Haiku is a Japanese poetic form emphasizing brevity, clarity, and the juxtaposition of images or ideas. Its translation or appropration into English has foregrounded the 5-7-5 syllable rule, and its influence on Modernist poets like Ezra Pound or William Carlos Williams is quite clear. Even if that strict sense of syllable counting isn’t essentially part of its original, through its apparent simplicity of form, haiku is an approachable and accessible means for thinking about and experimenting with poetic constraint. While writing haiku that follows the syllable rule (that rule’s preeminence notwithstanding) is trivially easy, but writing a good one is as challenging as any poetry.

Haiku’s brevity also means that a haiku is typically going to be of tweetable size, and several poetry bots run with this idea. @Haiku_D2, for example, finds accidental haiku on Twitter, and Jacob Harris’s Times Haiku finds serendipitous haiku in the New York Times and shares via Tumblr. More toward the modernist appropriation of haiku, several of Mark Sample’s poetry bots (@BlackBoughBot, @JustToSayBot, @DependsUponBot) use imagist poems as templates for iterating randomly associated imagery.

I have four children; the oldest are 6 and 4, and both are big fans of Highlights and High Five, respectively. We received a subscription as a gift last year, and we always look forward to adding to our stack by the girls’ bunk bed. Usually, we read some of the stories together and do the hidden picture thing, but last week my wife, knowing my interest in bots, conceptual poetry, and other related things, directed me toward one poem in particular, by Nathan, age 9, that she thought I would enjoy. She was right; here it is:

Haiku by a Robot, by Nathan Beifuss, age 9

Seven hundred ten
Seven hundred eleven
Seven hundred twelve

I posted a picture on Twitter and it quickly became apparent that others were enjoying it as much as I did. (At the time I’m writing this, it has just over 1400 “favorites”.)

And one tweet by @SaladinAhmed, who apparently shares my enthusiasim, is probably responsible for much of that attention:

Other responses did vary, of course. I think many people enjoyed being reminded that Highlights exists, and plenty of others recognized the simple cleverness of Nathan’s solution to the problem expressed in haiku’s simple rules. A much smaller number of respondents wanted to use this poem as an opportunity to take down avant-garde poetry or to get pedantic about the “real” definition of haiku, but for the most part the responses were overwhelmingly positive.

So at the risk of deflating some of that enthusiasm, and as a way of hopefully demonstrating that my enjoyment of this poem is by no means intended to be ironic or patronizing to its author, I thought I’d try and unpack some of its poetics.

First, at the conceptual level, there is the choice to express numbers in written language. This reduces haiku to its simplest possible formula, excising ego, narrative, image, representation, or any other of the classical poetic modalities and leaving behind form, sound, and the materiality as letters. This is a move with poetic precedent, it turns out. Kenneth Goldsmith in Uncreative Writing, for instance, lists several examples of the artistic value of seemingly arbirtray letters or numbers including Mallarme’s “letteristic materiality”, Ezra Pound’s impenatrable linguistic collisions from his Cantos, or Joyce’s “thunder words” in Finnegans Wake. Goldsmith also discusses Neil Mills’ “Seven Number Poems”, an example of sound poetry where the absence of semantic meaning simply makes more clear the expressive presence of rhythm and intonation, not to mention the role that the concrete presentation of these lines plays in their performance. (Try reading the following out loud or listen to someone else reciting it.)

1,9
1,1,9
1,1,1,9
9
1,1,1,1,9
8,4
1,1,1,1,1,9
8,4
8,4

But besides the audiopoetics of a numeric sequence as an expression of more or less arbitrary poetic form, Nathan’s poem chooses three numbers that are actually pretty interesting. I’ve done some calculating, and given a common (though it’s by no means uniform) naming schema for numbers in English, the occurrence of numbers that can be expressed in seven syllables is somewhat rare. Of the first 1,000,000 integers greater than zero, 7,055 or about .7% can be written in seven syllables. And far fewer, as it turns out, 697, can be written in five syllables. I don’t know what it means, but the fact the fives are fewer by a factor of almost exactly 10 is curiously provocative. (By the way, here’s a gist of my code in case you feel like doublechecking my work.)

Moreover, ordinal sequences that follow the 5-7-5 pattern are exceedingly rare. Nathan’s poem is the first such sequence one encounters. Here are the rest of them:

Seven thousand ten
Seven thousand eleven
Seven thousand twelve


Thirteen thousand ten
Thirteen thousand eleven
Thirteen thousand twelve


Fourteen thousand ten
Fourteen thousand eleven
Fourteen thousand twelve


Fifteen thousand ten
Fifteen thousand eleven
Fifteen thousand twelve


Sixteen thousand ten
Sixteen thousand eleven
Sixteen thousand twelve


Eighteen thousand ten
Eighteen thousand eleven
Eighteen thousand twelve


Nineteen thousand ten
Nineteen thousand eleven
Nineteen thousand twelve


Twenty thousand ten
Twenty thousand eleven
Twenty thousand twelve


Thirty thousand ten
Thirty thousand eleven
Thirty thousand twelve


Forty thousand ten
Forty thousand eleven
Forty thousand twelve


Fifty thousand ten
Fifty thousand eleven
Fifty thousand twelve


Sixty thousand ten
Sixty thousand eleven
Sixty thousand twelve


Eighty thousand ten
Eighty thousand eleven
Eighty thousand twelve


Ninety thousand ten
Ninety thousand eleven
Ninety thousand twelve

Naturally, I used a computer program (robot) to create all of these, and I’ve also trained another bot, @Haiku_by_Robot to keep authoring and publishing these, although those haiku are composed randomly and as such are not going to be as clever or mathematically interesting.

So what do you think is going on here? Did you enjoy this as much as I did, and if so, why do you think it works? Are there other poetic contexts that can help explain its impact?

  • Yup, I saw this on Twitter and loved it. I actually enjoyed turning 27 because it was my first four-syllable age, so I tend to notice things like this. It occurs to me the poem could be rendered differently with some less common number phrasing. Addition of the word ‘and’ (seven hundred and ten) ruins it. A lower number can be made haiku by using ‘score’. “Seven score and ten” for example.

    • zachwhalen

      Right! There are so many different ways to write or pronounce numbers. As long as it’s a consistent system, you could probably generate a formula for predicting the likelihood of haiku, but there will always be the oddities of numbers with special names like googol.

  • RFredW

    So US robots get 15 haiku, having run the marathon to “ninety thousand ten”, whilst UK robots (“one hundred and…”,”one thousand and…”) scrape a win at 16, declaring early at “nine thousand and ten”?

    • zachwhalen

      I guess so! I mean, if indeed the “and” is UK standard. Is that the case? When I first put this together I tried to find the geographical and cultural preferences for number nomenclature but I couldn’t find anything definitive. (Of course, I didn’t look very hard either.)

  • Jephthah

    What about ‘seven million ten…’? ‘Seven billion ten…’? ‘trillion’?

    • Jephthah

      I missed, those years ago, that you had said the first 1 000 000 integers. My mistake

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