“To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test” (New York Times)
seven or eight sparrows count them again
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
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):
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
suddenly three people
face to face
on three or four stools…
out of four gates
entering just one
on four or five
slender blades of grass
a five or six inch
red mandarin orange…
and one of my favorites of all time —
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.