February 17: Numerical Order

“To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test” (New York Times)


seven or eight
count them again


This haiku appeared on this blog last May, and on Haiku News last week (with the headline above).

For some reason, even though I wrote it in pretty much my first week of writing haiku, it is still one of my favorites of my own poems. Beginner’s luck, I guess.

Why do I like it so much? (You don’t have to ask so incredulously.) Well…first of all, there’s the whole “it’s true” thing. It’s impossible to count birds. (Impossible for me, anyway; maybe you’ve had better luck.) They keep moving. They’re transient, they’re transitory.

So many things in life are. You can’t pin them down. You look one minute and things look one way; the next minute they look entirely different. Don’t even ask about the differences between years.

But for some reason we (and by “we” I mean “I”) keep trying to get some kind of firm fix on the situation, whatever the situation is. Seven or eight sparrows? Well, does it matter? Rationally, no … but so much of life is spent trying to count those damn sparrows.

Also, I like numbers. I like numbers in general; I like arithmetic; I count things and add and subtract and multiply things all the time, just for the hell of it. Give me your phone number and I’ll tell you something interesting about the digits in, like, four seconds. “The sum of the first three digits is the product of the last two digits!” Or something. It’s a little weird. Kind of Junior Rain Man. (I do know the difference between the price of a car and the price of a candy bar, though.  So your longstanding suspicion that I really should be institutionalized has not yet been entirely confirmed.)

I like numbers in poetry because they are so specific. Other things being equal, generally the more specific a poem is the more powerful it is, so numbers to me seem like high-octane gas or something for poetry.

Gabi Greve, on her mindblowingly complete haiku website, has a great page about numbers in haiku. Here are a couple of my favorites of the examples she gives:

saku hana o matsu ichi ni umi ni wa sakura

waiting for the cherry blossoms
one is the sea
two is the cherry tree

— Ishihara 石原重方


bitamiinzai ichi nichi ni joo taki kooru

vitamin pills
each day two of them –
the waterfall freezes

— Ono Shuka (Oono Shuka) 大野朱香

Also, Issa is great at haiku that feature numbers. (Does this surprise you? I thought not.) A few examples, all translated by David Lanoue (and if you want more you should go over to David’s spectacular database of Issa translations and type your favorite number in the search box):

three raindrops
and three or four


houses here and there
fly kites, three…four…


three or five stars
by the time I fold it…


two drops for the rice cake tub
three drops for the winnow


lightning flash–
suddenly three people
face to face


on three or four stools…
evening cool


cool air–
out of four gates
entering just one


on four or five
slender blades of grass
autumn rain


a five or six inch
red mandarin orange…
winter moon

and one of my favorites of all time —

first snowfall
one, two, three, four
five, six people

Interesting how many of these involve the kind of uncertainty about exact count that my own haiku does. I don’t remember whether I had read any Issa at the time I wrote it. I might have been shamelessly imitating him, or I might just have been trying to count sparrows. You try it. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

19 thoughts on “February 17: Numerical Order

  1. The first haiku’s translation should be

    waiting for the blossoms
    first is the plum
    second is the cherry

    梅 means plums. In Japan, the plums bloom before the cherry blossoms.

      • Tomoko and Melissa,

        I overlooked your reply and comment and put my renditon down below.

        We have kouta–literally “little song” or short poem—that matches
        with this haiku.
        ume wa saitaka sakura wa madakaina

        This type of songs can be dated back to the Edo Era, but still viewed as contemporary one, since I could imitate how they sing—the slow tempo, accompanied by shamisen or three stringed instrument—there used to be the time people learn this type of songs. Good old days the singing voice came drifting over hedges and fences in your neighbourhood on a spring day.

        Found the song on YouTube:

        Here’s another song for plum blossoms: “Spring for Plum Blossoms”

        • Wow…this is wonderful, Mariko! Thanks for sharing!

          I do hope some day you have time to write a blog because you have so much amazing knowledge to share about haiku and other aspects of Japanese literary culture.

