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.

October 31: 1-4: Boo.

october stars —
lighting up the ghosts
of fireflies

 

the ghost
I’ll be someday —
the leaf I can’t catch

 

trick-or-treating —
hoping to meet
more ghosts

 

crows in autumn—
telling
ghost stories

 

_____________________

I normally have a little bit of a compulsion to write haiku sequences in odd numbers (I just like it better that way, okay?), but four is a good number of haiku about ghosts. For the Japanese, the number four signifies death. (The words are homophones, I believe. Correct me if I’m starting to sound ignorant, as so often happens.)

I’m not scared of ghosts. For one thing, I don’t believe they exist. For another, I kind of wish they did, because who wouldn’t want to talk someone who had died and find out what the scoop was on the whole afterlife thing? Especially if it was someone you’d liked while they were alive.

So these haiku are not exactly calculated to strike terror into your heart. They’re more wistful, I think. Happy All Hallows’ Eve to you all.

July 4: 1-16: Fireflies and Freedom

Happy Independence Day, to all the Americans out there. And to all the rest of you … enjoy your freedoms too.

In that vein …

“fireflies are indeed a fascinating topic. of course, they allow total freedom.”

— Scott Metz

1-4.

on the same wind
fireworks
and fireflies

shining
as if you weren’t there
fireflies

fireflies
spending the night
for the first time

the moon
waxing and waning
fireflies

5-8.

never to know
about fireflies
mayflies

bees
wits unsettled
by fireflies

reciting
multiplication tables
fireflies

fever dream
a thousand fireflies
breathing

9-12.

death
the consolation of
fireflies

white pebbles
imagining the afterlives
of fireflies

bitter oranges
spitting out the seeds
at fireflies

sweet jam
at the breakfast table
last night’s fireflies

13-16.

trust
a hand cupped
around a firefly

innocence
spending money
on fireflies

ignorance
looking away
from fireflies

chained men
the light from
fireflies