anyone writing haiku, thinking about writing haiku, or thinking about haiku, will be enriched by having this indispensable, lyrical manual in their collection.

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