ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Traditional Senryu

Updated on October 20, 2015

The World Behind the Screen . . .

"In Front of the Bathhouse"
"In Front of the Bathhouse" | Source

Japanese Senryu

Today many poets and editors do not distinguish between haiku and senryu, and there certainly is a gradual continuum between the haiku about nature and the senryu with more focus on humanity.

In traditional Japan, however, it was easy to distinguish senryu from haiku. Senryu, unlike haiku, focused exclusively on human nature and society. In addition, senryu lacked a "season word," or kigo, and they were almost always written as a single sentence, whereas the haiku most often had two phrases with juxtaposition.

Until the 20th century, senryu were not taken as serious poetry and were published anonymously. They were, more or less, the limericks of Japan.

Still, the best of the older senryu have literary qualities all their own: Each one presents a scene that reveals both traditional Japanese culture and universal human nature. The author's tone may be ironic or downright cynical, but may also be full of laughter at human foibles or grief at human pain.

Makoto Ueda, in his introduction to Light Verse from the Floating World: An Anthology of Premodern Japanese Senryū, writes that the author of senryu was “someone with a novelist’s eye but without his ability (or patience)” (19).

What follows are some favorite traditional senryu and modern senryu written in a similar spirit.

Not Wedded to Tradition

1887 Japanese print depicting two young ladies dressed according to the latest Western fashions of the time
1887 Japanese print depicting two young ladies dressed according to the latest Western fashions of the time | Source

Catching Urban Life

Like popular novels, the famous eighteenth-century senryu collections sold well because, as Ueda says, they "amused a vast number of people." People loved them because they reflected the life of ordinary people. The writers were mostly men and common people, but a few women and some slumming samurai also contributed.


The story teller
lets his villain escape —
to tomorrow


when he holds a baby
his entire body shrinks -
the sumo wrestler


The ladle seller
serves portions of air
to display his wares


A horse farts
Four or five suffer
On the ferry-boat.


Poetry of Human Folly

"In the pleasure district of Shinyoshiwara a man dressed in the new Western style amuses people by walking on the balcony railing of a geisha house."
"In the pleasure district of Shinyoshiwara a man dressed in the new Western style amuses people by walking on the balcony railing of a geisha house." | Source

Sometimes Cynical

Many senryu also explore the deceptive or hypocritical aspects of human nature, as well as emotions like jealousy.

the matchmaker
speaks the sober truth
only when drunk


life of austerity:
the nanny he's hired
doubles as a concubine


And in modern homage to the one above:

recession...
the care giver he hired
doubles as a mistress

Chen-ou Liu published in Prune Juice


In the beautiful woman
Somewhere or other
His wife finds faults


With all her might
the spurned woman
throws the wedding rice.

~ Alexis Rotella in Simply Haiku


Rapper Ben Butter performing in the senryu tradition

Poetry of Everyday Life

A mother makes rice cakes for the fall Moon Festival while her baby "helps."
A mother makes rice cakes for the fall Moon Festival while her baby "helps." | Source

Wry and Unaffected . . .

Sometimes senryu simply reflect the human comedy.


Now the man has a child
He knows all the names
of the local dogs


the pediatrician
first takes the pulse
of the stuffed tiger


Zen priest
Meditation finished
Looking for fleas


Poetry from the Heart

Woman in a Summer Kimono.
Woman in a Summer Kimono. | Source

Sometimes Tragic . . .

In “The Serious Side of Senryu,” Alan Pizzarelli writes, "There's another side of senryu . . . that express[es] the misfortunes, the hardships and woe of humanity."

The face of her husband
Looking for a job, —
She is tired of it.


Witness
to a murder on the street
stone Buddhai


The doctor killed him,
But they express their thanks,
Most graciously.


After the funeral
the child looks around-
Where's grandpa ?

~ Steve Wilkinson (The Bamboo Hut) @SBW1963



A slice of life. . . .
A slice of life. . . . | Source

References and Further Resources

For a longer version of this essay, with many new examples, see Senryu: Definition and Origins in Simply Haiku 10.3, Spring/Summer 2013.

Senryu Entry Page: Definitions, Pronunciation, Examples, Links, by Ray Rasmussen

Makoto Ueda, editor and translator, Light Verse from the Floating World: An Anthology of Premodern Japanese Senryū. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, available on Google Books as a preview and for purchase as an ebook.

Senryu by Alexis Rotella in Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry Autumn 2005, 3.3.

“The Serious Side of Senryu,” edited by Alan Pizzarelli in Simply Haiku, Autumn 2006, 4.3. This essay cites senryu from two collections by R. H. Blythe: Senryu: Japanese Satirical Verses, (Hokuseido Press 1949) and Japanese Life and Character in Senryu (Hokuseido Press, 1960).

Additional senryu are taken from the older edition of The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse, translated by Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite, first edition 1964.

References on Haiku

Kigo: Season Words in Haiku

How to Write Haiku: Using Juxtaposition

Anita Virgil in "Issa: The Uses of Adversity," makes an interesting argument that Issa was more a senryu writer than a haiku author. I believe, though, that she is wrong—in some ways he resembles a 20th century senryu poet, but his very personal poems, even if they pushed the borders of haiku, were quite unlike the senryu of his day. You can read my essay on Issa and make up your own mind.



Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      These are amazing works. I like the wryness, and as the old saying goes, there is truth in that moment of jest. Thanks for the new introduction to your world.

    • KrisL profile image
      Author

      KrisL 3 years ago from S. Florida

      Thanks, Deb. I've had a fun time researching these. It's fascinating how the same form embraced everything from the dirty joke to deep human insight. It reminds me of early English novels in that way.

      . . . I'll see you at Boomer Lake.

    • profile image

      Sasa Vazic 3 years ago

      Dear KrisL,

      May we have your permission to reprint this article in Simply Haiku?

      If so, can you send me a word.doc?

      Thank you and best wishes,

      Sasa Vazic

      Co-editor of Simply Haiku

    • ajwrites57 profile image

      AJ 2 years ago from Pennsylvania

      KrisL a thoroughly engaging Hub! Informative article.

    • KrisL profile image
      Author

      KrisL 2 years ago from S. Florida

      Thanks, AJ!

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 2 years ago from Reno NV

      Beautiful hub about a poetry form I love. Thank you. Jamie

    • KrisL profile image
      Author

      KrisL 2 years ago from S. Florida

      Thanks . . . I hope you get a chance to check out my longer article too -- the link's at the bottom of the hub?

      Do you write senryu yourself?

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 2 years ago from Reno NV

      I have tried it a couple of times but I have not shared my efforts. After you hub I think I may try a few more. I hope you have a great week. Jamie

    Click to Rate This Article