  2. Love your opening haiku. I had the same feeling when in my younger days a friend insisted we went bird counting … an impossible task and frustrating because I couldn’t accept the “loose” way of counting birds. Either you count them as best as you can or you don’t count them at all! I thought … I never went again. Had a job once as a clerk in a postal office, and that was ALL about counting, so I ended up counting largely EVERYTHING every day … sigh!

    counting ants
    summers day in hell
    for the bank cashier

  3. Pingback: | a night kitchen

  4. interesting – i do a lot of counting when i draw/paint. odd and even number break ups in patterns as well as numbers of things. as a museum guard i learned to count the works on each floor when i’d first come onto the floor – i’d know instantly by keeping my pattern of counting the same – if a work was missing and could quickly tell which work was gone because i’d know where in my numbers the count got off track. numbers are such a great organizational tool as well… our numbering of days – 2-19-2011 – how else would we know that day it is today? or pages in a book. or miles to the moon.

    seventh try
    to count the sparrows
    i number my ku

  5. Hi Melissa!

    Are you familiar with these from Shiki?


    keitô no / jûshigohon mo / arinubeshi

    ‘Before the Garden’

    cockscombs . . .
    must be 14,
    or 15

    [Beichman from Masaoka Shiki: His Life and Works]

    Beichman lists this as one of his most “famous and controversial” haiku. Whenever I read a haiku that makes use of two numbers like this, Shiki’s haiku is recalled. Gabi has more details on this one in the cockscomb section:


    Flipping through Burton Watson’s book looking for the above haiku to post, I also ran across:

    yoji ni karasu / goji ni suzume / natsu no yo wa akenu

    Crows at four,
    sparrows at five —
    and then the summer night is over

    (which Watson notes busts 5-7-5…also has a head note, like the last one..”sick in bed”)


    byôshô o / kakomu reisha ya / gorokunin

    New Year’s well-wishers —
    five or six
    around a sickbed

    that might interest you.



    • Oh yeah, I know that cockscomb one … I was thinking of putting it in this post and then just ran out of steam. I like the New Years one, hadn’t seen that one. But I found this one today during my frantic search through Shiki’s oeuvre 🙂 :

      two or three rocks
      strewn about
      dried up field

      Coming from rocky New England I appreciate this one a lot.

  6. Hi Melissa,

    Interesting topic for me, too.

    The first haiku quoted has the familiar phase of spring season for us
    waiting for plum blossoms first and then cherry blossoms.

    saku hana o matsu ichi ni umi ni wa sakura

    saku hana wo matsu ichi ni ume ni wa sakura
    not “umi/ sea” but “ume/plum blossoms”

    my rendition of this haiku runs:

    waiting for spring blossoms
    firstly for plum blossoms
    secondly for cherry blossoms

    Thus, the second line and the third one of the rendition above do not
    sound alright.

    waiting for the cherry blossoms waiting for spring blossoms
    one is the sea the first are plum blossoms
    two is the cherry tree the second are cherry blossoms

    • Thanks, Mariko, for sharing your insight into this.

      I’m a little confused right now because I went back to the original page I got this from and found something I’d missed above the Japanese and English versions quoted here: a comment reading:

      “number one, first : plum blossom,
      number two, second : cherry blossoms” 一梅二桜 (いちうめにさくら)

      So I’m really not sure what is going on here, why the character for “plum” was rendered in romaji as the word for “sea” when apparently Gabi was aware that it was actually the character for “plum” … I guess I should quit speculating and just go ask her. 🙂

      Thanks Tomoko and Mariko for adding to my knowledge of Japanese this week. 🙂

  7. Shiki’s cockscomb poem is probably his most famous number poem, and is much discussed in Japan. I’ve written two parodies, the first published in *Modern Haiku* in 2007, the second published in *Shiki Haikusphere* in Matsuyama (Shiki’s home) also in 2007. I like the second better:

    indigo sky—
    there must be 14 or 15
    cumulus clouds

    disinfectant jar—
    there must be 14 or 15
    barber’s combs

    At any rate, the use of numbers in haiku is a very interesting topic. In many cases you want to focus a haiku just on one subject. In other cases the point of the poem is that there are more than or even many items that you want to point to. It’s an art to handle “number” well in haiku.


    • I think I’ve seen both of these, Michael, definitely the second one and yes, they are both very funny.

      I wrote a parody of my own poem here as a comment on Aubrie Cox’s Facebook status the other day … she had mentioned that she had several bags of Goldfish crackers on her desk and I wrote

      three or four
      bags of Goldfish
      hungry again

      No, it’s not exactly a work of genius but it entertained me at the time. 🙂

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