Senryu: The Literary Genre and Its Journey
Dr Pravat Kumar Padhy walks the reader through the structural framework, history and nuances of senryu poetry. Using senryu verse, he explains concisely and clearly how the senryu genre is different from its sibling, the haiku.
Senryū (pronounced as sen-ryoo) is derived from the renga with its origin from the maekuzuke (a tan renga with 5-7-5 and 7-7- sound units) in the early 1700s in Yoshiwara, the red-light area of Edo (present-day Tokyo). Senryu, written in haiku style, is more witty, cynical, satiric, and occasionally sarcastic in tandem with human-centric aspects and is composed of non-seasonal (muki) references. It is an unrhymed poem.
Structurally both haiku and senryu look similar in the format of 5-7-5 Japanese sound syllable counts (onji) and are written in English language as short/long/short style. However, both are independent of their origin. Haiku is written with season word (kigo) or seasonal reference (kidai) with juxtaposition (renso) and is related to nature. However, senryu is more of human element or behaviour with satire, playful, wit, and sometimes nostalgic as well. Unlike haiku, kigo and kireji or verbal caesura (cutting words) are not mandatory in Senryu, though some do use seasonal reference and kireji as well. Senryu resembles and to some extent is identical to the Greek epigram and aphorism. Alan Pizzarelli, former Senryu Editor, Simply Haiku defines it as:
'Senryu is a short poetic genre which focuses on people. Men, women, husbands, wives, children and relatives. It portrays the characteristics of human beings and the psychology of the human mind. Even when senryu depicts living things such as animals, insects, and plant life, or when they depict inanimate objects, they are portrayed with the emphasis on their human attributes….'
Haikai, the comic-linked verse, became very popular during the Edo era (1603-1868) as an adulterated version of renga. Some poets wrote poems with humour and satire, and in the late Edo Period, it was widely named ‘Senryu’. Others practiced the classical version of the artistic poem, haiku. Historically in Japan by the Edo period (1603-1868) and unlike the profound and poetic form of haikai, having wabi-sabi and yugen elements, follow materials related to fun having characteristics of satire, caricature, intrinsic humour related more to the social environment, day to day life. Karai Hachiemon (1718-1790), pen name Karai Senryu, composed short non-rhyming humorous maeku verses in the form of 5-7-5. This haikai- related genre was named after him as Senryu. It is believed that Karai belonged to the Danrin school of haiku and in contrast Basho practiced poems with more profound, classical, Zen-filled ones. In Japanese, the word senryū means ‘river willow’. The first Maekuzuke composition in Japan was judged by Karai Senryu. The first collection was published in 1765 (and subsequently a series of 165 volumes were published). The first 24 volumes bear relevance to Karai Senryu as its anthologist of Senryu’s poems (Willow Barrel or Haifūyanagidaru ) and are considered the best poems. The typical examples from the collection are:
When I catch,
my own son
Hide and seek
Count to three
The following poem is believed to be Karai’s final senryu:
Write me down
As one who loved senryu,
And loose women.
The old senryu are called ko-senryu and these poems (mostly in anonymity) are archival of the prevailing ancient social customs etc during the Edo period, and around one lakh senryu had been researched by Nishihara Ryuu .
Later Aso Fugawari, KuKu Kichigai, Henjen Bunpitsu, Kinshi Manuke, and others wrote senryu with much fun. Gradually the popularity of the old senryu verse declined and even degraded to Kyoko or Mad Poems because of fun-filled obscure content like ‘At a festival I wink at the ladies, I’m that kind of firefly’ by Henjen Bunpitsu and others. I think Jane Reichhold had a reason to be critical of senryu (I mean the earlier practices) because of its absurd and earthy contents (black humour). Later Sakai Kuraki (1869-1945) and Inoue Kenkabo (1870-1934) tried to refine senryu as a serious literary art. The Japanese immigrants in the USA who arrived in Yakima Valley in the 1890s rejuvenated the art of senryu by reinventing the content of the poems by referring to their challenging life sketches, anxieties, and cultural aspects during the early twentieth century. Gail Nomura, a retired professor of American ethnic studies at the University of Washington, and Teruko Kumei, a professor in the English Department of Shirayuri College in Tokyo carried out research on the ethnic poetry widely popular in various senryu poetry circles including the associated exhibition ‘Land of Joy and Sorrow: Japanese Pioneers of the Yakima Valley.’ LLyn De Danaan, an anthropologist, also did a special contribution to Japanese American literature and documented the scholarly work of female senryu poets namely Miyoko Sato and Yukiko Abo. In 1929 Shinjiro ‘Kaho’ Honda established the Hokubei Senryu Gosenkai (Senryu Society of North America) in Seattle, USA.
