David Cobb, 1926-2020

I was saddened to hear the news earlier this week of the passing last Friday of David Cobb.

It’s fair to say that the overwhelming majority of haibun, haiku, tanka and renga poets in the UK may well not have become addicted to haikai forms without the enthusiasm and organisational ability of David Cobb. Although there were several UK poets – e.g. Keith Coleman, George Marsh, Peter Finch, Stephen ‘Tito’ Gill, James Kirkup, Brian Tasker, Chris Torrance and Bill Wyatt – already regularly and successfully practising those forms well before then, David’s founding (with Kirkup and Dee Evetts) in 1990 of the British Haiku Society was the catalyst which led, in its first decade, to the likes of Annie Bachini, John Barlow, Richard Goring, Caroline Gourlay, Michael Gunton, Jackie Hardy, Cicely Hill, Ken and Noragh Jones, Martin Lucas, Fokkina McDonnell, Tony Marcoff, Matt Morden, Stuart Quine, Susan Rowley, Fred Schofield, David Steele, Diana Webb, Alison Williams, Frank Williams, etc., and me, becoming deeply absorbed in the study of haiku and tanka and how these Japanese forms could be deployed in English. Without David, it’s highly likely that there would have been no Presence, no Snapshot Press and no outlets for what has become a sizeable, albeit rather fragmented, UK haiku community.

David was the driving force of the society in its early years, enabling it to gain charitable status through its educational role; and not least in his attempts to forge a consensus as to the qualities which haiku in English should retain from the Japanese original. He was sometimes derided for this by some of the freer spirits among the UK haiku community who had been writing haiku well before 1990, but the irony was that he had provided them with a quarterly journal, Blithe Spirit, in which their output could be regularly published. David engendered a pluralistic, diverse community, with links to  Japanese companies and cultural organisations, including Japan Airlines and the Daiwa Foundation – at the Regent’s Park HQ of which the society’s events took place for its first decade or so, before a move to the Conway Hall, the epicentre of humanism and leftfield politics and culture – and with other European haiku organisations. David was always there in the background, ready to step back in to provide help and advice if needed, in some ways like a father. Events were held and tributes paid by the society to David for his eightieth and ninetieth birthdays.

As a poet himself, David was a fine purveyor of haiku, with a particularly fine line in wry, often self-deprecating senryu. Along with Ken Jones and Diana Webb, he was a major pioneer of haibun in the UK. His Spring Journey to the Saxon Shore (1997) was perhaps the first long haibun by a British poet to be (self-)published. David’s haibun showed the influence of English writers such as RH Blyth, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Richard Jefferies and Edward Thomas. He was also an excellent anthologist, as evidenced by the British Museum Haiku, Euro-Haiku , the Iron Book of British Haiku (with Martin Lucas) and the Humours of Haiku.

David’s life was unsurprisingly full of diversity. His brilliant, though unpublished memoir, Or So I Say, recounted a happy childhood in Harrow, where David Jones also grew up, his call-up into the army in the closing years of the Second World War, and the period up to his return to civilian life in 1948. He seemed to have spent much of his army life playing cricket – indeed, the memoir recalls his bowling averages with a pinpoint accuracy that would, I suspect, deter most readers – and having to choose between representing his regiment or the army as a whole (the former always won out). The memoir goes on to observe some horrors in Italy and then to deal, beautifully, with love and unbearable tragedy.

With a degree in German from Bristol University behind him, David taught English as a foreign language in various countries and wrote several books on the subject. I remember him saying once that he spent a period in the Fifties as the stadium announcer at Stamford Bridge. David also wrote non-haikai poems, especially in his last few years, and some of them were very good. I hope that more of them might see the light of day.

Although many other people knew David better than I did, he and I were irregular correspondents for years and I was always delighted to see him. Aside from his writing, what I will remember most about David are his kindness, humility, good humour and that rare gift of being able to bring diverse people together in an inclusive and generous manner.

Here is one of David’s best-known haiku, remarkable still for its fresh, immediate synaesthesia:

a moment between
lighthouse flashes
cold smell of fish

A lesser poet than David might’ve chosen to omit ‘a moment’, which, on the face of it, appears superfluous, but that would’ve considerably weakened the power of this masterpiece. Whilst less is generally more in haiku, here a little bit more is definitely more: those two words enable a visual and sonic pause at the end of line one which enhances the surprise of the second line; and it also enables a subtle repetition in ‘cold’ of the ‘o’ sound in ‘moment’, which helps to knit the poem together. That lesser poet might also have been tempted to shove a definite article before ‘cold’, but, again, that would’ve been ruinous because that absence draws the maximum impact out of ‘cold’, and out of the monosyllabic incantation of the last line.  

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