Paul O. Williams

by Scott Metz on June 10, 2009

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paulowilliams

Paul O. Williams

1935 — June 2, 2009

- professor emeritus of English (Principia College)

- Haiku, senryū, and tanka poet                             

    - Award-winning author of nine science fiction books

 - President of the Haiku Society of America (1999)

         - Vice-President of the Tanka Society of America (2000)

- Board Member, American Haiku Archives            


Paul was the author of a number of haiku collections including The Edge of the Woods: 55 Haiku (1968), Tracks on the River (1982), Growing in the Rain (1991), and Outside Robins Sing: Selected Haiku (Brooks Books 1999).

Perhaps his most remembered work though is a collection of his essays on haiku aesthetics, which also contains a selection of his haiku and senryū, published by Press Here in 2001, The Nick of Time: Essays on Haiku Aesthetics. It was the winner of the Haiku Society of America’s 2003 Merit Award for Best Criticism. A review of it by John Stevenson that appeared in Modern Haiku can be found here.

A page devoted to Paul on Wikipedia can be found here.

There is a small sampling of his haiku on Terebess Asia Online.

An announcement of his passing, and a warm tribute, can be found here on Blogging Along the Tobacco Road by Curtis Dunlap. On the same blog, in March of 2008, Paul participated in the “Three Questions” series.

Another tribute to Paul, with a collection of his Shiki Monthly Kukai entries, and a note from his wife, KerryLynn Blau, can be found at Haikuworld: Remembering Paul O. Williams.

A selection of three haiku by Paul O. Williams:

looking at the air                
where the bear passed      
last night                            

the stained-glass windows
deepen their fires —         
winter evening                  

the old garden fence        
keeps the goldenrod        
from the goldenrod          

≈            







{ 3 comments }

Bob Breau June 14, 2009 at 12:43 pm

Thank you for posting this tribute and haiku. Paul was also a past president of the Thoreau Society and an outstanding scholar. I expect the TS will soon have their own tribute online or in their newsletter. I first met him in 1978 when he provided the address to the Thoreau Society at the annual meeting in Concord, MA. He also gave a talk and slide show of his photographs of objects and patterns in the natural world with the Society in 1984 which I vividly recall. We also shared an enthusiasm for Science Fiction and tributes and can be found at sfwa.org and other sites.

Allan Burns June 11, 2009 at 5:18 pm

I’d like to add a few thoughts about a specific haiku by Paul. It’s the second from his collection Tracks on the River (1982):

thawing rain–
from a high outcrop, a rock
clatters down and stops

I used it quite deliberately to open “The Good Earth” gallery. Like many by Paul, it’s so simple on the surface as to invite the unwary into a superficial reading. A reader might take it for yet another realistic sketch of a moment (shasei), yawn, and hastily move along to the next ku. Big deal, a rock moved…. And the rule-bound might reflexively dismiss it as an ex. of cause-effect structure. Mistakes, I think, that miss everything here. This is a poem inviting meditative engagement; its authentic subjects, I believe, are change and transience (manifest specifically as erosion); the intersection of the moment with Deep Time; and our own limited place within this world.

It’s a water poem in the sense that it illustrates the power of water as an agency of change. The rain here ushers in the thaw that each spring transforms the landscape in relatively minor ways–but ways that over time possess an incredible cumulative power. What the poet is witnessing is not simply the movement of a single rock but the process that transforms a mountain into a peneplain (i.e., level land produced by erosion; what’s left when time has its way w. any mountain). The word “thawing”–so integral a process to the way landscape changes–functions not merely as a seasonal reference but activates a meaning carrying us well beyond the momentary.

We feel the warming rain and hear the clatter of stone and note its jagged texture. All these things engage the senses and our deep feeling for the world around us. But beyond that, we extrapolate. We see the symptom of erosion but only infer the whole sweep of the process itself, which lies beyond our temporal limitations. As Loren Eiseley has put it, “Along the dimension of time, man, like the rooted vine in space, may never pass in person.”

What he means–and what I believe Paul’s haiku gestures toward–is that however long our lifespans may stretch, they are less than a blink of the eye in geological terms. The average rate of erosion is one inch in a thousand years. How many human generations per inch? Yet in Earth’s history mountains higher that Everest have already been flattened by this process. And the mountains not rising today are being likewise leveled. But not before our eyes, not unless our eyes are attuned to how the momentary connects to the epochal. That’s the way Paul’s poem can teach us to see.

This haiku, in my reading, is about both extrapolation and humility, the humility of the self confronting a world extending so far beyond it. What it makes us feel is how on either side of this single incident lie unfathomable gulfs of time that build mountains up and tear them down.

As Paul himself wrote in the intro. to Tracks on the River: the meaning of a haiku “always lies beyond the image presented–in the escaping hints of implication of the image.” He adds, “One of the poet’s problems is that others often do not sense this aura.” Here, the “aura” is a feeling for the world’s transience. What seems solid and fixed to us (a mountain or even a whole mountain range) is in fact, through time, as insubstantial as a cloud.

The final word is perfect: “stops”. There’s the assonance with “crop” and “rock”. But what stops? The rock, the poem, the “moment”. All these things, however, imply larger continuities and processes. The rock’s resting spot is temporary only; the poem keeps reverberating in a receptive mind; the moment reveals the mountain will crumble into flatness.

It’s a perfect ex. of what Aldo Leopold called “Thinking Like a Mountain”. Or maybe here, since we’re dealing strictly with images and their implications, we should talk about “Feeling Like a Mountain”.

For me, this haiku stands as an illustration of the depths apparent simplicity can contain. Behind the sketch-like realism and the depiction of the moment lie an entire vision of transient reality and our own fleeting place within it. As Robert Spiess, another haiku poet whose work was inspired principally by natural imagery, wrote in his Year’s Speculation on Haiku (February fourth): “Those haiku that intimate a point of transition, the moment of transformation, Yes!”

Allan Burns June 11, 2009 at 1:45 am

Paul was a true veteran of the haiku scene. He started publishing in American Haiku Vol. III No. 1 (1965). But he said in a note to me that his early work “should be best forgotten” (3/26/09). I feel there’s much worth remembering, though, in his later collections, Tracks on the River and Outside Robins Sing. (Growing in the Rain, btw, is a collection of longer poems, not haiku.)

Thanks for posting this tribute, Scott, with all these great links.

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