The followings are some of the senryu with personal in content and are emotional in expression.
all sobered up. Damn.
Sake brewed brawls.
-Shigetaka ‘Kentsuku’ Kurokawa (1912)
To the west I look,
twenty years, day after day.
(My) tears wet the sky.
In 1985, Shuho Ohno introduced the book, ‘Modern Senryu in English’ which was a refined version of senryu, and subsequently, it gained reasonable literary popularity in the genre (Gendai Senryu with the format of haiku).
R H Blyth published a translation volume (with illustrations) on ‘Senryu: Japanese Satirical Verses’ in 1949 (The Hokuseido Press). Blyth’s ‘Japanese Life and Character in Senryu’, 1960 and ‘Edo Satirical Verse Anthologies’, 1961, Tokyo: Hokuseido Press are the landmarks in senryu literature. Michael McClintock edited ‘Seer Ox: American Senryu Magazine’ in the 1970s. ‘Fig Newtons: Senryū to Go’, the first anthology of English-language senryū, was published by Michael Dylan Welch in 1993.
Initially, senryu were written primarily by men. Some Japanese woman poets, born during the late eighties, started writing senryu with different tastes. Taira Sosei’s anthology, ‘Ryoran Josei Senryū ’, the first collection by women poets, was published in 1997. Some of the examples (translated by Hiroaki Sato) are as follow:
The powder peeled off from her face the summer Fuji
[by Shimoyama Kyôko]
No matter how I sit I only see myself the way I am
[by Inoue Nobuko (1869–1958)]
For sharing joy this mosquito net is too small by Kataoka Hiroko (1890–1975)
The heart wanting to be loved presses on my loneliness
[by Mikasa Shizuko (1882–1932)]
During the twentieth-century poets namely Mayumi Akiko, Kino Yukiko, Ônishi Yasuyo, Seino Chisato and others contributed a lot to senryu writings.
Haiku and Senryu
Senryu has developed from maekuzuke the way hokku or later haiku developed as the first seventeen sound or phonetic units (morae). Haruo Shirane writes:
'The fundamental differences between modern haiku and senryu can be traced to their historical origins. Haiku was originally the opening verse (hokku) of a linked-verse sequence, and senryu was an offshoot of the added verse (tsukeku). Consequently, senryu does not require a seasonal word (kigo), which marks the occasion of the hokku’s composition and connects it to nature and to the larger poetic tradition. Unlike the hokku, senryu does not require a cutting word (kireji), which usually splits the verse into two syntactic parts…'
Haiku are tender in style, traditionally about nature, but often juxtaposed with human nature as well. However, senryu is more about human content, related to the human condition, human behavior, and sensitivity expressed with satire, humorous, playful ways. It is essentially a 3-line poem, looking like a haiku in format, without any seasonal reference and kireji. Senryu is also regarded as satirical haiku. Senryu is essentially one element or observation (though a few write in two-part format) unlike the fragment and phrase of haiku. Haiku is more profound, sublime and the poet immerses in the object whereas the senryu writer remains outside as an observer or expresser of the feeling of human-centric experience.
There is a tonal differentiation as haiku is more classical having a poetic spell whereas senryu is written in a humorous tone. Haiku is more elevated in content with profoundness. It may be said that poems with reference to humour may also be seen in haiku writing. Similarly, haiku also depicts part of human aspect juxtaposed with images having seasonal references.
