Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

zenscotlit, Alan SpenceThe large square cover is creamy white. Slightly above centre the title (zenscotlit) appears in sky blue sansserif lowercase. The author's name is about an inch below this, in grey sans serif italics, a little smaller. Both pieces of text are centred.

Essence Press, 2019   £6.00

The value of ‘found haiku’

The nature of haiku in English is the subject of long-standing debate. Can what we might think of as English-language ‘haiku’ (not just any words in three lines of five-seven-five syllables) justifiably be called that, since the original form has so much Japanese cultural and historical weight?

If that’s difficult to resolve (and widespread disagreement so far suggests that it is), what then of ‘found haiku’? Can they be considered as more than a divertissement? Is it okay to discover accidental ‘haiku’ among the poetry or prose of other literary figures and insert your own name beneath it?

As an afterword to this publication, Spence reminds us that the great pioneering haiku scholar R. H. Blyth included some ‘found’ examples in his indispensable books on Japanese haiku, and other haiku poets have also had a go. Whether that makes the concept any more meritorious is open to question.

As a longstanding haiku poet, Alan Spence is well equipped to find a ‘haiku’ when he sees one. But here, despite a minimal and delicate production, on beautiful paper, the eleven ‘found haiku’ seem to me to be of variable quality. They derive from the works of Scottish (and, interestingly, un-Zen) writers, including Burns, MacCaig, MacDiarmid, Morgan, Shepherd and Stevenson, but as the source isn’t given, we’ve no way of knowing how they were assembled. Were the words sequential? Or selected from diverse lines/passages?

The idea of repurposing fragments from big-name Scottish writers has its attraction (and perhaps fun), and this is undoubtedly an aesthetically lovely publication. I can’t help wondering, nonetheless, whether any of the haiku inside, without this special context, would make it into an English-language haiku journal of note.

It seems to me that the Iain Crichton Smith example (though its middle line is ‘telling’ the reader rather than ‘showing’) is the strongest of the set. A lovely image:

children building a snowman
how white it is —
buddha of silence

Matthew Paul