The Nick of Time:
Essays on Haiku Aesthetics

by Paul O. Williams

edited by Lee Gurga and Michael Dylan Welch

published by Press Here

Paul O. Williams has been a thoughtful and noteworthy essayist on haiku-related topics for more than 25 years. Unfortunately, as is true with many printed essays, the essay is lost to the reading public after the initial run of the particular haiku journal in which it appears. In “The Nick of Time” this problem has been rectified, at least with regards to most of Paul’s best essays. The introduction by the editors, "The Middle Way", helped to tie the essays to the controversies they address, but proved most interesting to me as a biography. Paul is a professor of English, active in academic scholarship, especially in American literature. He is also an award-winning science fiction author, with eight novels published in the 1980s. A retelling of his discovery of and pursuits in haiku helped personalize this collection and gave the impression that I was not receiving a lecture, but being invited into dialogue by a fellow explorer of haiku.

Some of the essays coined haiku terms that are still in use today, though few poets are aware of the source. The prime example of this would be “tontoism”, which is an accusation frequently flung about without realizing the source is a 1975 essay by Mr. Williams. "Tontoism" is a term for haiku where, either for the sake of syllable count, or in an attempt at greater sparcity, the poet has chosen to leave out words that would normally be considered essential to a proper wielding of the English language.

Other essays seem almost eerily appropriate today, such as the 1992 dialogue between Alphonse and Gaston. "A Dialog on Baloney Haiku" uses the poem "The Iraqi child / buried by heroes / and their bombs" as an example of an inflammatory and invented poem, rather than an experienced poem, intended to beat the listener with a message.

Quite a few of the essays are about haiku form, such as the 1981 essay “Bird Track Haiku” and the 1993 essay “The Limits of Haiku Form”. Perhaps these are a throw-back to a more experimental time in English Language haiku, when the word "tundra" on a blank page was put forth as a haiku. While the essays still have application today, they are perhaps just as useful to learn the history of battles fought and perhaps settled.

As I read, I found myself almost always agreeing, occasionally questioning, but often wishing to cheer. Perhaps the most profound discovery for me was in the essay “The Question of Words in Haiku”. In one example he states that the word “silence” used as the closing line of a haiku is equivalent to the poet saying “I am lazy”. We all know that haiku requires the juxtaposition of two images. Paul levels the accusation that often we have found only one striking image and use a meaningless or overly generic word or phrase for the second image. A lesson that I felt personally and I hope others can take to heart as well.

The selected haiku range from good to excellent. One of my favorites:

the fisherman's hook
long since nibbled bare--
evening thrushes

The Nick of Time would be a valuable addition to any haijin’s bookcase, and this reader hopes it will serve as a model for more books to come. Too many deserving essays need to be resurrected in the same way!

The Nick of Time: Essays on Haiku Aesthetics by Paul O. Williams. Foster City, California: Press Here, 2001. ISBN 1-878798-23-5. 112 pages, 6 by 9 inches, $12.00 plus postage from the publisher.


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from the Table of Contents
The Middle Way: Paul O. Williams' Essays on Haiku
(intro by Lee Gurga and Michael Dylan Welch)

Tontoism in American Haiku (1975)
Loafing Alertly: Observation and Haiku (1981)
An Apology for Bird Track Haiku (1981)
The Aura of Haiku (1982)
SELECTIONS FROM Tracks on the River (1982)
The Lasting and Ephemeral in Haiku (1989)
Haiku Memory (1989)
A Dialog about Haiku Reviewing (1990)
A Dialog on Baloney Haiku (1992)
Haiku and the Art of Fiction (1991)
Engagement and Detachment in Haiku and Senryu (1993)
The Limits of Haiku Form (1991, 1993)
SELECTIONS FROM Outside Robins Sing (1999)
The Question of Articles in Haiku (1989)
The Question of Words in Haiku (1993)
The Question of Subjectivity in Haiku (1995)
The Question of Metaphor in Haiku (1993)
SELECTIONS FROM Outside Robins Sing
AND OTHER POEMS (1983-2000)
A Pre-Electronic View of the World (1996)