Sometimes it becomes very difficult to distinguish between haiku and senryu as poets mix up the imagery of modern urban lifestyle and occasionally also with some reference to nature. The haiku Masters had written poems with a touch of humour (okashimi) and wit. Blyth, in translating the poems, exemplifies how some of the poems by Busan (1716-1783), Issa (1763-1827), and Shiki (1867-1902) have close resemblance with senryu with irony, cynicism, witticism, and humour and also cited some of the haiku by Basho with a touch of parody:
The Rose of Sharon
By the road-side,
Was eaten by my horse.
A woman showing
A charcoal-seller his face,
In a mirror.
To bathtub, —
Stuff and nonsense!
In a straw hat,—
He must be going to his native place!
Alexix Rotella believes that Senryu is ‘the poetry of the common people.’ … By closely observing human nature, the senryu poet reveals the whole truth. …Senryu, in its very power to make us laugh, can restore us to wholeness… The truth in senryu can be told in many different tones and in many different ways. While haiku may be too puritanical and poetic to look directly at the incongruities around us, senryu is courageous and records things just as they occur.
Regarding senryu, Alexis Rotella, the founding editor of Prune Juice, satirically comments:
The person I wrote
the book for
does not buy a copy
Rightly Anita Virgil says: ‘If it is man within the world, it is haiku. If it is the world within the man, it is senryu.’ Over the years, it is becoming a much more polished genre and many leading journals publish senryu with human-centric values. Unlike haiku, literary devices like allusion and parts of speech (simile, metaphor, etc) are used in writing senryu along with parody and irony. Senryu comprises dominantly contemporary and occasionally classical images to portray the common happenings and with time there have been a lot of overlapping between the two genres.
Susumu Takiguchi elaborates senryu in a different perspective:
‘The main characteristics of Japanese senryu are summarized as okashimi (humour), ugachi (insightful and penetrating observations) and karumi (light-heartedness), though not all of these need to be present in all senryu, except perhaps for karumi…’
He has selected the following senryu as his best choice.
only the ink remains
-Carol Raisfeld, US
[Editor’s Choice, The grand Best, World Haiku Review, Vol.5, Issue 1, 2005]
he took the penalty to kick
-Vinodh Marella (yajushi), India
[Editor’s Best Senryu, World Haiku Review, January 2007]
In modern times, we come across a lot of haiku which are on the borderline between the two genres. George Swede classified them into three types: Nature haiku, Human haiku (senryu), and Human plus nature haiku (hybrids).
Let us discuss these three types with examples for a better understanding.
Nature haiku: It has reference to nature with seasonal words or kigo without any reference to humans.
milky way –
-Pravat Kumar Padhy
[BEST OF ISSUE (Second Choice), Haiku Reality, Vol. 12, No 20, Summer 2015]
Editor Robert D. Wilson comments about the above poem:
‘…an evocative, action-biased (koto, objective) hokku using the Milky Way Galaxy as its focus. The Milky Way, called Amanogawa by the Japanese, meaning, River of Heaven, can be interpreted in this poem concretely and metaphorically, depending on one's cultural memory, experience, and subjective conceptualization. Is it really a flow of milk? Is it an actual river with fish and water? Padhy makes good use of juxtaposition in contrasting line one with lines 2-3. Does he really see the galaxy as lightning splitting the darkness, or does the lightning splitting the darkness represent something appearing in the night-time sky at the same time the poet is viewing the Milky Way, which somehow, calls to mind his conceptualization of the galaxy? The intricacy and beauty of a true hokku in the tradition of Basho, Buson, Doho, Chiyo-ni, or Issa, is its ability to say more using an economy of words via the usage of Japanese aesthetics…'
Human haiku (senryu): It primarily refers to aspects of human nature without any comparison with seasonal aspects.
at the height
of the argument the old couple
pour each other tea
The above poem is one of the most appropriate examples of senryu. There is no seasonal reference in the above senryu and also there is no grammatical break.
Human plus nature haiku (hybrids):
Swede opines, ‘Human plus nature haiku (or hybrids) include content from the natural as well as the human world (and) often include kigo. They are the most frequently published kind of haiku--around 60%.’
