- Books, Literature, and Writing
The World Behind the Screen . . .
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
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 —
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
Many senryu also explore the deceptive or hypocritical aspects of human nature, as well as emotions like jealousy.
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:
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
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
first takes the pulse
of the stuffed tiger
Looking for fleas
Poetry from the Heart
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.
to a murder on the street
The doctor killed him,
But they express their thanks,
After the funeral
the child looks around-
Where's grandpa ?
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
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.