by Sandra Simpson
They realised, you see, that I’m a noticing kind of person – Miss Jane Marple
How many are we, do you think? The sort of people who notice particular moments as they tick by in a day – the sound of rain under tyres, the feel of sun-warmed brick under your hand, the taste of canteen tea, the colour of a stranger’s eyes as you pass in the street, the smell from a doorway…
Newcomers to haiku may think they’re up against it if they live in an urban environment, that their country cousins somehow have a greater advantage when it comes to inspirational moments. However, moments are here, there and everywhere in the canyons of the city – if we can develop our talent for noticing them.
The exemplar haiku have all been published in the 21st century and are implicitly about man-made environments. In my reading to select poems, it was obvious that many haiku have ‘indeterminate’ settings. That is, the moment could be taking place in a rural or urban context. I have not, however, included haiku about the environmental and human degradations of a city as my hope was to focus on the small, everyday interests of urban life.
a cat-shadow leaps
into its echo
D W Brydon1
I bring some
into the bank
the wrong way
up the one-way street
The impact of Covid-19 and its consequent restrictions on human movement was a personal challenge when it came to writing haiku, as I’m sure it has been for many others in countries with greater restrictions than New Zealand. Instead of the many peaceful hours I thought I would have for my artform, I instead found myself at a computer for most of each day, creating and facilitating (unexpected) content for my primary employer, and replying to the many emails that started to arrive, both work and personal.
Some days during full lockdown (March-mid-May 2020) I could feel my thoughts ping-ponging off the walls of my home, as well as around the inside of my head. As the route of my daily walk became commonplace I could feel my mind, and all of my senses, beginning to slide over the scenery. Sometimes on my return, I wondered what I had seen besides the cracks in the pavement.
in the pavement
My haiku practice has always included delving into memory to find topics and content for poems, and fortunately I have been a ‘noticing’ sort of child/adult so this was one way of kick-starting some writing during 2020. Mentally tucking away sensations and moments over the years has been as natural to me as breathing, long before I had ever heard the word ‘haiku’.
Sometimes past and present collide in surprising ways as when I discovered the ‘Santa’s Cave’ of my childhood (and my father’s childhood) had been resurrected in a city museum. Heading in roughly that direction for a family event at the end of 2020, we made, okay, a rather large detour to visit the exhibit which comes out for Christmas, resulting in a lot of delight and memory surges for me, and amused bemusement for my husband. The Cave, which features several mechanical toys, started enthralling children just over 100 years ago and the young attendant said many people had memories triggered by their visit and she loved hearing about them.
santa cave …
the mechanical monkey band
of my childhood
As a child growing up on a farm, the visit to Santa’s Cave was made all the more memorable because it involved going to town, a place that seemed to my young self to be somewhere special – so many goods on display in so many shops, so many vehicles in the street, so many people … The fact that my parents dressed themselves and us up for these forays underlined that town was very definitely different.
Since going to boarding school at the age of 13 – apart from one brief interlude – all of the rest of my life so far has been lived in towns and cities, both in New Zealand and overseas. And the magic of discovering a new town or city has never worn off.
with its own rain –
click of mah-jong tiles
brick by brick
a smell of hops
along the south quays –
last bus home
But a city isn’t just a central business district, hotels, museums, theatres, etc. Neighbourhoods, the more chic-sounding quartier in French, radiate out from and encircle this hub. These suburbs and districts often operate as a series of villages within the larger whole, complete with their own markets and shopping centres, schools, churches, residential areas, etc.
cuts it short
a jumble of books
outside the old police station
the odd summer cloud
his plaited red beard
tied off with twine
Ron C Moss11
Cities are sometimes themselves overtaken by growth and absorbed into a megalopolis, for example, the San Francisco Bay area (8 million people), Cairo (16 million), Tokyo (37 million), or Mumbai (80 million). Almost all our 21st-century cities have evolved over time and through stages from hamlets. This evolution has, however, been bypassed in the ultra-modern cities of the Gulf States – particularly Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi – which as recently as the mid-20th century were small towns with few modern features.
10,000 unblinking eyes
at the fish market
Earl R. Keener12
an archaeological dig
under the skyscraper
in the shadow
of a street sign . . .
Haiku must engage the senses and while the ‘softer’ environs of the countryside may be thought to offer more opportunities, an urban environment can hold rich pickings if we open ourselves to the experience. Some of the topics are the same as non-urban settings – for example, weather, people, vehicles, trees, birds; and some are unique – for example, retail (shops, cafes), pavements, high-rise buildings, traffic lights, mass transit.
the briefest touch
of a stranger’s hand
the baby’s toes jiggle
all the way home
slowing down near
the chestnut vendor
loosing her hair
in the middle of the office –
night falls early
Cities offer a chance to travel not only along the horizontal plane, but also – thrillingly – vertically through space, even giving us the chance to experience a bird’s eye view of the man-made maze beneath.
we all look down
how vibrant the city looks
Cities are built within and around many different landscapes – rivers, lakes and harbours, on the coast and at altitude. These landscapes allow for something beyond tarmacadam, bus lanes and urban sprawl and are where interesting collisions can take place.
a sheet of paper
drops between buildings
Dr Grant Caldwell22
rush hour –
the honking of geese
on the move
What interests me most about urban haiku occurs in the space where man-made surroundings and activities intersect with nature’s presence, whether ‘curated’ by way of parks and gardens or by having simply crept in and be doing its own, anarchist thing.
the time it takes
to lose a street to snow
a yellow butterfly rises
floor by floor
a thousand starlings
shape-shift above the high street
wet dusk headlamps
Long may it continue.
1: First place, British Haiku Society Haiku Award, 2019.
2: Another Trip Round the Sun: 365 Days of Haiku for Children Young and Old, ed. Jessica Malone Latham (Brooks Books, 2019).
3: Wales Haiku Journal, 2018.
4: From the sequence ‘Canberra haiku’, published in These Strange Outcrops: Writing and Art from Canberra (Cicerone, 2020).
5: Echidna Tracks 6, 2020.
6: The Heron’s Nest XIII:1, 2011.
7: The Heron’s Nest XX:4, 2018.
8: Prune Juice 29, 2019.
9: The Heron’s Nest XXII:4, 2020.
10: Presence 67, 2020.
11: Kokako 33, 2020.
12: Kloštar Ivanić Haiku Contest, 2012.
13: A Sense of Place, The Haiku Foundation, 2018.
14: Cattails, April 2018.
15: The Dreaming Collection, 2011.
16: Kaji Aso Haiku Contest 2020.
17: A Sense of Place, THF, 2018.
18: Presence 51, 2014.
19: Haiku in the Workplace, The Haiku Foundation, 2017.
20: Pulse, Jan 5 2018.
21: Presence 67, 2020.
22: Creatrix 50, 2020.
23: Breath (Piwakawaka Press, 2011).
24: The Heron’s Nest XV:2, 2013.
25: Golden Triangle Haiku Contest, 2019.
26: Presence 62, 2018.
Editor’s note: This article was first published in seashores 6 (April 2021) and appears here with permission of the author.
Sandra Simpson is the editor of Haiku NewZ, secretary of the Katikati Haiku Pathway Committee and South Pacific-Africa editor for the annual Red Moon Anthologies. An award-winning haiku poet, she lives and works in Tauranga, New Zealand.