On The Iron Book of British Haiku

2023 marks 25 years since Peter Mortimer’s Iron Press published The Iron Book of British Haiku, still available on the Iron website, here. It was co-edited by David Cobb and Martin Lucas, both of whom are no longer with us. I seem to remember reading somewhere that it sold over 5,000 copies. It certainly found its way into many bookshops and for years was usually the only English-language haiku book available.

It contained 73 haiku poets, including two of the four who participated in a kasen renga which was appended after the individual poets. Of the 73, I reckon just 14 are still writing haiku and at least three of those 14 have ceased seeking publication for their output. A good few of the others have since died – Norman Barraclough, Seamus Heaney (!), Ken Jones, Stuart Quine and David Walker among them. That’s unsurprising, because in those early days of the British Haiku Society (BHS), which had only been founded eight years before, the average age of the membership must’ve been well over 60, and I was usually the youngest attendee at events.

At the time, I was chuffed to bits to be in the anthology, even though I only had two haiku (both about snails!) in it. I went to the launch at a bookshop whose name and exact location in London escapes me, and which was memorable for a hypnotic reading by Mimi Khalvati, one of three poetry ‘heavyweights’ (alongside famous Seamus and Anthony Thwaite) who were shoehorned into the book to add some clout. Of course, haiku readings are mercifully brief.

In reality, the British haiku scene, as the BHS saw it then, wasn’t sufficiently developed to warrant such an anthology. Like the Haiku Society of America had done before it, the BHS in those years was largely concerned with trying to form a consensus about what haiku is, though it was easier to agree on what it isn’t. Unsurprisingly, some poets disagreed and left to pursue their own paths.

In 2002, the book was superseded by the Snapshot Press anthology, The New Haiku, again co-edited by Martin, this time with John Barlow. It too is still available, here. In terms of both representation and quality, it far exceeded the Iron Book, but the latter had set the bar.

The Iron Book had some noticeable omissions: James Kirkup, whom David had roped in as one of the founding triumvirate of the BHS and its first president, had left on bad terms; Gerry Loose, Peter Finch, Chris Torrance and, posthumously, Frances Horowitz might’ve been included. Whether or not David and Martin had tried to rope some or all of them in I don’t know.

Equally, some poets were included who wrote fine haiku (and other poetry in some cases), but who have long since vanished from the haiku (and wider poetry) scene: Claire Bugler Hewitt, Geoffrey Daniel, Janice Fixter, Jackie Hardy and Susan Rowley.

To me, the standard of the haiku in the book is highly variable, including a fair few – especially some which have been crowbarred into telegram-like 5-7-5 without articles – which today would be highly unlikely to be published anywhere except, unfortunately, by their authors on social media, as well as several minimalist poems and sequences which aren’t even especially haikuesque.

Yet the selections included some really good poems which have stood the test of time. Here are just a few that I like:

after dad
tidies her scarf
the toddler fixes it herself

Annie Bachini

my woodshavings roll
along the verandah

Dee Evetts

caught in a storm
wearing nothing waterproof
except mascara

Janice Fixter

into the busker’s cap
a chill wind blows
bronze leaves

Stuart Quine

loose now
on the knuckle
the thin gold

Susan Rowley

Evetts’s haiku reflects his job as a carpenter, later documented in the excellent collection endgrain (1995). Aside from a couple of classic haiku by David Cobb himself, the book is light on the sort of resonant haiku which rely not on an instant first-reading effect but yield their subtleties and layers over time.

The renga – by the tremendous quartet of Fokkina McDonnell, Stuart Quine, Helen Robinson and Fred Schofield – was, Fokkina, tells me, written on 11 May 1996, in her front room in Manchester at a Yorks./Lancs. Haiku Group meeting. Although it takes some slightly offbeat turns, by and large it’s the best thing in the book, which isn’t something you can often say about renga – in my experience, they’re often just a bit of fun rather than an exercise rich in literary quality.

So in all, one can say that the Iron Book was very much reflective of its time; and it’s about time now for another anthology of the best British haiku, which, to my mind, have come on in leaps and bounds in the last quarter of a century.

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