Senryu: Definition and Origins PDF Print E-mail

by Kris Lindbeck

The World Behind the Screen . . .
"In Front of the Bathhouse"
Source: Isoda Koryusai, c. 1772,
Honolulu Museum of Art
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Traditional Japanese Senryu

While a number of modern writers and editors have discarded the distinction between haiku and senryu, in traditional Japan they were easy to distinguish. While haiku were about nature—even urban nature, like feral cats—senryu focused on human nature and society.

While both were written with 17 on (which very roughly corresponds to a short syllable), the senryu lacked a seasonal reference and "season word," or kigo. The senryu was almost always written as a single sentence, whereas the haiku most often had two phrases with juxtaposition of images marked by "cutting words," kireji in Japanese, which served as verbal punctuation.

Traditionally, the Japanese have never seen senryu as serious poetry. Until the twentieth century, senryu were anonymous. Jane Reichhold points out that as late as the nineteen eighties, traditional senryu did not appear in Japanese literature textbooks, while haiku and tanka did. This is partly because senryu can be rude and lewd—and sometimes offensively sexist. From this perspective, they seem more like the limerick of Japan than like traditional haiku, which could be wry or playful, but were always in good taste.

The best of the older senryu, however, have literary qualities of their own: Each one presents a scene that reveals both traditional Japanese culture and universal human nature. They are sometimes less personal than haiku: they use the third person to showcase a little slice of life. If there is an implicit authorial perspective, it is often 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, compares the senryu writer's perspective to that of the novelist. He writes, “To overgeneralize a little” haiku were for exploring responses to nature, “waka,” we call them tanka today, expressed love and grief, and “someone with a novelist’s eye but without his ability (or patience) jotted down senryu” (18-19).

The rest of this essay quotes traditional senryu (see my sources below) and modern senryu written in a similar spirit.

 

Not Wedded to Tradition
See all 6 photos
1887 Japanese print depicting two young ladies dressed according to the latest Western fashions of the time
Source: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Catching Urban, Informal Life

Like popular novels, the famous eighteenth-century senryu collections sold well because, as Ueda says, they "amused a vast number of people, including those who had no special interest in literature" (18). Each anthology published the winners of popular anonymous contests. The writers were mostly common people and mostly men, from fish vendors to clerks to physicians (16), but a few bold women (18) and some slumming samurai (16) also provided winning entries. People loved them because they reflected the everyday life of ordinary people, not the rarified art of aristocrats and those who tried to imitate them. The examples below come from Ueda’s book and from the 1964 Penguin Book of Japanese Verse by Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite.

 

when he holds a baby
his entire body shrinks -
the sumo wrestler (Ueda 90)

 

Guns blazing
From his fan
The story-teller. (Bownas 136)

 

At all the corners
The mat-maker
Curses the carpenter. (Bownas 134)

 

Not going in,
But asking the price,
Sheltering from the rain. (Bownas 137)

 

Satirical, Sometimes Cynical

In an interview in Prune Juice, Alexis Rotella says, "The best senryu can be found in the shadows, in the dark crevices of life. Blythe quotes a poem about a woman in the market place with sores on her face. It’s something you don’t expect to see. That, to me, makes it powerful. There’s lots of light in haiku, but if you want senryu go into the gutter. Follow the homeless; look at people’s body language. Don’t be afraid to write what you see."

 

the matchmaker
speaks the sober truth
only when drunk (Ueda 109)

 

a charming gesture —
the girl knows it, as she covers
her mouth with her sleeve (Ueda 98)

 

life of austerity:
the nanny he's hired
doubles as a concubine (Ueda 61)

 

And in modern homage to the one above:

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

Chen-ou Liu in Prune Juice 6

 

Change of life:
all the guys who think she's hot
are geezers.

Kris Lindbeck in Prune Juice 6

 

The priest comes to bless
the house and pees
all over the toilet seat.

Alexis Rotella in Simply Haiku 3.3

 

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

Alexis Rotella in Simply Haiku 3.3

 

Wry and Unaffected . . .

My favorite senryu are often those that are funny, but not necessarily in a jokey way . . . they hold up a mirror to the human comedy.

Now the man has a child
He knows all the names
of the local dogs. (Bownas 131)

 

Zen priest
Meditation finished
Looking for fleas. (Bownas 131)

 

Getting out of bed
For a pee, the wife
curses the chessmen. (Bownas 137)

 

at the flea market
looking through books
I gave away

David Gershator, The Red Moon Anthology 1998

 

the pediatrician
first takes the pulse
of the stuffed tiger (Ueda 150)

 

Sometimes, the line between laughter and tears is finely drawn, as in life:

Scolding to excess,
The mother also
Bursts into tears. (Pizzarelli)

 

Poetry from the Heart
Woman in a Summer Kimono.
Source: Hashiguchi Goyō (橋口五葉) 1920 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Sometimes Even Tragic . . .

In “The Serious Side of Senryu,” Alan Pizzarelli writes, "There's another side of senryu, a more serious side that express the misfortunes, the hardships and woe of humanity. . . . Senryu that express passion and fullness of heart."

His magnum opus
While the wife does
the neighbors' sewing. (Bownas 136)

 

The step-child,
All day long
With his nose running. (Pizzarelli)

 

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

Steve Wilkinson (The Bamboo Hut) on Twitter@SBW1963

 

my father
losing his memory—asks me
not to forget him

Michael Ketchek,The Red Moon Anthology 1998

 

 

A slice of life. . . .Source: Dalbera, Paris: Hokusai au musée Guimet, uploaded by russavia (CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Further Resources

References for this essay:

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

Reichhold, Jane. "Should Senryu Be Part of English-language Haiku?" Modern Haiku 44.1, Winter-Spring 2013.

Ueda, Makoto, 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.

An interview with Alexis Rotella in PRUNE JUICE: Journal of Senryu & Kyoka, Issue 6, Summer 2011.

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

“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.

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 that she is incorrect, although Issa in some ways resembles a modern senryu poet and certainly pushed the boundaries of haiku. Issa presents his idiosyncratic thoughts and sad or absurd events in his life in the first person, whereas the senryu of his day focused on a third-person description of daily life.

 

Kris Lindbeck

Kris Lindbeck has been writing Japanese short form poetry on Twitter (@krislindbeck) since 2009 and has published in Atlas Poetica 9 and Haiku News.  She has a number of informal essays on haiku and related forms on HubPages as KrisL. Other publications include "Gomer's Complaint," in Crosscurrents 2003, and she is working on book of poems on women in the Bible.