witness tree by paul m.

witness tree is the latest haiku collection by American poet, paul m. The book was edited by John Barlow and published by Snapshot Press in 2020.

paul m. is the pen name of Paul Miller who, apart from being a widely published and anthologised poet, is also an editor and essayist. Since 2013, he has been editor of Modern Haiku, the longest running haiku journal outside Japan.

witness tree offers a generous selection of 122 haiku preceded by Paul’s Introduction, which is itself an important element of the book. While relatively modest, at less than four pages, the Introduction sets out the scope of the book and Paul’s approach to writing haiku.

The haiku bear witness to Paul’s experience of, and engagement with, the world around him. While Paul acknowledges that haiku come in many styles, he notes the haiku in this book tend to the realistic: they record the wonder of the world he inhabits.

Paul talks about haiku being ‘in the moment’ and written without preconception, without judgement. Many of his haiku are very much written in this manner. For example:

morning snow . . .
browse marks on a
young white pine

canyon echo
sky-colored asters
among the rocks

on a peak
with a hundred-mile view
yellow ivesia

Haiku such as these not only provide a window into Paul’s world, but also invite us to see our own surroundings with greater innocence and increased clarity. At times, these poems are reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s most direct, non-judgemental haiku. This haiku by Kerouac might serve as an example (presented here in a single line for brevity):

One flower / on the cliffside / Nodding at the canyon

It was Lee Gurga who argued that, when writing haiku, one shouldn’t ‘evaluate’ what is seen but, rather, ‘think in images’. Which, of course, was often the strength of the Japanese master, Yosa Buson, who had a painter’s perspective and presented strong images in his haiku.

Many of Paul’s haiku manage not simply to depict an image, but to paint an entire scene – as Buson often did with his haiku. By way of example, here are two of Paul’s haiku, each followed by one of Buson’s haiku:

knee-high grass
a bison’s slow rise
from the wallow

winter winds – / suddenly stumbling, / the returning horse

day moon
the slow stream pillows
against a boulder

the night is short – / remaining in the shoals, / a slice of moon

Clearly, many of the haiku in witness tree could be described as ‘classic’. However, this is not to say the collection is merely derivative or entirely descriptive.

While these classic haiku are finely crafted and beautiful in their own right, witness tree also includes many poems that feature inventive juxtapositions, a human element and humour:

autumn constellations
a song from my childhood
on a distant server

stringing barbwire
the winter wind
in my hands

a playlist with no slow songs spring creek

comet viewing
she brings
an old flame

witness tree is a fine collection by a skilled poet with a strong feel for haiku tradition. The poems in this book leave plenty of room for you, the reader, to engage and discover additional insights based on your own life experience. Copies of witness tree are available from Snapshot Press.

The Kerouac poem referenced above is reproduced from Jack Kerouac: Book of Haikus, Edited and with an Introduction by Regina Weinreich (Penguin Poets).

The reference to Lee Gurga is from his book Haiku: A Poet’s Guide (Modern Haiku Press).

The translations of the Buson poems are from The Art of Haiku: It’s History through Poems and Paintings by Japanese Masters, by Stephen Addiss (Shambhala Publications).