Michael Rehling, the editor of Failed Haiku, writes how the inference of humans is interpreted even without directly mentioning it in the following poem:
the grass grows
-Pravat Kumar Padhy
[Failed Haiku: A Journal of English Senryu, Vol 3, Issue 25, 2017]
‘So simple, and so profound. If the humans stay off the grass, then it grows on its own and 'with ease'. The sunlight strains the grass, and humans pound it down, but in the cool night we have the perfect environment. Grass, like humans, needs quiet spaces to grow effectively. Simple observations of nature might be thought to be a haiku and not a senryu, but the poet speaks of 'ease' and that brought this one to me personally. Nature has no idea such as easy and hard. If we can just accept the moments of our lives we can grow 'with ease' as well. It is the absence of humans in this one that puts them into the picture for me.’
We can make the genre, senryu, much better with the pragmatic infusion of the art of poetic beauty combining with the aspects of human behavior in response to the socio-political, psychological, and personal vibrations.
The followings are some of the examples of senryu with a wide spectrum of contemporary images.
the fat lady
bends over the tomatoes
a full moon
[The Haiku Society of America Minutes, 1972]
a three-legged chair
outside the entrance
- Johannes Manjrekar
[Temps Libre 2004]
leaving for work
my husband kisses the dog
and pats me on the head
[Simply Haiku, vol. 6 no. 2, 2008]
the beggar's wife
weeps at her fate
[Simply Haiku, vol. 6 no. 2, 2008]
the chef whips up his iPhone
-Bruce H. Feingold
[Magnapoets, Issue 9 January 2012]
my application to be
[Haiku News, Vol. 2, No. 24, 2013]
if i could
start all over . . .
pink lady slipper
-H. Gene Murtha
[From Book, Biding Time, Selected Poems 2001-2013]
buying a jeans belt
the salesgirl measures me –
I hold my stomach in
[Earshik: A Journal of Senryu and Kyoka, Special Issue, April 2014]
knitting the tension
into a scarf
[Cattails January 2015]
the guide speaks on
behalf of the king
-Pravat Kumar Padhy
[tinywords Issue: 15.1, 24.3.2015]
i need so many words
to explain it
[Prune Juice, Issue 18, March 2016]
supper cruise tossing the salad one more time
[Prune Juice, Issue 18, March 2016]
Every day 270,000 trees end up in toilet...
[Human Kind Journal, Issue 1.5, may 2019]
how white the shirt
of the rapist
[First Place, 6th Annual H. Gene Murtha Memorial Contest, 2021]
his first roti--
the migrant worker feeds
[Prune Juice, Issue 34, on July 1, 2021]
the watermelon seller bites
into his profit
[HM, The Seventh Annual H. Gene Murtha Senryu Contest, 2022]
Haiku is an expression of the aesthetic richness embedded within the lap of nature. Poet even expresses his psychological urge through the prism of nature. However, senryu, independent of any reference to nature, propounds the wide scope of releasing inner feelings and psychological tension that bind him or her at that very moment. There has been a sense of enlightenment associated with haiku whereas senryu emits a sense of direct depiction of sensible feelings. Senryu has been established as contemporary literature of its own merit. With much refinement, both seem to be complementary to each other as a record of human behavior and testimony within the purview of literary values. The modern way of living, advances in technology, and socio-economic scenarios to large extent influence poetry. There has been an overlapping of imagery between the two genres. There is hardly any element of exclusiveness to distinguish the two genres except perhaps some of the key characteristics such as aesthetic beauty (bi), poetic elegance (miyabi), depth and mystery (yugen), and contained space (ma) associated with haiku. Michael Dylan Welch opines:
‘In English, my feeling is that the distinction between haiku and senryu is mainly tonal—and not just humour versus seriousness, because there can be funny haiku and serious senryu….. The difference between haiku and senryu isn’t as simple as nature/human and serious/funny distinctions.’
I wish to conclude with the following lines:
With Alan Pizzarelli, one may wonder how many senryu have been accepted over the years for publication ‘under the aegis of haiku’ but ‘will not be recognized as such so long as they are touted as 'innovative haiku' rather than approaches toward modern senryu.’