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Winter 2008, vol 6 no 4

William J. Higginson, 1938-2008
by George Swede

Like most of us, Bill was a different person to different people. But he carried this reality to another level in a remarkable variety of roles, all of which he carried out in a dedicated manner: husband, father, grandfather, friend, poet, editor, scholar, Japanophile, renku master, photographer, naturalist, and, as he liked to refer to himself, "haiku coach." In the latter role, he worked as a poet-in-the schools in New Jersey, New York and New Mexico and as a tutor to students via his Internet site, Wordfield.

His written work touched tens of thousands of people, particularly his three major works: The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku (McGraw-Hill, 1985; Kodansha International, 1989, 1992), and two 1996 titles by Kodansha International: Haiku World: An International Poetry Almanac and The Haiku Seasons: Poetry of the Natural World. While all three continue to be hits with Internet booksellers, The Haiku Handbook (written with the help of his devoted wife, poet Penny Harter), continues to be one of the two most widely-read haiku books—the other being Cor van den Heuvel's The Haiku Anthology (Anchor Books, 1974; Simon & Schuster, 1986; Norton, 1999).

In all that he did for haiku, Bill was diligent, independent and non-elitist. He was ready to read any periodical, chapbook, book or Internet site to find the most apt example for whatever his goal was at the moment, for instance, finding the quintessential haiku for a particular season word. If this meant bypassing the work of well-known poets in favor of those relatively unknown, so be it. This approach is best demonstrated in Haiku World, which has around 600 contributors, the vast majority of whom are relatively unknown haiku poets. This is the antithesis of what informs the typical anthology, which by nature is elitist and therefore has many fewer contributors.

Bill was also always ready to help anyone—from novice to master—in solving any problem to do with Japanese poetic forms: definitions, the proper season word, the appropriate next line in a renku, the right reference text, a translation from Japanese into English and vice-versa, the best place to publish one's work, and so on. No wonder the descriptor, "He was generous with his time," is frequently included in discussions about Bill after his death.

Here are some other highlights of Bill's long career in haiku:

  • One of 23 charter members of the Haiku Society of America, founded by Harold G. Henderson and Leroy Kanterman (1968).
  • Editor and publisher of Haiku Magazine (1971-76), a rebirth of Eric Amann's Haiku (1967-71).
  • Founder of From Here Press (1975), a publisher of books and chapbooks of longer poetry as well as haiku. Among the latter were: Allen Ginsberg's Mostly Sitting Haiku, 1978; Bill's Ten Years Collected Haiku, Volume 1, 1987: and, as translator (with Tadashi Kondō), Bill's Red Fuji: Selected Haiku of Yatsuka Ishihara, 1997.
  • HSA Merit Book Award for Critical Writing, 1974: Itadakimasu: Essays on Haiku and Senryu in English (J & C Transcripts, 1971).
  • HSA Merit Book Award for Textbook/Scholarly Work (with Penny Harter), 1986: The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku (McGraw-Hill, 1985).
  • Induction into the New Jersey Literary Hall of Fame, 1989.
  • HSA Merit Book Award for Translation, 1998 (with Tadashi Kondō): Red Fuji: Selected Haiku of Yatsuka Ishihara (From Here Press, 1997).
  • Surfing on Magma, From Here Press, 2006.

Because of Bill's success as a scholar, translator, publisher and mentor, people tend to forget that Bill saw himself essentially as a poet. This haiku by Bill was the winner of the first HSA haiku contest adjudicated in 1968:

More intricate
     than all winter's designs,
          this spring flake

Another of Bill's haiku won in a 1969 HSA contest:

The clock
     chimes, chimes and stops,
          but the river . . .

Bill also wrote many long poems that are gathered in collections such as Paterson Pieces: Poems 1969-1979 (Old Plate Press, 1981); The Healing (From Here Press, 1986); Surfing on Magma (From Here Press, 2006). He also engaged in the writing of personal essays combined with poems in his DEATH IS & Approaches To The Edge (From Here Press, 1981). His very last writings were a haibun and a short poem, both to be published in the winter 2009 issue of Frogpond (32:1).

Undoubtedly, in the future William J. Higginson will be remembered as an icon in the history of English-language haiku. But in the present, we cannot help thinking mainly of Bill's generosity and his outreach to other poets, both amply shown by Haiku World, and also, on a more intimate level, by his Met on the Road: A Transcontinental Haiku Journal (Press Here, 1993). This 36-page chapbook describes experiences with, and includes the work of, 48 different poets Bill and Penny met on their journey from New Jersey to New Mexico, where the couple settled for a number of years. Such interest in the work and lives of others was typical of Bill. It comes as no surprise, then, that his death has resulted in heartfelt and widespread sadness.

[William J. Higginson was a member of the Staff of Simply Haiku in 2004. His column, "Haiku Clinic," appears in the May/June issue, Vol. 2, No. 3, through the November/December issue, Vol. 2, No. 6.]