February 17: Numerical Order

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

..

seven or eight
sparrows
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:

咲花をまつ一に梅二は櫻
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

.

ビタミン剤一日二錠瀧凍る
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
fireflies

.

houses here and there
fly kites, three…four…
two

.

three or five stars
by the time I fold it…
futon

.

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

.

lightning flash–
suddenly three people
face to face

.

mid-river
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.

“there is no need to stuff it with more syllables”

Alexey Andreyev, a Russian poet, wrote a great essay several years ago called “The Definition of Haiku“. You should read the whole thing, but here are some excerpts that I’ve spent a while thinking about the last few days.

“When poets write or translate haiku into their language they try to save haiku spirit, and somehow imitate the Japanese form (the length of the lines, the breaks) — but at the same time they take into account the common patterns of their own language so that it sounds natural. This way most of Russian translations of classic Japanese haiku have about 20 syllables; on the other hand, a haiku in English, according to W. Higginson’s The Haiku Handbook, is better when it’s about 12 syllables…[T]here is no need to stuff it with more syllables.”

I mentioned this 12-syllable thing the other day. 12 still seems pretty arbitrary to me, but I will agree that the haiku I really like usually seem to have significantly less than 17 syllables. 17 syllables — that’s a lot in English for one breath, one fleeting thought. When I revise my haiku it’s usually to pare the syllable count back to minimum. All those extraneous verbs, articles, pronouns! They seem embarrassing when I look at my first effort, the same way all those extraneous adverbs and adjectives embarrass me when I look at my rough drafts of my prose.

(One interesting tangent on this subject is that I was a Russian major in college, and Russian famously has no articles at all, doesn’t have the verb “to be” in the present tense, and can often do without pronouns due to its heavily inflected verb forms. True, it has a lot of long words — maybe this accounts for their feeling that they need 20 syllables to do a good haiku — but in other ways it’s a pretty minimalist sort of language. I found that studying Russian was a good thing for my English prose style — you quickly learn how few words are really necessary to say what you want.)

Another quote:

“Every haiku is a sort of little picture, an interesting image. Two main ideas about these images:

A) They come from direct experience; certain bright moments of life you managed to catch with your ‘internal camera’: wonders, strange coincidences, funny situations, sceneries that resonate with your current ‘soul state’ or even change, shock you suddenly, giving you a moment of sadness or another sensation YOU COULDN’T EVEN NAME.

B) This image, being written down, should evoke certain deep feelings in readers, too; this is really difficult — not only to present the experience in words but to do it in such a way that it could be effectively reflected in someone’s mind.

The art of haiku (as I see it) is a dance on the sharp blade between these (A) and (B): you can write about what you saw but it won’t grab your reader as you write merely ‘there are leaves on the tree’ — extreme (A); on the other hand, going to the extreme (B), you can make up a fancy abstract construction but it’ll be too far from the immediate perception; this artificial fake will be visible and will impress no one.”

This A/B distinction interests me, since I’ve been surfing around the Web the last few weeks reading other people’s haiku and have noticed that the ones I don’t really like (don’t worry, I’m not going to cite any examples) are usually too heavy on either the A or the B. Either they’re very concrete, just straightforward images that may be pretty but aren’t really connected to anything and don’t evoke any particular thought or emotion; or they’re very abstract, grandiose declarations about the poet’s state of mind or life philosophy or opinions about the universe. It’s the ones that connect — only connect! — the concrete and the abstract that I end up catching my breath over. I try to keep this connection in mind when I write haiku. Some days I’m more successful than others.

Andreyev again:

“Imagine yourself walking by the river and seeing an unfinished bridge: maybe, just a half of the bridge from one side to the middle of the river, or some pillars stuck in the bottom, or even ruins — an old cement block on one side and a similar one on the other. Anyway, there’s no bridge, no connection now, you can’t reach the other side of the river — yet you can finish the bridge in your mind and say exactly where it starts and ends. That is the way the unfinished links in haiku work…”

Well, this is an image I’ll be thinking about for a long time, that’s all I have to say. Writing haiku so that the bridge is imaginable but not actually there — that’s a goal I can get behind.

(By the way, I have discovered lots of Andreyev’s Russian haiku on the Web and want to try to translate some of them soon. They’re excellent — though interestingly, most of them seem to have not only fewer than 20 but fewer than 17 syllables. Apparently Andreyev is not defeated by the notorious polysyllabicism of the Russian language.)

1986

I wish you’d come see
the cat. She no longer sleeps
on the guest room bed.

This was published in my high school literary magazine, after they rejected (with actual incredulous laughter) the haiku I really liked, which I can no longer find. It featured an upturned teapot, but I can’t remember anything else about it. Just for the record, my English teacher liked it too. I feel I must say this defensively even twenty-four years after the fact. Note to self: raise this issue in next therapy session.

I remember being extremely preoccupied with counting 5-7-5 syllables when I wrote haiku in high school (and for some time beyond). Partly this was because schoolteachers tend to place a lot of emphasis on this “requirement” of haiku (I have a post about this coming up), partly it was because I had then (and still must combat now) a tendency to take rules and limits very, very seriously. I still like writing (informal) sonnets, villanelles, all sorts of poetic forms with set structures: genuine free verse seems worryingly infinite in possibility to me. If I do write free verse, I tend to place some kind of loose metrical constraints on it, just so my choice of words is narrower.

That’s pretty much where I am right now with poetry in general and haiku in particular — not tight, not loose. There are haiku “requirements” I find pleasing and like to work with: the “one-breath” idea; the idea of a “kigo” or seasonal word (but my interpretation of this is looser than the Japanese idea); the idea of a “kireji” or cutting word (but for me this means more like a word that is a hinge that holds the parts of the haiku together, or a strong, vivid word that focuses the haiku’s image); the Zen idea of a fleeting image, a glimpse, something that can be grasped all at once and doesn’t need to be analyzed. Not all my haiku have to have all these elements, but I find it helpful to keep these things in mind when I’m writing haiku, and to the extent that I’m successful in incorporating them into my haiku, the more successful I tend to feel the haiku is.

Of course, modern English haiku don’t have strict syllabic requirements, but sometimes I still like to count 5-7-5, or at least 17, just for fun, or as a challenge to myself. Though I read recently that 12 syllables is more like the ideal for an English haiku (what this is based on I have no idea), so I might play around with that for a while and see how it works.

And then again I might experiment with truly minimalist haiku: two or three words. The interesting thing about my attempting such brevity is that (as you can see from this commentary) my natural tendency is to write long. I think of haiku as a way to force myself to identify the heart of my message, to discard the extraneous verbiage that clutters my arguments and muddies my images.